Heresy spotting has become something of a pastime for many Christians. We can get into trouble if we don’t keep alert, but we can easily miss the point or jump to unwarranted conclusions. So what does the Bible tells us we should do before rushing to judgment?

The preacher was claiming that God wanted to touch people’s lives, and was telling extravagant stories of how he already had. He said the Bible was a dead book unless we believed God could do today what he had done then. It was turbo charged preaching, and the guy was still in his 20s. At the end of around 45 minutes of stories and scattered Bible texts he called people forward for prayer for healing and salvation. Maybe two dozen of the 300 gathered went forward and before long the responses from those prayed for suggested that ‘stuff was happening’.

Throughout the service I was squirming in my seat with a churning feeling in my stomach. I was annoyed that the pastor had allowed this visiting evangelist to do this, indignant at his unhelpful reference to the Bible and alarmed to see people I knew well down the front. In the next few weeks I checked out what others felt about this man and his methods, and was put out to discover I was largely in the minority and that people had indeed been touched by God. So they say, I thought! I was convinced I was right.

Ever been there too? And it’s not just church services. An event speaker breezes in to town, or we catch something on TV or the web that makes us wonder. The Lakeland Awakening (revival style meetings including many stories of healing in Lakeland, Florida from March to August 2008 headed by unorthodox evangelist, Todd Bentley) was perhaps the first ‘revival’ (some prefer the word refreshing) to be broadcast on the airwaves, with GodTV allowing satellite subscribers to view the events from the comfort of their living room. Others saw ‘highlights’ on YouTube.

So what do you when you hear teaching or witness things out of the ordinary? You can’t chase down every errant idea and dodgy practise (not if you also want to live a sane life at any rate) but there may be times when you have to make a judgment because of the effect on believers (and non believers) you know. If you are in leadership you will be expected to have a view. The unity of the church may well be at stake.

How we make that judgment is important. We may be centuries away from the witch hunts of the Reformation era but the instinct to name and blame is very much alive, and lurks especially close to those who take their Bible seriously. The irony is that we may be so keen to highlight the error, that we fail to spot that we have neglected the Bible’s advice on how judgments should be made. A splinter – beam problem if ever there was one! So what does the Bible say about making judgments of others, especially those who preach and lead?

A few general points first. When Jesus says ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged’ (Matthew 7:1) the word used implies that disciples are not to be judgmental and censorious as if they are usurping the place of God. It cannot mean do not make any judgments. Theologian, DA Carson, commenting on this verse says: ‘The moral distinctions drawn in the Sermon on the Mount (from which this verse comes) requires that decisive judgments be made.’

We have to make judgments about what we see and hear so we can help others in their walk with God. Many of the New Testament letters were written to outline how the lordship of Jesus was to be worked out and it was especially important in those early years that the gospel of Christ was neither diluted, nor added to. Paul spoke of guarding the gospel and Jude of ‘contending for the faith that was once for all entrusted to all the saints’.

So we must make judgments, but we can do so without being censorious and judgmental. Here are four questions that can help us.

1. Do I need to talk this through ‘one to one’?

This can be a hard question to ask in the heat of the moment. If you hear or see something you are unsure about, you probably don’t want to ‘talk it through’ - you want to tell them they are wrong!

In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus teaches us to show our brother his fault one to one. We go to them personally. We don’t speak behind their back, or, if they are more widely known, publish comments in articles or blogs. After all we may be wrong about what we saw or heard. Within a local church setting this is easily accomplished. It is trickier when the speaker is in a non church setting, or serves in a charity or a Christian organisation, but the principle should surely apply: write, phone, email, and if you get no joy, contact the trustees or fellow leaders.

My reaction to the evangelist many years ago wasn’t wise, but a better outcome came when I wrote to one leader because I was puzzled at an omission in one of his books, which I regarded as serious. He was very gracious in his response and, in a subsequent lunch, shared the dilemma he faced and why he had written as he had. My respect for him grew and I have been glad to commend his work to others ever since.

In Acts we read how Priscilla and Aquila explained to Apollos ‘the way of God more adequately’(Acts 18:26) which from the context may have been an inadequate understanding of the Holy Spirit (compare 18:24-25 with what Paul finds in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-6) – the place from which Apollos came).

The ‘softly softly’ approach isn’t the only one found in scripture. Those keen to wade in publicly do have precedent – Paul confronts Peter (Galatians 2:11-14) over his hypocrisy. Maybe there will be times when we need to intervene publicly, but we need to be pretty sure there isn’t another way, and that at the very least other approaches have been considered. None of us have the same role in the founding of the church that Paul had!

