Combatting Heresies

“To ward off false doctrines and errors that multiply exceedingly through heretical writings, the ministers and elders shall use the means of teaching; of refutation, of warning, and of admonition, as well in the ministry of the Word as in Christian teaching and family visiting.”—Article 55, D.K.O.

Ministers of the Word are enjoined in the Form for Ordination to “refute with the Holy Scriptures, all schisms and heresies which are repugnant to the pure doctrine.” Concerning this refutation of false doctrine, the same Form points out the teaching of Scripture in Titus 1:9, “That a minister must hold fast the faithful Word of God, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and convince the gainsayers.”

With respect to the Elders, the form for Ordination exhorts, “Take heed that purity of doctrine and godliness of life be maintained in the Church of God,” a thing that is impossible except through constant vigilance and warfare against every form of heresy and ungodliness that seizes every opportunity to infiltrate into the church. In the prayer of the congregation, which concludes this form, God is implored to “replenish these men (Elders and Deacons) with the gifts of wisdom, courage, discretion, and benevolence so that the elders may take diligent heed unto the doctrine and conversation in keeping out the wolves from the sheepfold of thy beloved Son; and in admonishing and reproving disorderly persons.” 

Professors of Theology are also bound under the Church Order to “expound the Holy Scripture and to vindicate sound doctrine against heresies and errors” (Art. 18). In the Form that is used to install them into their office, they are enjoined, among other things, to caution those whom they instruct “in regard to the errors and heresies of old, but especially of the new day.” 

All of this, plus the provisions of the article of the Church Order that is quoted above, tends to emphasize the importance of this aspect of the Christian ministry. The church that neglects the task of vociferously combating heresy is like an unfortified city in time of war. Her destruction is inevitable. Once the enemy has established his camp in her midst, nothing restrains him from “spoiling her through philosophy and vain deceit after the tradition of men and after the rudiments of the world” (Colossians 2:8). He has then only to lie in wait and with his cunning craftiness deceive and carry away her members by every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14). Strong is the church that is militant in the truth and casts out of her fellowship “any thing that defiles and works abomination or makes a lie” (Revelation 21:27). She is the earthly manifestation of the Kingdom of heaven. Against her the powers of hell shall rise but will not prevail. Even though her belligerent policies are frequently the subject of mocking criticism by the church that has neither the spirit nor power to engage in warfare, this does not induce her to relent in her battle. A spirit of pacifism she can never tolerate for she is called unto a spiritual battle in which she, with sobriety and vigilance, must fight her roaring enemy, the devil himself, and his countless cohorts, the propagators of false doctrines. To accomplish this her chief weapon is the Christian ministry of the Word in the form of teaching, refutation, warning and admonition. 

It is simply incredible that members of the church can be found who object at the first sound of the preacher mentioning a current or historic controversy in the preaching. Yet such people there are. They have no objection to the preaching as long as it remains expository. They even express agreement with it and testify that they are instructed by it. However, as soon as the elements of refutation, warning, and admonition are brought into the preaching, they express discontentment. It is alright, for example, in their viewpoint, to expound the doctrine of the total depravity of man in the light of Scripture but the preacher must not demonstrate in this exposition that the heresy of common grace is a denial of this truth. Or again, it is comforting to be assured from the Word of God that Jehovah is unchangeably faithful in maintaining and fulfilling His promise to His people, but do not mention the indubitable truth that those who teach the heresy of a general, conditional promise to all deprive the people of God of this assurance. It may be agreeable to bring forth from the Scriptures the truth concerning the necessity and significance of the two natures of Christ, but you must not burden the congregation by showing them how this has been denied by many heretics already in the early centuries of the new dispensation as well as in the present day. Though many other examples may easily be given, we will mention just one more. There are those who express joy in hearing the truths concerning God’s eternal covenant of grace expounded but who object vociferously when the preaching, in expounding these truths, points to the heresy of those who, either because of a total lack of a covenant conception or because of a distorted view of the doctrine of the covenant, oppose Christian schools and a distinctive program of Christian education—specifically, Protestant Reformed Education! 

