In the three books of the New Testament known as the “Pastoral Epistles” (the Timothys and Titus), Paul goes on a polemical rampage. If you are like me, until just recently, you don’t know what “polemical” means. Simply put, polemics is an argument in defense of something. Its like apologetics. One way to explain the difference is that apologetics (generally speaking) is an external defense of the truth to those who question the faith, while polemics is a defense of the truth to those who contradict and oppose the faith, generally from the inside (Acts 20 & Jude).

Naturally, polemics can come off as, argumentative, because…well, it is. And it’s not the most popular tone in today’s politically correct, post-modern climate – far from it in fact. But Paul’s bold, strongly-worded treatise to these young pastors to guard the Church against error is undeniable. Here is a bit of a summary…

About False Teachers and False Teaching…

  • 2x he warns of those who teach “different doctrines
  • 6x he actually names the names of those causing division in Ephesus and Crete
  • 6x he warns of those who teach “empty,” “foolish” words, and genealogies
  • 4x he warns of those who “oppose” Apostolic teaching
  • 4x he warns of the Judaizers, who require observance to the obsolete Jewish law
  • He warns of those who claimed the resurrection of the dead had already happened
  • He called these false teaching the “teachings of demons” coming from “deceitful spirits”
  • 3x he characterizes false teachers as hypocriticalmoney-grubbing women-deceivers

About the Pastor’s Response…

  • 5x he charges Timothy/Titus to rebuke all who live or teach contrary to sound doctrine
  • He also tells Titus that a certain false teacher must be silenced (literally: “muzzled”)
  • He commands Titus to warn the divisive man twice, then to reject him
  • He describes “handing over to Satan” false teachers so they’ll learn not to blaspheme

Now, that is some bold spiritual leadership! And most of what we read in these letters is actually tame in comparison to what Paul writes in other letters (Check out Galatians 5:12). But, unfortunately it was needed! Also unfortunate is how necessary it remains today within evangelicalism. Yet, how rare it is to hear men follow the model of Paul and obey the commands given to Timothy, Titus, and therefore every subsequent elder/pastor. So, why is this polemical tone absent in so many pulpits? Are there no longer false teachers teaching “different doctrines” or the “teachings of demons”? Have Christians today somehow become impervious to spiritual deception and theological downgrade? Of course not! Nothing has changed. Our spiritual enemy is as alive and well today, working to deceive, if possible, even God’s elect. Also, certain men are just as corrupt and motivated by shameful gain today as they’ve ever been. So why the drought of a passionate defense of sound doctrine? I’m not convinced there’s one answer, but rather an amalgam of a few different reasons.

One reason is compromise. It is just too radical and risky to hold the line, theologically, these days. Its clear that a pop-cultural version of American Christianity has effectively (and quietly) ushered its political correctness into the visible church. And this audience not only lacks a taste for truth, it is deeply offended by it. So, its simple; preachers must choose: the whole truth and nothing but the truth, or their job. In this case, these men typically know better. They just don’t love or fear God as much as they love acceptance and fear discomfort. And at the end of the day, speaking out against error isn’t nice. It is seen by many as hate-filled hair-splitting. After all, nice is a fruit of the Spirit. No, wait, that’s kindness I was thinking of. But so many influential attenders and regular givers believe down to their bones that a pastor ought to be nice, also cool – but mostly nice. And as a result, so many loving and kind things are not said, and so many loving and kind things are not done. The Bible has a phrase for this: People-pleasing. And it was none other than the Apostle Paul who said, “If I am a pleaser of men, then I am not a servant of Christ.” This is true of no one more than it is true for the teaching/preaching pastor, as they will be judged more severely. Pastors have been given an awesome stewardship and the Christ-ordained responsibility to fully dispense and faithfully defend the Truth regardless of what those inside or outside the church walls think, say, or do. At the end of the day, neither the church (people or building) or the message belong to the pastors. It is Christ’s Church and it is His Word. So, Pastor, preach the Word, defend the Faith, and keep the sheep from error.

