Led Astray

(Deuteronomy 13:1-5; 1 Timothy 4:1-6)

One of the enduring myths of modern times is the idea that lemmings have a suicidal streak. Apparently, we have Disney to thank for this, at least in part. During the shooting of their 1958 nature film White Wilderness, the crew purchased a few dozen lemmings, shot footage of them from a number of different angles to make them look like a large herd, then drove them off a cliff in order to show them “hurling themselves into the sea.” It apparently convinced a lot of people—after all, would Disney lie to you?—but it just isn’t so; the real reason for mass lemming extinctions is quite different. You see, in the absence of sufficient predators to keep their numbers in check, lemmings tend to breed out of control and literally eat themselves out of house and home; when there’s no more food, they pack up and move, migrating en masse, looking for a new place with enough to eat. The problem is that lemmings don’t see very far, so if they come to a cliff, or a lake, or the ocean, then yes, they keep right on going and end up dead; but their deaths are accidental, not the result of some long-tailed death wish.

The upside of this myth, at least for lemmings, is that at least we’ve heard of them. If I asked you to name another animal that lives on the Arctic tundra, how many of you could? Granted, it’s not that lemmings themselves are all that interesting, it’s their symbolic value; but the symbol is powerful enough that it doesn’t much matter that the actual animal is really rather nondescript. When we hear “lemming” we don’t think “tundra rat,” we think of someone who’s easily led, who follows the crowd wherever they go; we have an image of an individual who lacks the foresight to see trouble coming, or the insight to ask where their leader is going. We think, in other words, of the kind of person who would blindly follow someone right over the edge of a cliff and not even think twice until they were halfway to the bottom.

Now, there are those who will tell you that lemmings are in the majority, that most people are mindless followers; they might even be right, though I’ve noticed that people who say that tend to be pretty arrogant about their own independence. In the last analysis, though, I think the real lesson to be learned from the lemming is that leadership matters, because the direction in which you go matters. Indeed, that’s even truer for us than it is for lemmings: unlike the rodents, we know there are obstacles out there, we have some idea what they are, and we can plan for them. The downside, obviously, is that our knowledge isn’t perfect—we make mistakes, and though we know problems are out there, we don’t know when we’ll meet them; but though our knowledge isn’t sufficient to guide us, God’s is. He knows perfectly what we need, what’s best for us, and what difficulties and struggles we face, and will face; if we want to get where we need to go, he is the leader we need to follow, and his are the instructions we need to obey.

To that end, God has raised up his church, and raised up leaders for his church, so that we aren’t trying to follow him alone—we travel through life together, with others to catch us and correct us when we wander from the path, and people in our midst who have been given special gifts and a particular responsibility to help us on the way. Together, we have the responsibility and the calling, as we talked about last week, to invite others to join us, to teach them where we’re going, and why, and how we’re getting there together—how to live along the way. We’ve been given a great and wonderful truth—that God became a human being, that he lived and died and rose again on this earth, for us sinners and for our salvation—and we’ve been given a goal and purpose to our life’s journey; we need to live together in such a way that people see that truth, feel that purpose, and are inspired by that goal.

The problem is, it’s a lot easier to wander off the path than it is to stay on it, because there are a lot more wrong directions than right ones. There are folks out there who believe that all professed attempts to seek God are equally valid; there are those who will tell you that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere (and as long as your beliefs don’t lead you to do something they find offensive). Unfortunately, it just isn’t so. If you think driving over to 15 and turning north out of town is going to get you to Indianapolis, I don’t know what to tell you. You may be completely sincere in your belief, but it doesn’t change the fact that something’s wrong with your map. What we believe matters, because it shapes how we live, the choices we make and the turns we take; and so what we’re taught matters, because it shapes what we believe.

That’s why James writes, “Let not many of you seek to be teachers, knowing that we who teach will be judged far more strictly,” because those who teach things that aren’t true don’t just hurt themselves, they hurt all those who listen to them; it’s why God uses such strong words in Deuteronomy against false prophets in Israel; and it’s why Paul speaks so sternly about the false teachers in Ephesus. There are two points in this passage that are particularly worth noting, I think. First, Paul says that those who follow these false teachers have “renounced the faith.” This is why he’s so concerned about this situation, because it’s not just a matter of people having a few things wrong. We’re not just talking, let’s say, the difference between Presbyterians and Baptists. My Baptist colleagues and I have our disagreements, and I might point out that I think they’re mistaken not to baptize infants, but I’d never call them false teachers just because I believe they’re a little off on one thing or another. The lies of Timothy’s opponents in Ephesus, with their skewed understanding of God’s law and their strange little myths and behavior codes, went right to the heart of the gospel; their version of Christianity was far enough off that to believe it was to trade in the true faith for another faith. Their picture of God was so far off the mark that they were no longer really worshiping God at all, but instead another god of their own invention. Their map was too inaccurate to get them where they were trying to go; it could only lead them astray.