Of course all this needs to be done in an atmosphere of love. We talk one to one hoping for the best, seeking resolution and aware that we ourselves will need correction from time to time. Don’t assume you know all that’s taken place. Phrases like ‘this is how it seemed to me’ and ‘I want to believe the best’ will help things along. Go prepared to learn from them, even if you are sure that you are in the right.

There may of course be times when you face a stalemate: neither you nor they are willing to budge. What then? It partly depends on whether the matter is something that Christians typically disagree over, or whether their view or practise is generally regarded as unorthodox (question 2 below will help). If the latter, you may need to involve others. In Matthew 18 Jesus tells us that if someone won’t listen to our concern we should brings along someone else, maybe someone of recognised leadership standing, to join you. And you will be praying that the matter can be resolved and not need to involved in some form of church discipline. If you need to ‘agree to differ’ then your disagreement does not give you the right to bad mouth them. They are still your brother or sister in Christ and in 100 years time neither of you will be too bothered!

In some cases people will be affected by error and the discerning leader will need to make a judgment call whether a matter requires a rebuttal and explanation, maybe as part of sermon or whether actually, extended treatment could be unnecessarily divisive. Sometimes refuting a matter merely creates controversy which would have died a natural death.

2. What do other Christians think?

Before rushing to personal judgment it is always worth checking with other Christians. You probably know who you would chat with or phone up. But ‘other Christians’ should include the wider church body, lest we merely become entrenched within the particular beliefs and prejudices of where we happen to worship, and especially if the matter in question is part of a wider trend.

The person’s words or behaviour that concern you may actually expose something in you that God is putting his finger on. Looking back, God has often used my own inward cries of ‘that’s ridiculous’ to show me that it was my thinking that was ‘ridiculous’ as I discovered there were many believers who would take the line I had dismissed.

John Leach, former director of Anglican Renewal Ministries, and soon to be vicar of St John’s Church, Folkestone says: “Never underestimate the power of personal preference. We are all very good at calling ‘unbiblical’ something we don’t happen to like, or saying that ‘God would never do that kind of thing’ just because we find it unusual.”

If we want to grow spiritually then it is likely that there will be areas of our current thinking, especially about God, that are wrong: perhaps who he is, how he works and doesn’t work. So why not accept this and remain open to what God may say through any source he chooses? This doesn’t mean we should be gullible, but it does mean with the apostle Paul we are prepared to test all things and hold fast to the good (1 Thessalonians 5:1), realising that what he calls good, may not be what we might have thought, and may not come in the cultural or theological or emotional package which we have been used to. God is no respector of ‘boxes’.

But we rush to judgment because we feel threatened, or frightened which was true of my reaction to the evangelist mentioned earlier.

Listening to others can help us spot our prejudices, and is certainly advocated in the New Testament. In Acts 11 we read how Peter deflects criticism about eating with uncircumcised believers in Caesarea by explaining how God had been involved Peter’s explanation ends with the conciliatory outcome: ‘When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God’ (11:18).

Today, denominations, new church streams and other alliances of Christians will cover contentious subjects in their annual jamborees and get to know what their valued ‘statesmen’ (mostly men) thinks of the issue in question.

In July 2005 the Evangelical Alliance (EA) held a debate on the theology of the atonement following the publication of The lost message of Jesus by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann. The hope was that considered input from theologians would help clarify the points of concern (See The atonement debate: Papers from the London symposium on the theology of atonement).

The EA has a pool of people whom it consults when contentious matters are in the public domain. Other EA publications include The nature of hell, Faith, hope homosexuality, Faith, health and prosperity and God and the generations.

John Leach believes the Jerusalem church’s reflection on Peter’s experience in Acts gives us a model for today. “The experience of the Spirit coming on Gentiles forces them back to scripture. Later in Acts (15:16-19) the leaders of the Jerusalem church see that Amos had actually predicted this, but though the scripture encouraged it, it was the experience of God that led them to see what was in the word all along. We need to do the same today.”

Finding out what others say includes also listening to our opponents. “I have found that I can learn from people with whom I profoundly disagree. It’s worth being prepared to receive something new,” explains Don Horrocks, head of public affairs at the EA.

Listening to others includes non-doctrinal areas too. “Ethical issues can be different from doctrinal ones. In many areas there are no texts to go to, so we need to look at broad scriptural principles in suggesting a stance,” explains Horrocks. “There are often more sides to an issue than we are aware of.”

The decision to look for a wider discussion does not of course always lead to unity, as opinion may be polarised. But it does prevent us from making hasty judgments and it does mean that it is much harder for minority judgments to thrive, if the majority of the church or wider church hold a different line.

