Pope Benedict, the Church of England and the Challenge of False Teaching

Pope Benedict, the Church of England and the Challenge of False Teaching

The historic visit to the UK this weekend of Pope Benedict 16th has rightly received considerable media attention. There are several reasons for the media interest:  Although Pope John Paul II came on a pastoral visit in 1982, this is the first ever state visit by a Pope. The invitation came from Her Majesty the Queen. More controversially, while the Church of Rome forbids its clergy from marrying, it is embroiled in a deeply damaging scandal of child abuse that is truly global in scale. Then, just before Pope Benedict arrived, one of his senior advisers – Cardinal Walter Kasper – suggested to a German magazine that arriving at Heathrow airport was like landing in a “Third World country”. Benedict has also offended some humanists by associating their view with the “Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society.”

While journalists have focused on these controversies, few have asked the more fundamental question of why England is not Catholic like France, Spain and Italy. Why is England Protestant? On Friday Benedict gave an address in Westminster Hall. It was here that Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor, was tried and condemned to death for defending his ultimate allegiance to the Holy See rather than his loyalty to King Henry VIII. This is why English Monarch can never be Roman Catholic. Pope Benedict came on this historic visit, in his words, to heal wounds and extend the hand of friendship to the British people.  This dialogue is welcomed.

The impression given though, even some religious journalists, is that the RC and Anglican churches believe much the same thing and that our differences are trivial, or the result of Henry VIII’s testosterone levels.  The fact is there remain serious theological differences between the Church of Rome and England.

Since the Reformation both churches have believed that the other has departed from the true faith. This is why studying 1 Timothy this Autumn is going to be so important and relevant. We will find practical guidance on how to live as Christ followers. We will also find answers to the questions that continue to divide Christians. Lets recap what we learnt two weeks ago.

The Purpose of 1 Timothy

The central purpose of First Timothy is found in 1:3 and 3:15:

“As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer.” (1 Timothy 1:3).

“if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. (1 Tim. 3:15)

The primary focus concerns false teaching and its devastating effects. But the letter also contains positive instruction that inoculates against the errors of the false teachers. Paul’s real concern is with the results of the false teaching –  promoting speculations (1:4; 6:4), arrogance (6:4), and greed (6:5–10). Paul focuses on how authentic faith leads to godly lifestyles. Lives not shaped by the gospel have turned away from the faith. 1 Timothy is therefore a clear call for Christians to live out the gospel – to live like Jesus.

An Outline of 1 Timothy

1. The Church’s doctrine (1:3-20)
2. The Church’s worship (2:1-15)
3. The Church’s church leadership (3:1-16)
4. The Church’s moral behaviour (4:1-10)
5. The Church’s social responsibilities (5:3-6:2)
6. The Church’s attitude towards possessions (6:3-21)

The church is God’s primary vehicle for accomplishing His work on earth. The local church is literally the hope of the world.

1 Timothy 1:1-11 – The Challenge of False Teaching

We can observe three themes in the introduction which are elaborated in more detail later in the letter. The perils of false teaching that leads people astray. The priority of sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel. The purpose of this command is love that comes from a pure heart.

1. The perils of false teaching that leads people astray

“As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work–which is by faith… Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk.” (1 Timothy 1:3-4, 6)

John Stott writes, “Paul’s prediction some five years previously that ‘savage wolves’ would enter and devastate Christ’s flock in Ephesus had come true. But who were they? And what were they teaching? Paul writes that they want to be teachers of the law (verse 7). Thus the false teachers are now identified as law-teachers. This latter word can denote a perfectly legitimate activity, however. So what is wrong with teaching the law?

There is actually a great need in our day for Christian teachers of the moral law (the Ten Commandments as expounded by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount), for it is through the teaching of the law that we both come to a consciousness of our sin and learn the implications of loving our neighbour. Indeed, we know that the law is good if one uses it properly (verse 8).

Evidently, then, there is both a right and a wrong, a legitimate and an illegitimate, use of the law. First, we ask what were the false teachers doing with the law which was wrong? Timothy is to command the false teachers not to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies (4), which Paul later categorizes as ‘godless myths and old wives’ tales’ as ‘Jewish myths’, and as an alternative to ‘the truth’ (4:7). The word genealogies most naturally refers to those in Genesis, which trace the descent and pedigree of the patriarchs. In the 1st Century, Rabbinic commentaries on the application of the Law, speculations about myths and genealogies became increasingly legalistic and authoritative, and they were infiltrating the Church too.

In Stott’s words, “They treated the law (that is, the Old Testament) as a happy hunting-ground for their conjectures. At the same time, the false teachers showed Gnostic tendencies, forbidding marriage and insisting on abstinence from certain foods (4:3f.) which they considered evil. This false asceticism was totally incompatible with the doctrine of creation which insists that all God made is good. Paul insists these teachers were promoting controversies and meaninglessness talk – (because they divert attention from the supremacy and authority of God’s word). It is to be welcomed that Pope Benedict and Archbishop Rowan met and prayed and want to further the unity we share in Jesus Christ. But the unanswered question remains: How is unity to be achieved? What is the basis of our unity? If the impression given is that if we set aside our differences, we can be united, then Benedict’s visit will have done great harm to the cause of the gospel. Here are some questions – some of which are answered in 1 Timothy.

