Dealing with Error (2 John 7-11)
We live in a time where false doctrine is rampant. One church in New York City actually did all of the following: On one occasion, the pews were removed to make room for dancing, and the congregants sat in folding chairs in a circle; the pulpit was removed for a presentation of “Winnie the Pooh” and was never replaced; and one Sunday, a nude couple danced during the service.
Among churches of Christ, false doctrine has been taking its toll: Many now deny that baptism has anything to do with salvation, in many churches women take a public role in the worship assembly, and several even claim that the Second Coming has already occurred.
But false doctrine is nothing new. False doctrine was rampant in the Apostle John’s day; and although we remember him as the “Apostle of Love,” he spent much of his career battling error. In Second John, he wrote to the Elect Lady to inform her how she could deal with error. This morning, we want to examine his words that we might learn how to deal with error.
The Threat of Error, vv 7-8
Many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh.
John refers to these false teachers as “deceivers.” This reference to “deceivers” may well indicate that these teachers knew they were teaching error, and they intended to teach error. If someone deceives you, he not only misleads you, but he means to do so. There is no doubt in my mind that many false teachers know they teach error and they propagate the error for personal gain.
These deceivers had gone out into the world. “Have gone” is literally “went forth” and points to a specific action in the past; this may point to some crisis in the church that caused these heretics to leave the fellowship. They went out into the world—they left the church and were now considered a part of the world.
These deceivers did not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. There are two main heresies to which this statement might refer:
- One was a heresy propagated by Certinthus: He divorced the divine Christ from the human Jesus; he said that Jesus wasn’t really divine.
- The other was a heresy propagated by the Docetics: They said that Jesus was not really human but that he only appeared to be so.
The truth of the matter; however, was that Jesus did come in the flesh; he was God in the flesh. “In Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col 2:9). In the flesh, Jesus was both human and divine, and to deny that is heresy.
The Elect Lady and her children should look to themselves so that they did not lose the things that the apostles worked for, but that they may receive a full reward.
There is quite a bit of debate about how this text should be translated. The best evidence support this reading: “Look to yourselves, that you do not lose those tings we worked for, but that you may receive a full reward.” The idea is that those to whom John wrote could lose what John and the other apostles had worked for, but John’s readers needed to pay attention so that they could receive a full reward.
John’s readers needed to pay attention so that they did not lose their reward. The idea is that the heresies being spread around could cause these Christians to fall away. False doctrine can lead one away from Christ. “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal 5:4). 2 Timothy 4:3-4.
Here’s what we can learn for today:
- There is false doctrine. John wrote about error as a present reality; it is just as much a reality today as it was in the first century.
- We must pay careful attention to what we hear. If we buy into error, we can lose our reward, our salvation.
The Arrogance of Error, v 9
Whoever transgress and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God.
A better translation for “transgress” is “goes ahead”—the idea is that this person runs ahead of what God has inspired. There were those in the first century who claimed to have special knowledge above and beyond the “ordinary” Christian; this verse seems to mock that idea—John is saying: “Whoever goes above Christ’s doctrine does not have God.”
These people were arrogant; they thought they knew more than God; they thought they knew better than God did about what God wanted to be believed. Isn’t that exactly what error continues to do? People will read the words of Scripture and say something like, “Well, it doesn’t really mean that.”
The Christians to whom John wrote needed to abide—remain—in the doctrine of Christ. The doctrine of Christ refers to those things Jesus spoke and those things the apostles, those to whom Jesus gave authority to speak, spoke. Abiding in the doctrine of Christ would be the opposite of going ahead of it. This would refer to holding to the teaching Jesus and the apostles revealed. Isn’t that exactly what we need to do—to remain in the doctrine of Christ? We need to hold to those things Jesus and the apostles have taught us.
The one who goes ahead of Christ’s doctrine does not have God—this one does not have a proper relationship with God. This verse speaks volumes about the importance of right doctrine—without right doctrine we stand alienated from God.
The one who does abide in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son—the one who does stay in right doctrine has a relationship with both the Father and the Son.
The Treatment of Error, vv 10-11
If anyone came to the Elect Lady and did not bring the doctrine of Christ, she was not to receive him into her house nor greet him.
John presupposes that there will be people coming to her carrying false doctrine; she needed to be on her guard.
When these people did come, she was not to receive them into her house. In the first century, missionaries traveled from place to place without knowing where they would stay; they often stayed with members of the church where they went. When Jesus sent the Twelve out on the limited commission, they were to stay in the homes of worthy people (Matt 10:9-14). 3 John 5-6.
The Elect Lady, from what John writes, apparently put up missionaries and aided them as faithful brethren did in that era. But, John says, “Don’t receive false teachers into your home, don’t support them in their mission.”
The Elect Lady was not to greet these heretics. Blessings were extremely important in the first century, and the greeting (“Peace be with you”) was intended as a blessing or prayer to bestow peace. This faithful lady was not to give her blessing to these false teachers.
John’s instructions seem to presuppose that this lady knew who was and who was not a false teacher. That may or may not have been the case, for she may not have always known when someone arrived in town who was and was not a heretic. John may have been saying, “If you receive someone in your home and realize he teaches error, get rid of him.”
The one who greeted the heretic shared in his evil deeds. This was possible in a couple of ways:
- The obvious one was that the one who helped the heretic was aiding and abetting him, assisting his spreading heresy.
- The other way is that congregations often met in homes in the first century; if a false teacher was in the home, he could easily spread his heresy through the congregation.
The Elect Lady was not to aid and abet the heretic in any way.
We need to see that we do not aid and abet false teachers in any way. We do not have in this era missionaries traveling from city to city who need a place to stay. But there is a lesson here for us nonetheless. We need to keep false teachers at bay. We need to be certain that we do not allow false teachers in this congregation, for they could destroy it. We need to see that we do not do anything that helps propagate error—we cannot spread error among Christians.
The whole idea of these two verses is that we need to keep error away from ourselves. Let us determine to do that!
Error is a real concern today, and we need to take a stand against it. May we always firmly stand against error!
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.