The Day of Itching Ears
by Pastor Cornelius R. Stam
For the professing Church the day of theological controversy has passed. Ecumenism is now the word on every tongue. Church leaders appear to have become convinced that the stifling confusion in the Church can be overcome only by all of us getting together, minimizing our differences, and emphasizing those doctrines on which we all agree. As a result, some of the most important doctrines of Scripture are neither denied nor affirmed; they are ignored. But little matter, for the objective now is not to be true to the written Word of God but to see to it that the Church is “strong” and commands the world’s respect.
Ecumenism, sad to say, has made significant inroads among evangelical believers too. All too seldom do men of God stand up to defend by the Scriptures the truths they believe and proclaim. The theological debate has given place to dialogue, in which two individuals or groups sit down together to discuss their differences and see if there is not some basis for agreement. This appears generous and objective, but too often convictions are compromised and the truth watered down by such undertakings, with the result that the Spirit’s power is sacrificed for numerical strength. No man of God can speak in the power of the Spirit when he places anything before the Word and Will of God. Nor can the Church ever be truly united and strong unless she puts God’s Word and Will first and takes her place in the world as Christ’s ambassador on alien territory (See II Cor. 5:20).
But what do the Scriptures say about this new “open-mindedness,” this new “let’s all get together” trend?
OUR LORD’S WARNING
During our Lord’s earthly ministry He warned His disciples: “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees” (Matt. 16:6).
The disciples did not immediately grasp the significance of the Lord’s warning. Realizing that they had forgotten to take bread with them, they supposed that He referred to the leaven which their bakers used and concluded that the Pharisees and Sadducees were evidently out to poison their food!
To correct this mistake our Lord had but to remind them how, with but a few loaves, He had fed five thousand people at one time and four thousand at another. They themselves had taken up baskets full of the fragments on both occasions. Surely, then, He could supply them with food!
“Then understood they how that He bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees (Ver. 12).
Someone was out to poison them—spiritually! It is doubtful that the Pharisees and Sadducees meant to propagate poisonous doctrines, but in their pride and hypocrisy they were the ready tools of Satan. It was because of the destructive qualities of these doctrines that our Lord had used the term “leaven” to describe them. Where false doctrine is concerned, it takes but a little to do a great deal of harm. Referring to this very thing Paul warned the Galatians that “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (Gal. 5:9).
What was so dangerous about the teachings of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees? In general it was that the Pharisees added to the written Word (Matt. 23) and the Sadducees took from it (Acts 23:8). Both were dangerous, and our Lord warned His disciples to BEWARE of both. We do well to take this lesson to heart, for the Pharisees and Sadducees are with us still—those who add to the Word of God and those who take from it.
THE DOCTRINE OF THE PHARISEES
“The doctrine of the Pharisees” has held a prominent place in the Church throughout its history. The Reformation did not put an end to it by any means, for still today vast numbers of religious people subscribe to it.
The leaders of Christendom have added all sorts of rituals, restrictions, and requirements to God’s revealed program for His Church in this dispensation of Grace, and multitudes of sincere believers follow like sheep, instead of searching the Scriptures daily to see whether these things really do belong to His program for our day.
Look at the members of Christ’s Body. Many have placed themselves under the Law, while others are trying to recover the miraculous signs of Pentecost, or are striving to carry out a “great commission” that is not theirs. They observe holy days, baptism, footwashing, and all sorts of other forms and ceremonies which are contrary to God’s program for this dispensation, as revealed in the epistles of Paul. As a result the Church is a Babel of confusion and Satan is well satisfied.
How perverse is the heart of man! God reveals the Substance and lo, His people go back to the shadows! He demonstrates the all-sufficiency of Christ’s redemptive work and behold, His people continue to observe the rites that pointed to it. Indeed, they add ceremonies which He never commanded at all! In grace God postpones the judgment and the earthly reign of Christ, to offer grace and reconciliation to His enemies and lo, His servants do not even understand and go about vainly trying to “establish His kingdom.”
