Right but Wrong

Revelation 2:1–7 – 1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.

2 “ ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’

The people of Ephesus were right. The people of Ephesus were wrong. These two things were true at the same time, but not in exactly the same way. And, if we pay attention, we will grasp that this danger is ours as well.

How were the Ephesians right in the days that Christ sent them a little note in the book of Revelation? We see a couple of significant positives. The Ephesians were hard workers (v2). They endured hardship and pressed on (v3). They knew enough of Scripture that they could test false teachers, find them wanting, and turn them away (v2). (.

In verse 6, we even see a particular commendation from the Savior. The Ephesians hated the works of the Nicolaitans. While we do not know much about the Nicolaitans, for sure, we see that they are false teachers and perhaps have some tie to the gnostic false teaching that says a Christian can do whatever he wants with his body, because only the spiritual matters. The Ephesians knew better than to give into whatever was the false teaching of the Nicolaitans, and Christ commends this.

Let’s be honest, there are Christians today who need the Ephesians’ Commitment to doctrine and Christian morality. And, thankfully, there are Christians who have the same sort of doctrinal passion. There are Christians who can spot false teachers, expose bad doctrine, and call out sinful practices. And make no mistake, such commitment and discernment is good.

But the Ephesians were also wrong. How? Christ says that they had forsaken their first love (v4). What is our first love to be? We are to love the Lord our God with everything we have (Mat. 22:37-38). In case you’re curious, our second love is to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mat. 22:39). It is a fair deduction to suggest that the Ephesians, though they had solid doctrine and high moral standards, somehow failed to love the Lord their God along the way. And this failure, if not corrected, would result in Christ removing that church from existence (v5).

Here is the question you must not miss. Could this happen to us? Is it possible for us to get our doctrine right and hold our morality high while we fail to love the Lord our God? If so, then we must guard against being right but being terribly wrong. We must guard against having only right doctrine and right practice without having a right heart.

Be careful here. I am not, and the Lord is certainly not, suggesting that we ought to ignore right doctrine or proper morality. Christ commended the Ephesians for championing godly morality based on solid, biblical doctrine. To let that go is deadly, sinful, and dishonoring to God. Never once think for one moment that you should stop studying, stop correcting false teaching, or stop calling people to God’s standard for Christian living.

But, and this is our danger, watch your heart in the process. There are some whose hearts grow colder and colder as they do the things that Christ commended in the Ephesians. Ask yourself, as you study, as you correct, as you endure, is your heart growing cold? Does your study make you love the Lord more? Does your protecting the doctrine in the church help you see Jesus as beautiful—not just intellectually appealing but actually heart-capturingly glorious? Do you have more anger in your heart for the way that some falsely handle Scripture than you have love for Jesus? Are you more often mad at the world around you than joyful over the gospel?

Never let go of biblical doctrine. Never let false teachers have their way. Never let yourself or other brothers and sisters in Christ embrace sinful practices. And, along with this, never let your heart get so full of anger over wrong that you forget to deeply love the Lord whose word you claim to defend. Never let your heart be fuller of anger at wrong than of amazement at God’s grace. Love the Lord first. Do not let your love fade. Right doctrine, if it is truly right doctrine, produces love of the Lord your God. Remember that and let it cause you to check your own heart so that you will not be right but wrong.

Doctrine Plus Mission: Proclaim a True Gospel

Galatians 1:6-9 – 6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

We know this passage. It is sobering. It causes us to pay attention. We know that there is one gospel. We know that anyone preaching something other than the one gospel is in serious trouble.

When you think about the urgency and seriousness of this passage, I believe it should cause you to cling to two significant pillars: doctrine and mission. I also believe that, in many a discussion that I have read over the past couple of years, one or both of these is missing. May we be more careful.

In recent days, I have read many people telling other Christians to stop fussing about issues related to doctrine, secondary issues, side issues, tertiary issues. The assumption is that, among the basic group under the banner evangelical or perhaps under the banner of a denomination, everybody already agrees on the gospel and so there should be only focus on mission. So long as we all like the same teacher, sign the same doctrinal statement, or have the same name in our churches, there is no reason to roll up our sleeves and get down to the work of hashing out what is biblical in most issues. Just take the gospel to the world.

On the other hand, there are many other discussions I have read that are all issues. We draw lines in the sand. Are you on my side? If so, you are OK—for now. If not, you are a heretic, even if you agree with me on 99.9% of systematic theology. Perhaps we agree on every doctrine, but we disagree on implementation. It’s time to put you out of the camp.

