by Peter Ditzel
To Old Covenant Israel, God wrote, “Hear the word of the LORD, ye children of Israel: for the LORD hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land…. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children” (Hosea 4:1, 6). A lack of knowledge was destroying the people of God’s physical nation, Israel; and because they neglected to teach the people, God rejected Israel’s leaders. Could something similar be happening among God’s spiritual people today?
If you read Ezekiel 34, you will see that God issues a scathing indictment against the neglectful and self-centered leaders of Israel whom He refers to as shepherds (in Hebrew, as in the Greek of the New Testament, the word translated as “shepherds” is the same as the word translated “pastors”). Certainly, what God says here pertained to the time in which it was written. And, as you read it, you can see how it also applied to the Jewish leaders during the time of Jesus’ ministry. But might the principle of these Scriptures also have a relevance for Christian leaders now?
Looking at Ezekiel 34 a little more closely, we see that in verses 18-19 God says, “Seemeth it a small thing unto you to have eaten up the good pasture, but ye must tread down with your feet the residue of your pastures? and to have drunk of the deep waters, but ye must foul the residue with your feet? And as for my flock, they eat that which ye have trodden with your feet; and they drink that which ye have fouled with your feet.” Notice that there is a cause and effect relationship here. The shepherds or pastors ruin the grass that the sheep feed on by stomping it down with their feet. And they pollute the water that the sheep drink by stirring mud into it with their feet, muddying the waters. Those are the causes. The effect is that the sheep eat what remains of the damaged grass and drink the impure water. Verse 21 implies other effects: the flock becomes diseased and scattered.
Have Christians today become spiritually diseased and scattered because they have been feeding on Scripture that has been trampled on and distorted by their teachers? Have they been drinking what has been muddied by human doctrine?
In his comments on verse 18, John Gill, after explaining the immediate meaning for Ezekiel’s day and the application to the scribes and Pharisees during Jesus’ ministry, says this: “…and such are heretical persons, who sometimes arise out of the churches, are a part of the flock, that corrupt the word of God, pervert the Scriptures, and handle them deceitfully; and may be said to tread down and trample upon the wholesome truths of the Gospel, and to muddy the clear doctrines of grace; so that the children of God cannot, as they desire, have the pure, unmixed, sincere milk of the word.” My only disagreement with what Gill says here is his use of the word “cannot.” There are steps Christians can take to feed upon the pure Word, and I will discuss this later. But first, let’s look at some examples of lack of discernment and discuss its causes.
Examples of Lack of Discernment
It has become commonplace for today’s moguls of Christian media to air programs and print books that their predecessors of only a generation ago would have had the discernment to reject. Herbert W. Armstrong and his son, Garner Ted Armstrong, had to print their own books and buy airtime on secular radio and television stations to broadcast their heresies in the twentieth century. But now, programs that carry on the crooked baton of Armstrongism can also be heard and seen on many Christian radio and television networks. This is a public shame upon those who are responsible for determining what can be aired on Christian networks. These people are openly displaying their ignorance and lack of discernment.
Yet, there is hardly any reason to single these Armstrong programs out when the schedules of these networks also contain shows by Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, T. D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, Robert Schuller, and others whose teachings are also far removed from sound biblical doctrine.
One need only walk into a Christian bookstore, browse through a Christian bookseller catalog, or look online to become appalled by the rubbish that Christian publishers are willing to print. From the authors who write these books to the editors who accept them to the bookstores who sell them to the readers who buy them, there is apparently an almost complete lack of ability to discern between biblical truth and glaring error.
Tyndale House publishes a book about the supposed near-death experience of a child called The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven: A Remarkable Account of Miracles, Angels, and Life beyond This World by Kevin and Alex Malarkey (yes, that’s apparently their real name) and it is immediately a huge success. Within months, Thomas Nelson publishes the claimed near-death experience of another child in a book called Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent and it becomes an enormous best seller. Certainly, one feels sorry for what these children went through, especially Kevin Malarkey who is still physically impaired. But readers are either unaware of or are willing to ignore that the near death experiences in these books plainly contradict the Bible and are thus the records of the imaginations of children.