They do not deny that we are commissioned to proclaim God’s offer of grace and reconciliation, but they add another commission and so confuse the God-given message. They do not deny the all-sufficiency of Christ’s finished work, but they add unscriptural and undispensational teachings and forms and ceremonies, and so confuse and adulterate God’s clear message of grace.
This is “the doctrine of the Pharisees” and it is dangerous.
Added error blinds men’s minds to the truth. Those who add the so-called “Great Commission” to God’s program for this dispensation cannot fully appreciate the glory of our Lord’s “great commission” to Paul and to us (II Cor. 5:14-21; Eph. 3:8,9; et al). Those who go back under the Law of Moses or even back to Pentecost cannot fully appreciate the glory of our Lord’s finished work or “the exceeding riches of His grace.” Those who observe footwashing, water baptism, or holy days cannot fully understand the mystery of God’s purpose and grace. These added things hang as a veil before their eyes and blind them to the glories of their position in the heavenlies in Christ as members of His Body.
Our Lord charged the Pharisees with “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” and with “making the Word of God of none effect through your [their] tradition” (Mark 7:7,13). This is being done on every hand today as religious leaders add to God’s glorious “grace” program ceremonies and observances which belonged to former dispensations, or which He never commanded at all. This is dangerous to our spiritual welfare and we should “beware” of it.
THE DOCTRINE OF THE SADDUCEES
But if Satan cannot deceive us with “the doctrine of the Pharisees” he will seek to accomplish his purpose through “the doctrine of the Sadducees.”
In comparison with the bigoted Pharisees, the Sadducees were the “advanced thinkers” of their day. Not that they did not also substitute human tradition for the Word of God, but they made more of the human intellect and refused to believe certain truths which were supernatural in character. The Sadducees have a host of followers in our day with its emphasis on the intellectual.
But our Lord warned His disciples against the Sadducees too. He said “Take heed….Beware” and described their doctrine as leaven because a little of it can spread so fast.
This warning is sorely needed today since some sincere Christians, wishing to be intellectual and open-minded, place themselves in positions of great spiritual danger.
On the premise that they are mature and are seeking for the truth, such people often spend their time examining all the different viewpoints they can find and so make shipwreck of the faith. We should be careful about assuming that we are mature either intellectually or spiritually. To the puffed-up Corinthian believers Paul wrote:
“Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become [take the position of] a fool, that he may be wise” (I Cor. 3:18).
“And if a man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know” (I Cor. 8:2).
The fact is that we cannot trust our intellects. Surely the sharp disagreements among the world’s greatest intellects should teach us this. These disagreements exist because, as the Bible teaches, the human mind, like the human heart, has become depraved by sin.
THE THESSALONIANS, THE BEREANS, AND THE ATHENIANS
But were not the Bereans commended for listening with open minds to teachings which they had never heard before? Yes, when they were confronted with them. It was the Athenians, not the Bereans, who made it their policy to consider as many viewpoints as possible on every subject (Acts 17:18-21).
The strength of the Bereans was that they kept close to the Scriptures. When confronted with some new doctrine, they did indeed give it an interested hearing, but then “searched the Scriptures daily whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). Had they found anything in Paul’s message which contradicted the Scriptures they would immediately have rejected it. And for this God calls them “noble.” They were the truly great, the spiritual aristocracy of their day.
Too many believers today aspire to be like the Athenians rather than the Bereans. They say they wish to have open minds, and this is good if it is remembered that an open mind is like an open mouth; not everything should be put into it.
The Athenians went to the other extreme from the Thessalonians, who would not even consider a new doctrine when confronted with it—would not even consider it in the light of the Scriptures.
The Bereans were the wisest of the three. They kept close to that blessed Book, and, when confronted with unfamiliar teachings, immediately subjected them to the test of Scripture.
This is the wisest course even if only because we are all limited in time and strength. Obviously we cannot spend a great deal of time looking into the conflicting teachings of men without sacrificing a great deal of much-needed time for Bible study, and in the measure that we do this we are bound to grow spiritually weaker.
THE QUESTION OF EXPOSURE
There are those who argue that believers cannot be strengthened against error without being exposed to it. Our Lord knew better. He did not invite the Pharisees and the Sadducees to address His audiences. Rather He warned His audiences against the “leaven” of the Pharisees and the Sadducees and kept teaching His hearers the truth.
