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Polemics Killed Peter: Is That Why Pastors Don’t Do It?

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Nobody likes polemics, I think.  I know I don’t.  I yearn for an ecclesiastic environment where Scripture-abiding preachers serve diligently as shepherds by not only edifying Christ’s sheep with the Word but also fending off the incessant onslaught of wolves seeking to mislead “even the elect if possible.” (Matthew 24:24)

Instead, those wolves are not, for today’s evangelical church, merely prowling at the shadowy edges of church sanctuaries. They are sitting in pews around us, proclaiming error from pulpits, and teaching deceit in our small groups. Denominations and churches, ever eager to engage a godless culture and wrongly “grow the church,” invite the itching-ear-friendly false teachers to proclaim their Christianized heresy to undiscerning sheep. Blasphemy and error are amplified because they fill the pews.

Polemics is the flip side of the discernment coin.  Discernment is not merely a spiritual gift given by the Spirit to some – though it is that.  It is also the explicit command of Scripture, one inspired by the Holy Spirit through the pens of apostles and commanded, no less, by our Lord Himself. (Matthew 10:16) Every believer is ordered to be Berean.

Because discernment is commanded, the necessity of polemics – that “reaching out and rebuking” someone in pro-active defense of Truth – is part and parcel of vigorous spiritual warfare.  I don’t like the war either.  But we are in it.  While our team wins in the end, we are here, living in a fallen world, by the will of God to share the Gospel, defend the Gospel, and mature in the Gospel.

Far more than our bank accounts, our talents, our gifts, it is the Gospel that is the believer’s greatest asset of stewardship.  As David Platt remarked, “The martyrs did not die because they believed the Gospel, they died because they proclaimed the Gospel.”  It is the protection of Gospel Truth that, by the regenerating, sanctifying, and empowering work of the Holy Spirit, commandeers the souls of believers.  There is nothing more important to us than the Gospel.  We are commanded to proclaim it and protect it.

Look around the 21st-century church today.  Do you hear the incessant proclamation of a man-centered, “other” gospel?  Do you see the mood-manipulating laser light shows erroneously called worship “experiences?”  Have you browsed the digital or literal shelves of what passes for “Christian” books and not come to a “something’s amiss here”, inquiring tilt of the head?  Unless you are completely oblivious to Scripture, you cannot fail to see the evident, epic need for discernment and polemics.

So when it comes to sites and ministries that teach, warn, and practice discernment, how do the following quotes meet with your approval?

“They are unbiblical.”

“They are unhealthy.”

“They are not very helpful.”

“They often have significant blind spots.”

These are summary statements from a recent blog I read that, after evidently dumping every discernment website and ministry into a single stereotypical category, ends with these words, “And I am exhorting you to be discerning about discernment ministries.”

While I would heartily agree with the exhortation for discernment on all levels – after all, we are commanded to the task – I am chagrined that the writer seeks to dissuade believers from the resourceful tools such sites and ministries can provide.  And I’ll give you two examples, one where they could’ve been helpful, and one where they will be provided in the hopes that correction may be had.

Participating in the Gospel outreach for the recent “Reason Rally,” I engaged an atheist named Andrew. He had been, he claimed, a believer but, after actually trying to read the Bible and correlate it to the words he was hearing from a pulpit, he opted for atheism. Though not verbatim, he said, “What the church teaches just doesn’t work and the Bible led me to atheism … because it just doesn’t work.  Plus, science has proven it wrong.”

The “message” Andrew heard, and then tried to confirm with Scripture, was that “other,” it’s-all-about-you gospel.  But it just didn’t play out for him.  Maybe trying to figure it out, he turned to the Bible, unable, though, to justify what he heard with what he read.  He was one of the many “I said the prayer” types who’d been granted false absolution by a well-meaning, though Scripturally-inept Christian.

The “Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” message did not meet with fruition in Andrew’s life. (I carry a copy of Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of Peter in my Bible to show anyone I encounter touting this false teaching. You wouldn’t be all wrong in saying, polemics killed Peter.) Sadly, Andrew wasn’t being discipled by a believer discerningly armed with the Truth of Scripture to intervene amidst his growing doubts, nor to correct the errors of the false “gospel” he’d been fed.  Instead, the enemy overpowered him with “evidence” that Scripture is bunk and Christianity a charade.

