How Should We Handle Error In the Church?

I just finished reading (somewhat belatedly!) a book that a friend of mine sent me. He was the editor, in fact. He assembled a whole bunch of interviews, which he then published in his book. The result is a fascinating window on how the church should be dealing with error. There are interviews here with a very impressive list of names: Carl Trueman, Tom Schreiner, Michael Horton, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Greg Beale, Derek Thomas, Scott Clark, Tom Ascol, Guy Waters, Kim Riddlebarger, Ron Gleason, Sean Lucas, Iain Campbell, Gary Johnson, Conrad Mbewe, Geoffrey Thomas, Joel Beeke, Robert Peterson, and Michael Ovey.

Downes asks such questions as these: “Were they any deviant theologies to which you were ever attracted?” “How should a minister keep his heart, mind, and will from theological error?” “What would you consider to be the main theological dangers confronting us today and how can we deal with them?”

I’ll share some of the highlights, as they struck me. Trueman notices that the root of theological error is pride (p. 31). He says that “their (that is, the false teachers spoken of in 1 Timothy 1:5-7) focus is on their own status, not on the words they proclaim.”

Derek Thomas has some wise words for pastors: “Ministers can so easily develop grudges and become angry and allow that anger to show itself in the pulpit justified as ‘righteous anger’, of course. The cause may be legion: pent-up frustration over poor remuneration, a bad marriage, a secret life of unmortified sin and pulpit anger is a smokescreen of anger at oneself, the Elijah syndrome (‘I only am left’) that ends up (unlike Elijah!) justifying majoring on minors (tertiary issues, if truth be told). I think this is the peculiar temptation of those who maintain an unapologetic Calvinistic theology” (p. 67).

Scott Clark says, with a self-deprecating note that he hasn’t always done this, and quoting Derke Bergsma, “Gentlemen, when you go heresy hunting, be sure to use a rifle, not a shotgun” (pp. 73-74).

Tom Ascol notes that “One of the Puritans said that the temptations that accompany controversy are greater than those that accompany women and wine” (p. 91). Our goal should thus be “to win people and not arguments” (p. 91).

Sean Lucas says, “The greatest danger comes from those who are simply not willing to be troubled to care about the denomination, who are content in their own smaller networks (whether formal presbyteries or informal affinity groups), and who will not engage in the issues of the day…I believe that utter indifference to the plight of denominations is the major danger we face today. Because when doctrinal challenges do come from ministers who are doctrinally deviant (edited by LK here), many ministers, elders and laypeople simply tell themselves, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter; we can do our own thing over here, use the denomination as a branding and credentialing agency, and not be affected'” (p. 127). I believe that this quotation especially, is relevant for any church, classis, or Presbytery that finds itself in the middle of nowhere geographically. The temptation to comfortable isolation is extremely strong. Lucas also says, helpfully, “it is always the unwritten creed that operates in a more powerful and exclusionary fashion than the written creeds” (p. 128). Quoting Machen, “All real doctrinal advance proceeds in the direction of greater precision and fullness of doctrinal statement” (p. 129).

Geoffrey Thomas says, “If you depart from the confessions of faith then find the strongest arguments why our fathers resisted the path you are taking and seek to answer them. Wait until you are forty before coming down on the side of a position different from historical confessional Christianity (and wait until you are fifty before you use powerpoint!)” (p. 164).

Joel Beeke says, in a characteristically Puritan-saturated mold, “Develop the hide of a rhinoceros so that you won’t be tossed about with every criticism and wind of doctrine while maintaining the heart of a child, so that you will be a tender undershepherd to the needy” (p. 166). He also says that “ignorance always serves the cause of error” (p. 168).

Greg Beale says, “Our doctrine of inerrancy does not depend on our being able to solve every problem in the Bible” (p. 227).

These are just a few of the wonderful things you will find in this book. These were the most “quotable” of the lines, but everything in the book, and every entry, is helpful.


  1. revkev1967 said,

    December 18, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Thanks for posting this! I will add it to my wishlist.

  2. December 18, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Nice synopsis, Lane. Some wise advice offered by the authors.

  3. December 18, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    On a blog I got personally attacked by someone from another denomination/church saying that my church is heretical. I feel this is a most serious charge, not just against me, but against my church. He decided this not based on our standards for membership (which I don’t think he knows) but by issues never discussed in the ten years I have been a member–what he thinks we teach (theonomy/reconstruction) but we don’t. He thinks he has the right to go on and on about this.

    How do you think the authors would deal with this situation? How would you, Green Baggins, deal with this. My husband has dementia and would not be up for the challenge of defending me.

