One of the greatest difficulties that a believer may face in their spiritual life is this:
I have discovered that the Bible teacher or organization that greatly helped me is teaching a false doctrine or is involved in a major sin. The problem has been brought to their attention, but they are not really changing. I can see from the Bible that their actions are not right, but I know that they helped me.
This is indeed a difficult trial for many believers. Reactions vary considerably. We will discuss some of them in a few paragraphs. But first, let us realize that the Bible speaks of those who provide some help to believers, yet imperfectly.
1. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees in the temple and synagogues were the main source of knowledge of the Word of God, but Jesus cautioned the hearers not to follow the corrupt practices of some of the leaders (Acts 15:21; Matt 23:2-7).
2. Paul explained that some preach Christ out of envy, rivalry and selfish ambition, but he rejoiced in all of that (Phil 1:14-18). Obviously, it will be hard for the believers who learn about Christ through those preaching for selfish motives. When those believers eventually discover the true motives, they will be facing the very problem that this article is about.
3. Apollos traveled around teaching that Jesus was the Christ, but did not understand that people should be baptized in His name and receive the Holy Spirit. This story has a happy ending in that Priscilla and Aquilla later taught Apollos the rest of the Gospel, and Paul had them baptized and laid hands on them that they might receive the spirit (Acts 18:24–19:6).
4. Many people, including this writer, have been greatly helped by the book of Proverbs. Yet what happened to Solomon, the writer of this book of great wisdom? “So the Lord became angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned from the Lord God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods; but he did not keep what the Lord had commanded. Therefore the Lord said to Solomon, ‘Because you have done this, and have not kept My covenant and My statutes, which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to your servant’” (1Kngs 11:9–11).
5. Even the Apostles were not perfect teachers. On the night before Christ died, His Apostles were still discussing who among them was the greatest (Luke 22:24). Even after they had received the Holy Spirit, Barnabas had a dispute with Paul (Acts 15:39) and Paul had to correct Peter (Gal 2:11).
Reactions to the Problem
So what do people do when they realize that the teacher or group that greatly helped them is also involved in sin or doctrinal error?
1. Some simply begin to deny that the problems exist—refuse to learn any more about them or talk about them.
2. Others completely excuse the problems, saying that people have no right to question the personal sins or doctrinal teachings of “the ones God has called to do such a great Work”.
3. Another common approach is for an individual to reject the teacher or organization with the known sin or doctrinal error, and immediately look for a new organization or teacher and then put complete confidence in them.
4. Even more extreme, but not uncommon, is the rejection of some or all of the Bible.
5. Lastly, we would not be complete if we did not mention the “depressed muddle”: many people continue on listening to the same teacher, fellowshipping with the same group—occasionally visiting other groups or hearing other teachers, but with much less enthusiasm than before. Their thinking may be something like this: “If our leaders have this much trouble, what chance is there of me straightening out my life? But I can’t abandon the people who helped me.”
“Count It All Joy” in this Trial!
“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (Jms 1:2–4).
But how can one be joyful when a major source of one’s religious teaching is now in doubt? How can we be joyful when a person or group whom we esteemed to be of God now has known sins or doctrinal error? Because there are four major lessons that we can learn from this trial that we might not learn any other way!
1. Trust the Eternal, not men or their organizations. While nearly every believer thinks their faith is not in men, it is amazing to see what some do when their leader or church group comes upon difficult times. Paul had to teach the Corinthians not to align themselves with a particular teacher: “Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1Cor 1:12–13).
2. Remain forever humble about the Bible truth that we do have. It is so easy to begin believing that we listen to the teachers with the most truth, or attend the group that is “doing the work”. Problems with teachers and groups teach us that it is Christ who does the work through men, not men who do the work of Christ. “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1Cor 10:12).
3. Appreciate good however it comes to us. We can be thankful for a little or a lot of helpful teaching that we received. Even though it is upsetting when we realize we were taught error for many years, there is little value in holding anger. Be thankful and never forget the positive effect of the good things that you were able to learn.
4. Have empathy for others who remain in other groups with errors and sins that are obvious to you—these groups helped them. It is so easy to have patience and forgiveness for the problems with our own teachers and organizations, but quickly condemn them in others. There are probably millions of people who attend groups with erroneous doctrines and/or sinful leaders, but know that they were helped in one or more of life’s crises and brought to God by that group. Can you expect a person who was redeemed from drug addiction by a Sunday-keeping group to completely reject that group as “unGodly” when he or she begins to learn about the Sabbath? Or will they say: “but… they helped me”?
We must judge other groups and teachers with the same judgment we would want ours to be judged (Matt 7:2). Christ said that His disciples would be known by their love for each other (John 13:35). If a person believes they have experienced Godly love in a certain group, it is hard for them (and us) to accept that there might also be sin or error present.
So What Do I Do Now?
Look to Christ as your spiritual guide, not any man. He will take care of you no matter how many different teachers you learn from or how many different groups you fellowship with. Rejoice as you learn the four lessons, above. You can reject wrong leadership, while remaining friends with the brethren. This article cannot begin to tell you what to do in your specific situation. Christ knows what you should do. Ask Him.
— Norman Edwards