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Gospel? Or No Gospel?

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. Galatians 1:6, 7 NIV

This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. Galatians 2:4 NIV
Recently I wrote elsewhere that God isn’t against the differences of understanding amongst Christians—differences that give rise to a variety of denominations. People who find wrong teaching in every group they see really bothers me. But how would I respond if the same false gospel Paul is talking about to the Galatians showed up in a church near me or in my own church? What then? Would I recognize it as false? Or would I say it’s simply a different stripe of Christian that’s entitled to their interpretation of the gospel.

Basically the false gospel being taught here was the importance of keeping all the Jewish laws as a means of justifying themselves before God. But the teachers of this “gospel” probably didn’t see it that way at all. They probably saw that they were maintaining the laws God had initially instituted and being more faithful to God’s way than those who did not. So they obeyed and taught this idea out of their desire to please God. Motive obviously isn’t enough because Paul castigates them strongly.

So then, how vigilant are we to be about wrong teaching? How adamant do we become about what the “right gospel” is? Every church thinks that what they teach is the right way. Some think theirs is the only way and treat all others as wrong. An obvious example is the Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kansas who wanted to come to Winnipeg and protest at the funeral of Tim McLean because they were convinced that his murder and beheading on a Greyhound bus was a judgment from God against Canada’s policies and attitudes towards abortion and homosexuality (thankfully, they didn't show up). They probably believe that they’re the lonely voice, crying in the wilderness; like the prophets of old who told it straight about Israel’s sin and condemned her. Yet I and other Christians I know see the people of this church as hate mongers.

So how can we be sure whether something is a false gospel or not? Most of us can agree that those who teach that Jesus was just an ordinary man, though a good teacher, are teaching heresy. Many of us would be concerned about teachings that explain miracles as something other than the supernatural. Most Christians I know hold to the teachings of one or more of the early creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, etc.) and claim these to be non-negotiables of doctrine.

But what about the “tighty-whitey” or “loosey-goosey” churches? Are they teaching the right gospel? Can we really know which side of many of the debatable doctrines is correct? Is there a right and wrong when it comes to things like free will and eternal salvation, dispensationalism, interpretation of end-time prophecies, use of alcohol, dancing and head coverings? Would we agree that churches with strict rules of behaviour are teaching truth or teaching the kind of heresy Paul was so against in the early church? How do we know? How important is it? If there is a balance between mercy and truth, what is it? At what point do we declare certain teachings as “no gospel at all”? Are we using the same measuring rod as Paul? What do we do with the results?

I have no answers. These are merely questions I’ve been examining as I read through the New Testament epistles.

God, there is so much disunity in your church, every congregation or denomination certain they have the truth despite differences with other congregations and denominations who are equally convinced they are teaching what is right. You want us to be as one but how do we do this when there is so much honest and well-meaning disagreement? How welcoming do you want us to be to those who teach a slightly different message than we do? How cautious do you want us to be in evaluating differing ideas of Christian truth? To what degree do you want us to avoid those who teach false doctrine and how do you want church leaders to tread dissenting members or adherents in their congregations? I thought I knew where the lines were but as I continue to read and reread your Word, I begin to wonder if I’ve been right—or if it even matters if I have been or not. Please make the answers clear to me and all others with a sincere desire to know and do your will. Please make the muddy waters clear and continue to pour your Living Water into each of us.

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