God’s Posse

I call them God’s theological sheriffs—believers who are alert to any hint of heresy in others.  They seem to be self-appointed, but maybe it’s their special gifting.  What I’m not sure about is where their gift comes from—whether it’s from God or elsewhere.

I ask that honestly because even when they’re prosecuting others on the basis of views I would affirm as biblical they most often fail to build up others in the process; rather they seem to intimidate, divide, and discourage.  Mostly they like to be viewed as “right”—as the power brokers of truth.  One meets them at major theological conferences.  Some can be found in churches.  Some write books and some have pithy blogs.

I’m also aware that anyone with an eye for missteps in dogmatic theology can prosper wherever they travel.  Sloppy thinking and dubious ideas abound.  I even have my own collection of arcane notions and careless expressions, I’m sure.  But, as much as I want to get things right, I can assure you that it’s not the theological sheriffs I’m looking to for help!  I really prefer those among us who consistently speak truth in love.  If I can find a few astute friends who are willing to say “I’d love to have a coffee with you” when some of my words “drop to the ground” as careless errors, I count them as special treasures.  None of us, after all—short of Christ—is inerrant!

But let me shift away from what sounds even to my own ears like a harangue and instead ask a question about the nature of godly confrontations, a question that invites some reflection and conversation.  There are at least two major concerns involved.

One is Christ’s call to community: for us all to be a people known by our mutual love and for our love even of the unlovely.  I think of John 13:35, especially, on this.  Love is what identifies us as truly Christian.  Paul was certainly aware of this affective bond among believers when he instructed others in how to discipline members of the church who were, indeed, errant in their beliefs and/or conduct: “Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:15).  Paul would have known and followed what Jesus set out as proper procedures for his disciples as reported in Matthew 18.

Another point—and a contrast—is Christ’s warning against the theological sheriffs of his own day who were hounding him over issues of healing on the Sabbath; and about the spiritual etiquette of kosher cleansings; and about the need to avoid immoral people.  Jesus, of course, was scathing towards them as his list of “woes” in Matthew 23 illustrates so well.  And Paul was similarly tough towards some teachers as in the case of the Judaizers in Galatia whom he threatened with the label of “accursed”.  Similarly he spoke of some of his opponents in Corinth—who were in the church—as “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:13).

So the challenge is before us: how do we confront error without slipping into another error of heart?  What, for instance, constitutes an error so great as to call for church discipline?  And, on the other hand, what should we do with self-appointed sheriffs who are ready to take up God’s authority as their own by challenging others who believe differently but who may or may not be so wrong?

Is there an irenic and civil, yet wholly Godly and true, path to follow?  I believe there is, but let me just ask the question for now and invite others to answer: if there is, what should it look like?

7 Responses to God’s Posse

  1. Huw November 2, 2010 at 9:04 pm #

    Many thanks Ron. This is very timely – I’ve been feeling a bit of the wrath of the posse recently!

    But at the same time, as I read your post, I am reminded that other times I’m guilty of being a member of the posse, too…!

    Encouraging and challenging. Thank you.

  2. Huw November 2, 2010 at 9:16 pm #

    Oh yes, and to pick up on the questions in your final paragraph. This is something I’ve been wondering about recently, reading through Paul’s epistles I’ve been struck by how he deals with errors in various contexts – an encouraging plea here, and a sharp rebuke there… But why the difference? Is it to do with the nature/severity of the issue he is addressing, or does he understand his audience and know how best to address them?

    I was also struck this morning in Colossians 2, by Paul’s “goal” for the Colossians & Laodiceans “that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love” – quite the opposite of the goals (or at least the results) of the Posse who tend to divide, fragment and discourage.

  3. Paul Anderson November 2, 2010 at 11:06 pm #

    Hi Ron,

    Excellent questions. I have been lovingly corrected and unlovingly attacked by God appointed sherrifs and self appointed sherrifs. I appreciate those among us who are “doctrinal watch dogs” with a loving attitude. I am annoyed by those who seem preoccupied with a variety of “witch hunts” as a lifestyle. I have several random thoughts about this subject in no particular order.

