Rev. Dr. Les Martin
Rev. Dr. Les Martin
I am resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified in the name of the living God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.
As a young priest in the pre-internet age, I was often looking for direction that would stick with me. And so for that direction, I had taped up on my wall, something I had found and printed out. Back when you had to print out things, it was called the Duties of a Priest, and it was from the Anglican Diocese of Guyana. It had several things, but among them were three. To preach, to teach, and to drive away false doctrine. Now, the teaching and the preaching I got, I kind of had been trained about that, but as a convert, I kind of underestimated the driving away false doctrine part.
And let me explain why. I was a convert. I had read about the faith. I had later read about Anglicanism, and it was something I had chosen intellectually and emotionally, and so I could not for the life of me imagine that there might be people out there in the buildings, in the movement, who actually wanted to change the movement, or didn’t believe the teachings. Proud American that I was, I thought First Amendment works. If you don’t like it, just leave and go somewhere that you do. And so I underestimated the role of a priest to drive away false doctrine.
I was naive because from our Micah reading today through the Old Testament in the New Testament, even in the history of the church up to today, the fact of the matter is that false teachers and false prophets are an ongoing threat to the freedom, joy, and growth in Christ of believers. It’s just a fact.
Now, let me be clear what we’re going to talk about today. When I say false teachers, false prophets, I mean false. That means willingly choosing to say something that they know better, deliberately taking a twist to something. I’m not talking about our brothers and sisters in other churches who disagree with us in charity about certain points of doctrine. That’s okay. I’m also not talking about those who are doing their best, perhaps me, and mistakenly say something. No, I’m talking about false teachers, false prophets. Because that’s what the gospel and what Micah are talking about today.
Where I want to start is to tell you I’m here today because of false teachers. By that, I mean literally here at St. Brendan’s in an ACNA church. ACNA has been around for 10 years now, so some of you will not know at all the story that I know, which is I’m here today in an ACNA church because I joined the Episcopal Church.
Again, I made the mistake of a convert. After I was converted to Jesus, I toddled down to the library and began reading books about the Christian life and about various denominations. And I love my hometown, its tradition of education. I love the Oak Ridge Public Library, but the problem with the Oak Ridge Public Library when it came to the Episcopal Church was that it was about 20 years out of date.
So as I read about the faith and practice of this reformed Protestant Catholic Church, taking the best of the old and purifying it, I was reading about a church that no longer existed. The Episcopal Church that I joined, it didn’t take me long, and I discovered even more at seminary, was actually not the church I’d read about. It was a church that had a different understanding of the Bible, such that it was undermining biblical authority. It had a different understanding of the Christian life, such that it was undermining Christian life and practice. It had a different understanding of the divine, such that it was undermining the uniqueness of Christ. Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying that these are not just differing opinions. Again, I was the First Amendment guy. Differing opinions, great. No, they were taking something they had received and radically reinterpreting it.
I don’t know that that would’ve even been a problem. I am a child of the Reformation. But they were radically reinterpreting it in such a way as to trap people away from grace in their life, to trap people away from the promise of transformation in their life, to trap people away from the good news of Jesus Christ, our way to the Father. So for those of you who don’t know, and it’s probably useful if you are a newcomer to ACNA, to understand our roots, our history, our DNA, for those of you who don’t know, let’s just say this.
The very existence of the ACNA, the very existence of GAFCON was an attempt to reestablish here in America, in North America, a traditional Anglican way of being Christian. So I’m here today because of false teachers.
But being a human organization, even GAFCON isn’t free from false teaching. I’ve been involved in the Church of Nigeria since 1999. I spent 10 years on the ground and there are many good things. It’s our largest province, 38 million Anglicans. There’s a sense of vibrancy. There’s a sense that the gospel is really real. There’s a sense of commitment in the face of persecution that we don’t really understand, and yet lurking under the vestments, there are other things as well. There’s a medieval clericalism that covers up clerical abuse, sexual, financial, authoritarian. There is legalism in the church of Nigeria that I cannot begin to explain to you. Tying up heavy loads and putting them on people’s shoulders. That sounds real familiar to me. I’ve heard it preached. I fought against it.
