A time or so during my Cleveland days I found myself on top of houses in the downtown area. A contractor in our church had asked me to help out with rehabbing some church properties. I thought that meant sweeping and carrying stuff. Instead, it involved standing on a severely v-shaped roof some three stories high.
The contractor walked around up there as though he were one of the X-Men. However, I didn’t have any superpowers. I wished for some sort of device to keep me from sliding down those crumbling roof tiles to certain death below.
Lord, keep me from going over the edge.
Oh that this attitude would captivate all ministers, and all receivers of ministry.
Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:1-2, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared.”
The apostle anticipated that this large-scale abandonment would occur sometime after him, although he was already seeing indications of it in his day.
Nor did he mean this prophecy as a prediction of cultural trends in general. The fact that some would depart from the faith meant that they had at one time been joined to it. These were Christians who would wander off.
The motive of deceit and insincerity mentioned indicate an agenda to confuse, or fool. Human beings are especially prone to being drawn into the orbit of error. A reasoning can appeal to their befuddled minds, fleshly appetites, or simple hubris. And so the source, while seeming spiritual, can also manage to be corrupt.
Paul further describes it as “the teachings of demons.” What does this look like? Demons are, after all, disembodied spirits. They hardly put on suits and conduct lectures.
Paul therefore tells us that such teaching comes through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared. When demons teach, they do so through men who have a damaged inner life.
One of the traits of falsity lies not merely in getting the teaching wrong, but a thorough disrespect of the teacher’s own conscience. Our conscience does not represent objective perfection. It receives instruction, first from parents, and then from the surrounding culture. When eventually a person meets Christ, the power of regeneration touches it (“My conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit!” Paul would say in Romans 9:1), and then the spiritual instruction of Scripture.
However, false teachers will encounter this instruction, perhaps first receiving it, but then refusing it based upon what makes better sense to them, what seems fairer, more likable, and whatever coalesces best with their secret sins. This is why the false teachers of chapter 4 felt qualified to meddle with marriage, or falsely elevate forms of diet.
Typically when apostolic ministry makes something clear, but confusion persists, it is not an intellectual problem, but an emotional one. Tears, outrage, and sometimes even misplaced love can bully a conscience into near silence, searing it.
And yet without conscience, error grows unabated, and once disabled it provides no further guardrail. The hapless saint (and sometimes an entire church) falls off the roof.
For me it’s a red flag moment when a Christian teacher announces a more nuanced handling of biblical morality or wants to “take another look” at faith tenets the church has held for the last two thousand years.
When their big reveal comes, these characters usually present it as a revelation gained after a heroic struggle against the forces of ignorance and bigotry. It’s actually a “victory” over the protests of their previously discipled conscience.
The triumph is dubious though, because it only amounts to the removal of an internal guardrail.
Now nothing blocks their egress off the roof onto their head.
This is not to say that our conscience can’t be further educated, otherwise we would remain slaves of many small and ridiculous things. 1 Corinthians provides an example of this, where polytheism still intimidated some weak Christians. But, as Paul said to his stronger readers, “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6).
Still, as Paul went on to advise, we should pay attention to our conscience even if it may be ignorant and limiting. If you truly wish to reach greater realms of freedom, study the Bible with a sincere heart and look to the Lord for the best understanding of it. You will find yourself unshackled from a great many superstitions, fears, and insecurities. At the same time you will also learn limits. For instance the Christian faith is not a wild west where all speculation, all opinion, all imagination should be places to abide.
We study with full sincerity, and yes, we may still be wrong. But we also trust that in those areas God will be kind and merciful to eventually fill the gaps. He often utilizes teachers. They are good. Sadly, some used to be good. We gauge their effectiveness by searching the Scriptures to see if the things they teach are really there, and we also stay alert to the anointing within us (1 John 2:27), for spiritual evaluation. And, yes, we observe their manner of life for obvious signs of qualification or disqualification (Matt. 7:15).
In the meantime, we pray our hearts will be open to receive true instruction. While we sing, “New heights I’m gaining everyday,” let’s not forget that if we become careless, it’s a long way to the ground.