    It is easy to conclude that the Pharisees, Saduucees, their scribes and lawers were wholly wrong hearted since the ones Jesus had such hard rebuke for in Matthew 23, etc. were unbelievers.

    It is harder when they are true believers with a different view with in the pale of orthodoxy. In that case here are my thoughts.

    It is possible to have great gifts in preaching and teaching, have superior biblical knowledge, great sacrifice for others, great faith and be a “gong” who is “puffed up” and totally unimpressive to our Lord (1 Cor 13; 1 Cor 8). The Church of Ephesis pleased our Lord doctrinally but left their first love – He told them to Repent or He would remove their church (Rev. 2:1-7). He wants good doctrine from people who love God and others or He is not very excited about their contribution.

    It is necessary to exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict (1 Tim. 1:9, 10) with in ones own church/ organization. I think rebuking people in organizations one is not involved in personally is more suspect.

    I think this is why denominations and differing doctrinal nuances with in the pale of orthodoxy are essential, this side of heaven. It gives a parachurch, missionary agency, seminary, Bible college, church a standard by which people can joyfull join or go elsewhere.

    I think we should be firm and draw the line on issues in the apostles creed and historically accepted church councils. If a professed beleiver denies the Trinity, The deity of Christ, heaven, hell, Christs sinless life, His atonement for sinners, salvation by grace/faith/Christ alone, His resurrection, His bodily ascension, His sure return – We should church discipline them, they are heretics Jesus and the apostles would want us to draw the line (book of Galatians).

    I also think immoral “so called” brothers should be church disciplined (1 Cor 5 and 6).

    If they differ on rapture timing, tribulation details, charismatic gift details, etc. we should debate and listen with grace. I think churches could allow differences here, although it might be necessary to have a specific direction for teachers in the movement – thats where it gets complex. Can the staff teach pre and post trib? Can some speak in tongues while others believe in the cessation of tongues – I think that is why denominations exist- it gets messy.

    What about differences in church polity – I think thats why we have different churches – I am possitive we will not all agree until Jesus shows up.

    I tend to listen to people who are not contentious, have a long history of service with the same church or organization, speak kindly, seem humble, cooperate with other believers to do missions and evangelism. People who have made other loving disciples.

    I tend to refuse to argue with those who seem contentious, have a long history of hopping church’s and organizations with out very good references and reasons, who seem proud, and speak brashly. If someone thinks every church and organization is wrong – that is a red flag. Jesus is building His church. Surely there must be several that He is pleased with. If someone can’t find one good church that suits them, I think the problem is that they are the common denominator.

    If I sense a “hobby horse” or anger in someone, I am very suspect. There are a lot of people who just seem mad at other Christians. I think one can stand for truth with out being angry and intense the majority of the time. Love among brothers is the sign to unbelievers that we are Christ’s followers (John 13).

    Thanks for a good topic to think about.

    How do you gage whether the theological sherrif is self appointed or God appointed? I am interested in more details that you would use for a criteria to decide- should you want to say more.


  4. Rich Owen November 3, 2010 at 10:43 am #

    Ron, thank you for an interesting and timely piece. It revealed to me again my love hate relationship with blogs!

    Paul – Your last question – “How do you gage whether the theological sheriff is self appointed or God appointed” – I think you answered that yourself when you said “people who love God and others”. A genuine desire for God, deep love for Him and for people, a considering of others better than self and… this is key…. a life which powerfully bears witness to this fruit – that, I guess, is what qualifies.

    Our sheriff friend might be right – but even the demons know the right stuff (Jas 2:19).

    If the person speaking to you is constantly among the needy, giving self to others, someone who can’t help themselves from rejoicing in and sharing the love of the Living God and speaking about Him, I guess we sit up and listen to them.