And perhaps the most troubling thing to me in the Church of Nigeria these days is that it is largely captive to the word faith and prosperity heresy again and again. I have seen good Christians blamed for the lack of breakthrough in their life, blamed for the lack of not getting to the next level by pastors who say, “It’s your lack of faith, or you didn’t give me seed money.”
It’s play-for-pay Christianity, and that’s the big boy of GAFCON. And again, this is not just an alternate viewpoint. Maybe you’re saying, “Well, that doesn’t sound so bad, I guess.” This way of being Christian binds people rather than freeing them. It gives them unmerciful law rather than the liberation and transformation of the Gospel.
Let’s think about our culture. Have you noticed something? The tribes that are active in our Western culture, the tribes, the ones on the left, the ones on the right, they’ve all stolen our language. Our language, the church’s language. I don’t care if it’s the tribes of the left or the tribes of the right. They use our language. Justice, redemption, transformation, God’s anointed. They use our language to baptize worldviews and policies that are simply not Christian. For my part, I’d like our language back, and that’s the culture we’re all swimming in every day.
You sit down, you turn on your TV, it’s there. You’re in the shopping market. It’s there. Not to mention the podcasts, YouTubes, the books that the religious ministry industrial complex shove at you. All these things smuggled in them, amidst the good teaching, is false teaching. Prophets and teachers who we would not recognize, and we don’t do our due diligence, do we? I don’t blame you. I don’t either. I see a podcast that says Seven Steps to Being a More Effective Pastor, and I’m halfway listening to it before I realized I didn’t check who the author was, and this is heresy.
It’s the culture we swim in. What to do? Well, in the old days, Father Doug and I could have done what was called guarding the pulpit, and I think Father Doug does a pretty good job of that. We don’t have people up here preaching a different gospel. We could guard the classroom. We could make sure that there are only good things to read and study for you. But again, you’re here how much a week? How much is YouTube with you? How much is your podcast app? We can’t guard anything anymore.
Today, the task of driving away false teaching has to do again, just like it did in the old days with the earlier tasks from the Diocese of Guyana. I can’t so much drive away false teaching as I can teach you. I can preach to you about the good things. Our job when it comes to false doctrine, it seems yet again, lies solely in the realm of catechesis.
So with what little time remains, I want to just touch two things today that maybe will help you. How should we approach the Bible in the tradition in this world of false prophets and false teachers? What is the way that we as Anglicans have received and believe leads to that grace, that transformation of life and Gospel freedom?
Well, the GAFCON Fathers have restated for us the Anglican way of dealing with scripture. It’s in the Jerusalem Declaration. It’s in the back of your prayer book, being Good Anglicans, I know you all own the prayer book, so please look in the back of your prayer book at another time and read this. This is .2 of the 2008 Jerusalem Declaration.
“We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught, and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historical and consensual teaching.”
It’s a very good statement, but I want to focus on four words there at the end. How do we deal with the Bible? Plain and canonical, historical and consensual? What does plain and canonical mean when we approach the Bible? Well, plain is pretty easy. Bible means what it says, means what it says. But if we stop there, we’re going to drift into some fundamentalism, and we’re also going to have a whole lot of contradictions we don’t know what to do with. One place Jesus says, “Those who aren’t with you are for you.” Another place He says, “Those who aren’t for you are against you.” Those Venn diagrams don’t overlap. So plain is good, but we got to go a little further.
That’s where canonical comes in. The whole Bible, the canon of scripture, the whole Bible. It’s always been an Anglican principle that scripture interprets scripture and that the simpler, clearer parts help us understand the more complex confusing parts. Again, in your prayer book that you have, you’ll find in the 39 articles that I know you know so well. Article 20, in the Authority of the Church, it says, “Although the church be a keeper and witness of holy writ,” that’s scripture. “Yet…” Oh, I’m sorry. I’m in the wrong one.
