When the gospel is taught erroneously within the church, the most loving action Christians can take is to confront those in error, said New Testament scholar D.A. Carson.
The evangelical church has imbibed popular culture's redefinition of love and tolerance to such a point it has lost a clear understanding of the gospel, said Carson, a renowned author and New Testament professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School who lectured at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., Sept. 4.
In many cases, Carson said, the church has swapped the gospel for a contrived unity based on a popular, sentimental definition of love. Whether the church is inclined to carry out discipline to ensure that a pure gospel is both taught and lived out comes down to its understanding of tolerance, he said.
"In the older version of tolerance, the idea was something like this: 'I might disagree profoundly with your argument or point of view or perspective on some matter, but I would insist on your right to articulate and defend your point of view,'" said Carson, who is the author of such books as The Gagging of God and Exegetical Fallacies.
"If I do that, I am considered, in the older view of tolerance, a tolerant person. In the new view of tolerance, however, I have no strong views and you have no strong views. That makes us both tolerant persons. If I have strong views and articulate them, I am, by definition, intolerant."
Speaking on Galatians 2:11-21, Carson pointed out that Paul, in rebuking Peter, a fellow apostle, did not see unity as being more important than the purity of the gospel. Here, Paul demonstrates the preeminence of the gospel and the care that must be taken in preserving it.
By publicly rebuking a fellow apostle for compromising the gospel of grace, Paul demonstrates the depth of his love for the churches at Galatia, Carson said.
"In a closed society, in a confessional society, the old definition of tolerance meant that in the church certain things should not be tolerated," Carson said. "[U]nder the new definition, no place is allowed for a group to claim it is right. The church that takes this stance is no longer perceived as standing for something and thus in some sense heroic, but is merely bigoted, narrow, right-wing, antiquarian."
To foster true unity in the church, Christians must understand that biblical truth is hierarchical; some truths strike closer to the heart of the gospel and are worth dying for, while others are not.
Realizing this would help most churches avoid splitting over fringe issues, he said.
"All that God says is true, but God might have to say some things several times for us to understand what He means because we are dumb and slow and morally thick and removed from the historical circumstances," Carson said.
"Thus, historically, the church has been pretty careful, usually, not to lay down dogmatic insistence on belief in something that shows up only once or twice in Scripture, not because it's not true, but because we may not be quite certain what it means.
"There are some things that are so bound up with the heart of the gospel that you will be prepared to sacrifice anything for them, including apostolic unity," he said. "And there are other things where Paul says, 'One person eats this food and another person doesn't. One person regards one day above another, another person views all days the same. Let each be fully persuaded in his own mind.'
"You can't imagine Paul saying, 'One person sleeps around, another person doesn't. Let each be fully persuaded in his own mind.' There is a hierarchialization that you find in Scripture in the realm of ethics and the realm of that which is essential to the gospel."
Regarding church discipline, Carson pointed out that Scripture addresses only three specific offenses which demand the excommunication of the offender: denial of the truth of the gospel, particularly by teachers; unrepentant moral failure such as that found in 1 Corinthians 5; and unrepentant schismatic behavior by a person or group of persons that creates division within the church.
"You are making judgment calls, whether you like it or not. But the fact that they are complex and difficult does not absolve [church leaders] of the responsibility," Carson said. "It means that you cannot approach these matters with a sloganeering approach, but with a deep humility of mind that goes back to Scripture again and again and again.
Watch Your Blind Side!
The greatest danger facing evangelicals are errors that modern leaders often fail to see, New Testament scholar D.A. Carson said.
While liberalism within the evangelical church has largely been defeated, other dangers lurk, said Carson.
"I suspect, right now, that this seminary — in fact, the SBC as a whole — is not particularly in danger … from classic liberalism," Carson said. "You fought that one. So what is it that you don't see?
"It is so easy to go on and on and on and on about yesterday's errors. But in my view, the dangers facing contemporary evangelicalism at large have very little to do with classic liberalism."
Whereas evangelicalism once wrestled with liberal theology and practice as its chief enemy, today the church faces others that are more subtle and more insidious, Carson said.
Carson listed several potential enemies that might work against the gospel today, including postmodernism, "knee-jerk" conservatism, mean-spirited triumphalism, movements questioning the atonement of Christ, and openness of God theology.
"[These] really don't come out of classical liberalism," he said. "They come out of other corners."
Evangelical leaders must be aware that they see through a glass dimly when it comes to being able to discern error in their midst, Carson said. To avoid these errors, leaders of the contemporary church must be vigilant and live in humble submission to the authority of Scripture, he said.
This also demands careful and rigorous study of the Word of God and the learning of church history as well, Carson said.
"That means we are to walk humbly," he said. "Most of us think we see much more than we do. We are to look around for mature Christian leaders who are not merely building their empires [but] who are informed, humble, [and] godly.
"[We must] read and re-read and think and re-think and learn some church history and study Scripture again and again and again. The devil is not only a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour, he goes around as an angel of light, deceiving if it is possible, the very elect."