  4. December 18, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    Martin’s book is really well done. I enjoyed it thoroughly. If you haven’t purchased it yet, get it soon!

  5. jared said,

    December 19, 2009 at 12:10 am

    Pride isn’t always or necessarily the root of theological error. This book does look interesting though, gonna put it on my wishlist too.

  6. Paige Britton said,

    December 19, 2009 at 5:50 am

    This is such a relevant topic to the recent discussions on confessional subscription, not to mention to the perennial question from Catholics of “How do you guys figure out what is orthodox or heretical in the first place??”

    Lane, I recognize most of the authors’ names, but not all. What unifying theme or theological commitment(s) would you say they have? In what way(s) are they diverse?

  7. greenbaggins said,

    December 19, 2009 at 11:08 am

    Carol, a very sad situation. I would recommend that you let the elders of your church know about the situation, and let them handle it. Some people need to be brought up short with irresponsible statements like it sounds this guy is making (of course, I don’t know the whole story).

  8. Jeff Cagle said,

    December 19, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    What a fantastic book concept! Perhaps I’ll ask for it … well, for Valentine’s Day at this point.

    Jeff Cagle

  9. December 19, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    […] Every Christian should read this book! Lane Keister has a helpful digest here. […]

  10. Truth Unites... and Divides said,

    December 21, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    “How Should We Handle Error in the Church?”

    (1) Is it error or is it a matter of Christian Liberty?

    (2) Is it error or is it sin?

    (3) If error/sin, what degree of error/sin is it?

    (4) Answer to (3) will help determine the degree of biblical action needed.

    (5) There are good ways and bad ways of handling error/sin.

    (6) Even “good” biblical ways of dealing with error/sin can blow up and split a church. Even doing everything you can “in love” and concentrating on the “How” can still backfire and blow up.

    (7) God is good. All the time.

  11. GLW Johnson said,

    December 24, 2009 at 7:00 am

    Thanks for highlighting Martin’s book. My contribution, along with a couple of others, deals with the Federal Vision and along those lines , Jason Stellman has recently drawn our attention to Roman Catholic convert Taylor Marshall who expresses his deep gratitude to FVers like James Jordon and Jeff Meyers for helping to show how to find the road back to Rome.Does the good bishop of Moscow know about this? Someone should tell him.

  12. Tom Thistleton said,

    December 27, 2009 at 7:04 pm


    Is it possible for you to make a post on the Internet and not mention or refer to Doug Wilson? The evidence would say no but I thought I’d go straight to the horse’s mouth and ask.

  13. rfwhite said,

    December 28, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Thanks for the alert on this title, Lane. So many questions come to mind. For example, what, in this context, is “error” and who defines it? Who is the “we” who handles error in the church? What is “the church” in this question: a local congregation, a group of local congregations, or something else? What exactly does it mean to “handle” error? How many of the contributors have themselves been in a situation that called for error to be handled or for them to handle it? Somebody could write a book. Oh, wait …

  14. Mike said,

    December 29, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    I doubt that many others who read or comment on this blog will have the same reaction that I did when I read this quote from Beale…“Our doctrine of inerrancy does not depend on our being able to solve every problem in the Bible” …but it is SOOOO funny! does anyone else see the humor (or irony) in that?

  15. Stephen said,

    December 29, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    Thanks, Mike. I caught the humor in the statement. I am curious if anyone else did. :-)

  16. Paige Britton said,

    December 29, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    It took me four reads, but I finally got it. I guess it depends on how one defines “problem.” ;)

  17. jared said,

    December 29, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    Mike, Stephen, and Paige,

    Except that it doesn’t matter how you define “problem”. The inerrancy of Scripture is not, in any way at all, dependent on man’s ability (or lack thereof) to offer explanations and/or solutions to alleged problems or errors.

  18. Reed Here said,

    December 30, 2009 at 7:46 am

    Mike and Stephen: ignoring for a moment or two that this is off topic, I’m curoius as to why you think that statement is SOOOO funny? I think I know where you are going, but rather than laugh at your laughing, I’d like to make sure I understand.

    If one or both of you might, a response or two stating why you find Beale’s statement funny would be appreciated. Don’t worry about the off-topic nature. If it appears we might profit from an extended conversation on the mmater, we can start another post here.


  19. Stephen said,

    December 30, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Reed, I apologize if my comment was offensive or was taken in the wrong way. I was not intending to deviate from the important topic at hand. I simply caught what Mike was saying. I have the utmost respect for Beale and happen to agree with his statement. The reason I found it funny was it could be interpreted as a contradictory statement, which is not what Beale intended to communitcate. To use the word inerancy in the same sentence as solving every problem in the Bible seems as if the Bible is filled with problems. This is what I caught as funny. The doctrine of inerancy states that the Bible is without error, so there are no problems in Scripture. Their are what some might see as contradiction or problems, but these can easily be solved upon examination. I hope this helps.