I think another reason is carelessness. This is not complete and utter carelessness of everything theological, just of everything that could possibly be upsetting or divisive. In this case, it seems as if these men are themselves deceived into subscribing to what has been called, “mere Christianity.” That may sound like a good thing (probably because of the popular book), but its not. Mere Christianity is a limited-range commitment to all the Bible teaches. Despite sufficient clarity in Scripture on a plethora of very important topics/issues, it concerns itself only with those tenets of Christianity absolutely required for, and directly related to, salvation. And if you find this minimalistic view noble and charitable, you’ll be hard-pressed to ever feel the need to boldly defend the Faith against much of anything, except maybe blatant heresy. Pastors ought to hear Paul’s charge to the elders in Acts 20, when he said he was innocent of the blood of all men, because he did not shrink back from declaring to them “the whole will of God.” Carelessness reveals itself in another way as well, namely a carelessness for the souls of his people. Never-mind the truck-load of allegedly “Christian” lies and half-truths his people have heard Monday through Saturday, as long as they believe Jesus is God and they "ask Him into their heart," what’s the worst that could happen! After all, doctrine divides and to get too serious about everything the Bible teaches, at best, leads to cold religion, and it might even end in idolatrous Bible-worship. What a tragic view. This assessment diminishes the deep concern for the soul of each individual in the church on whose behalf the pastor will give an account before God.

For many pastors, they despise preaching polemically, because, well...they can’t. Not only are they unwilling to say hard things that may offend people personally and that may be divisive (in a way truth is intended to be, by the way), but sadly, they are incapable of doing so. Compromise may lead to a lack of conviction responsible for laying down in response to theological opposition. But it is a man’s capability, or in this case - the lack thereof, that is responsible for so much negligence in our pulpits. These men just don't know where to start, because they aren’t exactly qualified to teach. They have not “studied to show themselves approved” and they aren’t serious theologians. In Titus 1:9, Paul gets to the end of his list of qualifications for elders/pastors and says that they must “be able to both” teach the truth and effectively refute people whose teaching contradicts that truth. This is not only the most irrefutable case for pulpit polemics, but it is also helpful, because it highlights such activity as a skill, an ability! Similarly, in his letter to pastor Timothy, Paul says that pastors/overseers must “be able” to teach. This ability to “rightly handle” the Word of God is no small thing. And contrary to popular belief, the pastorate requires far more than a charismatic personality and compelling vision for a new way of “doing church.” This takes diligence and it takes skill to know how to properly teach the Scriptures. And with the provocation of the Holy Spirit and a firm grasp on the Scriptures, a pastor is capable of first discerning and then dismantling erroneous messages, discrediting its messenger.

The word for “oppose” and the Greek prefix meaning “against” show up multiple times in these letters. Paul is communicating that we have real-life opponents when it comes to believing sound doctrine, and that the Truth is often being “vigorously opposed.” The Church (directed by the teaching and leadership of its elders) is to play both theological offense as well as theological defense. When teaching sound, Apostolic, biblical, Christian doctrine, the Church plays offense. And when error is exposed and refuted, we engage in theological defense. And too many preachers behave like my 4-year-old did during a T-ball game, committed to playing offense while, to the harm of his team, refusing to play defense. Hitting, running, and scoring are more enjoyable, no doubt about it. However, if no one is in the field to protect your lead, you lose every time. You must guard your end-zone. You must guard your basket. As for a biblical analogy, pastors (spiritual shepherds) must guard the flock from false teaching and from false teachers who come as wolves to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10). But so many do not, and not because they think heretics are extinct. I seriously doubt there are any pastors (with true saving faith, anyway) who sincerely believe Satan has called off the wolves and retired as the father of lies, leaving the church, free of false teachers today. And yet, for one reason or another (or perhaps, a combination of reasons), they do not speak up; they do not speak out. They remain silent, being weak, mislead, or impotent to preserve the Truth and protect so many who are weak-willed, immature, and vulnerable. 

We should not forget that Jesus Himself spoke the truth with words that made even His true followers blush, and at the same time those words drove His false followers to crucify Him. So many pastors and Christ-followers alike need to re-read 1 Corinthians 1 and remind ourselves of how naturally offensive the Gospel is. Then, we could benefit from reading Paul’s letters to these two pastors to whom he gave clear instructions as to how to steward the teachings of the Faith. As a whole, the Church could use a wake up call to the deceptive and destructive nature of theological error. Doctrine matters, because in the spiritual life, belief matters. In fact, there is literally nothing more important than right belief, from which flows right loveright worshipright obedience, etc. And while the secret things belong to the Lord, what He has revealed to us (in His Word) belongs to us – to be read, understood, taught, and defended with "all patience and teaching" and, if necessary, our very lives!

Getting practical…

  • Can you identify a theological half-truth when you hear it?
  • Can you explain the danger of doctrinal error?
  • Are you wiling to warn someone about an influential false teacher?