This is an important thing for us to understand: it matters when we believe things that aren’t true because they skew our view of reality. We don’t need to understand everything perfectly—which is a good thing because none of us does—but as we keep choosing to believe things which aren’t true, at some point, what we think is so far off the truth that it has major spiritual consequences. At some point, the content of our faith is so warped and twisted by falsehood that it just isn’t true faith anymore, because our understanding of God no longer bears any meaningful resemblance to who he really is. The false teachers in Ephesus had done such damage there that some in the church had reached that point, and passed it, and so Paul says of them that they have renounced the faith. Now, he isn’t surprised by this; in point of fact, as he alludes to here, he predicted this in his farewell sermon, back in Acts 20. The church has a great and glorious mission, but there will always be those who turn their back on it to pursue something else instead; it was no surprise to Paul, and it shouldn’t be to Timothy, either.

The other point to note is just how strongly Paul speaks against the false teachers. In Acts 20, he refers to them as “ravening wolves”; here he calls their teachings demonic and the product of deceitful spirits, and accuses them of hypocrisy and falsehood. “Liars” may not be quite the right translation there—the word only means one who speaks that which is untrue, not necessarily one who does so deliberately; Paul’s emphasis at this point is not so much that they’re intentionally lying to people as that they are agents of the lie, that they are serving lying, demonic spirits. That’s the point of verse 2, which says that their consciences have been seared with a hot iron. We’ve noted that their consciences are so badly burned that they no longer function, but the way in which they’ve been burned is also important: literally, the Greek says that their consciences have been branded, like cows. They have Satan’s brand on their souls, and their consciences now belong to him, not to God; they are no longer servants of the truth, because they have become slaves of the lie. Whether they realize it or not, they are Satan’s agents in the church in Ephesus as he works to bring that congregation down from within.

It’s worth noting here the two examples Paul gives in this passage of their false teaching: they forbade their followers to marry, and they reinstituted some version of the Old Testament food laws. These were both things Paul had dealt with in other churches before, and the whole idea that following God meant refusing to eat certain things was a point of particular annoyance to him; as he told the Colossians, to make that mistake is to trade in Christian freedom for a renewed slavery to this world, which itself is in slavery to sin. Here, he makes the further point that everything created by God is good; as long as we give him thanks for it and use it as he intended, there is no reason for us to reject anything that God has made, because it’s all good. We might need to refrain from some of it for our own sake, as the alcoholic needs to keep away from alcohol, or the diabetic needs to avoid sugar; but that’s about us, not about God.

Now, mark this: the Devil was at work in Ephesus, through these false teachers, to get people in the church to deprive themselves of good things. That might seem like a strange thing to say, when so many people’s idea of Christian living is “thou shalt not do anything fun”—but it’s the truth. Despite what some might think, God is the one who created pleasure, and he’s the one who wants you to live a really good life; Satan, by contrast, might use pleasure to get you hooked, but his ultimate goal is to deprive you of everything worth having. Just look at drug addiction—the real pleasure, the real fun, is all in the beginning; after a while, all that’s left is desperation, craving and need.

That’s the pattern of sin, and the pattern Satan wants to get people into—the minimum pleasure necessary for the maximum slavery; and whatever they might think themselves to be doing, even if they proclaim themselves agents of liberation, that’s ultimately the end that all the false teachers of this world serve. By contrast, and we see it here in Paul, the Christian faith calls us back to see the true goodness of God, and the true goodness of all that he made, through the deception and confusion of all this world’s counterfeit versions. To use Paul’s examples here, he calls us to see the true goodness of marriage through the counterfeits of free love, hooking up, and whatever else this world can spin out there, and to see the true goodness of food through all the ways we misuse that. Our issues with food are rather different from those of Paul’s day, but no less significant for all that. The key here is that this is our Father’s world, which he created good, despite all the ways we misuse and abuse it; when we treat it as anything less than his good creation—whether by rejecting it or by worshiping it—we harm ourselves, we dishonor God, and we distort his truth. But though there are many who would try to trick us into doing so in order to lead us astray—and though we need to learn to recognize them when they show up—we have this assurance: this is indeed God’s world, and however strong evil may sometimes seem, he is still the ruler, and the one in control.

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