Should Christians “Name Names”?

Maybe it’s me, but the idea of “naming names”—calling out a specific pastor, teacher or author as promoting false doctrine and heresy—has increasingly felt awkward to me. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that I’ve seen very few examples of it done well. Generally, those naming names seem to be folks that Paul warns about in the pastoral epistles—men who love to stir up controversy and division who we should have nothing to do with (1 Tim. 6:4; Titus 3:10). They appear to jump on a video clip, a poor choice of words, or a seven year old blog post and go to town. This is why on any given day, you can find everyone from James MacDonald to John MacArthur declared heretics on the Internets. Frankly, it gets so ridiculous at times that I can completely understand why people would never want to say anything that would even suggest that someone might be a false teacher.

Yet, as I study the Scriptures, I find that I cannot go there. The authors of Scripture take false teaching very seriously and so must we. Indeed, throughout the New Testament, we see numerous examples of specific men named as false teachers—as traitors to the gospel.

Paul tells Timothy that Hymenaeus, Alexander and Philetus are among those who have made a shipwreck of their faith and swerved from the truth (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17-18). Their “irreverent babble,” he says, will spread like gangrene among God’s people. Their false teaching is like an infection that must be treated with the utmost seriousness and efficiency. Failure to do so will result in the infection spreading. The apostle John warned his readers of Diotrephes, “who likes to put himself first, [and] does not acknowledge our authority” (3 John 9). This man, who was apparently influential among John’s audience, refused to acknowledge the authority of apostolic teaching, becoming an authority unto himself (sounds familiar, doesn’t it). And Jesus himself warned of the Nicolaitans and their presence in Ephesus and Pergamum. He hated their works and commands those who hold to their teachings to repent or be caught on the wrong side when he would come to make war against them (Rev. 2:6; 15-16).

So if we look at these New Testament examples, we can say with reasonable confidence that the answer is yes—it is right and biblical for a pastor to warn against a specific teacher. But also notice that the answer isn’t quite as simple as we’d like it to be.

First, we must be careful to not declare a particular individual a false teacher unless the body of evidence warrants such a charge. Paul commanded Timothy that he should not “admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19). This is good advice. In our context, that means that an out-of-context quote from six years ago cannot qualify as confirmation of a teacher being a heretic. However, if the body of evidence strongly points in a particular direction, then it may be prudent to openly condemn that teacher’s doctrine.

Second, while the biblical authors clearly treat false teaching and teachers with dreadful earnestness, it is always addressed within the context of a specific local church. When Paul warned Timothy of Hymenaeus, Alexander and Philetus, he was giving him warning of men who would impact Timothy’s ministry in Ephesus. He didn’t warn Titus of these men. John, likewise, wrote specifically to Gaius. And Jesus said nothing of the Nicolaitans in his messages to the church in Smyrna, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia or Laodicea. Their error didn’t directly affect these churches in the way that it did Ephesus (with their positive rejection) and Pergamum (with their foolish acceptance).

This is instructive for our own day. While there might be a very real threat to the gospel, it may not actually be relevant to our particular local church. If we know that a particular author is widely read among our congregations and we know that he or she holds views that are opposed to the gospel, then it is right to warn the congregation of their teaching. But to name a particular individual who has no influence within our churches may have more in common with gossip than contending for the faith.

Finally, we should always remember the goal of “naming names”. You’ll notice that I repeatedly advise condemning a person’s teaching, rather than the person. This is intentional and, I hope, biblical. While Paul names names, even saying he has handed them over to Satan, it is to that “they may learn not to blaspheme.” Jude likewise commands us to show “mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 23). Simply, the goal is to bring those who promote false doctrine to repentance, and not simply say “They’re traitors and blasphemers, may they burn in hell.”

While we must always be willing to call false teaching what it is—heresy—we ought to be thoughtful about how we express it in relation to the person propagating that teaching. Hate their teaching, hate the lies they spread, hate the mockery they make of the gospel—but do not transfer that hatred to the person. Rather, pray for them to come to repentance and if you have the means, plead with them personally to return to sound teaching.

So, is it appropriate for Christians to name names? Yes, if it is to the benefit of our congregations and that our desire is to see those false teachers return the fold as faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

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  • http://twitter.com/Theology4Girls Diane Bucknell

    Aaron,  this is excellent!   And I love the point you make about addressing only things that affect the local church – one might argue that pretty much everything is local nowadays because of the Internet.  The Internet is actually calling attention to controversies  that many  believers would never have known  of otherwise.   I’m just thankful that most of the women in my local church are too busy with  their families to be online – most of them are clueless about all the controversy going on in my particular church fellowship affiliation- and I praise God for that.

    Tweeting this one.  Thanks.

  • http://ontheirshoulders.com/ Aron Utecht

    Aaron,

    Great question to ask!  I agree that naming names can be detrimental, and stir up more trouble and division than need be.

    Our philosophy prof at Denver Seminary said if people put their ideas into print they are fair game to critique.  I’ve generally followed that model.

    The problem we have in our culture of broken public discourse is distinguishing between people and ideas.  I always try to say something nice about the person’s character, or something good they’ve done before I critique their ideas.

    In that, I see it as a double teachable moment.

    Some great thoughts here.  Thanks!

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      It’s a helpful model to follow, for sure. 

  • Nick

    Fantastic points! So good. And you list MacArthur as being declared a heretic, but he sure does a lot of finger pointing himself!

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      He does, absolutely (and it’s something that I’d question him on if the Lord provided the opportunity). 

  • Katherine Issy

    *Ahem*

    Unless you are within the Orthodox Church, naming names and calling out heresies seems rather redundant, don’t you think?  Ever since the Great Schism, all sorts of buffoons have been prancing about calling everyone else heretics with less than humorous results. Neither Roman Catholicism nor Protestant factions have any right to declare anyone a heretic after all of the blood and buggery they’ve foisted on the world.  No, I think it would be better thing for certain hypocrites to slink back to the chalk board and write a million times: “I will not slaughter people, pollute the world, or act like a tool in the the name of God.”

  • Mike Erich

    I would agree that there is a place to name names. But I also think there is a danger that if all you do is name names you can end up not considering the real issues or even if they apply to you and end looking at theology as a list of people you want to avoid. This can in the end up with the idea that I do not believe so and so’s teaching without any idea what so and so teaches or why it is wrong. We need to be careful we are not so busy naming names that we do not explain the substance of what is involved.

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