Be careful who you associate with. Stay away from those people—and teachers in particular—who are spreading dangerous doctrine. It would be great if everyone stuck to biblical truth, but that’s not the case, so we have to be ready to break company with those who are outside the bounds of orthodoxy.

It’s clearly good advice—it’s biblical after all—and we all believe it.

But Jesus didn’t. 

In his day, Jesus was accused of being morally loose. Why? Because he hung out with people who were morally loose (Matt. 11:19). He “associated with” them. Jesus was pretty strong against the Pharisees for being false teachers, but he didn’t shun them. We see Jesus eating in their homes (Luke 14) and meeting with them for theological discussion (John 3).

“Jesus didn’t divide the way we do. He wasn’t afraid of who he was seen with or who others would assume he was partnering with. Yet this drives much of Evangelicalism.”

Bottom line: Jesus didn’t do the kind of dividing we tend to feel is our biblical obligation. He said strong things to people, but he wasn’t afraid of who he was seen with or who other people would assume he was forging partnerships and sharing a lifestyle with. Yet this drives much of Evangelicalism.

I’ve seen Romans 16:17 flying around recently as a warning against associating with people who teach false doctrine:

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.

Pretty straightforward, right? But read it again. It doesn’t at all say what I’ve always assumed it says. Paul isn’t telling us to divide from people who disagree with us theologically. What does he say? He tells us to avoid people who cause divisions and create obstacles! I don’t see how to take this other than as a warning against the very people who are constantly warning usabout people who teach different doctrine. Am I missing something? Or is that just what it says?

Some of the watchdog theologians I have read seem to be experts in identifying dangerous doctrine or doctrine that may not seem terrible in itself but that leads down a dangerous path. I wonder what this means in connection to Paul’s statement to “be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.” Is this just Paul’s way of saying focus on the positive?

The truth is, I have been this watchdog theologian. If you had mentioned Rick Warren in my presence several years ago, I would have given you several reasons why his ministry was deficient. Dangerous even. Guess how many of Rick Warren’s sermons I had heard or how many of his books I had read? Zero. I literally knew nothing about him firsthand, but I was in this watchdog culture that taught me that he was dangerous. 

So I barked along. 

I’ve been devastated when friends turned charismatic. I no longer considered them ministry partners. I’ve prayed for friends who identified themselves as—dare I say it?—Arminian. 

I followed many in my watchdog crowd in taking shots at the “Emerging Church”—even years after it stopped existing in recognizable form. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read just because I knew I would disagree with themand wanted to be able to warn people about the dangers therein. 

I am the watchdog theologian. I still have this knee-jerk impulse to bark at certain groups.

“In my former life, warnings against false teaching were infinitely more important than calls to unity. But I completely missed how much the New Testament emphasizes unity.”

But I’m beginning to see that some of the passages I’ve used to justify this approach don’t say what I thought they said. I’m beginning to see that unity is a FAR bigger deal in the New Testament than I ever would have imagined. In my former life, the warnings against false teaching were infinitely more important than admonitions to be unified. I’d make statements like, “There can’t be any unity without the truth.” I was being a jackass. 

I don’t know how it all works. I’m still learning, processing, and discussing. But I know unity is worth working toward. And for the first time in my life I’m trying to take seriously Paul’s warning to avoid those who cause divisions.  

Mark has been serving in pastoral roles for over 15 years. After a decade in various teaching and administrative roles at Eternity Bible College, Mark now works with Ryan as an associate pastor in Sacramento, California. His books include Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music and the New York Times bestseller Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples, which he co-authored with Francis Chan. This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. There are costs associated with running the blog. These links help to cover overhead.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Pastor Mark!

    First, you say somewhere on this blog that you hope it causes us to struggle with issues – and your blog has deepened my thinking. Thank you!

    One area of struggle for me is your call to unity. It’s not that I don’t love unity! I’ve spent years, by God’s grace, pursuing it, making mistakes, but pressing on towards the goal. But I think when we talk about it, especially articles like this, it would be really helpful to define our terms.