  20. Stephen said,

    December 30, 2009 at 9:11 am

    Sorry, for the typos in # 19. The sentence, “their are what some might see as contradiction or problems… should read, “there are what some might see as contradictions or problems.”

  21. Reed Here said,

    December 30, 2009 at 9:39 am

    Stephen: no, no offense taken. Sorry if my post sounded touchy. It was not meant to, and I appreciate your response.

    If I might, I’d suggest an alteration in your last sentence, one that might help express what Beale seems to be addressing,

    “… but these can be easily solved upon examination.”

    The point being that we do need to acknowledge that there are some difficulties to be addressed, but that they can be addressed (some easily, others not so.) The opponents to inerrancy tend to jump on anything that appears as a mischaracterization of the case, and (wrongly) use that as support for their position. Beale’s comment is a helpful denial of this tendency.

  22. Mike said,

    December 30, 2009 at 9:43 am

    the humor I found in the statement is that is sounds like pretzel logic….as Stephen (more eloquently than I) pointed out. Now (on the not-so funny side) these are the kind of statements that errantists point to that makes inerrancy sound so ridiculous….and, because of the pretzel-logic basis, not arguable.

  23. Paige Britton said,

    December 30, 2009 at 9:49 am

    I just caught the humor of language there, not meaning to make fun of Beale — just as it’s possible to say that a math textbook is “inerrant” while also “riddled with problems,” if the problems are riddles you are supposed to solve. :)

  24. Carol said,

    January 2, 2010 at 8:10 am

    Thanks, Green Baggins, for your response. Two gentlemen in the chuch did deal with the charge via blog comments. Those comments have been deleted now by that blog owner. We got nowhere. Blogs do have their limits.

  25. Carol said,

    January 2, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Grits from PB posted this Heresy Song on her blog.

  26. January 2, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    I’m not a rap or hip hop fan by a long stretch, but that’s great stuff. Thanks for sharing, Carol.

  27. Reed Here said,

    January 3, 2010 at 7:21 am

    I like it, but I don’t recognize all of thee m. Who’s the blond – both the young man and the woman in the jeans?

  28. Carol said,

    January 3, 2010 at 7:43 am

    ReformedMusings, I am not into rap or hip hop either and if my friend hadn’t put this song on her blog I never would have found it.

    Read Here, I don’t know all of them but one of the women is the newly-divorced Paula White who continues her ministry as does her husband I guess. They were in the newspaper in my area.

    I take Joyce Meyer to task in my newly published book “Getting Off the Niceness Treadmill”. My husband and my pastor both read the theological parts before publication.

  29. Paige Britton said,

    January 3, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    Hmmm. Rick Warren’s writing does make me cringe sometimes, but is he really on the same plane as Crefflo Dollar and Mr. O? (And was it my imagination, or did the 2nd Person of the Trinity make a cameo? That might be considered an “oops” by some of us.) The video does raise the difficult question of where to draw the “heresy” line, and where we are standing when we try to draw it.

  30. Carol said,

    January 3, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    Maybe Warren is not on the same page, but this is the interpretation in that rap. Yes that video does raise questions on where to draw the heresy line.

  31. Paige Britton said,

    January 4, 2010 at 6:31 am

    Here is an interesting thought to juxtapose with the above video. In the book Lane is recommending, an African Pastor, Conrad Mbewe, offers this response regarding the pastor’s role in speaking to/about the “wolves”:

    “In my preaching ministry, I do not hesitate to state errors that are in direct conflict with the truth that is evident in the text. What I rarely do is mention names of individuals who are teaching that error. I think that by handling the truth primarily and in the secondary sense mention the errors that are in conflict with these truths, I have struck the right balance in my pulpit ministry.” (p.150)

    Presumably Pastor Mbewe would echo the Preacher in saying that there are times and seasons for naming names: e.g., if I were to write a book review, it would be appropriate (and imperative!) that I mention the author’s name.

    So now I’ll turn interviewer and cast these questions out to the GB community, because I am genuinely curious:

    1. I mentioned book reviews as appropriate reasons for specifically naming “wolves.” What other examples of appropriate REASONS (or purposes) for naming names can you think of?

    2. In what CONTEXT should names be named?

    3. In what SPIRIT should names be named?

    4. By WHOM should names be named?

    5. Does the MEDIUM of the message matter, when names are named?

    6. And finally, would we have felt quite as comfy in our consciences watching the above video if the artist’s interpretation had involved flashing the faces of Peter Leithart, Doug Wilson, and Pete Enns? (Or how about the dapper visage of Bryan Cross?)

