Handling Truth and Error in the Church
An Interview with Tom Ascol
The following interview is an extract from Risking the Truth: Interviews on Handling Truth and Error in the Church edited by Martin Downes, published by Christian Focus, 2009. Reprinted with permission.
Dr. Tom Ascol is Senior Pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Cape Coral, Florida. He serves as the Executive Director of Founders Ministries and editor of the Founders Journal. Dr. Ascol has edited Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry.
Dr. Ascol, as you look back over your Christian life and ministry what theological errors has the Lord kept you from?
Early in my Christian life I was greatly attracted to Watchman Nee and the so-called "Deeper Life" movement. The Keswick view of sanctification held out a vision of the Christian life that I desperately wanted. Such teaching leads either to self-deception in thinking that you have attained it, or to despair in knowing that you have not. By God's grace, the latter was my lot. The discovery of Scripture's teaching on indwelling sin rescued me.
I also was raised with a semi-Pelagian understanding of grace. A person's will was regarded as the key to successful evangelism. I became enamored of psychological techniques that could be employed to motivate people to "make decisions" for Jesus. The Bible's teaching on sinful human nature and depravity disabused me of that understanding and led me to recognize the sovereignty of God's grace in salvation.
How have you dealt with church members who have become attracted to theological errors?
First and foremost I have tried to emphasize the importance of right doctrine in my regular preaching and teaching. The priority placed on it in Scripture as well as the many warnings of being led astray are regularly highlighted. Sadly, we have had members who have become ensnared by false teaching. I try to persuade them of the error by pressing them to deal with Scripture in its whole. Trusted confessions of faith are helpful at this point. Those members we cannot convince, we leave with a warning and trust them to the Lord. If the error is serious enough, we remove them from membership.
How should a local church, or an association of churches, take seriously Paul's warning that "Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:30)?
Humility demands that no church or association ignore this sober warning. These were elders that, most likely, Paul himself appointed to serve the church in Ephesus. No man, regardless of his gifts or usefulness, is immune to the temptation to distort the truth. This is true for church leaders as well as others. A church should be prepared to deal with this, should the need arise. By adopting a fulsome confession of faith and requiring its leaders to adhere sincerely to it, a church will be much better positioned to address this sad situation than if it had no such confession.
How should a minister keep himself from bitterness and pride when engaged in controversy?
First of all, a minister ought to try to avoid controversy. Sadly, there often is a perverse desire to battle that tends to well up in a minister who is fully committed to proclaim and defend the truth of God's Word. When that is coupled with the abundant distortions of truth that prevail today, a man very easily could find himself doing little else than engaging in controversies. A minister must learn to distinguish those hills on which he is prepared to die from all others and choose his battles carefully. Prayer, Scripture and godly counsel help in this effort.
Secondly, a man must recognize that in the heat of any controversy his greatest challenge lies within his own heart. One of the Puritans said that the temptations that accompany controversy are greater than those that accompany women and wine. Bitterness and pride are only two of them. John Bunyan recognized this and addressed it very graphically with his character, Valiant for Truth, in Pilgrim's Progress. Study the account of that man's bloody battle and remember that the three enemies that left him bruised and battered all resided within his own soul!
On a practical note, I try to remember that the truth for which I am contending commands me to love the one with whom I contend. It does not matter if he is a Christian brother or not, since Jesus tells us to love even our enemies. If I allow myself to become vengeful or bitter or arrogant toward my disputants then I am violating the very truth which I profess to defend in the controversy. It would be better for me to remain quiet and let others better suited to represent Christ and His cause take up the battle. It would be best for me to become such a person.
Also, I try to remember that in controversies my goal should be to win people and not arguments. It is easy to hang people on their words by pointing out every misstatement and accusing them of meaning what they genuinely did not intend to communicate. If I see something more clearly and accurately than my "opponent," then it is only by the grace of God and I should not allow myself to believe or act like it is because I am smarter or better in any way than he is.
Finally, I ask my wife and a few trustworthy men to watch me carefully when I am engaged in controversy and to point out to me where I am exhibiting pride, thoughtlessness or lack of love. God has used them to help me see what I would not have seen otherwise.
What practical steps should be taken by preachers to "watch their life and doctrine closely"?
Recognize that this admonition is given to us for a reason. Every preacher should remember that better men than we will ever be have fallen into grievous sin and error. Ministers need the gospel as much as anyone and we must learn to live by the grace of God in Jesus Christ every day. We need to deal with our sin daily and trust Christ for forgiveness daily. We must fight against every tendency to resign ourselves to professionalism in ministry. As Robert Murray M' Cheyne said, "My people's greatest need is their pastor's personal holiness." Dealing daily with our hearts before the Lord is not optional. This work does not compete with my ministry, it is a vital part of my ministry.
Using trustworthy catechisms and confessions can help guard our doctrinal commitments. Such documents are not infallible, but they provide guardrails which we should overrun, if ever, only with great caution and clear biblical warrant.
The New Testament warns us about the subtlety of error. If false teaching isn't always obvious how can we keep ourselves from being deceived?
The best way to avoid being deceived is to be well-grounded in sound doctrine. Becoming vitally connected to a good church is the means which God has provided to ensure this.
Why does God allow His church to be troubled by false teachers?
Deuteronomy 13:1-4 indicates that one purpose false teachers serve is to provide a test for the devotion of God's people. Paul makes a similar point in 1 Corinthians 11:19 when he indicates that factions (heresies) within a church are necessary to prove the faithfulness of genuine followers of Christ.
Have you been surprised that the point of attack in evangelicalism over the last fifteen years has been over doctrines that are central to evangelical orthodoxy?
No. Evangelicalism lost its center long ago in its pursuit of relevance and acceptability to the popular and academic cultures. When the gospel has been forgotten and theology has been marginalized, we should not be surprised to see fundamental doctrines attacked and discarded.
Are the denials of eternal punishment, penal substitution, and justification by faith alone the "unpaid debts" of the church? Are they a sign that evangelicals did a bad job of teaching these doctrines or is there some other dynamic at work?
I think they are an indication that we have too long assumed that we know what we believe and why. Attacks on such core doctrines as these are a call to re-examine our convictions in the light of the Bible and to decide whether or not we really do believe what we have professed and too often assumed. Of course, while we can never shirk our responsibility in this we must also remember that we have an enemy who is the father of lies and loves to deceive people.
How do you pray for those in error?
I ask the Lord to open their eyes and show them the truth.
Is there a point of no return for those who embrace heresies? What are the signs that this line has been crossed?
I operate on the conviction that as long as there is breath there is hope. If the Lord can save me then I have no reason to believe that anyone is beyond the reach of His grace.