Guarding Against False Teaching
Topic: Church Leadership Passage: Acts 20:29–32
The bottom-line question that this passage raises is this: Is it loving for preachers to call into question teachings from professing Christians that may be false? The answer that this text shows is that leaders are called to look out for twisted theological teachings in order to protect the church. One example of this in modern American evangelicalism is the movement of the emerging church, which teaches that Jesus’ atonement was cosmic child abuse. The temptation to bow to the cultural issues of the day has always been a danger throughout the history of the church.
There are two main points we see in the text. First, shepherds are to guard the flock against false teachers. Secondly, they do this by knowing the truth of “the word of His grace” so well that they can smell error miles away.
1. Shepherds are to guard the flock against false teachers
This means that elders must be knowledgeable about the central, core doctrines of the faith. They must know which doctrines are essential and which issues allow for differences among genuine Christians. They must understand the central doctrinal debates throughout church history that have been resolved in the ecumenical church councils starting in the 300’s. These include the inspiration of the Bible, the nature of God, the person and work of Christ, and salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Pastors and teachers who twist these truths are dangerous, destructive wolves.
Paul doesn’t just criticize the teachings of these false teachers. He also points to their motives. He calls them “fierce wolves” (Acts 20:29) who speak “twisted things” (Acts 29:30). This may take the form of taking something true and stretching it to a point where it becomes an untruth. According to Paul, they want to get a following for themselves (“to draw away the disciples after them”). So pride is at the root of all heresy. Wolves entering into churches was a constant experience Paul faced throughout his ministry (Cf. 2 Cor. 4:2-5, 1 Tim. 1:19-20). And wolves did not come from the outside only, but “from among your own selves” as well.
John Piper mentions one feature to watch out for in the recognition of wolves that stands out: “An emotional disenchantment with faithfulness to what is old and fixed and an emotional preoccupation with what is new or fashionable or relevant in the eyes of the world.” (Sermon: Watch out for the Wolves Within)
One last thing about the job of elders to protect the flock from wolves - that does not just mean Bible-thumping negativity coming against false teaching shouting “WRONG!”. According to Acts 29:31, it is instead a heartfelt love for Christ that drives the protective disposition of elders.
2. Shepherds guard the flock by knowing the truth of the gospel
Shepherds are to know the gospel so well that they can sniff out a wolf a mile away. It’s like a banker trained to recognize a counterfeit bill. We see this in verse 32 (Acts 29:32). Paul commends the Ephesian elders first and foremost to God. Yes, doctrine is extremely important, but it’s possible to be theologically correct and diligent to correct false teaching but at the same time lose your first love for Jesus (Cf. Rev. 2:2-4). Accurate Biblical interpretation and correct theology is not the goal. The goal is worship. Secondly, Paul commends the elders “to the word of His grace.” What does he mean by that? He means the gospel of grace. Leading the sheep to know that truth is the ultimate protection from error. “The word of His grace” is another way of saying the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Throughout Paul’s ministry, one major theological battle was over the doctrine of justification by faith alone. And this is an ongoing error that is always creeping into the church through wolves dressed in sheep's clothing. That’s why Paul’s plea to these elders and the elders throughout the centuries is to understand the gospel and the whole counsel of God.