False Doctrine & Matthew 18*

"Private" vs. "Public" Correction

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear [thee, then] take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell [it] unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican (Matt. 18:15-17). (KJV)

Some suggest that on the basis of Matthew 18:15-17, that all criticism of a person's teachings should be done on a one to one basis. However, Matthew 18 primarily applies to personal offenses and not to doctrinal problems. In all cases of our work, there is no personal offense because no one has personally offended us. In fact, we usually do not even know these people personally.

The danger and correction of false doctrine are not the subject of Matthew 18, and, therefore, do not necessarily come under the specific instructions Christ gives in that passage regarding private confrontation. Moreover, it is impossible for erroneous teaching that is presented publicly ever to be considered solely a private trespass of one person against another, which might be dealt with privately between the two. The dissemination of false doctrine is never a private matter and is always to be dealt with publicly . In fact, much of the New Testament was written to publicly correct false teaching. (Even though not required by Scripture that the originator of error be individually counselled, this is not to say that it might be feasible and convenient to do so. However, if such a person does not make speedy and extensive efforts to retract his error, then the people of God are entitled to be warned and protected by those who are in a position to do so.)

Jay Adams in his book Handbook of Church Discipline sheds some light on the subject of private versus public correction of error:

"Some think that if one Christian differs with the writings or public statements of another [professing] Christian on a point of doctrine, without rancor or any problem between them as persons, he is wrong for stating the differences publicly before going privately to the 'brother' with whom he disagrees. That is a misconception. First of all, there is no unreconciled condition between them; they simply differ. Secondly, therefore, there is no matter of church discipline involved. Thirdly, even if this were a matter of discipline, the first party wrote or spoke publicly--he put it before the church or the world; he did not speak privately. For that reason it is as appropriate for the second brother to write or speak as publicly as the first did in refuting what he thinks is a wrong interpretation of the Scriptures and which, therefore, he believes may hurt the church if he doesn't" (pp. 34-35). (Emphasis added.)

Even the beloved Apostle John named Diotrephes in 3 John, and promised that when he came to that church he would publicly correct the offender in person. Paul withstood Peter to his face publicly for his false interpretation of the law that caused him not to associate with Gentile believers (Gal. 2:11-14). In a day of mass media, particularly when access is denied by so-called "Christian" television and radio to those adhering to Biblical teaching, the only method of public correction of false teaching is to write books and newsletters and to speak publicly in order to call attention to errors that affect the whole Body.

In keeping with many other Scriptures that could be cited, 1 Cor. 14:29 (KJV) clearly states: "Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge." Clearly the issue is not whether an individual listener is offended by what one of the preachers has said, even if you could stretch that to be a "sin" against his brother. It would be entirely inappropriate for a listener to take aside the prophet he felt had spoken falsely and have a private discussion with him, and only if he refused to hear, then tell it to the Church.

The issue is the doctrinal purity of the Body which must be guarded at all cost. And what has been publicly stated must be discussed publicly. It may well be that the prophet spoke truly and the offended listener is wrong. So when he speaks out against what the prophet has said, he himself will be corrected by others. It is this kind of open discussion among believers that the Bible teaches, and that is the only protection against error being introduced and allowed to corrupt the Church. Never is it suggested that no one must disagree with what is being taught because to do so would cause "division." (In fact, the Bible tells us that it is by division that we are able to judge who has God's approval [1 Cor. 11:18,19]!) On the contrary, we are told that we must correct error in teaching and do so publicly so that the "others may also fear" (1 Tim. 5:19,20). Moreover, we are to correct and rebuke without partiality (1 Tim. 5:21).

Furthermore, what teachers say in books and on television, etc. is part of a public domain, subject to review, analysis, and critique of any kind. Anyone who makes public declarations intended to influence large audiences through books, radio, television, etc., ought to know that he is responsible for what he says, and will be held accountable. No one need ask anyone for permission to critique anything that has been espoused in a public forum. The foreword to PsychoHeresy elaborates on this thought:

"... many church leaders, though well intentioned, are feeding ... deadly poison to the Body of Christ .... [religious] leaders should be held accountable for what they say in books, magazines and pulpit or on radio and television. Certainly no one can object if what he has stated publicly is quoted or questioned publicly. If any church leader is granted immunity from challenge or correction, then the [spirit of the] Reformation was in vain and we are back under the unscriptural authoritarianism of a Protestant popery. ... If [a particular teaching is] valid and Biblical, then its proponents have nothing to fear from a factual and Scriptural analysis of its tenets; and if its precepts are in fact false and dangerous, then lovers of God and truth will be grateful when error is exposed."

It is also a rather weak excuse to say that some writer or leader really didn't mean what he said. Then he should have said what he meant. Even if one of these people has changed his beliefs, we must still deal with what has been published for the sake of those who have been affected by it. Unfortunately, there are thousands, and in the case of some, millions who have read and/or heard and taken it at face value, as any responsible person would. Words have meaning, and it is assumed that the normal meaning applies. So if a person has truly changed his beliefs, then he ought to publish just as widely in tape and book form a renunciation of any false or misleading teaching he has given in the past.

We as Christians are to love one another genuinely and to seek unity. However, it should be remembered that it is the "unity of the faith" that we are to maintain; and it is the truth that we are to speak in love. If members of the professing Body have erred, then if we love them, we will correct them. ["Open rebuke (is) better than secret love" (Prov. 27:5).] If this brings division, then so be it.

What the Bible does speak out against, however, is division caused by elevating personalities (1 Cor. 1); infighting not having to do with critical doctrine, but motivated by selfish desires--having one's own way (3 John; Gal. 5:13-15); and division caused by heresy (Gal. 1; 2 Pe. 2). The most loving thing we can do for the Body of Christ is to warn believers of those who propagate false teachings, and the most loving thing to do for the perpetrators of error is to continue to speak forth publicly in hopes that they will repent.

* Adapted and/or excerpted from an article in The Berean Call; and an article by Martin & Deidre Bobgan from the January-February 1994 issue of the PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter [used by permission of PsychoHeresy Awareness Ministries, 4137 Primavera Road, Santa Barbara, CA 93110].

Biblical Discernment Ministries - Revised 1/99