    In terms of Ron’s question of method…

    Given the above, perhaps we shouldn’t presume to enter into a situation of discipline until we know each other’s lives? (Jas 2:18??). I dunno.

    Our method would be a joyful discussion of the Word – and so you come to God’s word allowing that you might be wrong yourself. Nobody should presume to teach God’s word if they don’t allow that they themselves are under it.

    From such a position of humility before the Word and of love as mentioned above, your desire would be to give yourself to them to serve them. Perhaps that is what we must seek to do first – before we begin correcting doctrine, perhaps we should first mow their lawn :-)

    Anyways. I’m sure there is plenty to say on the subject and much to disagree over :-)

    In Jesus,


  5. Peter Mead November 3, 2010 at 11:16 am #

    Let me throw in a couple of thoughts to stir in with the mix.

    1. Perhaps we shouldn’t see church discipline as a process that has a significant starting point (i.e. once a certain line is crossed, then discipline breaks loose). Perhaps instead we should see it as a gradually increasing pressure for restoration for the health of the church. Thus it begins at the point where I feel an unrepented sin goes beyond my “bearing with” (Col.3:13), and I choose to carefully approach the individual (Matt.18). If the “sinner” does not repent, or the issue is not resolved, then the next stage follows, at which point the pressure increases (or if the one or two other witnesses I approach tell me I am wrong to pursue the matter, then the process ends). In the complicated mix of church fellowship, of lives intertwined and mutual soul care, this early stage is happening all the time, but doesn’t need the heavy label of church discipline applied to it.

    2. There is another issue that may be a cultural one. I fully agree with Ron’s post about theological sheriffs, but there may be another kind too. Perhaps we could call them the “happy unity” sheriffs. These are folks so desperate for unity to be maintained at all costs that sin issues are not addressed, and all theological issues are up for grabs as long as people stay happy. There is a conflict avoidance approach in some cultures that works against the loving teaching of Scripture to care for souls and the health of the church. I am not at all advocating for theological sheriffs to go head to head in a shoot-out with the “false unity” brigade. I am just pondering how to be a force for good as lovers of God in a church that has both types of sheriffs walking the beat.

    3. Ok, three disparate thoughts, but another text to throw into the mix is Titus 3:9-11. In the context of the loving good that God has done for us in his mercy, we are to devote ourselves to good for the sake of others. But some lack that motivation and pursue unprofitable dissension. Again, a process is advocated. A warning, followed by another, followed by distancing. Sounds harsh, but does protect the church.

    The community of believers is such a critical feature of God’s work in the world. But since we’re in a fallen world, issues of conflict will continue to be a major need for prayerful, humble, biblical wisdom and discernment. I don’t think Jesus was wrong to pray for the unity of his followers, he knew it would continue to be a key issue.

  6. Esther Dexter November 4, 2010 at 11:45 pm #

    I’m very thankful for these posts and the opportunity to be challenged in my thinking and walking with God too – thanks to all! As I have been reflecting, the example of the Lord Jesus has come to the fore in the way He dealt with the people He moved among. There were those who were only out to find fault and made life a burden to many and with them Jesus is very straight and condemning at times. Others, needed a touch of His compassion and the depth of His understanding and with them He is gentle and kind. Jesus rebuked when it was necessary but He encouraged and enlightened giving hope along the way, always walking in wisdom and union with His Father. As John writes in John 1:14 …”who came from the Father, FULL of GRACE and TRUTH.” My desire is to become more like Jesus, full of grace and truth and to know Him and have His wisdom day by day in my relationships with others.

  7. Esther Dexter November 5, 2010 at 12:22 am #

    Hi Peter,
    I was interested in your comment on No. 2 and agree that it can be a cultural issue too. However I think it is also evident in folk who have grown up in a very negative, legalistic Christian background and whose experience in that setting has been devoid of grace and love in its fulness so that now in dealing with issues there is a tendency to allow things to go and not to be dealt with for the good of the people concerned in really caring for them and the health of the church.