Thursday, December 15, 2022

Wheat and Weeds

I was talking to a close friend last week. He’s serving as an elder in a local congregation of believers. A man of their gathering has raised an issue; he feels very strongly that certain forms of worship are simply out of court for Christians. But the form he most particularly dislikes is one that scripture never even really talks about one way or the other. In fact, if I told you what it was, you’d likely be very surprised; it’s something that Christians have done routinely for a long time now.

My pal was struggling with how to handle this guy.

The objector is pretty strong on his beliefs, and he’s not at all happy that the elders are not jumping to his side instantly. But my friend is more thoughtful and scriptural in his convictions; and I think he senses that the objection is more a matter of personal preference than of principle.

Preference or Principle?

Of course, there are going to be issues of preference that appear in local churches. That’s bound to happen, because even good people can disagree about what forms or practices make them feel most comfortable, about what hymns warm their hearts and don’t, about whether or not they should make alterations to some old practice that has become shopworn, and so forth. The presence of disagreements over such things shouldn’t be troubling at all, but should rather be expected.

The problem is that it’s not always easy to say when debate moves from fruitful to fractious, or when one side or the other tips over from mere discussion to disputatiousness. And we don’t really often know what to do when it does.

Does It Have to Happen?

Nobody wants controversies, especially those that get attached to personalities and create hurt feelings. So over the last few decades, we, in the local church, have generally gotten a lot less inclined to take any stands on principle. Still, there are moments …

Paul says something unexpected about this. To the Corinthians, he writes, “For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you.”

Here, Paul seems to be saying that factions, or divisions, are a necessity among the people of God: the Lord allows there to be differences between those who are genuine Christians and those who are only faking it, because that’s the way he reveals whom he approves. The church is always a field of wheat and weeds, a place of the good stuff and the junk that just needs to be pulled out and burned one day.

On the flip side, it’s also true that false teachers always need schisms and factions, for the simple reason that without them, they cannot make themselves seem important. In Galatia, for example, the false teachers were finding ways to “shut” the believers “out” of the truth, so that they would have to “seek them”, to rely on the false teachers. Making extra-biblical rules and laws, and making them seem essential, would make the false teachers also seem essential; but the truth of the gospel would offer them no basis for making the distinctions they need between the “approved” and the “unapproved”.

That’s how legalists operate. They call traditions about which scripture is actually silent “necessary”, “essential”, “faithful” and even “biblical”. Being the chief advocates of their invented rules, they are instantly promoted to being the most important voice in any congregation that agrees to go along with the rule they’ve invented.

The Attractions of Factions

Legalists need factionalism. In order to display themselves as those who have “got it right”, they have to have a situation in which some of their brothers and sisters seem to have “got it wrong” by knowing less, or misreading the scripture, or failing to stand for truth in some way. Legalists, like Pharisees, stand on the heads of those who, like the publican, are known “sinners”. And they can’t assert their control as legalists unless such distinctions and factions are introduced to the congregation and insisted upon. To raise themselves, they have to ‘punish’ (at least through exposure and embarrassment) all those who did not share their convictions, or who did differently from what they insist is the “law” for a given matter.

This inevitably leads to splits. The downtrodden, those who have been exposed and embarrassed for doing other than the legalists insist they should have done, either become offended by their humiliation or become alert to the unfairness of the legalists insisting it’s “their way or the highway”, and they take to the highway. The legalists, sensing their advantage, press the situation and demand an even firmer crackdown on dissent and difference of interpretation. The final result, of course, is that the legalists and the accused part company, or only remain together only miserably. If the latter happens, the legalists rule a bigger “kingdom”, but they have become tyrants.

Submission to Scripture

That’s what to watch for. If the person who is pressing his favored motif is a legalist, he will not be happy to re-examine his convictions in light of scripture, even if only to confirm them. He will want a summary ruling from the elders, and fast. Any slowness on their part will be interpreted as “lack of faithfulness” or “ignorance of truth” by the legalist, and he’ll raise the temperature immediately. He’ll become more and more insistent, and ask, “Brothers, why are we dragging our feet on this issue?” He won’t sit still for any doubt being introduced.