It is not our desire to attempt to explain the motivation of those that oppose controversial preaching. This would be rather difficult to do although it is not at all impossible to suggest several possible reasons that may be the cause of this attitude. Rather than doing this, for these reasons are not in the least complimentary, it is better that those who resent controversy in the pulpit ask themselves in all seriousness why they feel as they do. Are there sound reasons for this attitude? We have yet to hear them. Do they themselves know why they disagree with the view expressed by the Reformed fathers that “heresy must be warded off by means of the ministry of the Word”? Is their reason spiritual or carnal?

As far as the preacher is concerned, he has no choice in the matter. This we must understand. He does not publicly attack heresy because he wants to. The Church Order as well as his own promise at the time of his ordination demands of him that he shall use the ministry of the Word to combat with refutation and warning all false doctrines and errors. This he cannot do by keeping silent. On the other hand, if his preaching is antithetical, as it should be, he cannot avoid this. This is made clear in the following quotation from Church Right, by Rev. G.M. Ophoff. 

“The only effective means of warding off false doctrine and error is sound preaching of the gospel in the pulpit and in the catechism class and on house or family visitation. Article 55 requires that false doctrine and error be exposed in the preaching of the gospel, thus requires that the preaching of the gospel be antithetical, that is, controversial. It means that the church of Christ through its teaching and ruling ministry must oppose God’s yes to Satan’s nay and God’s nay to Satan’s yes. This is antithetical preaching of the Word of God. Refusal of the church to engage in antithetical and controversial preaching is a sin of first magnitude (Italics mine—G.V.d.B.); it is treason against the cause of God and the truth. With Satan in the bottomless pit and the wicked in the place of everlasting desolation, there will be no more need of antithetical preaching of the Word. But as yet Satan is not in the bottomless pit. He is going to and fro on the earth, ever active in opposing his yea to God’s nay and his nay to God’s yea. How then can the church or any individual Christian imagine that antithetical preaching is not a necessity and a solemn duty in this present dispensation of the world? Should someone offend against our person or steal our purse or insult our wife or child, we would be ready for controversy and much of it, for debate, argument, combat, not only verbal but fistic perhaps. But this ethical opposition to God, contradicting and offending against Him, and the truth—that is another thing with us. For that’s only God.” 

This “sin of first magnitude” is committed by the Christian Reformed Church if and when the proposed revision of the Church Order is adopted. I have sought in vain through that proposed revision for an article that even faintly resembles Article 55 of the Church Order as rewritten in 1905 by the Synod of Dordt and adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1915. The closest thing to it is that the provision of Article 18 concerning the duty of Professors of Theology to warn against heresy is retained. The provisions that call for ministers and elders to ward off heresy through the preaching of the Word is omitted. 

Is this omission intentional? One is strongly inclined to question the motivation of this. Does not the omission of this article clearly imply that the church no longer desires to combat heresy? It has no more desire to be controversial. That this is the case in this instance history has clearly proved. And the reason for this is not difficult to find. It is twofold. In the first place, the church that shelters heresy can no longer fight heresy. This is a spiritual impossibility. If this article is maintained and enforced, every elder and minister in the church would before God be under the obligation to refute and warn against the pernicious heresy of common grace and the well meant offer of salvation to all men without distinction. This they do not want to do and, consequently, it is spiritually impossible to vigilantly oppose other errors and false doctrines of the same and lesser magnitude. One cannot embrace Satan and his lies on one side and plunge a sword into his other side. 

In the second place, the very nature of the heresy that is sheltered in the church makes antithetical preaching impossible. This heresy concerns the preaching of the Gospel. When heresy concerning this is maintained there can be no more warding off of heresies through the preaching. Controversy ceases when the antithesis is taken out of the preaching as is also the case when the heresy of common grace as applied to the preaching is adopted. The preaching of a general grace of God to all men without distinction is no more a sword that cuts or a savor of life unto life and of death unto death. It is impotent to ward off the God dishonoring heresies of men that in countless forms deny His absolute sovereignty and right to “have mercy upon whom He will have mercy and to harden whom He wills” (Romans 9:18). 

Why then retain such an undesirable provision in the Church Order that demands militancy of a pacifistic church? The answer is simple. There is no reason and, therefore, let us drop the article and don’t require our ministers and elders to be forever combating heresy. In this way the “peace” of the church can be maintained. 

A citadel without defense! A city unprotected! A depository for every wind of doctrine! A coveted prize and easy prey for the enemy. Such is the church that desists from “warding off false doctrines and errors by means of the ministry of the Word of God.” 

—G.V.d.B.