Right article, wrong sentence. “It is not lawful for the church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s word.” Good? Even better. “Neither may it so expound one place of scripture that it be repugnant to another.” We may not so expound one place of scripture that it be repugnant to another. What does this mean? It sounds all fancy. What does it mean? It means no verses out of context. It means no proof texting. You want your best protection against false prophets? Tell them to ground their prophecy not in one verse that they’ve ripped out of the Bible with some degree of rhetorical violence. Tell them to ground their prophecy in the whole of scripture.
Second thing, historical and consensual teaching. Long time ago in France, a saint named St. Vincent of Lérins said that the way to approach the faith is that we should teach that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. So, so-called Vincentian canon. We should only teach that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.
In other words, we’re looking for a generous majority opinion of the faith. Sometimes the church fathers disagree. Well, filter out their disagreement, go with the main thing, and not just globally, not just what do we believe here or in Nigeria or in Taiwan, but what do we believe throughout the ages? We’re looking for a generous majority opinion.
As Anglicans, we say that we find that consensus. Again, you can find this in the Jerusalem Declaration, in the three creeds, the four councils, the Book of Common prayers, the 39 articles, the Book of Homilies and the Catechism.
Now, here’s an idea with what little free time as busy Christians you have, a good place to start with your devotional life is not with Reverend So-and-So from, I’ve got a 10-acre-wide church down in Texas, but go to the books, go to the podcasts, go to the videos that expound the creeds, the catechism, the Book of Common Prayers, the 39 articles. Those are out there. If you need help finding them, we can help you find them.
The fact of the matter is spend your time on who you are, where you are, and again, good First Amendment man, if you don’t like being here, that’s cool. Find a place that fits better. But if you found life here, then let’s get really good at talking about that life. Obviously, much more needs to be said about that. I hope we revisit it again and again, but for now know this. When it comes to dealing with the danger of false teaching, of which there is so much, the danger of false prophecy, of which there is so much.
Our tradition, our reformed and Catholic tradition gives you a life-giving way, a life-giving way. That means freedom in Christ. It gives you a generous kind of orthodoxy. What do I mean by a generous orthodoxy? One that’s filled with love rather than anger. One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen is the more someone gets their theology correct, if they’re not careful, they also get a really mean spirit. So a generous orthodoxy, one that is full of hope, not fear.
And if you study this way, it’ll give you an account of the hope that is within you, as Paul said, an account of the hope within you. Why? So that you can share it with others in relationship. Because it’s relationship, isn’t it? That’s really the thing. The point of good doctrine, of good ways of approaching the Bible, it’s not primarily an end in itself.
I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about what really makes a false prophet, a false prophet, or what really makes a false teacher a false teacher, but it’s that. They don’t care about relationship. They are in it for themselves. They deal out a selfish death-giving use of scripture and doctrine, one that increases control, fear, anger, and lies, rather than a life-giving doctrine that makes relationship flourish. This all may seem really heady, and I know it is, but rather than spend a lot of time just trying to pick on false prophets and frighten you more, I wanted to give you some hope, and the hope is this.
Doctrine and tradition, a generous orthodoxy, our faith, the faith of our fathers is not given to you to turn you into a new improved Pharisee, so that you can tie new and improved loaves and lay them on people’s backs, and be unwilling to carry them. No, it’s to undergird your relationship, to give you that reason, that account for the hope that is in you, so that your relationships improve, knowing Christ better. Your relationship with the Christ who loves and chose you, a real man, a real God, unique in all of creation, that that relationship becomes better.
And as we understand God’s plan for the world, and we understand the hope we have as Anglicans, it helps us in our relationships with our neighbors, with those that we are called to love, how to help them, what to say, pointing them where to go. Because there is one law that no legalist can ruin: the law that Jesus gives us. Love God above all, love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s the foundation for true doctrine, true Bible study, true teaching. It is a law, yes, but it’s full of grace and truth.