Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 05/16/1999
"As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming . . ."
The ministry of the Church has as its goal our attaining to "the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to Christ" (Eph. 4:13). This description of the edified or built-up Body is so important that, having stated it positively in v. 13, Paul then states it again negatively in v. 14: "As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming . . ." Why? Because until we have reached this kind of maturity, we will never be able to speak the truth in love (v. 15). Therefore we are examining very carefully both what we ought to be (last week) and, today, what we ought to be leaving behind: Spiritual Infancy. This spiritual infancy we are to be leaving behind has at least two characteristics.
One of the endearing traits of little children is the fact that they are like the weather: constantly changing. They can be smiling one minute, crying the next, and then a minute later smiling again. On successive days they want to be a fireman, a policeman, an astronaut, a movie actor, and president when they grow up. When they are little this is both cute and appropriate, for they are trying on different roles both to learn about life and to see which ones might actually fit. But at a certain point in the maturation process they need to pick one of these goals and stick to it. If they do not when that time comes, their vacillation is neither cute nor appropriate any more, but a sign of immaturity. It is no longer cute to always be starting grandiose projects which they never finish.
How does this instability, this being tossed about by the waves, manifest itself in spiritual things? Surely one sign of it is the church-hopping syndrome, the tendency to flit from one congregation to another, according to how recently the person has been offended or where the hot preacher, topic, or program is at the moment, never becoming actually committed to a particular congregation to which some loyalty needs to be shown. It shows itself in inconsistency in the regular spiritual disciplines of prayer, bible study, and meditation. It appears in an attraction to spiritual fads (from WWJD to the Prayer of Jabez), a susceptibility to hype, a propensity to evaluate the spiritual worth of a service by its entertainment value, the desire to have one's ears tickled, as Paul puts it to Timothy. And it is evident in a lack of dependability or follow-through, even in people who do not acutely manifest the previous traits. In other words, it is a synonym for normality in the contemporary American church.
Another of the well-known traits of childhood is its gullibility. How many of us have ever had a little brother or sister without successfully pulling this one on them at least once: "Hey, I'll trade you this BIG nickel for that little bitty dime!" You either did it or you had it done to you. If you were a middle child it might have been both! Why don't adult campers get taken on snipe hunts? We get a laugh out of these examples, but it becomes deadly serious when we have to almost over-warn our children in today's climate about trusting strangers. This is not a criticism of the children; it is simply a description of what they must be as a result of their lack of experience. But it is neither cute nor OK if they never grow out of it. Nor is it OK for adult believers to be carried about by every wind of doctrine.
"But wait," I hear someone saying, "doesn't the Bible command us to have a childlike faith?" Unless you enter into the Kingdom as a little child, you cannot enter it at all. And we are supposed to trust God like a little child trusts his father. This is quite true, but much misunderstood. When Jesus tells us to trust God like a little child, he is using a simile. And when someone uses a simile or other figure of speech, you are supposed to get the point, but not take it literally. Paul also says that when he was a child he thought as a child, but when he became a man he put away childish things--which in context means childish ways of thinking. So we are indeed to trust our heavenly Father with childlike faith, the way a little child trust his father. We are to do this because God actually deserves that kind of trust, and Scripture often goes our of its way to give us good reasons for believing this. But because the child trusts his father, he listens to him when he tells him NOT to trust a stranger! And therefore, because he trusts his father, he learns from him to use good sense in evaluating what other people may say about the father or anything else.
Faith, in other words, is not opposed to critical thinking; it presupposes it. As C. S. Lewis said, "God has room for people with very little sense. But he expects them to use all the sense they have." Or, as he said again, "God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers."
What then would a mature church which was outgrowing its childish gullibility look like? It would combine a childlike trust in the Father with a sanctified cynicism about Man. And it would therefore affirm the importance, the centrality, indeed the primacy of Sound Doctrine. Late Modern and Post Modern Christians tend to be suspicious of doctrine. They think it is boring and irrelevant and only leads to division. We ought, they think, to just love the Lord and each other and forget about all that dry doctrine--just a bunch of head-knowledge! But if we love Jesus, then we must LISTEN to him and to his Apostles. And to pay careful attention to their teaching is to become serious students of doctrine, for teaching is what doctrine means. One could define the Christian life simply as Doctrine put into Practice. It is more than that, actually, there being a spiritual dynamic required for true practice as well as understanding of doctrine. But while it may be more, it is not less. Everything begins there. Every Christian is responsible to the Lord to know, to understand, and to intelligently apply the Whole Counsel of God. Doctrinal error is therefore not just an innocent mistake; it is a sin. It is evil, and it has evil consequences. Therefore, every maturing Christian will be like the Bereans, who searched the Scriptures daily whether these things be so. There is no substitute for familiarity with the Text; there is no substitute for responsible critical thinking about the Text. And there is no substitute for a called and gifted pastor/teacher. Use his ministry, for God has ordained it. But do not use it uncritically. For I am not infallible. My only authority is the authority of Scripture. If I go beyond that, your obligation to follow me ceases.
What then are some of the characteristics of sound teaching, sound doctrine, versus the false? If we are to use sanctified critical thinking so that we are not blown about by the winds of doctrine, we need criteria, based on principles, by which we can make these judgments. Let me offer four such general principles. Sound doctrine glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ; false doctrine glorifies anything else. Sound doctrine magnifies Grace and its effects; false doctrine uses Guilt as a motivator. Sound doctrine uses gratitude for God's Grace as the motivator to godliness; false doctrine impales us on the horns of a dilemma that leads either to legalism or license. And sound teaching encourages you to question the interpreter, while false teaching discourages you from using your mind and thinking for yourself; it tries to usurp for the teacher the kind of childlike faith that belongs only to the Father himself. Let us therefore teach and learn so that our faith is properly childlike, not childish.
Here then is another useful way to take stock of our spiritual maturity as individuals and as a Body. Are we gaining in maturity? In other words, are we gaining in Stability, i.e., in commitment and consistency? And are we gaining in Experience, as opposed to naivete and gullibility, i.e., in our ability to discern the Truth and not be led astray? Is our ministry succeeding in promoting that kind of growth? If we have weaknesses, where are they? We must always be asking these questions, for we want to be able to speak the truth in love to a dying generation. But that is our topic for next week.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams