“He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” Titus 1:9
Reformation time is quickly upon us. We know the story well. A monk named Martin Luther. A church gone astray. Forgiveness bought and sold. 95 Theses posted on the Church door at Wittenberg; October 31, 1517. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” A wonderful trip, once a year, down memory lane. But rather than a nostalgic look back, might I suggest a look around? How do you think it would look if Luther had kept quiet? What if, for the sake of peace and harmony, Luther and the other Reformers had compromised the Truth of the Gospel? What if they had taken the position that a little bit of error is OK? What if...
Thank God that was not the case, and that now we actually have something to celebrate each year at Reformation time! But when we get lazy, error has a way of sneaking in the back door of the Church. Hence, each generation must contend for the Truth of God’s Word. So once again the question is before us, how much error is too much? On this side of heaven the Church will always be plagued by error. But this “sad but true” reality should not make us complacent or lazy. Quoting Johann Baier, one of the great Lutheran theologians of years gone by, C. F. W. Walther teaches that toleration of error is as bad as or worse than the original error. He writes:
“Such toleration of errors, first, is in opposition to the Scripture passages which command us to preserve the whole Christian doctrine free from error (II Thessalonians 2:15), to keep the good thing committed unto us (II Timothy 1:14), that is, to keep it intact, uncurtailed and unadulterated, and to continue in the things which we have learned (II Timothy 3:14). But the doctrine will not be kept pure if opposing errors are tolerated at the same time and in an equal manner or are permitted to become mingled with it. Secondly, such toleration is in opposition to the duty of reproving imposed upon faithful teachers by God, through which [errors] are rebuked and condemned (cf. Titus 1:9, 13; II Timothy 4:2; 3:16), to which correspond the examples of Christ (Matthew 5:12ff.; 16:6) and of Paul (Galatians 1:6). Thirdly, such toleration is very dangerous, for those errors and corruptions, unless they are restrained, assailed, and condemned, will spread ever more widely; the truth of the doctrine is rendered doubtful and suspicious, or at least it is regarded as a matter of indifference; and finally those that err are confirmed, and the deceivers are given a chance to infect ever more [people].” 1
Summarizing Baier, Walther cites the threefold danger that arises from the toleration of errors. If they are not stopped, they will spread farther and farther, truth will become suspect, and the errorists will be confirmed in their error.
But why, for the sake of peace and love, don’t we just overlook false doctrine and errors? Why must Lutherans be so intolerant? Isn’t this simply “scolding” and a needless and purposeless criticism? For this reason Lutherans are often portrayed as trouble-makers, uneducated, and unloving. Walther counters, “to remain silent in the face of false doctrine is not a demonstration of love, but rather of hate; for how then can errorists be saved?” 2
May the Reformation spirit of Luther, Baier, and Walther work mightily among us as we proclaim and contend for the Truth which is Jesus, crucified and risen for the life of the world.
Rev. Clint K Poppe
Pastor, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Lincoln, Nebraska
1 Walther, Essays For the Church, Volume I, (St. Louis : CPH), 1994, p. 122-123.
2 Ibid., 124.