Tucked away in the tiny epistle of 2 John is a remarkable statement.
John is warning his readers (“the elect lady and her children,” 2J 1.1) about some false teachers in the region. He calls them “deceivers … who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” (2J 1.7). These are harsh words, more reminiscent of the “Son of Thunder” (Mk 3.17) than the “apostle of love” who wrote John 3.16 and 1 John. Hmmm.
And it gets stronger. This is “the antichrist,” he says (2J 1.7), and the lady must “not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2J 1.10-11).
There’s an interpretational question over what “receive him into your house” means, but even setting that aside, John’s very dark view of these teachers is clear.
And John is not alone. Paul (Gal 1.6-9), and Peter (2P 3.1-7), and Jude (Jude 1.3-4) all warn against false teachers, and many of those warnings include specific orders to isolate the offenders (e.g. Rom 16.17; Ti 3.9-10). Some evangelicals argue that this kind of isolation is commanded only for immoral lifestyles, and not for doctrinal disagreements; in 1Cor 5, for example, the church member is expelled for “hav[ing] his father’s wife,” and in 2Th 3 another man is expelled for not working to support his family. But I find it interesting that both of those passages include references to doctrinal as well as moral issues; in 1Cor 5 Paul orders the believers “not to associate” with several kinds of people, including not only the sexually immoral, but also the “idolater” (1Co 5.11); and in 2Th 3 Paul broadens the group of offenders to all those who live “not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2Th 3.6; cf. 2Th 2.15).
So. Sometimes we fight about doctrinal matters, theological disagreements. Sometimes we gird up our loins and go into battle.
But sometimes we don’t—in fact, we must not. The early churches had all kinds of doctrinal disagreements, many of which led to differing beliefs about practice—in modern language, disagreements over what sorts of things Christians could do and what sorts of things they couldn’t do. And many of those disagreements were heated and severe.
- Can Christians eat pork, or should we follow the Mosaic dietary restrictions?
- Should we keep the Sabbath? How about the other Jewish holidays?
- Can we eat meat that’s been offered in sacrifice to idols?
All of these issues had been addressed directly in the Hebrew Bible. God lays down all kinds of dietary restrictions on his people Israel. He tells them to keep the Sabbath—that’s in the Ten Commandments, for crying out loud—and sometimes he kills them when they don’t (Num 15.32-36). And pagan idolatry was absolutely verboten; the prophets wrote whole books against it.
You can imagine how difficult the early Christians—who thought of themselves as simply Jews, delighting in the arrival of their Messiah—would have found the suggestion that things like this didn’t matter anymore. Sounds like heresy to anyone who’s read his [Hebrew] Bible.
And so we find the apostles stepping in and calling for order. And here, surprisingly, they’re not calling for isolating the “heretics.” This time they say that we need to just get along, to agree to disagree, to treat one another with respect (e.g. Rom 14.1-13; 1Co 10.23-31; Col 2.16-17). Love and church unity trump a good many doctrinal disagreements.
Sometimes we fight. Sometimes we don’t.
Now this raises an obvious question.
Which is which? How do we know which to do? When do we fight, and when must we not fight? God clearly thinks both actions are very important, at the proper times.
What are those times?
Next time, we’ll start down the path toward answering these questions.