What should we see from Galatians 1:6-9? First, doctrine matters, a lot. Get the gospel wrong, and it is a damnable offense. If any person suggests that there should be a unity of mission when there is a genuine disunity in significant doctrine, there is a problem. Yes, the gospel is simple. But the gospel is also doctrinally loaded. And we can easily distort the gospel when we also embrace false doctrines that surround it. We would be fools to think that only a basic agreement on the rudiments of the gospel is enough to say that we are doing what we should. Tell people to ignore theological differences on issues, even what you think are secondary issues, and you risk opening the door to them also misunderstanding the gospel or proclaiming a false one.

Second, there is a mission. The genuine gospel needs to be proclaimed. Thus, we cannot spend all our time and energy in polemics. Yes, that group over there may very well be wrong in how they try to accomplish this mission or how they explain that doctrine. Yes, it matters. But if your focus is primarily a focus that makes you angry at other Christians and their folly instead of being a focus that makes you love Jesus more and take his grace to the globe, something is wrong.

So, hear me, proclaim a true gospel. Make sure you know the gospel. Help others know it too. Know it matters. But do not focus so much on fixing others that you stop loving and proclaiming the gospel.

Loving Omnipresence

Have you ever heard someone say that they love the Lord, but they are not really into studying things like doctrine? I certainly have. I recall a horrific song lyric from popular Christian music in my early college years in which a singer proudly proclaimed, “I don’t need theology to know that God’s good to me.”

But, the truth is, we do need theology to know that God is good to us. Theology is the study of God, the knowledge of God. Without theology, without doctrine, we do not know God.

Now, I’m not here saying that you must have a fully, categorically developed systematic theology to love the Lord. You certainly do not need a seminary education to read the Bible and follow your Savior. But, knowing God and the doctrine of God is truly helpful.

Let me point us to a doctrine that I think matters a great deal for our current moment. It is the doctrine of God’s omnipresence. This doctrine means that there is no confining God by any sort of spatial limitation. God is present in all places, equally, at once. God is everywhere, and there is nowhere that God is not.

Jeremiah 23:23–24 – 23 “Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God far away? 24 Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord.

God fills heaven and earth. God is not contained within heaven and earth. God is not a part of heaven or earth. But God is present throughout all space. After all, God created space, and all space belongs to him.

Psalm 139:5–10

5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
7 Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.

Here we see that David knows that he cannot go anywhere without being where God is. David cannot go east or west, to heaven or to hell, and be away from the Lord.

It is important that we grasp that, while God is present everywhere at all times, his action in those places might be quite different. God is not present in hell to bless but to judge. When the Bible uses language of God being far from us, it is saying that God is turned less favorably toward us, not that he is in any way removed by physical distance. When the Bible speaks of God as near to us, it is saying that he is pleased with us or is blessing us, not that his presence has somehow arrived in a place where he was not before.

The doctrine of God’s omnipresence is one that is important. We teach it unhesitatingly to our children. And, if you will let yourself think about it, you will see that this doctrine speaks a great deal to us in our present social moment.

God is where you are. Even when you are separated from society, the Lord is not gone. You may not be able to go and be at a baseball game or even sit in a church auditorium with your dear friends. But you have not been separated from the presence of the Lord. God, as David said, hems you in behind and before. You cannot flee from his presence.

Let’s consider two things from this doctrine for us today. First, God is with you and sees you. Just because you are socially distanced from others does not mean you are hidden. What you do, even while alone, is fully visible to the Lord. Think about that as you consider how to spend your time and your energy. Think about that as you consider what to look up online or what to post on social media.

And, let us also be comforted by the omnipresence of the Lord. As a believer, I hate the idea of having to try to function as the church on-line. I do not like preaching to an iPhone. I do not like singing without others around me. But, and this is vital, God is here. Wherever you are, God is here and there and everywhere. While we do not want to be the church scattered, we can be comforted in knowing that, no matter how many miles separate us, no distance at all separates us from our God. And, in a symbolic sense at least, as we are all in Christ, we are not truly apart. Yes, we want to be together. But, we are with our Lord. Our Lord is with us. And Our Lord is here to keep us, to preserve us, to bless us, to comfort us, and to give us the joy of giving him glory, even in a time of social separation.

Friends, it is true that some doctrinal study can get quite complicated and confusing. It is true that some folks become so enamored with the scholarly that they appear to lose their hearts. But, do not put down doctrine. Without doctrine we do not think well about the omnipresence of the Lord. And without that thought, we miss out on a great comfort for all believers in the middle of a very strange time.

