December 18, 2017

The Biblical Ministry of Warning

Don Johnson

A regular theme of fundamentalist writing on popular trends in ministry, including personalities, methods, movements, and institutions, is cautionary proclamations of warning. You will hear warnings about false teachers, about errant theology and practices, about dangerous ideas and moods (at least in the perspective of the writer). Hopefully, such warnings will be accompanied with thoroughly biblical justification of the concerns. No doubt mistakes are made, but the goal is to be faithful to the Lord and His Word, warning and guiding God’s people in their Christian walk.

Those who speak up against the popular are often misunderstood, have their motives questioned, and experience broad rejection – and this is at the best of times. In the present day, it seems that the ministry of warning is much disdained. Some have said that the primary function of the Lord’s ministers is to edify the saints and evangelize the lost. They point out that there is much to do in simply building up the Biblical understanding of God’s people through preaching and teaching and the pursuit of victory over sin in various forms through exhortation and personal counseling. Surely this is true. There is much to do, really more to do than time allows. Pastoral ministry is a kind of spiritual “whack-a-mole” where it seems you get one problem settled only to find another one pop up immediately in an unexpected place. Who has time and energy to add to our burdens by identifying and warning of distant movements and men?

To some extent it must be admitted that too much can be made of cautions, criticisms, and warnings. There is no minister or ministry that is not flawed in some way. Some brethren have become obsessed with ferreting out faults, to the detriment of a “whole counsel” ministry. Surely fundamentalism has earned some criticism as being “too negative” at times. However, it should be admitted on the other hand that fundamentalism has been shown to be sadly correct more often than not in the many warnings that have been issued. Time and again, once-dismissed concerns have proven to be accurate analyses that could have prevented much spiritual damage if they had been acted on promptly.

But to the question of the ministry of warning – is it justified? Should Christian ministers and ministries engage in the practice of raising warning about the methods or direction or men involved in other ministries, especially if those ministries seem quite distant and irrelevant to one’s own ministry? If it is justified at all, how much is justified and what kinds of warnings ought to be issued?

Biblical Defense of a Ministry of Warning

The “positive” aspects of ministry are without question an obvious mandate of the Scriptures. The Lord’s command to Peter, “Feed my sheep” (Jn 21.16, 17), surely applies to all who would be fellow elders with Peter (1 Pt 5.1-3). Paul urged Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim 4.2) and distinguished the pastor as one who was qualified by the ability to teach (1 Tim 3.2, 2 Tim 2.24). We are called to bear burdens (Gal 6.2), to pull some out of the fire (Jude 23), and to teach and admonish one another (Col 3.16). These activities represent a full ministry indeed.

Included in that ministry, especially “admonishment,” as noted in the last reference cited above, is a ministry that involves warning, and specifically included in that warning is the warning concerning those in ministry who are dangerous for the hearers. I call your attention to Paul’s warnings in Acts 20 to the Ephesian elders:

Acts 20.28-31 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. 29 For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. 31 Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.

The word ‘warn’ in v. 31 is the same word used in Col 3.16, translated there ‘admonish.’ In the context of Acts 20, the ministry of warning has to do both with warning about those from without who will attempt to destroy the flock by their teaching (“grievous wolves”) and those who will attempt to draw disciples away from within, those causing division contrary to the doctrine of the church.

This admonition in Acts 20 is not the only place Paul uttered similar warnings. In 1 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy that “in the latter times some shall depart from the faith” (1 Tim 4.1) and proceeds to list some examples of the kinds of departure he speaks of. He tells Timothy:

1 Timothy 4.6 If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine, whereunto thou hast attained.

The duty of the minister is to “put the brethren in remembrance of these things.” In performing this ministry of warning, “thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ.”

Quite clearly the ministry of warning is part and parcel of the duties of pastoral ministry – there is an obligation for men of God to warn the people of God regarding the teaching of outsiders and insiders which could lead them astray.