What is our final authority in matters of faith and doctrine? Are the Reformed churches such as the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Baptists and Anglicans part of the one true Catholic and Apostolic Church, or is our ministry invalid until we recognise Papal supremacy and return to Rome? Is our unity based on the infallible teaching of the Popes and Cardinals or the infallibility of Scripture? Should we venerate Mary and seek her intercession and that of all the Saints?

Does consecrated bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ? Is it a memorial or a sacrifice? Is this a table or an altar? Should clergy remain celibate or be married? Must you say your confession to a priest and seek his absolution to have your sins forgiven? Is there a purgatory? Should we pray for the dead? Can we ever have assurance of sins forgiven?

Can we ever know that we have eternal life? Are we saved by grace alone, through faith alone or must we work our way to heaven by good deeds and religious practices? These are not minor or trivial issues but cut to the core of the gospel, what we are to believe about Christ and how we are to live as his followers. They only remain controversial while Church leaders insist that tradition, experience and reason are of equal authority to the Bible.

Frankly I am not that interested in the controversies the media stirred up during Pope Benedict’s visit this week. I am however concerned for the millions and millions of people who are led astray by false teaching that they must work for their salvation; the millions of people who give up on Christ because they know they can never be good enough; the millions who have turned their back on Christ because they see only hypocrisy in the church; the millions who are given false hope that by keeping rituals they can have a place in heaven. The perils of false teaching do indeed lead people astray.

2. The priority of sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel

“We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels… And it is for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” (1 Timothy 1:8-11)

Stott writes, “It may be helpful to approach this question historically, for the Reformers struggled much over the true purpose of the law. Martin Luther expressed his position in his Lectures on Galatians (1535). ‘The law was given for two uses,’ he wrote. The first was ‘political’ or ‘civil’; the law was a bridle ‘for the restraint of the uncivilised’. The second and ‘principal’ purpose of the law was ‘theological’ or ‘spiritual’. It is a mighty ‘hammer’ to crush the self-righteousness of human beings.

For ‘it shows them their sin, so that by the recognition of sin they may be humbled, frightened, and worn down, and so may long for grace and for Christ’. It is in this sense that ‘the law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ’. John Calvin added a third purpose for the law. “’its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns’. The law is ‘the best instrument’ both to teach us the Lord’s will and to exhort us to do it. For ‘by frequent meditation upon it’ believers will ‘be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression’. Indeed it is in this ‘joyous obedience’ that authentic ‘Christian freedom’ is to be found.

Thus the law’s three functions are punitive (to condemn sinners and drive them to Christ), deterrent (to restrain evildoers) and specially educative (to teach and exhort believers).

Stott continues, “It is particularly noteworthy that sins which contravene the law (breaking the Ten Commandments) are also contrary to the sound doctrine of the gospel. So the moral standards of the gospel do not differ from the moral standards of the law. We must not therefore imagine that, because we have embraced the gospel, we may now repudiate the law! To be sure, the law is impotent to save us, and we have been released from the law’s condemnation, so that we are no longer ‘under’ it in that sense.  But God sent his Son to die for us, and now puts his Spirit within us, in order that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us. There is no antithesis therefore between law and gospel in the moral standards they teach; the antithesis is in the way of salvation, since the law condemns, while the gospel justifies.”

It is here that the Church of Rome and Church of England most profoundly divide.

The 39 Articles represent the doctrinal position of the Church of England. I encourage you to read them on the Church Society website as it contains a modern translation.

Article 6 on the sufficiency of Holy Scripture for salvation:

“Holy Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. Consequently whatever is not read in Scripture nor can be proved from Scripture cannot be demanded from any person to believe it as an article of the faith. Nor is any such thing to be thought necessary or required for salvation. By holy Scripture is meant those canonical books of the Old and New Testaments whose authority has never been doubted within the church.”

Article 19 on the Church:

“The visible church of Christ is a congregation of believers in which the pure Word of God is preached and in which the sacraments are rightly administered according to Christ’s command in all those matters that are necessary for proper administration. As the churches of Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria have erred, so also the church of Rome has erred, not only in their practice and forms of worship but also in matters of faith.”

Article 22 on Purgatory:

“The Roman doctrine concerning purgatory, pardons, worshipping and adoration (both of images and of relics) and the invocation of saints is a futile thing foolishly conceived and grounded on no evidence of Scripture. On the contrary this teaching is repugnant to the Word of God.”

All Anglican clergy are expected to affirm the 39 Articles and submit ourselves to the authority of the Scriptures alone, through Christ alone and by faith alone. I can assure you that is true of the clergy serving at Christ Church. We have examined the perils of false teaching that lead people astray. The priority of sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel.