When somebody objects, “Why would we forbid this or that practice, when no scriptural principle against it exists?” or “Why must we continue to insist on this or that tradition for which we have no actual biblical warrant?” the legalist will get irate and accuse the objector of muddying the waters of the discussion. He’ll say, “This is clear, and there’s no other way.” In contrast, the response of a conservative-but-honest thinker will be, “Well, let’s go back to the Word and look at this together.”

This is not only how you know the legalists from the faithful; it’s how you know the legalistic-but-well-meaning from the heart-hard legalist, the actual false teacher and troublemaker, the weed among the wheat. Even if he may struggle at first, any honest Christian will agree to be ruled solely by what scripture says; any genuine false teacher will have to refuse such biblical arbitration, because his goal is to make distinctions and divisions, not to resolve a difference of understanding. He will want schisms, and he will want to win at all costs. He will not agree to change his mind, no matter what is presented to him.

Don’t Let the Door Hit You …

If that’s the case, there is no further solution. The fractious person must simply be denied his ground. He must be told he’s wrong, and instructed that he’s not to teach or talk to others about his divisive preferences. If he persists, he must be made to leave, for there is no chance that a stubborn, fractious person will quit being fractious: it’s the very heart of what he wants, and without it, he cannot distinguish himself as special. Having been denied, he will feel unheard and unloved, and will quickly become resentful; and his low-level grumbling will become a continual source of division within the church. The guy just has to go.

We’re afraid to say that today. “Inclusion” is our watchword. And the sort of fortitude it takes to tell somebody they actually need to leave is not common. Paradoxically, it’s a kind of fortitude the false teacher has in spades; he’s not at all shy to make some people feel diminished, excluded, humiliated, or second-rate as a result of his legalistic quibble, and he’s not at all taken aback if they leave the church altogether. He loves it, because it makes him feel important when his objectors give him ground. But let him be asked to leave, and he kicks up a rumpus about how he is being treated unjustly, ill-used and silenced. And whenever he finally stomps out, he looks around for anyone he can take with him. Getting up a faction loyal to him was, after all, always his game.

Sorting and Sifting

Who is “wheat” and who is “weeds”? The test is submission solely to scripture. At the end of the day, it’s the thing the false teacher or fractious person can never do, and the faithful person always will.


  1. Guys, just wanted to thank you, again, for your blog. I appreciate the measured and Scriptural basis for your work and I don't think you've ever failed to make me consider my stance on things. So I'm a little torqued that you would gloss over the issue your friend raised to you :) in the article on "Wheat and Weeds". Okay, it's just something that makes me curious. The reason is that I've spent a long time as a worship leader in a couple of churches and while I expect that you're right and this is something that likely most of us would be confused as to why it's an issue, color me interested. Are you willing to share the issue "relatively" privately through email instead of on the public blog? Fully understand if you don't; I just thought I'd ask.

    God bless you all

  2. Sure, I'm quite willing to be more specific. At the same time, it's a little hard to be, at least here, for two reasons: one is that a proper explanation of the specific issue in this case would require a great deal of background on the historical preferences of a rather obscure sub-denomination (background I'd be very surprised if you had, since even I didn't). I'm sure you, like me, would have trouble at first even understanding how they could take issue with the thing at all. The second difficulty is that it's not even a thing that most people will ever have thought of. I think I'd have to unpack it for you quite a bit, and at the end you still might say, "What are these people on about?" I'm not sure I can tell you. I see no Scripture for it, at all.

    But maybe I can give you something comparable that could help you make sense of the case that launched my in that direction. A good analogy would be this: it would be something similar to the case of those folks who have hard stands on whether it's okay to do something like using musical instruments in worship...even a piano. (When I first ran into that one, I found it hard to imagine anyone was worrying about it at all, but some do: and they regard it as pretty much a non-negotiable. Surprising, yes; but it happens.) That's the sort of case I was referring to in my article: something that's not at all forbidden in Scripture, even indirectly or by principle, but which some people, because of their past or their traditions or habits, just happen to have strong feelings about. And you can probably imagine other such cases, once you know that.