Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Foulness is Downstream

I like to fish.

I’m very fortunate. In the town where I live, a river runs nearby. It starts above the town, and it meanders its way through, coming out at the far end and continuing for some distance. I live in the upstream end, very near the river. In a few moments I can be out fishing on any summer’s day; and the fishing is pretty good. The river’s clean, flowing and healthy.

However, as it passes through the town, things change a little. You see, there are quite a few treatment plants and lots of run-off points along the way. By the time you get to midtown, the river is starting to show a little grit, and to smell a little different. We’re told that the river is still clean, but anybody fishing it knows it’s not quite as clean as it is above town.

At the far end of town there are some really funky bits. The smell has gotten stronger. Green strings of unnatural algae cling to banks and rocks. The odd discarded appliance or shopping cart decorates the stream bottom. There are still fish, but the experience of fishing has altered considerably, and it has become clear that the river’s clean reputation is not entirely warranted.

I don’t fish at the bottom end of town. I know that it’s not really the experience I want. And I wonder what I don’t know about what’s in that water …

When it comes to water purity, the foulness is always downstream.

The Stream

I think of that when I think of Peter’s warning in his second epistle. He writes:
“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.”
“Secretly bring in” is one word in Greek: παρεισάξουσιν, or pareisagó. It means to “introduce-from-close-beside” or “insert beside”. That tells us a lot. It tells us that the teachings in question will not be wildly different from the truth. Rather, they will come alongside the truth in most ways, and then at the crucial point wrench violently away from the truth, remaining very hard to detect because of their apparent compatibility with the truth.

Sweet Little Lies

TV persona Judge Judy used to ask, “How do you know when a teenager is lying?” Answer: “His lips are moving.” That may be slightly cynical. However it is often true that teenagers can be somewhat given to deception, as a result of their increased desire for freedom or their overreaching of their actual maturity level. They quickly discover that the most effective lies are the ones that are most closely aligned with the facts, and vary at only one small, crucial point. Such ruses are least likely to be uncovered precisely because they parallel the truth in almost all regards. And investigation of the facts will mostly support the story offered; it’s only in the one key area of deception that they won’t. That makes detecting such lies more difficult for parents; parents have to become more discerning, and to investigate more closely, or they will sometimes miss the element of deception in their child’s excuse-making.

In a similar way, Peter promises us, the deceptions that false teachers will introduce into the church will closely parallel sound doctrine, departing from it only in small but crucial points; and in a similar way, detecting such departures from truth will require much more careful discernment on the part of leaders and mature Christians, precisely because most of the lies will appear winsome and nicely aligned with sound doctrine.

Splitting Hairs

Because of this, too, those who discern a problem with the false teachers will be seen by the less-wise as “hair-splitting” at best and unlovingly picky at worst. “How can you be so conservative, so fussy, so mean?” they will be asked, “Can’t you see that this guy is a good teacher and a well-meaning brother in Christ? Where is your Christian love that you find fault with what he says?” Even when such things are not, perhaps, said aloud, they will be felt in the hearts of less-mature believers when they see a controversy developing. In many quarters, the facade of unity has become a thing to be maintained at all costs.

Of course it is quite true that some people can be unduly picky, knee-jerk conservative, unnecessarily fractious or judgmental of others. It does happen. We’ve probably all met people who are like that, and they’re not healthy either. But the difficulty comes in judging between that and an actual, warranted objection. Because Peter tells us that actual false doctrines will surely appear, and they will look just like good doctrine to everybody but the most mature and awake Christians.

And these false doctrines will not be benign, not something that can safely be ignored. They will be “destructive heresies”; fractious opinions that cut people off from truth and each other, and that go so far as to amount to a denial of the authority of Christ himself. That’s pretty far.

Checking Water Quality

Want cases?

Okay. The Southern Baptist convention has recently approved the use of a thing called “Critical Race Theory”, or “Social Justice” as a lens through which Baptist doctrine can be channeled. (I can’t take time to explain everything wrong with this, but I can give you a link for further investigation.) The same set of false doctrines is getting circulated in other evangelical places as well. Pretending to be a concern with eliminating alleged racial bias from Christian congregations, CRT actually articulates a worldview that is fractious, Marxist and even racist in its own right, but which has passed through evangelicalism unchallenged because of its alignment with values like love, justice and color-blindness, which are legitimate Christian values. Relatively few Christians are speaking about this, though, and CRT is beginning to saturate the thinking and language of Christian congregations. The alarm is not being sounded loudly enough. This stuff is poison. It’s the very definition of heresy.