Do you see where a committed believer, armed with insight from Scripture, coupled with practical explanations from a discernment site or ministry might’ve been able to intervene with Andrew? Could he not have been taught the actual Truth of Christ over against the error he was hearing from the pulpit?  But, at this point, Andrew now needs to be taken back to ground zero with the necessity of apologetics to hopefully intervene in his blindness.  Pray the Holy Spirit uses the power of the Gospel to open his eyes.

The second example comes from a Southern Baptist small group. Two comments, woefully screaming a lack of discernment are evidence that, like Andrew, souls in the church are being neglected. The preference to count attendees has resulted in little concern for actual edification.

“We were talking about going to the Benny Hinn crusade” is the first comment I overheard as I sat awaiting the group to start. While I didn’t incur a self-inflicted neck wound, my head spun around with a “what did you just say?” look on my face.  The other comment, as innocuously uttered as the first, was “I listen to Jesse Duplantis’ and Joyce Meyer’s podcasts.”

These two examples prove the dire need, the urgent priority, for discernment in our pews. In the first case, a man has left the church – unsaved to be sure – and has now all but given up consideration of Truth. As Paul wrote, Andrew has been taken captive “by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition.” (Colossians 2:8) In the second, two unknowing followers of false teachers, sitting in a Southern Baptist small group, have not been taught the need for, or the Biblical use of, discernment. In the latter case, loving, Scripture-based intervention, along with the use of discernment sites, will occur.

Far from being a blight on the face of Christianity today, discernment and polemics ministries are necessary to do what, in so many cases, isn’t being done by the pastor and teacher in the local church.

Consider what Pastor Justin Pierce says:

So-called leaders in the church today often allow wolves and heretics to come into the church and to subvert entire houses. That is the reason that discernment ministries have arisen out of the woodwork. The reason that we need quality discernment ministries is because in many, many – if not most – churches today, the shepherd has abandoned his post because, according to the scripture, he was a hireling and cared about the money rather than the sheep and the God of the Sheep.

Pastor Pierce continues:

If we had solid discernment and solid teachers and solid disciples in solid churches, we would not have a need for discernment ministries. Unfortunately, there are not very many solid churches, but there are some great discernment ministries who sincerely are called by God and care for your souls. I think of Justin Peters Ministries, for example, a wonderful, great discernment ministry, or another wonderful ministry.  JD Hall has the Polemics Report. He Hall is one of the few people that is willing to engage in proper polemics and expose the bad, heretical, or corrupt teaching of wolves and heretics.

Though the anti-discernment-site blogger bemoans such sites, any legitimate discernment or polemics website or ministry will affirm the need for discernment to be employed against themselves. The worthy sites, doing what isn’t done in local congregations, will never claim to be above Berean critique. Discern everything – including the discerners.

Pierce asserts this as well.

If your pastor or your leaders or even the discernment ministries that you listen to cannot stand up to the scrutiny of the Scriptures and the certainty of the truthfulness of the Word of God, then my only advice to you is to run. But as Hebrews 13:17 tells us, if you have a Godly pastor and godly leaders – including in the discernment world – take heed to them. Listen to them. Submit to them. Pray for them. Love them and encourage them because they are caring for your very soul. They are in a fight for your very soul! And therefore they are worthy of your love and your respect and your honor.”

Paul, writing to the Colossians, reminds them that his struggle on their behalf was so that they might “reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 2:2-3) We are called to seek that wisdom, grasp that knowledge, and fend off the wolves with contrary messages.

No one wants to have to do polemics. No one pursues it as anything other than the end result of obedience to Scriptural commands to be discerning. But, as Paul says, the goal is clear, “I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.” (Colossians 2:4)

I thank God that His Truth has never been silenced.  And I’m thankful that neither will it ever go undefended by those whose lives have been eternally altered by it.  It’s just a shame that it so infrequently occurs where you’d most expect it … from our pulpits.

Contributed by Bud Ahlheim