FALSE BRETHREN AMONG GOD’S PEOPLE
An article from SVM Spring/Summer 2016
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves (Matthew 7:15).
The Church of God does have its share of misguided individuals, to put it politely. Some of them remain on the fringes of the Church, perhaps well-read and always ready to offer up an opinion. Others however are not so innocuous, looking to carve out their place in the Kingdom in advance at the expense of the Church.
Mainstream Christian churches also have such folk, so it is not necessarily a unique situation for the Sabbath keeping community. There are however more serious considerations for God’s Church we need to examine if we are to be good stewards of the flocks and ourselves. Satan is multifaceted in his methods and we should be “not ignorant of his devices” (2 Corinthians 2:11) and he does have his servants embedded amongst God’s people (2 Timothy 2:26). The stakes are much higher for God’s elect.
This article is not necessarily about judging people; who are misled by their own imaginations of scripture or perhaps themselves. There has always been a degree of error in our interpretations of God and scripture, and error is something God can work with to correct. If one has an error in thinking it may not be normally warranted to reject a person as being divisive or a heretic (Titus 3:10) and it is not necessary to consider those who have differences with suspicion or as a liability. We are not to have a black and white mindset, as there are various amoral matters we encounter in our walk with others. It appears evident from scripture that we are to judge how to identify if there is a disruptive element in our congregation or not and what to do to mitigate it if there is. We must also consider ourselves to see if we are contributing to a problem or being part of the solution. A little leaven leavens the whole lump, and congregations can be chronically debilitated or even decimated if there is no intervention.
A Look at Jude on this Subject
Jude takes the matter seriously in his epistle, and I would not presume that Jude took any pleasure in his epistle’s subject matter, which is predominantly negative. This author would rather write articles on more positive subjects, but having recently dealt with apostasy, this topic is very real and worthy of inclusion in SVM. We try not to shy away from these topics.
The “faith which was once delivered” (v3) is not the “list of belief statements, doctrines and practices” to the saints once delivered as commonly assumed. It is not a call to defend a list of propositions, or a call for apologetics to unite. This interpretation may seem understandable given how God’s tenets of worship have been maligned over the centuries, and over only the last number of years in some cases, from going from Sabbath and Holy Day observance and worship, to Sunday worship and observance of festivals of pagan origin.
Therefore, we need to understand the real scope of what Jude has in mind here in verse 3 as it will help make clear to us what follows. As always, a proper recognition of what is being communicated will give us a better sense of what we are to do with it. We cannot always fall back on our common assumptions that may be insufficient.
Contending for the faith is contending for our great hope in God, His Person, His character, His love and mercy. It is contending for our love for God and worshipping in Spirit and in Truth.
It is also contending for our love towards the brethren. It is knowing who He is and having confidence that He always acts in our own best interests. If we try to define it fully we will likely come up short, but it includes the life changing activity of God, aligning our hearts and minds to its moral imperatives with obedience to Christ.
Paul, in writing to the Colossians to oppose false Gnostic teachings, interprets it as follows:
For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power (Colossians 2:9,10).
The fullness that Paul speaks of is Jude’s way of saying “once for all”. Jude means faith in its fullness, for anything short of that is insufficient.
The faith we describe above is something we sometimes assume we “just have”, but instead Jude tells us to earnestly contend for (Greek: epagonizesthai) it. The faith can be lost on us all the while we maintain and keep clean our tenets of doctrine, or just become lazy and lukewarm, hobbling forward in church life.
These things must be developing in the core of every believer if the doctrines we practice are going to be of any real benefit. If we ask ourselves why certain individuals with the same doctrines cannot fellowship together, the answer is generally not the doctrine; it is because the faith, hope and love are not the same. Division generally occurs when one wants to control or manipulate, or broker opinion, play politics; and these things occur in any number of ways, but this is not the Spirit of God at work.
Jude exhorts us to contend earnestly for this, but how do we contend earnestly for faith? We will get there but Jude first identifies the problem, and so will we. If we know more about what we are to oppose, we (if we are spiritual) will know more about what we contend for.
Help in Identifying the Problem
Satan’s tactic was creating suspicion about God’s character and care (i.e. Has God indeed said …? … For God knows—implying He is not forthcoming, Genesis 3:1, 5), not the doctrine of tree abstinence, to persuade Eve to eat of it. The lie was regarding God’s inadequacy and lack of fairness regarding the place they were given. We may not think that we could ever be persuaded to consider God inadequate in His provisions for us, but many have. We are going to take a look as to how this occurs. …who turn the grace of God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ (Jude 4)
It is maligning the grace of God and the denial of God that is in condemnation. This is serious stuff! If our congregation has elements of this kind in its midst, we need to properly and prayerfully judge.
