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Once, not very long ago, the Twitter-sphere flew into one of its daily rages, this time about the legitimacy of calling people out by name when they are wrong. Someone complained about someone else, and everyone drew up sides, ready to do battle. Meta conversations about the acceptability of even having the original disagreement spun into sub-threads. Everyone called everyone else a heretic. Twenty-four hours in, the storm began to die down, as it always does, and everybody went back to their ordinary lives. Except that this sort of drawing up for battle is a lot of people’s ordinary life now. The cartoon meme of the man sitting at his computer, his wife in the background begging him to come to bed, shouting back, “Someone is wrong on the internet!” is funny because it is true.1 Correcting other people online is not only a pastime for many of us, it goes under the guise of Discernment Ministry2 — where whole groups of people get together on websites, devoting themselves to showing how other people on other websites are wrong.
The origin of this trouble is not hard to trace. Some of us are wrong some of the time. A few of us are wrong all the time. The internet gives to each one a virtual platform, raised up in the air, from which to survey the theological landscape, spot from a long way off the horrifying wrongness of others, and then to correct them, by name, in tweet and long-form blog post. But what does the Bible say? Should Christians call each other out by name for error or sin? Under what circumstances? In what manner? And how often?
Alexander and Hymenaeus Who Got Handed Over to Satan. “This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you,” implores the apostle, “that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”3 Thus Paul begins his first letter to Timothy. In it he includes detailed and wide-ranging instructions about how Timothy should organize his personal life as well as that of the church. Over it all hangs the pall of anxiety and grief. Timothy will be left with the good deposit of Paul’s life and teaching, but will it be enough? No one is likely to be overawed by Timothy’s commanding manner or charismatic personality. He is young and bilious. There is no indication that he is a sparkling preacher. He is going to have to muck in with a lot of pushy old ladies, vain young men, gossiping widows, and domineering fatherly types. Will anybody even listen to him?
Therefore, in his opening salvo, Paul warns off two people who have already been a hassle for Timothy — two men who hold neither the faith, which is the word Paul uses to indicate not just saving knowledge of Jesus, but also the substance of all his teaching on the subject, nor a good conscience. In other words, there is some discernable dissonance between what Hymenaeus and Alexander are saying and doing, and what Paul would want them to say and do.
I imagine it would be rather discouraging to have your name preserved in Holy Writ for being a person who makes a shipwreck of the faith. As dismaying as being one of the men named for taking a foreign wife in the post exilic return to Jerusalem.4 Or being Diotrephes, who is called out by the apostle John for liking to “put himself first.”5
Whatever the occasion, the naming of notorious people in Scripture largely falls into two basic categories — people who publicly teach something outside of orthodox doctrine and belief, and people who unrepentantly do something outside orthodox practice and faith.
Don’t Say That. For most of us, the internet has badly blurred the heretofore sharp demarcation between public and private speech. Given the chance at a few minutes of fame, most of us are eager to put all our thoughts online the minute we have them. This, in turn, has made the application of Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18 confusing for many people.6 How do I know when I’m being sinned against? When should I go to people privately? When should I call them out in public? Everything is public.
This contemporary confusion if anything makes the New Testament witness all the more useful. Everywhere the New Testament writers were anxious about false, heretical teaching creeping into the church. It came in all guises — from fascinating itinerant preachers blowing into town and taking advantage of the hospitality of the kind but clueless, from the meat market in Corinth, from the philosophies of the age, from the law-loving who could not endure the thought of sharing a meal with a lot of nasty, uncircumcised gentiles. It came from every single direction, preserved for us in Paul, John, and even James’ anxious letters to individuals and churches.
Every single pastor is supposed to be on the offense and the defense, trying to protect the flock and warn off intruders. “O Timothy,” concludes Paul at the end of his letter, “guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith.”7 But it is not the pastor’s job alone. Luke commends a singularly unusual congregation who did what every believer is supposed to do — study the Bible personally and diligently: “The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”8
Whether or not everything has become public, every Christian still has a duty to “know the Lord.”9 Every believer has a responsibility to thoughtfully educate himself, to submit his or her theological ideas to the Scriptures, to carefully weigh every dearly loved doctrine, and then to help others along the way. This responsibility is ancient, given at the time the law was handed down by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The whole household of God was commanded to rise up and stone to death with stones anyone from within the congregation who “entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known.”10
Mercifully, stoning people for heretical teaching, false prophecy, and idolatry is not an option for us. God in Jesus Christ came to offer forgiveness to the offender, not capital punishment, at least not in this life. But the serious nature of heresy is no less diminished. “For,” continues Paul, “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”11 Every heresy, and the false teachers who peddle them, draws the lost away from their only source of eternal hope.
The responsibility and urgency of the call to contend for truth is, therefore, ours even today. We might have an inclination to retreat from public discourse because it is messy and sometimes painful, and our retreat may feel holy to us but is probably just sanctimonious. The ease with which anyone can set up a blog and start a “teaching” ministry means all the more that error should be refuted, not less so. Warning other, weaker Christians away from people who dabble in the truth but never tell the half of it, from people whose lives do not match their teaching, and from people who make a meal out of their own confusion is an eminently loving thing to do, though no one will thank you for it.
