WEAK BRETHREN OR FALSE TEACHERS?
T. PIERCE BROWN
Every brother who is a false teacher is no doubt a weak brother, but not every weak brother is a teacher of unsound doctrine, or as we commonly put it, a false teacher. Let us try to make a distinction which many brethren seem to disregard, to the great harm of the church.
There are liberal brethren, false teachers, who make such statements as this: “Since we have honest brethren who have difference of opinion about the necessity of women wearing hats, one cup, bible classes, premillenialism, instrumental music, indwelling of the Holy Spirit, war, and many other doctrinal matters, it is evident that matters of doctrine are trivial, and the only thing that is important is the gospel.” The statement is filled with fatal error, if believed and practiced. Let us point out some distinctions that we need to make.
The very idea that some Bible student could teach that the gospel is not doctrine is almost inconceivable. When the Apostles were accused by the Jewish leaders of fillingJerusalemwith their doctrine (Acts5:28) how could anyone assume they were not teaching the gospel? Even starting to make an argument on that point seems as silly as to try to prove that a circle is round. Then the idea that doctrine is not important is so shocking that it is almost beyond belief that anyone, no matter what his religious conviction, could seriously make such a statement. If doctrine (teaching) is not important, why bother even writing or teaching anything? If a person admits before he begins that what he teaches is not important, he evidently is not worth listening to.
Second, the idea that a misunderstanding of God’s teaching about any matter is as serious as a misunderstanding about any other matter is both illogical and unscriptural. Even those who make the argument do not seem to believe it in terms of their practical application of that principle. It is true that many who advocate such an unscriptural idea will have fellowship with any member of any denomination and treat them as brethren in Christ, regardless of what they teach, but this article is not directed primarily to them. We are now trying to emphasize to those who are concerned about sound doctrine, but who may not be able to properly distinguish between what the Bible classifies as unsound doctrine and a simple misunderstanding of some Bible truth.
Let us first try to understand how the Bible uses the terms “sound” and “unsound” as it refers to doctrine. The basic meaning of the term, “hugiaino,” (sound) points us in the direction we need to go. It means “healthy.” Anything that would lead to spiritual death would be unhealthy or unsound. When we read carefully all the references to sound and unsound doctrine, we see that there are three areas that are classified as unsound. First, those things that lead to ungodly or immoral lives (1 Tim.1:10, 1 Tim. 6:3). Second, those things that pervert the gospel (Gal. 1:6-9, 2 Peter 2:1, 2 John 1:9). Third, those things that corrupt the worship (Matthew 15:9). In general, only the kinds of things the belief and practice of which would cause a person to be lost are included in those references. Paul indicates this in 1 Tim. 4:16 when he says, “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them; for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.”
How are we to treat such persons? Paul plainly says in Romans 16:17-18, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them that are causing divisions and occasions of stumbling, contrary to the doctrine which ye learned: and turn away from them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Christ but their own belly; and by their smooth and fair speech they beguile the hearts of the innocent.” When a person’s teaching causes the church to be divided and brethren to fall away from the faith, and when they beguile the hearts of the innocent and cause them to serve their own lusts, they are to be turned away from. Strangely enough, it is often those who loudly proclaim their love for sound doctrine who cause dissension, division and strife because they do not seem to know the difference between what the Bible classifies as unsound doctrine and merely a misunderstanding of some Bible teaching.
What about a person whose belief and teaching is not exactly what God said, but does not cause one of the three things mentioned above, such as perversion of the gospel, corruption of worship or immoral living? How is he to be treated? Paul also gives an answer to that in Romans 14:1, “Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.” Romans 15:1, 1 Thessalonians 5:14 and other passages also show the difference we should have in mind and action regarding a person who is weak or ignorant, believing the wrong thing, and the person who believes and teaches that which will pervert the gospel, corrupt the worship, or lead to immoral lives.
Those mentioned in Romans 14 actually believed something that was not so. It was false. We can make the usual comment that their belief and practice in refusing to eat meats was a matter of indifference, and of course it was (is) to those who know better. But it was not a matter of indifference to some of them. It was a matter of doctrine. They thought God’s will was for them not to eat certain kinds of meat, especially that which had been offered to idols (1 COR. 8:7). Notice carefully this point: They could believe and practice that without perverting the gospel, leading or causing others to lead an immoral life, or corrupting the worship. Therefore they are to be received, as long as they do not cause division and confusion contrary to the true doctrine which Paul preached.
Make this test with any and all of the things about which good sound brethren have differed, and you should be able to see how to respond to that which is called unsound doctrine, and that which is merely the wrong belief of a brother. For example, premillenialism, as it is commonly believed and taught by most denominations, denies the very basis of the gospel, perverts the plan of salvation and thus would be unsound and a cause for disfellowship. If a person believed in what he called “premillenialism” and it merely involved the idea that some of the restoration leaders believed, that before Christ came back there would be a thousand years (more or less) of rapid spread of the gospel, that would not pervert the gospel truth, deny the prophecies or make the teaching of Paul void. When Alexander Campbell published “The Millenial Harbinger,” he apparently had that idea.
If a woman believes that all women must wear hats during a worship period of the church, I think she misunderstands the scriptures, and if she teaches what she believes, would be teaching what some would classify as “false doctrine.” My understanding of the Bible is that such does not fall in the category of what the Bible calls “unsound doctrine” for the reasons mentioned above. She can wear a hat and not corrupt the morals of anyone, pervert the gospel or corrupt the worship. If those women who do not wear a hat are wrong, “to their own Master they stand or fall” (Romans 14:4), and it makes little difference which one thinks they are the strong or weak one, as long as they both act in accordance with God’s will as expressed by Paul in Romans 14, 1 COR. 8:9 and 9:22, 1 THES.5:14and various other places. That is, we are supposed to bear with the infirmities of the weak, support them, not be a stumbling block to them, but not allow them to cause divisions about matters that do not pervert the gospel, corrupt the worship, or cause immorality.
Notice another very important point. An eldership of a local congregation has the right to question the judgment of a person whose misunderstanding of various scriptures gives evidence that his ability to understand and expound scriptures is too limited to have him conduct a gospel meeting or be their regular preacher. They do not have a right to accuse him of false doctrine and disfellowship him. And they certainly do not have the right to disfellowship him and then disfellowship all who do not follow their unscriptural practice and also disfellowship him. Each us has the right to point out any teaching of any person who teaches anything different than what we understand the Bible to teach on any point, no matter how important or unimportant it may be. We have a right to do it as publicly as his viewpoint was expressed. We do not have the right to mark him as unsound and a false teacher simply because we question his spiritual insights, or consider him a weak or untaught brother.
T. Pierce Brown
1068 Mitchell Ave.
Cookeville, TN. 38501
Phone: (615) 528-3600