As we read the opening verses of the short epistle of Jude, we discover that though the church of our Lord was maybe about thirty years old, it was already experiencing some difficulties related to unscrupulous men trying to use the young religion for their own enrichment and advancement.
Jude writes, “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 1:3-4; ESV)”
Jude was not the only one to observe this happening. The New Testament is full of mentions of those who would try to harness the veneration of Christ for their own ends.
Some sought to use the church to advance their own personal ideas and doctrines. The church had only been around for about fifteen years when certain judaizers, men who sought to have the church conform to the law of Moses, began a campaign in Antioch to convince the Gentile Christians of this necessity (cf. Acts 15:1-29; Galatians 2:1-10). The church responded quickly, but it was not the last time such a thing would happen. Rather, “the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons (1 Timothy 4:1; ESV)”
Some false teachers, the apostle Paul observed, preach because of personal ambition (cf. Philippians 1:17). They saw the church as a means to gain personal glory, or even wealth. Paul described such men to Timothy, saying that they saw “godliness as a means to financial gain (1 Timothy 6:5).”
Other false teachers desired personal pleasure and gratification, and wanted to use positions of authority within the church to gratify such desires. As Jude says, they “pervert the grace of our God into sensuality.” Peter likewise observed about such men in his second epistle, “They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! (2 Peter 2:14; ESV)”
This influx of false teachers was not unexpected. Again, Paul told Timothy that the Spirit was warning the church to be on guard against the eventuality. Jesus himself warned, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves (Matthew 7:15; ESV).” Likewise, we read Paul’s comments to the elders of the Ephesians church, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears (Acts 20:29-31; ESV).”
Today, we can still observe men who preach their own ideas, who preach for glory and personal gain, or who use the church to try to advance their own sinful desires. This is not the fault of the institution. Just as the human body is subject to the common cold, so too does the body of Christ suffer parasitical attacks from ungodly men who see religion as a means to their own personal ends. Yet, just as a healthy body can fight off such malignant viral attacks, so too the body of Christ, if it is healthy, is able to deal with such teachers.
A people who know and practice the truth will not be as easily deceived by falsehood. A church focused on spiritual treasures is not so ripe for financial picking as one fixated on materialism. A congregation which guards against impurity within itself will be far less tolerant of those who chase after sensuality (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-13).
Yet, if the individual members of the body turn away from healthy doctrine (cf. Titus 2:1) they will be less able to guard against unhealthy doctrine. They will be more likely to be taken advantage of by those who see godliness as a con with which to fleece the unwary. They will be more likely to be led astray and spiritually devoured.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.