    Just some food for thought. Any takers?

  32. greenbaggins said,

    January 4, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Thanks for these thoughts, Paige. You raise some very excellent questions. I received also your email, and have been pondering over it for a time now. I think I may have the start of some answers. These are just my own thoughts, of course.

    1. Naming wolves is done in the Bible on occasion (Jezebel in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, for instance), so it cannot be wrong on all occasions to do so.

    2. Not ever naming false teachers has a distinct problem: people in the congregation may not be on their guard against certain teachers if they are not named.

    3. Any comments made ABOUT a particular person had better be comments that the person would be comfortable speaking TO the person about whom he is speaking.

    4. The substance about which the public naming of false teachers should occur ought to be something concerning central truths of the Christian faith if it’s going to be out there for everyone to see.

    5. The medium does indeed matter, as an official churchly pronouncement is going to have quite a different impact than a rap song, which may have “poking fun” as one of its goals.

    6. Appropriate reasons for naming names: a. the person is having a direct impact on the local church, b. the person is a heretic and is widely influential, c. if the above are true, and no one is seemingly doing anything about the situation.

    7. The rule about only saying something about someone which I would feel comfortable saying to someone is, I feel, a good way to express the spirit in which any comment about another human being ought to be made.

    8. Pronouncements about people in my own denomination ought to be done mostly in the church courts when it comes to statements like “So and so is a heretic.” I feel more than comfortable naming names in certain circumstances when I’m simply disagreeing with what they say.

    9. There are, of course, other factors in play when it comes to particular people and particular relationships. Pete Enns, for instance, was my teacher, from whom I learned a lot. That will color how I state things with regard to him. And that kind of thing should make a difference.

  33. Paige Britton said,

    January 4, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    Hey, thanks, Lane, for your thoughtful response.

    I think it is difficult to remember that the “stars of stage and screen” who figured prominently in the rap video, and who may seem to set themselves up to be targets of ridicule by being foolish and ridiculous (let alone heretical!), are real human beings and not fictional figures. Mixed in among them were others whom we would also judge to be misguided and wrong in their thinking, but who are a few tiers closer to ordinary life than the first group. It just occurred to me that the next tier back would get us closer to the individuals whom many of us know personally, or have interacted with in this sort of venue; and if it would discomfit us to find *their* faces in the slide show, it is probably wrong for *anybody* to be included.

    Best, I think, to start with the purposes and attitude that you’ve described, and stay steady on that tack, even when it becomes necessary to name the names of public figures outside our circles.

  34. jared said,

    January 5, 2010 at 12:21 am

    Did I see Dave Ramsey’s face in that video? He definitely shouldn’t be there…

  35. priscilla said,

    January 9, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    thats a good rap song with good lyrics but mis directed video
    3 JOHN1:2 “Beloved, I pray that in all things thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.”
    JOHN 10:10 “He came that we may have life and have it more abundantly”about prosperity,no doubt iam meant to prosper as a christian but ive got to be careful who ministers “prosperity gospel” to me and what their “motive is” about false teachers Jesus said “you will see them by their fruits..”so watch for fruits…the message may be a diffucult point of judgement especially if its biblically supported and also it seems the videi shows only FAMOUS TELEVANGELISTS….so if every1 plus Joyce meyer is false…please make another video to show who is right….

  36. Scott said,

    January 11, 2010 at 6:57 am


    I’m not sure what background you have had but can tell you are trying to make an important point.

    One of the things we pray for and ask God for is the ability to clearly discern the truth as revealed through God’s Word.

    This is distorted through our flesh, the world system and the devil, all enemies of the Christian, but specifically these are effects of living in a fallen world.

    Because we (all) are lazy, prideful, and other sinful things because of our fallen natures, we do not make it our business to study God through His Word.

    So, its easier to just listen to “prosperity Gospel” teaching and not evaluate it in light of Scripture. It feeds our self-centeredness to think God is there primarily to do things for us (rather than the reverse).

    But here’s what is basically wrong with “prosperity gospel”:

    It views everything from the self-interest of man. It fails to view the sovereignty of God.

    If we viewed the gospel through its biblical context, we would focus on our (constant) sin and disobedience and need for redemption through Christ- not on our demands for more cash, perfect health and an easier life.

  37. Carol said,

    January 11, 2010 at 7:46 am

    Appreciate your Scripture. Contact artist Jovan McKensy maybe by posting a comment on UTube after his name. Those pictures are his interpretation in his rap.

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