    Unity—“the state of being unified or joined as a whole”—begs a question. What precisely is the bond that unifies? For example, in my life, I experience a lot of different types of unity.
    • In the stands at a basketball game, I am unified with the parents of my boys’ basketball team – in unity, we cheer for our team. Let’s call that basketball unity.
    • Around our table at home, I am unified with our gospel community (which contains both disciples of Jesus, Hindus, and Muslims) – we care for one another, we cook together, we hang out together, we laugh together, and we love one another. Let’s call that table unity.
    • On Sundays, I am unified with my Sunday school team to contend for the gospel of Jesus Christ in the lives of young people. We do everything we can to welcome these little lambs in the house of the Lord – we share the truth of Jesus with them — the hope that can be theirs as he calls them to repentance and faith (there’s no greater joy, by the way, than sharing this news and doing it alongside brothers and sisters in Christ!). Let’s call this gospel unity.

    I believe that basketball unity, table unity, and gospel unity are all good things that God can, and does, use for our good and His glory. But they are different, and I feel it’s important that we don’t confuse them.

    In your post, you wrote the following: “Be careful who you associate with. Stay away from those people—and teachers in particular—who are spreading dangerous doctrine. It would be great if everyone stuck to biblical truth, but that’s not the case, so we have to be ready to break company with those who are outside the bounds of orthodoxy. It’s clearly good advice—it’s biblical after all—and we all believe it. But Jesus didn’t.”

    I’m struggling with that statement in light of what we see in Galatians:

    “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Gal 1:6-9)

    These are strong words! Paul is saying, under the authority of the Holy Spirit, that if anyone preaches a gospel contrary to the true gospel, he should be accursed! Paul seems to be saying that the one preaching a different gospel doesn’t have gospel unity with Paul under Christ.

    This forces me to ask the question: what is gospel unity? Here’s what I find in scripture:

    • Its source is the Holy Spirit: Scripture tells us that we are to “be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” Eph 4:3 and that “In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” 1 Cor 12:13.
    • It’s crucial for the body of Christ – the church is told to equip the saints “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God.” Eph 4:13
    • One of its goals is to shine Jesus into the world: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35
    • Jesus prays about it in John 17 – He describes a profound unity between him and his Father and those God has brought to faith: “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” John 17:6
    • Jesus says that gospel unity brings glory: “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:22). But that glory is a result of this: “I in them and you [Father] in me” (John 17:23)

    In your post, you go on to say, “In his day, Jesus was accused of being morally loose. Why? Because he hung out with people who were morally loose (Matt. 11:19). He “associated with” them. Jesus was pretty strong against the Pharisees for being false teachers, but he didn’t shun them. We see Jesus eating in their homes (Luke 14) and meeting with them for theological discussion (John 3).”

    When Jesus hung out with the morally loose, would you say he was experiencing 1) basketball unity, 2) table unity, or 3) gospel unity? Since I’m not sure they had basketballs then, I’d say he was experiencing table unity 🙂 And I think that’s great.

    But here’s what I think is an important point: While Jesus hung out with the “morally loose,” he didn’t invite them to the Last Supper, he didn’t ask them to shepherd his flock, and he didn’t say that their teachings were a missing theological puzzle piece.

    In the same way, I can have basketball and table unity with “morally loose” people – loving them the entire time and asking that the Lord might be kind enough to allow me to shine forth his love to them – but I wouldn’t invite them to our Sunday school class to lead my small group. The fact that I don’t ask my Hindu and Muslim gospel community neighbors to teach my children theology doesn’t mean I’m shunning them! The fact that I would invite a professing Christian who denies the deity of the Son of God to dinner, love her as a fellow image-bearer, and welcome her into a family evening doesn’t mean that I ask her to lead devotions. God calls us to table unity—without gospel compromise.

    You go on to say, “But I’m beginning to see that some of the passages I’ve used to justify this approach don’t say what I thought they said. I’m beginning to see that unity is a FAR bigger deal in the New Testament than I ever would have imagined. In my former life, the warnings against false teaching were infinitely more important than admonitions to be unified. I’d make statements like, ‘There can’t be any unity without the truth.’ I was being a jackass.”