Nobody gets up in the morning and decides to turn the grace of God into lewdness and deny God (v.4), then head on down to the store and buy “An Idiots Guide to Start Up Apostasy”. However, we are warned of apostasies and false teachers rising among us, so we really want to recognize how this actually plays out in God’s Church today. Jude does give us historical examples to consider first. There are three groups and three individuals that are given.
We want to emphasize we need to come to terms with the reality that there are errors or inadequacies in doctrine we hold on to, and we know our interpretations change over time. What we are driving at however, is any sustained teaching or tactics of manipulation that undermines a person’s faith in God’s holy nature, His merciful capacity, and His laws are what are in view here.
Examples Some Ignore
The first group is the rebellious group at Kadesh Barnea, and their apostasy was rebellion against God’s revealed will to them. They thought their case was directed at Moses and Aaron:
… and all the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron … (Numbers 14:2)
They certainly had what they believed were legitimate grievances, things that Moses and Aaron had done wrong. But it was evident for anyone who cared to see that God’s miracles and teachings were coming through Moses—not themselves. So, God rightly saw it as rebellion against Himself.
The second group identifies the ancient angelic rebellion. The nature of their rebellion is abandoning their place in creation where God had placed them, which evidently was not sufficient in their assessment. After all, they were spirit beings with awesome ability. They were convinced of their reasons to rebel, at least at the time.
The third group represents a rejection of God laws. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah decided for themselves what was right and wrong and replaced God’s laws with their own set of standards. They might have been living lip-service to God, but they were not doing His will!
All of these groups rejected God’s care and promises, and they felt their issues and agenda were entirely warranted given their circumstances.
Then there are three individuals:
Cain had the ability to submit to God’s will, but chose not to, deciding to assert his own perceived rights as an individual at the expense of another. This was a rejection of God, not Abel.
Balaam (v. 11) put his own selfish desires (greed for money) ahead of the needs of God’s people. Perhaps the error of Balaam is the classic story of beginning well and ending poorly. Balaam’s downfall was the desire for money and openness to sensuality. Balaam was a teacher of God’s people, who turned against them, because a foreign king offered him a handsome sum to do so. The modern Balaam is perhaps one who has a calling and starts out well, but compromises the message for the sake of retaining membership and income.
Korah: a presumptuous individual:
The story of Korah is found in Numbers. It may speak to the more common rebellious behavior we see in the Churches of God today.
Now Korah … took men; and they rose up before Moses with some of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, representatives of the congregation, men of renown. They gathered against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:1-4)
Korah was applying Exodus 19:6, which was written to all the children of Israel:
“And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Indeed, every Israelite could encourage others to know and practice the laws of God. They could serve each other in need; they could pray for each other; they could arbitrate their friend’s disputes. They could all strive to be holy and blameless before God.
Korah’s mistake was deciding that this teaching gave him the same kind of authority Moses and Aaron had. How did Moses and Aaron get their authority? From the teaching recorded in Exodus 19:6? No! God had worked with them for over 80 years, speaking to them directly and performing many miracles for them and through them. If Korah received the same kind of authority from God, he would not have to contend with Moses for it—he would know that he had authority from God and others would see it.
But like the angels who sinned in Jude 1:6, Korah and his companions of like mind, were unhappy living under the authority God has set in place and coveted power for themselves. They wanted authority that God had not given them, and for which they had to campaign and argue to get others to recognize.
Today, people within church groups use similar arguments in an effort to obtain authority for themselves. The New Testament contains many scriptures about the just and unjust use of authority. So, the person seeking power will frequently raise arguments, claiming that the authority of some is unjust and that they would use authority justly if they were so recognized.
They do not consider that the present leader of a congregation or ministry got there because God prepared him with years of work to raise it up. In other cases, a leader was asked to come by an overwhelming majority of brethren. They fail to recognize that shepherds must lead, which often requires making unilateral decisions necessary to guide and protect those who are under their care, and this is their primary service. They would quote Matthew 20:25-30 in a manner that Korah interpreted Exodus 19:6 for himself. God gives His shepherds the spiritual wherewithal to feed and protect the sheep.
If a man really believes in their own heart that the authority in their religious group has departed from God and that now he is the rightful godly authority, there is no need to contend with anyone. All he needs to do is peacefully continue about the ministry that God is giving him, trusting that God will sustain him and it. But that is almost never what happens. Usually, the man wants to take some or all of the church and ministry that God has established through another.