The depravity of the human heart and mind is such that the believer is not strengthened against error by constant exposure to it; he is strengthened against error by feeding consistently upon the Word of God. Exposure to error strengthens the believer only as it drives him to the Word of God. Show me a Christian who is always “considering all sides” and I will show you one who will fail dismally to give the Scriptural answer to false teaching—if indeed he is not taken in by false teaching himself. But show me a Christian who spends his time with that blessed Book and I will show you one who, strong in the faith, can easily answer his adversaries by the Scriptures. Paul wrote to young Pastor Timothy:
“I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ…. Preach the Word….For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears” (II Tim. 4:1-3).
And what was to be the result of this “itching ears” condition, this passion to hear teachers of all schools of thought expound their various doctrines? Hear the divine prediction:
“And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (Ver. 4).
What thoughtful student of the Word will deny that we have reached this point in the history of the professing Church, that the day of “itching ears” is upon us?
The desire to “give everyone a hearing,” as it were, may seem superficially to indicate spiritual greatness, but actually it is of the flesh and is based upon the exalted presumption that it is safe for me to trust my intellect, even though the greatest intellects have disagreed over the most vital subjects. Where our intellects are concerned we are wiser to heed the Spirit-inspired exhortation of one truly great intellect, the Apostle Paul:
“Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (II Cor. 10:5).
The Apostle Paul did not assume that his followers were mature enough to consider all religious viewpoints. He delivered his God-given message and warned his hearers and readers against false teachings.
To the Corinthians he wrote:
“But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (II Cor. 11:3).
Reminding the Colossians of his labor and strife and toil and conflict to establish them in the faith, he warns:
“Beware lest any man spoil [rob] you….Let no man beguile you…” (Col. 2:8,18).
He did not suggest to the Ephesian elders that it might be big of them occasionally to invite the legalists or the gnostics or some other heterodox teachers in to address their audiences. He rather impressed upon them their responsibility to protect their congregations from false teaching. Read carefully and prayerfully his very words, as found in Acts 20:28-31:
“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the Church of God, which he hath purchased with His own blood.
“For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.
“Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.
“Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.”
Even those two outstanding pastors, Timothy and Titus, were warned against the “leaven” of false teaching. The apostle exhorts Timothy:
“Take heed unto thyself and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee” (I Tim. 4:16).
This passage explains why some pastors have been unable to save their hearers from error and spiritual shipwreck. Certainly it teaches the danger of false doctrine to both pastor and people.
Throughout his two epistles to Timothy the apostle warns his son in the faith against those who “teach otherwise” and exhorts him to “fight the good fight of the faith.” How earnestly he beseeches young Timothy to stay close to the Word of God and especially to the Word of God committed to him for this present dispensation:
“O Timothy, keep [guard] that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding… oppositions of science falsely so called” (I Tim. 6:20).
“Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.
“That good thing which was committed unto thee keep [guard] by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us” (II Tim. 1:13,14).
In his letter to Titus the apostle declares that a bishop must be “blameless as the steward of God” (Titus 1:7).
“Holding fast the faithful Word… that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and convince the gainsayers” (Ver. 9).
Never does Paul advise even the strongest, most mature man of God to seek out the doctrines of those who “teach otherwise” so that they may know how to deal with them. He rather exhorts them to keep strong in the truth, ever ready to meet false doctrine with the Word of God.
When you are confronted with the familiar sign, “BEWARE OF THE DOG,” be wise and keep out of the way. If you ignore the warning and have to flee torn and bruised, that is your fault. Nor can you expect God to protect you from spiritual harm and loss if you ignore His admonition to beware of false doctrine.
Do not presume: “I am mature. I will never be confused or overthrown by error.” BEWARE! This is the course of obedience. This is the course of wisdom. This is the course of humility.
Every believer should remember that “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God…because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:14). It was by the Spirit that our eyes were opened to the most vital truths which confront mankind. Therefore it behooves us to protect ourselves from error and spiritual harm by consistent, prayerful, believing study of that blessed Book of which the Spirit is the Author.