3. The purpose of this command is love that comes from a pure heart

“The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Tim. 1:5)

If you encounter a pastor or church leader who regards doctrine as a dirty word, leave them well alone. There is no tension between belief and practice. Theology is simply right thinking about God, and a plain simple literal reading of Scripture will explain all you need to know about God and his purpose for his people and for you. The purpose of this instruction about false teaching and about sound doctrine is not in order that we gain a degree in theology but that we become like Jesus. Repeat verse 5. What does this mean? What will it look like? If you get the weekly church e-news then you will have seen the article I included this week by Dr. Charles Arn. If you don’t then please email me. Charles studied the reasons churches grow and has come up with five principles, based on his research.

Principle 1: Disciple-making is the priority

The longer a congregation exists, the more concerned it tends to become with self-preservation—and the less concerned with its original purpose. Time, money, staff, and even the prayers become increasingly inward-focused. The result, not surprisingly, is that the church stops growing. 85% of churches in the US are dying and I suspect in the UK too. We must therefore keep the focus of our church away from ourselves and back to our primary goal—and Christ’s primary goal—of making disciples. We must evaluate everything – our budget, staffing, programmes, on whether they help us increase the number of Christian disciples. A church can do many good things. A church should do a few important things. But there is only one essential thing a church must do:

“go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Disciple making is the priority

Principle 2: Social networks are the vehicle

Its really very simple. The vast majority of non-Christians come to Christ primarily through relationships with Christians. Again, this may seem elementary, but I remain amazed at the number of people who believe something other than “friends reaching friends” will somehow create growth. Christian friends and relatives bring twice as many new believers into the kingdom as all the other reasons … combined! I encourage you to list your unchurched friends and relatives. I am sure you can list at least six people. Have you heard of the Six degrees of separation (also referred to as the “Human Web”)? Research has shown that everyone is at most six steps away from any other person on earth.  A 2007 study examined a data set of instant messages composed of 30 billion conversations among 240 million people. They found the average path length among Microsoft Messenger users to be 6.6. Users on Twitter can follow other users creating a network. According to a study of 5.2 billion such relationships, the average distance between people on Twitter is 4.67.

On average, about 50% of people on Twitter are only four steps away from each other, while nearly everyone is five steps away. So when Jesus instructed his disciples to make disciples of all nations, he was not asking the impossible. Pray for the people on your friends and family list. Invite them regularly to an appropriate church-related event. Remember you may be God’s only connection to these unreached people.

Principle 3: Felt-needs are the connecting point

Most unchurched people are not walking down the streets of your community thinking about the eternal destiny of their soul. But they are thinking about something of immediate interest: their jobs, friends, health, kids, finances, hobbies, and so on.
If we believe Jesus Christ is interested in all aspects of our lives, we need to show unreached people how the gospel is relevant to what’s on their minds too. Jesus began his conversation with the Samaritan woman on a topic of interest to her—water. Then, he talked about water that would cause her to never thirst again and began the disciple-making process – he won her, built her and sent her in an hour. Don’t start with your agenda; start with theirs. Here’s a list that summarizes the needs of people today:

  • People feel disconnected and isolated. They are looking for a place to belong and feel part of a family or community.
  • People are feeling the pressure of a busy and stressful world. They are looking for a greater sense of balance and ways to manage priorities.
  • People sense the shallowness of superficial encounters with others. They are looking for authentic relationships.
  • People are feeling empty and drained from striving to meet their desires through work, material possessions, or entertainment. They are looking for spiritual answers to their unfulfilled “hunger.”
  • People are feeling overwhelmed by the pace of change in every aspect of their world. They are looking for help through transitions.

When we speak to people’s felt-needs, we get a hearing, because our message is—from their point of view—relevant.

Principle 4: Relationships are the glue

Getting people in the front door is one thing—keeping them from quietly disappearing out the back door is another. What’s the primary ingredient that keeps people active in church? Friendships. Put simply, if people have friends at church, they stay. If they don’t have friendships, they won’t. According to one study, new members who stay beyond their first year made an average of seven new friends in the church. Those who dropped out made fewer than two. So be a “relational matchmaker” when (and even before) people join our church, and you’ll increase the likelihood of them staying.

Principle 5: Transitions provide the window of opportunity

Unchurched persons in our community are not equally receptive to becoming Christians or members of our church. Some are quite responsive, others not at all.
As we will see in two weeks time “God wants all people to be saved.” (1 Timothy 2:4). I believe its all a matter of timing, not that some are receptive and others never will be. God uses life-transition events. Significant changes in people’s lives can move them toward spiritual receptivity.

Such changes may be controlled events (marriage, divorce, relocation, retirement) or uncontrolled ones (death of a spouse, medical crisis, job loss). Be aware of these events in the lives of the people around you and respond with genuine Christian love. Be thoughtful and caring to share God’s unconditional love with people during these windows of opportunity and see God do miracles, and grow his church and extend his kingdom through you.

We have considered the perils of false teaching that leads people astray. The priority of sound doctrine that conforms with the gospel. The purpose of this command, this sermon, of this series, of this church, “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Timothy 1:5). Lets pray.

Listen to the audio of this sermon here

This sermon draws heavily on John Stott’s Commentary on 1 Timothy (Bible Speaks Today published by IVP)