Berean cogitations

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Making sense out of tragedy, evil and suffering

At times like this, people often ask, "How can a loving God allow such tremendous suffering in the world?" Why did God allow the levees to break, ruining the lives and homes of thousands of innocents? Or why did God allow last year's Indian Ocean tsunami to wreak such widespread devastation. On a related note, when the 9/11 terrorists flew their hijacked planes into the World Trade Center, people asked why a loving God would allow such great acts of evil to occur.

In my own life, when I've gone through times of tremendous heartbreak and tragedy, I have found myself questioning God's love. So did Job, as he endured his trials. Even Elijah, after seeing God perform great miracles, still questioned God's purposes during a time of great trial (I Kings 19:1-14). This mighty prophet even pleaded for death, feeling that it would be preferable to the torment he was facing!

In the wake of the latest flood disaster, I wanted to say something about God's purposes in allowing great evil and suffering. Unfortunately, time won't allow me to do proper justice to this topic right now, and I don't want to sound flippant or insensitive in any way. Also, I'd very much like to say something more meaningful than "God's works in mysterious ways" -- a statement that certainly true, but rather trite and uncomforting in these trying times.

I plan to discuss this topic in an upcoming apologetics class that I'm teaching. In the meantime though, I'd like to present a list of articles on this very topic. I hope that these will be helpful to someone.

Are we obligated to personally confront teachers in error?

Earlier, I mentioned a discussion I had with a pastor about a popular Christian book. In the course of this discussion, I said that Chuck Smith, John MacArthur and various other teachers have criticized the doctrines within that book.This pastor responded (and I paraphrase), "Well, did Smith, MacArthur and company personally speak to this author before criticizing his teachings? That's what the Bible teaches, after all. Wouldn't they want to obey the God's Word?"

I said, "No offense, but I don't think the Bible says such a thing. If you're talking about Matthew 18:15-17, that passage pertains to sin within the church, rather than to erroneous doctrine. After all, verse 17 talks about casting that person out of the church, and one can scarcely do that to the pastor of another congregation!" (Additionally, please note that v. 15 talks about a brother who "sins against you." Clearly, this pertains to personal offenses, rather than false teachings.)

The pastor said, "Well, the principle still applies."

I have no doubt that the pastor meant well, and that he has a good heart. Nevertheless, I was disappointed to hear him express such a view. Sure, it is sometimes appropriate to approach a false teacher first, especially where some personal relationship exists. The Bible never makes that an absolute command, though. In applying proper hermeneutics, we should not take a passage that pertains to personal sin and church discipline, and then force it to apply in instances of false teaching. That is eisegesis (reading interpretations into the Scriptures) rather than exegesis (deriving interpretations from the Word).

Careful exegesis honors god. Eisegesis -- even when well-intentioned -- is tremendously disrespectful to God's Word. We should never claim that a Bible passage teaches something if that's not truly the case.

Besides, even if the Bible did command such a thing, the failure of John MacArthur, etc. to personally reprove this author has no bearing on the truth of their criticisms. In other words, they could have personally failed in this regard, but that would not make their criticisms false.

Finally, I think there are good reasons why someone should not have to engage in personal dialogue before correcting false doctrine. That's because false doctrine can cause great damage, and can do so quickly. In many cases there are hundreds of thousands across the globe who read a preacher's books or listen to his messages each day. Should a pastor wait around for a chance to dialogue with a false teacher first, before warning his flock? I don't think so!

Our ultimate obligation is to the truth. There are times when it would be prudent to personally confront someone regarding the errors of his preaching, but this is not always a requirement -- and it's most certainly not what Matthew 18:15-17 is teaching. Certainly, when it comes to severe doctrinal error, we may have to speak the truth first -- waging damage control, if you wish -- instead of waiting around for a chance to engage the erring teachers in dialogue. The truth has to come first.

Criticizing the doctrines of other Christian teachers

I was talking to a pastor (not from my church!) recently about a popular Christian book. I explained that I had some grave reservations about its content, and that I felt it compromised on the Gospel and other essential teachings.

This pastor was not pleased, for he placed great value on Christian "unity." He said,
"I would rather spend more time refuting the Mormons and the Jehovah Witnesses than other Evangelical Christians. If we want to talk about 'false teachings' then certainly this is more obvious."

Now, I know this pastor meant well, but I think his view was completely unbiblical. After all, why shouldn't a believer speak up if someone is preaching deceptive doctrines? Did Paul not exhort us to "test all things" (1 Thess 5:21)? In particular, if the Gospel is being compromised -- even by a Christian teacher -- should we not voice our concern?

Now, I understand his viewpoint. He says that the Mormons and the JWs are in greater doctrinal error, and so we should focus on refuting their beliefs. I think his viewpiont is misguided though; after all, the Bible never says that we should only stand up against false teachings from the cults. In fact, I would argue that erroneous doctrines from within the church can be more dangerous, since they are often harder to detect! For this reason, we must confront false teaching whereever it abounds.

Besides, I think it's rather silly to insist that we should refute the Mormons and JWs instead of pointing out erroneous teachings from within the church. He assumes that you can only do one of those things, and not both. As if you're ever going to encounter a Mormon and, say, Robert Schuller at the same time!

Finally, I think his claim is self-refuting. He said that Christians shouldn't go around voicing their disagreement with what other Evangelical Christians teach. Well, I'm an Evangelical Christian, and he's saying that I'm wrong. Moreover, he says that my church is wrong, since they hold to the same belief. Why didn't he spend that time confronting a Mormon missionary, since he claims that would be a better use of one's time?