False teaching often comes from imposters who are not really Christians (2 Tim. 3:8). Sometimes error comes from those who are Christians (Gal. 2:11). At other times, it comes from those whose spiritual condition is not altogether clear. In any case, pastors have a responsibility to refute error whatever its source (Titus 1:9).
But what’s the point of confronting error? I think we have to be careful here. One of the character requirements of the pastor is that he not be pugnacious—that he not be the kind of guy who walks around with a theological chip on his shoulder just waiting for someone to knock it off (1 Tim. 3:3). A pastor can’t be the kind of guy who can’t accept an apology or recognize repentance when he sees it. If he is that kind of guy, then there’s a real question about his fitness for ministry.
So here’s the question we have to ask and answer anytime we are refuting error. What are our motives in the confrontation? Are we just being pugnacious? Or is there a more biblically formed motive for the controversy? If all we’re trying to do is put red meat before the congregation or drive up blog stats, that’s not really a good motive. That’s the sign of a person who’s self-promoting through public pugnacity. Everyone can smell that rot from a mile away, and it’s not very becoming of a man of God (Rom. 12:18).
What should our motive be in bringing confrontation? There’s much that could be said here, but I think the scripture tells us that we ought to have in mind the best interests of both the flock and the false teachers. Public confrontation ought to be animated by a desire to protect God’s people from being led astray by teaching that is spiritually and morally harmful to them (Acts 20:28).
But it should also be motivated by a desire to see false teachers come to repentance and faith. Paul told Timothy in no uncertain terms to “command” false teachers not to teach “strange doctrines” to God’s people (1 Tim. 1:3). These erroneous “teachers of the law” made confident assertions about things that they did not really understand (1 Tim. 1:7). Nevertheless, Paul says that the “goal” of Timothy’s “command” was to produce in the false teachers “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). In other words, Paul didn’t want Timothy merely to triumph over the false teachers. Paul wanted Timothy—if possible—to win them over to the truth. Paul writes:
24 And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth… (2 Timothy 2:24-25)
So pastor, what are your motives in refuting those who contradict? Is it to aggrandize yourself, to gin up the base, or to draw attention to your “bravery” and “boldness”? Or is it a humble desire to protect God’s people from error and to see false teachers turn from their ways? How you answer those questions will determine your fitness for the ministry. Test yourselves here. How are you doing?