Don’t Do That. Erroneous and heretical teaching, of course, is only one part of the problem. There is also the unrepentant sinning cyber “Christian” celebrity who won’t go away. The last decade is replete with abusive pastors who “rehabilitated themselves,” bypassing whatever ecclesiastical justice that tried to impede their reach or dampen their fame. Some were adulterers, some swindlers, some just extraordinarily mean. None of them were willing to go take the back pew in a small church where the only useful job on hand would be sweeping the floor.
“He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain,”12 explains Paul to Titus, who found himself wandering around Crete looking for men to lead his churches. It was his job to find leaders who wouldn’t make a mockery of the faith, who would not only rightly teach, but would live in accordance with that teaching. Unhappily for us, obscurity is the one thing almost none of us can endure. A pastor or a blogger with a public voice can get away with any kind of behavior, duping the otherwise faithful into thinking that virtue is less important than fame.
That’s Just Wrong. In his first discourse against the Arians, in a fit of bitter sarcasm, Athanasius mocks the followers of various teachers who, he says, “derive the faith which they profess from others,” and therefore for “good reason is that they should bear their name, whose property they have become.” In his screed, Athanasius names a wide range of heretics:
For what they have discovered in this heresy like to the religious Faith, that they vainly talk as if its supporters said no evil? This in truth is to call even Caiaphas a Christian, and to reckon the traitor Judas still among the Apostles, and to say that they who asked Barabbas instead of the Saviour did no evil, and to recommend Hymenaeus and Alexander as right-minded men, and as if the Apostle slandered them….For with them for Christ is Arius, as with the Manichees Manichaeus; and for Moses and the other saints they have made the discovery of one Sotades, a man whom even Gentiles laugh at, and of the daughter of Herodias.13
In identifying all these bad characters, likely Athanasius didn’t feel he had anything to lose. As a result of his battle against the very public errors of Arius, he endured at least three painful exiles. The whole Christian world rushed to embrace that grave heresy and Athanasius, almost entirely alone, contended for biblical faith. More than once vindicated for his persistent defense of the truth, he stands as a tragic icon for Christian online engagement. Is the error being propagated publicly? It must be refuted publicly — in the pulpit, in print, and in person. Does it rear its ugly head after it has already been defeated? It must again be refuted, however many times it takes. Does that sound fatiguing? Discouraging? Like a losing battle? It is. But that is the call — to defend the faith once delivered to the saints. Whenever and wherever new, or worse, old repackaged heretical ideas gain cultural ascendancy, and the number and flavor are ripe for the picking, they must be battled because they are still wrong.
Take Up Your Keyboard. The fractured nature of western life, even within the church, means that each one of us, individually, might be found hunched over a keyboard, typing furiously, personally combatting all the heresy of the world. This should not be so. Each Christian should be embedded within a healthy local Christian body that meets regularly and makes high demands on the personal character of its clergy. This local body’s primary purpose should be to proclaim and exalt the surpassing glory of the gospel, equipping each member to go out into the world to seek and save the lost and (because the two are not pitted against each other) refute error. Though there is no such thing as an ideal church context, lovingly reaching out to steer others toward the narrow path of the cross is possible and necessary. If you have a tongue and are confident in the teaching you have received (which you should double check lest your pride and arrogance lead you astray), and also have a keyboard, then go out into the highways and byways of public and cyber life and call people to the truth.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Sarcastic Devotions for Angry and Worn-Out People (Kalos Press, 2016) and blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace, a blog on Patheos.com, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/preventingrace/.
- Randall Munroe, “Duty Calls,” XKCD, https://xkcd.com/386/.
- For a good example, see Elliot Miller, “Discerning the Defects of Discernment Ministry,” Christian Research Institute, https://www.equip.org/article/discerning-the-defects-of-discernment-ministry. For a bad example, see “Butterfield Quietly Edits Audio Referencing Her Stance on Preferred Pronouns,” January 3, 2020, Pulpit and Pen, https://pulpitandpen.org/2020/01/03/butterfield-quietly-edits-audio-referencing-her-stance-on-preferred-pronouns/.
- 1 Timothy 1:18–20. All Bible quotations are taken from the ESV.
- Ezra 10:18–44.
- 3 John 9.
- For an interesting discussion of this distinction, which is beyond the scope of this article, see D. A. Carson’s very helpful editorial, “Editorial on Abusing Matthew 18,” Themelios 36, 1, https://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/article/editorial-on-abusing-matthew-18/?.
- 1 Timothy 6:20–21.
- Acts 17:10–11.
- Jeremiah 31:34
- Deuteronomy 13:6.
- 1 Timothy 2:5–6.
- Titus 1:7.
- Athanasius, “Discourse 1: Against the Arians,” revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight from Four Discourses Against The Arians, trans. John Henry Newman and Archibald Robertson, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892), New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/28161.htm?fbclid=IwAR1Jy_609OssPUT03dlXcOTSAvSV0Xdd0xKrJWEh1EYRPs2L2txmvRln_lU.