3. Do I need to wait and see?

In the early years of the church, the Jews were asking what they should do about the new sect of Christianity. Gamaliel, a rabbi, and one of the Jewish rulers, famously cautions them not to pronounce judgment prematurely in case they oppose God. Joel Edwards, in his last year as general director of the EA, opted for this approach when asked to comment on the Lakeland outpouring. In an open letter written on June 10th 2008 to EA members, he acknowledged that the current phenomenon was not new, rejoiced with those who testified to a deeper level of commitment and joy as a result of their experience but urged them to avoid excessive behaviour which may discredit the gospel. In his final line he said: ‘We would advocate the Gamaliel principle; if the phenomenon is genuinely of God it will certainly bear lasting fruit.’ (see for the full letter).

Many seek to assess unusual spiritual phenomenon in the light of past works of God and often look back to Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who was at the forefront of an awakening in New England. He experienced revival while pastoring in Northampton, Massachusetts and later served in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Highly regarded for his theological insights, some of Edwards’ books outline how to understand the unusual phenomenon, such as swoonings, outcries and convulsions which accompanied the revival.

This ‘wait and see’ question is typically used when we believe there is nothing in scripture to condemn the practice, but are unsure whether this is really something God approves of. Many evangelistic approaches are like this. Most of us would spot that the practice of ‘flirty fishing’, whereby attractive women in the US dress provocatively to manipulate men into conversation about the gospel, violates Pauline (the apostle - not the woman’s name!) teaching that we have renounced secret and shameful ways (2 Corinthians 4:2) . But the first person to go door knocking, use a sketch board in the street, put up a tent to hold a service, probably had detractors telling them it will never work, and that this new practice wasn’t godly.

At one time Christians only ever saw psychic fairs as something to pray against. But then some saw this as a great opportunity to pitch in and set up Christian stalls offering prayer. In some cases these stalls were the most popular. Unusual experiences or manifestations may fall into this ‘wait and see’ category. Jesus spoke of looking to see the fruit in order to assess the source.

‘Wait and see’ was not always the reaction to a radical alternative service held initially under the auspices on St Thomas Crookes, an Anglican Church in Sheffield in the mid 80s to mid 90s. The Nine O’Clock Service (so famous in some quarters it is known as NOS) used Goth rock music and later acid music, experimental worship styles including dance, multi-media all within a charismatic style especially aimed at youth culture, and grew from 30 to a peak of around 600. Many thought this was too radical, though not John Leach.

“It is not wait and see so we can say, ‘We told you it wouldn’t work’,” says Leach. “Rather it is waiting to see what God may teach us. In my experience the Nine O’Clock Service was a classic example. My initial reaction was that what was happening couldn’t be of God. But we continued to take young people from our church to the church and many were blessed as a result. Many young people are going on with God today because of what God did, even though the whole thing eventually ended badly.”

The ‘wait and see’ is not a comfortable approach if you can’t handle ambiguity, or feel that anything less than certainty is deemed to be weak. Some leaders have built their reputation on being sure of what is right and what is not, and published their ‘refutation’ and warnings so their followers can be kept on the straight and narrow. Though they are doubtless sincere, they might be wiser to adopt the Gamaliel approach. Standing on the wrong side of a work of God is not a wise move.

4. Do I need to ignore it?

The apostle Paul reminds Timothy to have nothing to do with discussion that ‘promotes controversies’ (1 Timothy 1:4) and explains in his letters that there are many things which scripture neither supports nor condemns and which Christians have liberty in doing providing they can do it ‘to the glory of God’. Jesus was especially harsh on the Pharisees who thought through every eventuality in life, pouncing on those who failed, yet missed the main point of knowing God.

Just because books and magazine articles are published on an area, it doesn’t mean you have to wade through them all. There is value in what time management experts called, ‘planned neglect’. Having a ‘stance’, or a ‘position’ can be overrated and if you judge that the area in question is one of liberty, save your time and energy for building up the saints and reaching the lost - you will be glad you did. Too much effort is spent on giving human opinions where God has reminded silent. Insisting on a judgment when God has not given us any indication one way or another enslaves sensitive believers: we don’t become holy by being stricter than God!

The track record of the church in the UK is not a good one when it comes to rushing to judgment. Many churches have been birthed because of the sad fall out. Repairing the damage is emotionally gruelling and costly and many never recover. The World Christian Database suggests that there are 9,000 denominations in the world. Britain takes the bronze medal behind India and the US with 253. (India has 263 and US 635).But with relative populations taken into account Britain takes the gold on denominations per Christian! Not every denomination has arisen because of rushing to judgment, but how many splits may have been avoided if only the Christians had read the scriptures on reconciliation?

The apostle Paul tells the Ephesians ‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3). Every effort surely involves us all taking appropriate steps before we rush to judgment, including what we see on the web or TV, hear in our church, and of course listening to healing evangelists in their 20s.