Treat Error Fairly

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Three Kinds of Traditions |“I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments” (Col 2:4).

Error of some stripe has confronted every generation of God’s people. The Israelites were confronted with the errors of idolatry throughout their history. The captives of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon were confronted with the error of emperor worship. The Christians in Colossae dealt with Judaizers trying to bind Old Law requirements on New Covenant Christians (Col 2:16, 17), angel worshippers (Col 2:18), and ascetics who appeared holy and devout (Col 2:23).

How then should God’s people treat error? Should we simply ignore it? Paul doesn’t—he lists and describes the errors in Colossae. Should we label those wrapped up in error as “dummies”? Paul doesn’t—he calls their arguments “plausible.” The arguments may be untrue, misleading, and wrong, but he still called them “plausible.” This teaches Christians something about the way we should treat error. When we sit in Bible class or listen to preaching, we usually sit alongside likeminded people. I preach almost exclusively to sympathetic audiences (I am very grateful!). But the danger is that we are satisfied to believe weak reasoning and arguments. We are quick to label those who disagree as “dummies.” We don’t take error seriously. We don’t treat error fairly. Why does this matter?

First, even if we speak truth, we do the truth injustice when we treat error unfairly. If you are studying with a Mormon, trying to teach him the truth, but the only thing you have to say about Mormonism is that “only morons believe this stuff,” how do you think that will go over? When Paul preached to the Athenians, he quoted their poets to them (Acts 17:28). If you want to have any effect as a teacher, you must have first given the error a fair hearing.

Second, when we simply wish away error, failing to develop coherent arguments, we become the “believe what you’re told” crowd that we mock. I have heard someone say, “I can’t believe those Catholics just believe whatever their priest says,” but then when confronted with a difficult religious question, they run straight to their preacher saying, “tell me what to think!” The Bible word for this is hypocrisy.

Third, the most dangerous consequence of treating error unfairly is that the error may come back around to hurt our own faith. Having only heard and nodded vigorously to shallow reasoning, but then confronted with a plausible argument that has only been wished away, our faith may shaken. If we have spent all of our time calling people in a certain error “dummies,” but then are confronted by someone from that camp who is not a dummy, we will be dumbfounded. There are Calvinists who know the Bible! There are atheists who are champion debaters! They may be deluded, misguided, and in error—but they are not all dummies!

We must know what we believe. We must know why we believe it. We must be able to coherently and effectively deal with error in order to teach truth. But we can only do that if we first take the error seriously and treat it fairly.