Simple Depth in Glorious Doctrine

Sometimes the simplest of doctrines are the ones we need to remember most. IN churches like the one I serve, there are always folks who are interested in the “deep” things. And, quite often, the things these folks consider to be deep are primarily things that are hard to understand or not broadly known. While we want to study all biblical doctrine, we can, if we are not careful, become fascinated with the obscure and fail to embrace and cherish the simple and true.

Christians, may I remind you that depth does not equal obscurity? May I also remind you that simple does not mean shallow. Sometimes deep study and deep faithfulness means learning to embrace with all of your being the things that every Christian should know.

Here is an example of a few things said in Psalm 18 that we all should love deeply.

Psalm 18:30-31a

30 This God—his way is perfect;
the word of the Lord proves true;
he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.
31 For who is God, but the Lord?
And who is a rock, except our God?

Let me point out four doctrines, lovely doctrines, simple doctrines, deep doctrines, that we should love from those lines. First, note the perfection of God. David refers to God by saying, “his ways are perfect.” That is not a shallow truth. God’s ways are perfect. All that the Lord is and all that the Lord does is perfect. There is no flaw. There is no sin. There is no taint. God is absolutely, unquestionably, immeasurably perfect.

How important is that doctrine? How does it change us? When the Lord says that he will do a thing, our response must never be to measure it by whether or not we approve. God’s ways are perfect. Our response, when we see that the Lord does a thing should be to ask the Lord to reshape us in our sinfulness to love and embrace his perfection. Thus, when God speaks of things with which we are uncomfortable, we are the ones flawed, not the Lord.

Second, the word of the Lord proves true. This is a reminder that not only is what God does perfect in every way, all that God says is true. For David, this helped him to embrace the Pentateuch and the words of the prophets around him. For us, this develops for us our doctrine of holy Scripture.

Just like thinking of the ways of God as perfect, we now think of his word as true. So, what happens when our experience or our best understanding stands in contradiction to the word? WE have a choice to make. We either decide that we are more true than the word of God or that the word of God is more true than our experience. Christians, this is a vital piece of doctrine to get right, as it will shape everything you think you know.

Third, God is a shield for all who take refuge in him. What a glorious truth this is. God is a gracious God. God receives kindly those who come to him for shelter. Consider, there is no rule beyond God that says he has to do this. He could turn us away in our cries for his mercy. But he does not.

Here is a doctrine that helps us to understand the grace of God. We are all a people in danger. Our sin would cause us to be eternally condemned. But God is a shelter for all who take refuge in him. If you come to the one true God seeking shelter, he will grant it. We know from the rest of Scripture that there is only one way to come to God for shelter, through the person of Jesus Christ (John 14:6). But we also are gloriously encouraged by the truth that all who do come to Jesus in faith and repentance are genuinely saved (Rom. 10:9-10, 13).

Fourth, and finally, notice that David also tells us that there is only one God. Who is God but the Lord? Much of the world thinks in the terms of multiple divinities. Much of the world assumes all religions are the same. But the word of God tells us that there is not another God, period.

This doctrine is vital to the believer. We know that all other world religions are false, because we know that there is only one God who may only be approached through the person and work of Jesus. All other claims of authority are illegitimate, because we know that there is only one God. All that oppose God do not merely oppose a religion, they oppose the one and only Creator and Lord. And all who have the favor of God have blessing that can never be removed, because God is the only God. There is no competition for God. There is no alternative to God. There is only the one God.

You might say that all these things are easy to know. Perhaps they are. But that does not make these shallow. These are vital truths. And the more you think about them, the more you embrace them, the more you will love the Lord you serve. I’m glad that we have the opportunity as believers to delve into end times, to think about election, to seek to understand the intricacies of the trinity, to ponder the covenants. But I’m even gladder that we are given by God the chance to know that he is the only God, that is ways are perfect, that his word is true, and that he welcomes all who run to him for shelter. These things should change your daily life, and change it forever. So do not miss them as you seek to study the deep things of the Lord.

Respect Your Pastor Enough to Talk with Him

The word of God is clear that the role and duties of elders in a local church is a tough role. Elders are charged by God with faithfully handling his word, with shepherding the flock, and with caring for souls. Pastors (elders are the same as pastors) are called to pray for the church, to correct the doctrine of those who stray, to call people back from sin, to comfort the hurting, and so very much more. And all of that is while regularly preaching and studying—and perhaps even writing on a regular basis in the modern world.