So, we have these examples, but examples are not beneficial if we fail in making a connection to the potential of our own rebellious behavior and the rebellious behavior rising up in others, which is what we are trying to do here. We should consider the Pharisees who thought so very well enough of themselves, that Jesus summed their thoughts for them:
“If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets …
But on the contrary, He admonishes them:
“Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are the sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt” (Matthew 23:30-32).
The Pharisees were so sure of themselves that they even presumed to have been on the side of righteousness in the days of the fathers and the prophets. They figured they would have taken a stone for them, but the reality is they would have been first in line to throw one.
So, I suggest we not be so sure of ourselves either, as evidently some are, and have even garnered small and large followings. We are not to assume that those of whom Jude speaks are necessarily unpopular either, as some have even found popularity amongst the Church. They have rejected God, though they feel they have only rejected “unworthy” authority which did not go along with their wishes.
Jude points this out to us by saying that even Michael the Archangel did not dare to even risk being presumptuous as to admonish Satan by his own rebuke, but left that to a higher Authority. Therefore, we should not consider ourselves to be any wiser or so immune to what Jude characterizes in the examples he gives:
Likewise, also these dreamers (delusional in their rationale) defile the flesh, reject authority, and speak evil of dignitaries. (Jude 9).
I have found a repeated pattern in the church: certain individuals attempt to manipulate the thinking of people by planting seeds of doubt, particularly regarding church elders or those who are in a leadership role. This often starts by their inability to control someone and their work, which then resorts to character assassination and degradation of their work. Their methods come across very sincere, with all kinds of unverifiable facts, seeming to be in the best interest of the hearer. This is what Jude and Paul taught:
These are grumblers, complainers, walking according to their own lusts; and they mouth great swelling words, flattering people to gain advantage (Jude 16).
Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19).
For those who play these kinds of politics in the church of God it is not necessary for themselves to consider their actions in light of scripture, they have set their own standards of righteousness, and their agenda is justification. The message of Jude warns us of such brute beasts (Jude 10)
As with the examples given in Jude, the issue is not doctrinal failure, but a moral failure in most cases. A moral failure is most often what precedes apostasy, where the faith is turned into license to exert one’s own will.
All this may sound like an argument for a top down hierarchal structure, which again is not the Church model. There is the reality that the Head of the Church assigns people for service, and if we reject those who are sent to us, we may be rejecting Him who sent them. The Head of the Church is not appointing elders by their acceptability to all, for they will find themselves unpopular on occasions.
I have recently intervened in the rebellion of an individual and his disciple who had an agenda to discredit a long serving elder and by unscrupulous means take an opportunity to control a congregation.
What we see again was as much misguided and maligned as any of the groups and individuals in the examples of Jude. This was rebellion against God, not the elder. Their methods were subversive and manipulative, but well justified in their own hearts. Yet, God saw to it that their agenda was thwarted.
How to Contend Earnestly for the Faith
I have seen where those who felt they were defending the faith once delivered, actually became the kind of culprit Jude warned us about. Though they were zealous in their quest, they were actually causing division and the hurt. This should have become quickly evident to them or at least triggered their self-awareness if the Holy Spirit was leading these individuals. But this was absent.
Will we be manipulated over time to turn against God, thinking our contending for the faith is against a man, believing our position is just and Biblical? Any one of us might, as we are not necessarily immune just because we are aware of the possibilities, and because we have studied and preached from Jude many times.
Fortunately, Jude tells us how to contend for the faith, and if we set our hearts on his message our defenses against going astray and turning against the faith will be strong and well rooted:
But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh (Jude 20-23).
Jude tells us to commit, keep and conduct ourselves to the faith if we are going to succeed in our calling. We are to commit ourselves to Christian growth (20, 21) and conduct ourselves with Christian grace (22-23). Imbedded in these few verses is a call to keep ourselves in the love of God, and this we will do if we:
- Commit ourselves to building, praying and waiting.
- Conduct ourselves with mercy, salvation and purity.
These commitments are spiritual and we on our own do not have the strength to carry them out. Faith, hope and love are spiritual virtues that we can only cultivate through the leading of God’s great gift to us; His Holy Spirit.
There is so much that one could say about these virtues, but we need not have to say much more to those who have and are led by the Holy Spirit and are studying His Word.
Jesus Christ sums up his teachings that can only speak to those who are transforming by the Holy Spirit as follows:
“Therefore whoever hears these sayings of mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.” (Matthew 7:25)
When Jesus spoke of those who built their houses on a rock he is not just talking about tough times, losses and all things that are common to man. He is talking about trials of faith, and the subject of this article touches on exactly that. If we do not learn from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, earnestly contending for the faith is an unlikely avenue for us.
Let us contend earnestly for the faith that God has so graciously given us. It is a precious gift worthy of all our sacrifice.