In admitting the duty, sometimes two limitations are put on it by some observers. First, some will say that this is a duty when it is a matter of false teachers (deniers of cardinal doctrines) or those who support false teachers by granting Christian recognition to them. Beyond those extreme dangers, our duty to warn diminishes. Some will ask, “Are you calling for separation from brother X?” when in fact something less than separation is the consideration. This brings up the second limitation. Some suggest that if we are not calling for separation, then why are we raising an alarm? Do we have to be so negative? Do we have a right (much less a responsibility) to warn against lesser errors than fundamental errors?

For example, a number of years ago, we published a resolution concerning John Piper and his ministry. Some wished we had not done so, but our resolution at the time did not call for separation, but offered warning about some aspects of Piper’s ministry. To his credit, brother Piper responded with humility in an article called “Praise God for Fundamentalists.” (The text of our resolution is included in Piper’s article.)

Most of us are not directly connected in any formal way with ministries outside our local church. The reality is that arguing over whether we should separate from someone with whom we have little to do is really a moot point. It matters not what “degree” of separation someone considers the matter to be, no real separation can exist if no relationship existed to begin with.

So do the Scriptures we have cited (and others) give us a mandate for warning the people of our ministry about teachers and ministries outside our orbit, even if they are not “first degree” deniers of the faith? I think they do. The passages do not specify degrees of error and there are many ways in which the people for whom I am responsible can be shattered or twisted from the pure doctrine we are attempting to teach them. In our day of instant information, I have had folks come to me with books or websites from all manner of teachers. Some of them featured such spiritual “giants” as Rob Bell and Barack Obama (really!). Others featured the teachings of men much less objectionable, such as Piper (mentioned above) and men like him with whom our readers are probably very familiar.

Should I as a pastor bother to inform (even warn) the people for whom I am responsible for errors that I become aware of in ministries like these? I’ve read books that have been offered to me and have attempted to be fair, commending what could be commended but pointing out pitfalls and errors that are present as well. One has to be particularly careful when areas of difference are less serious – our warnings don’t take the form of “Stay away! Stay entirely away!” but are more on the lines of, “He has some help here, but remember this error here and be careful of this philosophy here.” If we have a duty to help disciples grow in a world where any and every teacher potentially can influence our disciples, then we must speak and where necessary we must warn.

The Imperative for a Warning Ministry Falls on All Shoulders

One more matter about the ministry of warning should be addressed. I’ve been using the word ‘warn,’ the word is translated as ‘admonish’ in Col 3.16 and other places. It happens to be the word noutheteo, from which ‘Nouthetic Counseling’ is derived. In this article we have been mostly concerned with pastoral ministry, the responsibility for a “whole counsel” ministry to include preaching, teaching, discipline, and warning in a complete discipleship ministry. But the fact is, the responsibility for offering this warning (or admonition or counsel) is the responsibility that all believers have for one another:

Colossians 3.16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

1 Thessalonians 5.14 Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men.

2 Thessalonians 3.15 Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.

Are you responsible for the watch care of someone else’s spiritual life? If you are a parent, you are. If you are a Sunday school teacher, you are. If you are a Christian school teacher or leader, you are. If you are a teacher or administrator in a Bible college or Christian university, you are. If you are a pastor, you certainly are. If you are a Christian carrying out the Great Commission, making disciples of all nations, you most definitely are.

Wherever and to whoever you have a responsibility to guide and teach another Christian, you have a Biblical duty of admonishing your brethren when you become aware of the ravening wolves of Ac 20.29 or the twisted and perverted teachings and teachers of Ac 20.30. You are to watch and you are to warn. You have a Biblical ministry of warning that is part and parcel of your duty as a mature Christian.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

Although Proclaim & Defend is the blog of the FBFI, the articles we post are not an expression of the views of the FBFI as a whole, they are the views of the author under whose name they are published. The FBFI speaks either through position statements by its board or through its president. Here at Proclaim & Defend, we publish articles as matters of interest or edification to the wider world of fundamentalist Baptists and any others who might be interested.

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