I would not give away my job for anything. I love the role to which God has called me, even though it can surely be hard. I love to teach the word of God and care for the people of God. And I pray that, by the grace of God, I might do this work well.

With the pastor’s job in mind, let me share with you an issue that pastors face that I think could be something all church members need to hear about. I have come across something that is necessary in the church, but which I think many Christians shrug off. If you need a prooftext verse for what I’m going to suggest, try this one from Hebrews:

Hebrews 13:17 – Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

This verse of Scripture calls for church members to do their best to make shepherding them easy for pastors. This is by no means a verse that allows pastors to lord authority over people in the body. It is not the Bible saying that, if the pastor wants you to fund a new building, you whip out the checkbook without hesitation. It is simply a reminder that, because your pastors keep watch over your soul, you should help them do their jobs well, with as little pain as possible.

So, what do you do when your pastor holds to a doctrine with which you are struggling or with which you disagree? I would like to suggest, as a pastor and as a student of the Bible, that you have the respect for and love for your pastor to actually talk with him about your struggle. It is wise for church members who are trying to work out their beliefs, or who are even struggling with what the pastor teaches, to actually sit down with the pastor, hear his rationale for his argument, and see what can be done. It is possible that this discussion will sharpen or even change one or both of the people in the discussion.

I have seen a church member call up his pastor, ask for time, and then sit down to talk through a challenging and often-debated doctrinal issue. The young man came with his argument ready, but he also came with grace and humility. The conversation did not end with anyone’s mind totally changed, but the conversation certainly ended in fellowship, in love, and with both sides understanding each other better. This was good.

On the other hand, there are those in churches who disagree with their pastor doctrinally who simply make the decision that they will figure out the issue on their own without ever sitting down with their pastor to talk it through. As a pastor, let me simply say that this is a discouraging decision at the least. Pastors are surely not better than anyone else in the church. But pastors have, by the grace of God, often been given the privilege of years of study in which to wrestle through tough doctrines. To simply refuse to talk with your pastor about a doctrine may communicate to your pastor that his years of study mean nothing to you, and that you, in a few months on your own, will do a better job of figuring out a thorny theological problem. It can come across as a person saying that they will trust an author or a speaker from the Internet more than they will trust the wisdom of one who is in their own church.

The sad thing is, we will sometimes see that church members who do not talk doctrine through with a pastor may bring about division in the body because of their conclusions. They may leave the church. Or they may bring about a major conflict in the church. And often, these conflicts bring great sorrow to the body. All the while, had the person chosen to sit down with their leadership, the pastors the members said they would submit to, they could have avoided a great deal of the pain of the process.

Of course, I do not believe that every church member will agree with his or her pastor on every issue. In truth, I need to be challenged and corrected, and so do all other pastors. Which is why, for a church member to decide that nothing would change from a conversation is counterproductive in the body. Perhaps the pastor will learn something. Perhaps the church member who has his or her mind made up might actually find out that the pastor can lovingly present a truth to them that they had not yet understood. But to not give your pastor the opportunity for this, that is certainly not helping him to keep watch over your soul.

As always, thinking an issue like this through requires wisdom. I am not asking that one brings every petty preference issue to the pastor’s study for a four-hour discussion. There are surely doctrines that are of lesser importance, doctrines that will not demand division or policy changes in the church. Such doctrines do not always have to be addressed. But, then again, why not at least have a single conversation with your leaders about such issues if you are noticing them. No, do not become a thorn in your pastor’s side. But neither disrespect your leadership by assuming that they are wrong and they can say nothing that might influence you.

Also, we understand that not every person leaves a church over doctrine. People may desire to worship in a different setting or to serve a body they find fits them better. There are surely good and godly reasons to leave a church that do not require a doctrinal division.

Hebrews 13:17 commands us to help our shepherds shepherd our souls. Think along those lines as you think about tough doctrines you struggle with or doctrinal disagreements you have with your church. Perhaps thinking this way will help you to love your shepherds enough to talk with them about your struggles. Such conversations, if handled with love and grace, would glorify God and be good for all the souls involved.

What do you do, then, if you have a pastor who is not interested in doctrinal conversation? I have been in such a church in the past, and it was a really hard place to be. When you find out that your pastor is not interested in theology, or that he will not have a conversation about theology, then you may well need to consider another place to serve the Lord. But give the pastor the chance first. Respect him enough to speak with him. Make sure he knows what you are thinking and why you think it is important. Then, if you need to move on, if you have heard his thoughts on your doctrinal issue, you can go with a clear conscience, knowing that you have tried to be led by the shepherd the Lord placed over you.