Another one is Neo-Calvinism. I know that there are going to be people who are going to be as mad as a wet hen even to hear me say that. Evangelicals have long tolerated Calvinism as if it were simply one optional way of thinking about God, though this has never been a good idea; but a new, more strident and extreme Calvinism is now cutting a swath through evangelicalism, led by people like John MacArthur and John Piper, and through agencies like The Gospel Coalition. They’re not just accepted but popular and even celebrated — especially among young Christian men today. But while much of the doctrine of these men parallels the truth, on the crucial issue of what they call the “sovereignty of God” and the “total depravity of man”, these men give the truth a false twist that most people cannot even really detect, one that is so extreme that it actually undermines the gospel, denies salvation is even possible for billions of the world’s people, and even places responsibility for the existence of evil upon God himself.

You don’t have to take my word for any of that: you just have to listen with a careful ear to what these people themselves actually preach. They’ll tell you themselves that ultimately their doctrines lead to all three of those false conclusions.

But raise an objection to what these men say, and you will surely be accused of fractiousness yourself. “Why must you be so picky?” you will be asked. “How can you be so unloving? Can’t you see that these men are your brothers, and why can’t you just agree to disagree and let them go their way in peace?” But we can’t, because these are some of the very destructive heresies of which Peter himself, speaking by the Spirit of God, warned us to be alert to.

Defilement Downstream

The problem with things like CRT and Calvinism is simply this: the foulness is always downstream.

At first glance, they seem quite compatible with Christianity and good doctrine. They can even seem healthy, encouraging, informative, insightful and spiritually nourishing; for they have elements of the truth in them, and seem to flow along nicely with the truth. It’s only when one goes downstream — that is, follows the lines of thought they introduce all the way down to their conclusions — that one discovers the defilement and confusion they actually bring in. Prior to that it is hard to detect that anything is wrong; there’s not enough that’s “off” to alert anyone but the most discerning to what’s being put into our stream of thought. But downstream, at the end … there it is that the full impact of their falsehood has its result.

For this reason, we must become careful not to dismiss everyone who raises an objection to some doctrine as conservative, narrow, judgmental, reactionary, fractious, difficult or too picky. It may be that they are that; but it may well not be. This also calls for us to be discerning, personally; to dismiss an alarm can mean we end up in a fire. Or, to unmix the metaphor, we can find ourselves downstream, drinking the water.

Where We Are Now

“In the last days, difficult times will come,” writes Paul, for men will be many bad things, and unfortunately, these bad things will also get into the church, through the agency of false teachers who have “a form of godliness”, but who “deny the power thereof”. These are pseudo-intellectuals, appearing wise but “of depraved mind”, “impostors” who “will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived”, and trying to “captivate”, and to “lead away disciples after themselves”. They will be exposed and judged when the time comes, Peter promises. But they will persist for a time, and they will even succeed in the cases of people who are “weak” in doctrine, naïve and foolish.

For such a time as this, we need discerning leaders, men who will search the scriptures and discover the fine distinctions that matter while the false teaching is still upstream. The best moment for them to discover the contamination that’s going is when it is being introduced, not when it has become accepted and tolerated, and when it has resulted in its inevitable defilement of the whole.

Of course, that means that less-mature or less-discerning Christians are unlikely to be aware yet that the problem is even a problem. And, inevitably, they will wonder what the fuss is about, and want to get past it or ignore it. They will not all understand what is going on or what is at stake. That’s when the mature Christians, the real leaders, have to step up, and with gentleness and reverence, but with unrelenting truthfulness, explain to the congregation where the defilement is, what it consists of, and what its effects are certain to be downstream.

If we are in the last days, this is the pattern that must become normal for the church. That means that any hint of an objectionable doctrine needs to be examined much more closely than we have been accustomed to doing. Foulness gets into the stream gradually, cumulatively and subtly, and its detection is a fine art reserved for the spiritually mature; but any humble, truth-loving Christian can listen carefully to the explanation for the problem, and can determine to take it seriously, and not to compromise with false doctrines, even in the name of “love”, “charity” or “unity”.

If we don’t see the point of a controversy with something like Critical Race Theory, or with Neo-Calvinism, or with something else, perhaps we should. We were forewarned by both Peter and Paul, speaking by the Spirit of God, that we would need to be: and if that time is not now, then just when is it?

Thinking Downstream

“Ideas have consequences,” wrote Richard Weaver, in his famous book.

When we don’t see the reason for the controversy, what we need to remember is this: the foulness of any false doctrine is always much more evident downstream. We need to take seriously the idea that allowing small falsehoods as “alternatives” in the present may result in much defilement in the longer term, and be much more earnest than we often are, in listening to those God has equipped to alert us.

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