It is good for all of us to remember that everyone of us have been and continue to be mistaken about some things that we believe we grasp fully, before we make any attempt to correct another person who is teaching something that is wrong. It is also important to remember that it was often the case that Jesus harshest criticism wasn’t of those who were teaching error but those who had the wrong hearts. Remember he told the apostles to do whatever the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to do, but don’t do like they do, for they say and don’t do too often. So, they were teaching right, but their heart was wrong. To be arrogant in teaching even the truth can drive more people away from God than just about anything else. One other major point to remember is that not all misunderstandings or wrong teachings aren’t equal. Sometimes people believe things that have no affect at all on how they live for God regularly. For example, people have all kinds of different beliefs about the end times and what happens when a person dies. Personally, I think most of what is taught on the subject is dead wrong. But I don’t think those who believe the different things, and continue to live the life that God calls them to live will have their eternal destiny affected by the error. The exception to that would be when a person makes such a big deal of such topics that it becomes an issue to divide people in God’s kingdom.
How can you know if the error a person believes will affect their destiny? Error that doesn’t cause a person to disobey God won’t affect their eternal life. Error that leads to one being disobedient to God could lead to one being lost forever. A majority of the letters written in the New Testament were to correct certain errors that were being spread among the early Christians. Most of the time the errors were inside the church rather than problems from the outside.
The story in Acts 18 of Aquila and Priscilla, a godly couple who had been led to Christ by the apostle Paul, came to Ephesus. They were Jews and so they went to the Synagogue on Saturday’s still to worship even though they had become Christians. One Saturday at the Synagogue they heard a man named Apollos who was mighty in the Scriptures (Old Testament) and preached that Jesus was the Messiah that had been promised down through the ages. He was very persuasive and preached effectively about Jesus. But there was one problem. He only knew of the baptism of John. Priscilla and Aquila took him aside, even though he was a mighty teacher and they were simply Christians. I would guess they took him home for a good lunch and as they visited and talked about faith in Jesus they talked to him and helped him come to a better understanding of the baptism of Jesus Christ. He had been baptized with John’s baptism when it was still effective. But now that baptism had been replaced by the baptism of Jesus in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This baptism was into Christ on the basis of faith in Jesus.
He had a wrong understanding and that would lead to people not really having the baptism of Jesus that they needed today. The fact that in chapter 19 Paul came to Ephesus and found some disciples who had been baptized with John’s baptism after Christ’s baptism was effective, probably as a result of Apollos teaching and perhaps by him. He asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit since they believed. When they said “We’ve not even heard if there is a Holy Spirit” Paul knew immediately something was wrong with their baptism. Since one baptized correctly would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit at that point (Acts 2:38), to have never heard of him meant something was bad wrong. He commanded them to be baptized again, in the name of the Lord Jesus and they were. So, the error of an honest and godly man led to these 12 disciples of Jesus missing out on the blessing of the Holy Spirit in their life by having the wrong baptism.
Most of the time, if we really are interested in redeeming the person who is mistaken on some topic of Scripture, the best way to help them is as Priscilla and Aquila did with Apollos. Take them aside, and talk with them personally, lovingly, in private about the error and help them see you are acting out of love for them and desire to help them. When our way of dealing with an error is public or even worse, from a distance, while never having talked to the person involved, usually leads to the person becoming more deeply entrenched in their beliefs. Now they are pushed to defend them instead of being led to change and correct the wrong.
Certainly there are times when the correction has to be public. When an error spreads and it is no longer tied to one person or small group but has become wide spread, the error must be confronted publicly. Still it ought to be done as a correction of the error rather than a personal attack on the integrity of the person who believes it.
Does there ever come a time when the attack should be personal? Yes, the truth is that both Jesus and the apostles who wrote books of the New Testament confronted many in very personal ways. Also, if you read Revelation chapters 2 and 3 Jesus confronted most of the seven churches of Asia about tragic errors in their churches and among the preachers who worked with them. If we’ve made very personal attempts to correct a person in love and care and they reject the correction and the error is one that would lead people to be disobedient to God, then we should confront it publicly, personally and every way we can so that it may be brought to a stop and at least stop the spread of the teaching.
Remember this as we strive to redeem one who is teaching error on a thing that is vital to salvation, our goal should be their change, their redemption, not their destruction. Saul of Tarsus, the Pharisee was likely an effective teacher of what he believed before Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus. He was wrong. But he was honest, sincere and ready to defend what he believed. He was so angry at Jesus and the church he was going into houses and arresting both men and women and throwing them into jail because they followed Christ. Yet, God saw him as the honest man that he was and that he would use that same zeal for him correctly if confronted with the truth. So Jesus stepped in and spoke to Saul on the road. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He answered Jesus, “Who are you Lord?” Jesus said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Saul answered, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” Jesus told him to go into Damascus and it would be told him what he must do. Blind from the light, Saul was led into Damascus, where he prayed and fasted for three days, until God sent a disciple named Ananias to lay his hands on him and give his sight back. He was ready to be baptized to wash away his sins and to start all over again preaching the very one he had sought to destroy. No matter how far wrong someone may be, if they are honest with God, they can change and use the same zeal for the Lord in teaching what is right.
Our God is about redeeming those who are honestly mistaken and even the dishonestly mistaken if they can be redeemed from both the error and the heart. Many years ago I had an experience along this line that changed me in a big way. I was preaching about some teaching that was wrong and showing how it didn’t fit with Scripture. When it was over a man came out who had been a huge proponent of the error I had preached about. He said, “Leon, I don’t mind the fact you preached against what I believe is right tonight. You may well be right in what you said and I will rethink and restudy the subject. But it would have been much more effective if it had come from a broken heart with tears in your eyes instead of an angry look that anyone could be so stupid to believe such a thing.” I don’t know what happened to him afterward. But it sure hit me hard. That night I prayed to God to help me never stand before people again with an angry face but to make certain anything said about wrong came from a broken heart that anyone would have that problem and with a compassion that recognized their honest mistake and longing to help them see the mistake and change. I want a heart like Jesus had for Jerusalem when he told of their coming fall but wept over the rejection they had for him and his teaching.