I had an even more disturbing sense of revulsion this week because it became undeniably clear that a false teacher named Ravi Zacharias had been acting like a wolf in sheep’s clothing for many years. On Thursday, Feb. 11, the Ravi Zacharias International Ministry (RZIM) released a report from an unaffiliated law firm that confirmed their former leader was involved in years of unrepentant “sexual misconduct.” I was saddened to read that some of this inappropriate behavior had continued even up to the point when he became sick and died of cancer in May of last year.
Many people have written about how Christians can respond to this situation. My goal is not to tell believers how to respond. My goal is to explain from Scripture how to guard against this happening again. The Bible makes it clear that the local church is given the means and the authority to catch wolves in sheep’s clothing and remove them from their midst.
In Matthew 5:17 Jesus gave a surprising warning about false teachers. He said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.” (ESV)
Jesus’ teaching is helpful because it describes how to spot a wolf. Christians are supposed to make judgments about a professing Christian’s fruit. Believers need to voice their concerns. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that the local church is supposed to address signs of bad fruit. Not only that, the church has been given a process by which unrepentant people are removed from the fold.
The process of church discipline is found in Matthew 18:15-20. One of the key principles of this passage is that it can only be done in the context of a local church. The local church is supposed to be protected by elders. These elders are the ones who have the authority to catch the false teachers and remove them from the church.
In the case of a false teacher, either their teaching or their conduct can disqualify them. So even if their teaching seems sound but their conduct is not, it is very likely that sooner or later their sinful character will be seen by someone in the church. Matthew 18 makes it clear that if a false teacher sins against one of the believers in the church, then the believer needs to share their concern with the person. Depending on the sin, the person should also inform the leadership of the church. This is the first step. It calls for the offended party to go to the offender in order to share their concern and hopefully bring the person to repentance. If he is not repentant, then the process continues to step two.
At this point the offended party waits until another person in the church can verify the offense. Then a group of two or three individuals will go to the false teacher and share their concern together. By this point the false teacher will realize he has been caught and he will often leave the church. But if he continues to not listen, the leaders of the church are told to make the issue known to the whole church! If he is still unrepentant then the last step is for the elders to actually exclude the person from gathering with the congregation.
This is a remarkably effective process of catching and releasing these “ravenous wolves” from the flock. In fact, Jesus said that he will be present in a special way during cases of church discipline. It is in this context that we find the often-misquoted phrase, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” (Mt. 18:20) God is jealous for the purity of the church. He hates false teaching and he detests those who try to deceive the flock. He has given the church a special process by which they can make sure to protect themselves. And if churches follow this process faithfully they will be able to protect the flock.
Unfortunately, far too many churches are ignorant of the Bible’s teaching on church discipline. Even more saddening is the fact that other churches are aware of the teaching, but are afraid to use it. We all need to be motivated to see that the benefit of church discipline outweighs the difficulty of using it in our churches.
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