    What type of unity are you talking about here? Do you believe that, in my examples above, I can’t exercise basketball and table unity in love with my neighbors while at the same time exercising biblical discernment that would keep me from inviting those of other faiths to into the flock and possibly make a shipwreck of the faith of the flock? Or those who make the same profession, but deny core tenets of biblical Christianity?

    Basketball unity exists with the truth of boys being on the same team. Table unity exists with the truth that we love one another and enjoy being together. But gospel unity exists on the basis of the one true gospel. So when your past self said “there can’t be any unity without truth” – I think you were right. Not all doctrines are equally important, but there is a core group of gospel truths that are worth disagreement. They are worth defense. They are worth—shall I say?—division. Paul labels people false teachers, as opposed to true. He labels some doctrine “sound.” He draws lines. Should we be line-happy? No! But we shouldn’t be afraid to speak a reasoned judgment, after prayer, with love and humility, for the worship and salvation of the church. God’s truth matters.

    I simply can’t enjoy gospel unity with others who do not cling to the same gospel. But I delight to sit at the table or in the basketball stands and love on my neighbors!

  2. Hi Friend!

    Great thoughts! Thanks for parsing it out like that. I am definitely not trying to be relativistic or universalistic. I agree that unity does not mean we let anyone at all teach on anything at all. I’m talking about the ostracizing and shunning. Primarily in my mind I was thinking of things like the Francis Chan accusations I wrote about previously or the way I’ve discounted many people over secondary theology. While I was at John MacArthur’s school we would shake our heads at John Piper because some of his staff to the Toronto blessing. At one point RC Sproul was in our good books and speaking at Shepherds Conferences, the next year we cracked down on our eschatology and he was never heard from again. The picture you’re painting of table fellowship is beautiful and it’s everything I want to see in our churches. And I agree about not letting people teach heresy, but I’ve been in this culture that treats minor differences as heresy. I know Jesus wasn’t having prostitutes etc teach doctrine, but his table fellowship was so close that people were accusing him of being one of them. I think this is probably what’s happening with Francis. Does that help? Are we getting any closer to the same page? Or maybe addressing different things?

  3. Hi! Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts it definitely caused me to think more critically about how I’ve been that “watchdog” before, and it’s probably been far more destructive than constructive. In practicality, I feel like this means 1) I shouldn’t feel the need to shout in someone’s face when I disagree with them and 2) I should avoid those who are constantly stirring up controversy and division about issues that aren’t central to our faith. My question is related to #2… How do we decide which things need to be called out as central to the Christian faith, and what things are ok to agree to disagree? Just curious, but either way, I know that regardless of the answer to that I can be kinder and more like Christ when it comes to how I interact with those with whom I have differing views.

    • Hi Kyle,

      So glad this is helpful. It certainly has been for Ryan and I. I wholeheartedly affirm point #1. And as to point #2, I think your question is great. Ryan actually posted on that today, you can take a look at that if it’s helpful: http://jackasstheology.com/2019/04/01/when-can-i-be-a-jackass/

      Bottom line, it’s always fine to disagree, it’s just always about how we do that. But I do get your point about some things being more central than others and figuring out how we stand up more firmly for the things we feel are vital. I don’t think there’s ever a super clear answer, but you could go for the historic Christian creeds (Apostolic Creed, Nicene Creed, etc.). Or you can boil it down to Jesus’ two great commands. That’s why I think Ryan’s post is helpful. He basically says that you have to let the Spirit guide you. That’s literally his job, so we have to allow him to lead and convict us as we try to show love and remain faithful to Jesus.

      • Awesome points, and helpful guidance on where to be a jackass and when it’s not worth it. Ryan’s article hit the nail on the head too. P.S. – I’m new to this site and have been finding it very helpful. I’ve been slowly becoming disillusioned with Christianity, but now realize I can’t “throw the baby out with the bath water”. In other words, I’ve been frustrated with things about Christianity (especially certain Christians) that it’s been tempting at times to give up altogether. The wisdom of this blog has been a breath of fresh air to me, and reminds me of the basic truths I need to hold true to.

        • This is so encouraging, Kyle. I’m glad it’s helpful. This is everything we’ve been praying this project would do, so I’m glad it’s given you a place to process all this. So cool. So glad to have you around.

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