William Paul Young writes a book called The Shack that depicts God the Father as an African-American woman called “Papa,” Jesus as a Jewish carpenter with a large nose, and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman, fills the book with outrageous twists of biblical teachings (the universal salvation of everyone whatever their beliefs, the Father bearing crucifixion scars, the claim that God doesn’t punish people for sin), and it sells tens of millions of copies. Albert Mohler has rightly said that the failure of readers to see how this book conflicts with the Bible “reveals a disastrous failure of evangelical discernment. It is hard not to conclude that theological discernment is now a lost art among American evangelicals — and this loss can only lead to theological catastrophe” (“The Shack—The Missing Art of Evangelical Discernment“).
Rob Bell claims to be an evangelical.
He has written a book called Love Wins.
He writes this book
the way I am now writing
—as if we are all seven years old.
He touts universalism
and the chance for salvation after death.
He does this by twisting Scriptures into pretzels
and cutting off the bits he doesn’t like.
Thousands of Christians buy his book.
Then, instead of throwing the book into the trash,
they write reviews calling it a “masterpiece,”
“A book of hope,” “A Must Read For All Christians.”
These programs and books are not anomalies. Biblical heresy is so much the standard fare that we must conclude that popular Christian publishing, radio, and television is now largely not really Christian at all.
Causes for Lack of Discernment
I submit that there are three primary causes of the lack of discernment we now see among Christians. They are: 1) The influence of false brethren, 2) Dependence on poor pastors and other leaders, including writers and broadcasters, and, 3) Lack of serious personal Bible study among Christians. Let’s look at these in just a little more detail.
1. The Influence of False Brethren: Immediately after exhorting his readers to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints,” Jude writes in verse 4, “For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul also speaks of “false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage” (Galatians 2:4).
False brethren have always been a threat to the purity of the Christian message. They enter churches through the baptizing of non-elect infants, bogus conversions instigated by emotion-stirring altar calls or testimonies of music, unfocused evangelistic messages that cause people to convert to some peripheral topic (such as politics) rather than the Gospel itself, and fleshly but temporary reactions to even the true Gospel. Jesus spoke of false conversions in the Parable of the Sower. They are never completely avoidable.
Once associated with a church, false brethren will water it down in what they speak about, what they recommend, what they desire, and what they oppose. Many will go on to responsible positions, having a more direct influence on the church’s focus. Some will become pastors, writers, and broadcasters, spreading false doctrine to their congregations, and to thousands and even millions of readers and listeners.
What can we do? We should not start “witch hunts” judging who is true and who is false before they have openly exposed themselves by their fruit, their words (see “What is the fruit by which we are to know people?“). Even then, we must be careful not to hastily condemn—we all occasionally make mistakes. Be we can always oppose wrong doctrine and practice. Unfortunately, when it happens, such opposition is often from the minority of brethren. The fact is, even many true Christians are so weak in their understanding of doctrine that they don’t even discern the problem, or, if they do, they don’t know how to win a battle against it. Their “swords” (Ephesians 6:17) are dull from disuse. They are not studying their Bibles.
2. Depending on Poor Leaders: Jesus told His followers that they were not to Lord it over each other—rule one over the other the way worldly leaders rule nations—but that they were to humbly serve one another: “But He said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called “benefactors.” But you shall not be thus; but let the greatest among you, let him be as the youngest, and he who leads as he who serves'” (Luke 22:25-26—English Majority Text Version, EMTV). Paul, even as an apostle, affirmed this, denying that he was lording over his brethren: “Not that we lord it over your faith, but are fellow workers for your joy; for by faith you stand” (2 Corinthians 1:24—EMTV).
Copyright © 2012 Peter Ditzel