Sometimes it seems like the only heresy today is the idea of heresy itself. In other words a culture of hyper-toleration tones down our language. There is a reluctance to bring absolute truth and falsehood in to sharp definition. Reluctance to point out to individuals where they are going astray is another aspect of this influence. We don’t want to interfere – especially if we think the error won’t endanger their salvation. Perhaps we don’t know how or trust ourselves to do it in the right way. Yet the Bible is full of warnings about straying from the truth. It expects us to be concerned for those who are in error.
Sometimes error may seem to be in a small matter yet on closer consideration it actually endangers the gospel itself. A good example of this is in Galatians 2:14-15. Paul must confront Peter because he is declining to eat with the Gentile believers. To a modern mind this must seem strange. Peter is a godly, respected preacher and this is just a matter of eating practices. Surely it is indifferent? Why would Paul withstand Peter to the face publicly? Paul says it was because Peter was not walking “uprightly according to the truth of the gospel. The word uprightly means “with straight foot”: in other words walking astray. Peter’s practice was affecting truth and damaging the gospel. He was implying that to be saved the Gentiles needed to observe the ceremonial law of Old Testament Israel. This was adding our works to what Christ has done.
Even an apostle can be swept along with others in going seriously astray. This also shows the close connection between what we practice and what we believe. In expounding Galatians 2:14-15, James Fergusson makes some important points about how we are to deal with error. The following is updated extract from his comments.
1. We Must Not be Influenced by Numbers
The large numbers of those who swerve from the truth should not make the truth any less lovely to us. Neither should it blunt the edge of our opposition to error. Even though truth should be deserted by everyone except one person alone it is worthy of being owned, stood up for and defended by that one person. Even if this is against all who oppose it. Peter, the other Jews and Barnabas all “dissembled”, and draw back from the truth. Yet Paul stands for the truth alone.
2. We Must be Careful in Our Opinions and Practice
It is the duty of all professing Christians to ensure that their opinions and practice agree well with the sincere truth of God in the gospel. They must maintain nothing which is even indirectly contrary to it and practise nothing which may discredit it. When they draw back or do not walk with a straight foot in either of those, they are blameworthy.
Peter and the rest are reproved for the fault of not walking uprightly (or with a straight foot) according to the truth of the Gospel. Their practice and opinion about whether it was lawful to please the Jews in this matter was wrong. It contradicted and discredited (indirectly at least) the great gospel-truth about the ceremonial law having been done away with.
3. Ministers Must be Wise in Reproving Error
When many are guilty of one and the same sin, the minister of Jesus Christ ought to reprove wisely and without partiality. The weight of the reproof must be applied in proportion to how they have engaged in the sin. Since Peter’s example had enticed all the rest to sin, Paul directs the reproof to him by name before the rest. This was so that they might also be reproved themselves (indirectly at least) for following this bad example.
4. Public Sins Must be Rebuked Publicly
Private sins, which are not yet a public scandal to many, should be rebuked in private (Matthew 18:15). But, public sins should receive public rebukes so that, by this means, the public scandal may be removed. Others will also be frightened away from taking encouragement from such sins to act similarly (1 Timothy 5:20). Thus, because Peter sinned publicly before all, Paul reproved Peter before them all.
5. Ministers must Practice what they Preach
It is absurd for a minister to give himself liberty to practice the same things that he condemns in others. It cannot be justified either to God or man. This is what happens if he acts contrary to what either his teaching or example at other times constrains him to do. This clear from Paul’s question to Peter which assumed that Peter did not usually act in this way. It is as if he had said that Peter could neither justify it to God or man.
6. Church Rulers must not Compel Believers in Indifferent Things
It is no small sin for rulers to bind where the Lord has left us free. This happens in urging those under their authority to observe as necessary something which is by its own nature indifferent. The exception to this is in those situations in which the Lord indicates that it is necessary due to particular circumstances e.g. stumbling others (Acts 15:28, 29) and despising others (1 Corinthians 14:40).