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David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA). Pastor, professor, and author, he has also served as a missionary, ministering in Europe and Central and Southeast Asia. From 2003-2007, he served as Director for TE3 (Theological Education for Eastern Europe), a regional theological training ministry based in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Article by David Garner

Truth and Idolatry: Call Theological Error What It Is

February 25, 2015 •

This article is part three of an on-going series, "Truth and Idolatry." Read part 1, "I am Not an Idol Worshiper" and part 2, "Call the Gospel What It Is."

Golden statues, empty rituals, and corrupting bondage. Many conceptions flood our minds when we hear the word “idolatry.” We envision everything from crass idol worship to sophisticated religions like Hinduism, Shintoism, Animism, and even Islam.

In any of these versions of idolatry, as evangelical Christians, we get off scot-free. We have no statues in our living rooms, no incense in our parlors, and we surely do not embrace false religions. We glibly identify ourselves with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Idolatry, as we tend to see it, is someone else’s problem. We maintain such a posture smugly and confidently; that is, until we read the Bible.

With permeating frequency, prophetic and apostolic teaching warns of false doctrine and false religion—not because others are at risk, but precisely because we are. Vulnerability to idolatry plagued the first century Church and continues today with a vengeance. Why? Because the womb of heresy is the heart, not the head.

Because of the deceptive permutations of our hearts’ reasoning, those who consciously place idolatry in the file folder of remote problems may well be at the greatest risk. Vulnerability to idolatry corresponds to a denial of its power. The master deceiver himself parades about as an angel of light, and how better to compel the heart of the unsuspecting than to convince him of his immunity! Denial of idolatry’s power swings the heart’s front door wide open to it.

Arming the Church for a successful assault, Paul offers a three-pronged assault against idolatry and its subtle magnetism. In his counterattack, he starts with divine authority. As we assessed in the last column, Paul constructs his argument around the truth of the gospel.

To set the stage, I include once again our focal passage:

“[3] If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, [4] he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, [5] and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. [6] But godliness with contentment is great gain, [7] for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. [8] But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. [9] But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. [10] For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (1 Timothy 6:3-10)

We saw first that we must call the gospel what it is—God’s truth. Having established the centrality of the “sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (1 Tim. 6:3) and to trusting the gospel as given, we turn now to Paul’s second principle: we must call theological error what it is—unbelief and rebellion.

Paul goes to some length here to expose the damaging, even damning, character of theological originality. Believers in Christ Jesus and teachers of the Word of God must never offer novel theological paradigms for new generations of the Church.

Theological innovation is the fruit of theological rebellion, not biblical Christianity. Or to put it more precisely, theological innovation grows directly from the theologically rebellious. False teaching does not float in abstraction. It always has a face; it always has a mouth. It flows out a defiant heart.

Not surprisingly then, the Apostle Paul moves from a general critique of humanly inventive theology to the rebellious inventors. Gripped by the Church’s vulnerability, the apostle shows us how to discern who are and who are not false teachers. As a key component for discerning false teaching, the character and habits of false teachers receive an apostolic sketch. Theological profiling, as Paul instructs us, is not faulty prejudice but a faithful preventive, a key ingredient to maintaining gospel fidelity. Jesus himself had distinguished the spirit of discernment from the spirit of condemnation. Judgment and judgmentalism are not the same (see Matthew 7:1–6 and 7:15–20).

Rebuking unbelief requires rebuking the spokesmen of unbelief, and to this task Paul calls Timothy, his son in the faith. He exposes these false teachers in several ways, the first of which frames all of the other characteristics he lists.

False teachers love themselves (6:4). Though self-love is sometimes not immediately evident, in due course, self-love will always bear visible fruit. When it sprouts, it never tastes good on the tongue of the faithful. It never looks good to the eyes of the one whose gaze is cast on Christ Jesus. But the rotten fruit of false teachers still grows and many lust after it to swallow it whole. Such fruit manifests itself in various ways in the lives and loves of the false teachers: theological ignorance, theological controversy, and selfish gain.

False teachers are ignorant. Paul says that the false teacher “understands nothing” (6:4). Such a stunning statement illustrates the inverse relationship between self-love and love for Christ. These loves are mutually exclusive: one evidences spiritual understanding and the other spiritual blindness. Rebellious minds suffer from corrupted thought; redeemed minds enjoy the grace of spiritual illumination (Ephesians 1:15–23). In contrast to the sweet live-giving truth “sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ,” aberrant theology seeks to mimic truth, but falls into the sinkhole of self-promotion. A theology created by self-lovers effectively suppresses truth and produces a profound grasp of nothing. While the words used and the concepts used by false teachers may sound formally similar, their theology lacks any genuine understanding at all. It lacks potency because it lacks Christ.

False teachers celebrate controversy (6:4–5). False instructors crave word games. They use semantic manipulation to incite debate, and by subtle redefinition of terms, instigate and celebrate confusion. By highlighting their hunger for debate, Paul exposes the fruit of their self-love. These false teachers rely upon winsome, articulate, and intimidating use of words to suck the vulnerable into their orbits of unbelief. The greater the rhetorical gifts and the more charming the speaker, the more such controversy lures. But in each case, redefinition of terms and slippery use of them characterize the methods of the false teachers. Infatuated with their perverse creativity, these false teachers love their own semantic and rhetorical skills.

False teachers seek selfish gain. Why do false teachers teach falsely? Again self-love features prominently. False teachers imagine “godliness as a means of gain” (6:5). As explored briefly in “‘Cross Fit’ Godliness”, the “godliness” of the false teachers makes a mockery of the gospel. False teaching lacks authenticity because it fails to draw exclusively upon the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ: his life, death, and resurrection. It is a form of godliness that denies its power. Their teaching conveys “godliness” to persuade the vulnerable of the goodness of their doctrine. They teach godliness, after all. How could they be bad?

But Paul warns us of the mirage. He exposes the motives behind the ostensibly ethical teaching. What drives the false teacher is personal gain. Yearnings for padded pocketbooks expose the falsity of their faith and message. Driven by dollars, the false teachers lack sense. Their doctrine is unadulterated rebellion and unbelief, and their motives betray them. We must call false teaching what it is—rebellion and unbelief.

Without this honest assessment, one that many will criticize as unloving and intolerant, the Church will fall into idolatry. The matter is that simple. Idolatry is that dangerous. Calling false teaching what it is—rebellion and unbelief—is that important.

And because of the ultimacy of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the intimacy with which it addresses my heart, Paul moves to the deepest source of idolatry’s power and penetration. Downplaying the danger and ignoring the dangerous are real threats. For this reason, Paul presents Timothy with the Spirit-guided assessment of the human heart.

The third principle, which we will pick up in the next article, is this: we must call discontent what it is—idolatry. As I have often heard from many southern preachers, this point moves quickly from preaching to meddling. After all, how many of us stand guiltless concerning discontent?

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