Where is the line drawn between false teachings and matters of conscience?


I've read your articles on false teaching and head coverings. My question is: How do we know if someone is engaging in false teaching? More specifically, where do we draw the line between false teaching and matters of conscience (Romans 14)? For example head coverings. There are a lot of different points of view on head coverings. Which go too far? Must we all agree exactly, or should we agree to disagree? Neither of those options seems right. I'm sure you have an opinion concerning head coverings, but what in the Bible teaches us where to draw the lines?

The following is from your website:

"This is my interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11 based on the text itself. I am sure that there are many who disagree with me on this interpretation, and I do not want any to believe me to be overly contentious or argumentative. These are my conclusions based on the reading of the text; I do not "bind" this interpretation upon everyone I come in contact with, and I believe that all need to study this passage and come to their own conclusions and live with their consciences clean in the sight of God.

It does distress me, however, how brethren have "agreed to disagree" so significantly about this passage in 1 Corinthians 11 that we fail to recognize the truths that cannot be disputed in this passage."

[The Message of I Corinthians 11]

On the one hand, the author seems to agree to disagree ('I do not bind'), and on the other, he says there is one truth ('truths that cannot be disputed'). That seems to be a blatant contradiction. If we believe a woman is commanded to use a head covering, then for a woman to not do so is a sin. If we draw that conclusion then there are specific things we must do. Yet how many brethren worship in congregations were only some have head coverings? (my impression, I've not been to many to know this) I've certainly not heard of any rifts over this issue like institutionalism. Sin is sin, why have brethren drawn the line over institutionalism and other things but not head covering? I understand there is a difference concerning us not taking part in the sin like in the case of church supporting institutions. But that doesn't excuse of from sitting by while others sin.

I hope I haven't come across too confrontational. I don't know the answers. This is an issue I'm struggling through right now and there seems to be a bit of a gray area here that no one has a good answer for thus far. While the brethren we worship with seemed sound on the 'major' issues, as things went along (and I grew in knowledge of the Bible) I've become increasingly bothered by what seems to be some liberal leanings and some incorrect positions on issues that often see disagreement. I'm struggling on what to do about it. It is hard to address apparently false teaching when it comes from the elders or the preacher and at least some agree. The problems have only become obvious to me in the last month or so and I am not yet sure what to do. You had some very good articles on false teaching and head covering (one, but not the only issue I've run into) and so I wanted to ask you the above. Your answers to the questions (with scriptures!) will be very helpful. I understand you are an elder, I am not trying to involve you in this congregation's problems. I am just trying to get the scriptural principles straight so I can decide what I must do.


The question you raise is an excellent one; one that brethren have struggled with for years. I doubt that I will be able to give an answer that will settle this for all times but allow me to give some resolution.

First and without any doubt, there is only one truth. For every decision, there is a right and a wrong. Jesus said "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6). He is not a way or a possible truth; He is the way and the truth.

There is no flaw in the law of Christ, but we readily admit that we followers have flaws (I John 1:8-10). We try hard, but we sin at times. We study hard, but we are prone to make mistakes. Hopefully, we improve over time with practice and deep understanding. Yet, in the meantime, if you look at any congregation there are a variety of people at various points their spiritual growth. And it is not even growth either. People tend to focus on various topics, gain a good understanding, and then move on to another. Everyone doesn't learn each topic at the same time. The duties assigned within the church are there to manage that growth. "And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head--Christ-- from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love" (Ephesians 4:11-16).

The goal is a unity in truth bonded by love for each other. "Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (I Corinthians 1:10). Even during growth when we haven't all obtained the same level of knowledge about a particular matter, we can still be joined together in the same mind (that is, with the same attitude toward each other and the Scriptures) and the same judgment (that is, we approach decisions in the same way).

Let me give you an example, a person comes into the church, but he argues that we are saved by faith alone. Brethren rarely have difficulty spotting this as a false doctrine; James 1:24 makes the matter clear. So what is to be done? We sit down and talk with the person about the Scriptures. Perhaps his avocation is due to a lack of knowledge, as was Apollos (Acts 18:24-26). Apollos taught falsely for a while, but we generally do not say he was a "false teacher" because he showed a desire to conform his life to the Scriptures. False teachers tend to want others to conform their beliefs to their own. "For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple" (Romans 16:18). Herein lies a distinguishing mark between a false teacher and a faithful brother. A false teacher recruits followers and is not teachable. A faithful servant of Christ cares only for what the Lord desires and is eager to learn.

Still, everyone doesn't learn at the same pace. What is obvious to you, another brother might struggle with for years trying to grasp. How then do we get along while there is growth going on? Though it has been misapplied far too many times, Romans 14, I Corinthians 8, and I Corinthians 10 all address this issue.

"Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him" (I Corinthians 8:1-3). Humans have an unfortunate tendency toward pride. When we "know" something, then we assume that everyone else knows the same thing. When someone else doesn't have precisely the same knowledge that we possess, then we look down our noses at the poor ignorant man. We all need to be knowledgeable, but not to wrap a barrier around ourselves. Love for our fellow man motivates us to share our knowledge and in that sharing, we all grow stronger in God's word. Always the important point is: is the person obedient to God. It is not important whether they happen to agree with me or not. It is a difficult point because we tend to decide that whatever I know must be what God wants. Yet this very approach rules out that I might be wrong. When I judge matters against myself, I become the standard instead of God. But in our arrogance we assume that those who have come to a different conclusion are doing so on purpose -- it could be true, but it also could be a lack of growth.

"Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things" (Romans 14:1). People who have not fully grown are to be received in the number. They are not there to be bantered and bullied into "proper" belief but there to have an opportunity to put down roots and grow.

"For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him" (Romans 14:2-3). It is possible in a church to have two people who have come to diverse conclusions about a matter. In this case, the topic is the eating of meats. In those days idolatry was financed in part by selling the unused portions of sacrifices in the open market. Some decided to take the route of avoiding all meat in order not to help promote the cause of idolatry. Others saw meat as meat and idols as nothing more than lumps of wood and stone. They ate meat without thought as to its source. Paul tells the eaters not to despise the non-eaters. While their knowledge is greater and their faith is stronger, they were not allowed to look down on the non-eaters. On the other hand, non-eaters were not allowed to judge the eaters by their own personal standards.

We have a similar situation today. There are people who see any butchering of animals for meat as cruelty. There is no "right" way to get meat for food, so they exist as vegetarians. Most understand that meat is something given by God to man as food (Genesis 9:3; I Timothy 4:4-5) and that implies that animals must be killed in some manner in order to have meat for food. These two diverse ideas can co-exist in a congregation. The vegetarian is not welcomed in so that everyone can badger him into becoming a meat-eater. Members of the congregation are to treat his personal choice with respect. At the same time, the vegetarian must come to grips with the fact he made a personal choice, but that God has allowed meat to be eaten. Thus, he cannot condemn the meat-eaters because they are not following his choice.

The key is the phrase "God has received him." A vegetarian can be wrong about his conclusion to avoid the eating of meat and still be acceptable to God. How can you and I know this? Ask yourself: If I never ate meat again, could I get to heaven? The answer is obvious even to meat-eaters -- yes. Does this mean meat eaters aren't going to heaven? Of course not, God said that meat is an allowable food source. Therefore, both groups can co-exist in harmony in one congregation.

After that long introduction, let us take a look at the issue of women wearing head coverings. It doesn't take much research to acknowledge that this issue has been debated for many years. In my younger days, I was convinced that the head covering was not necessary because of my understanding of I Corinthians 11:16. My wife has always been convinced that it was needed and wore the covering. This never bothered me because if I was right, then the head covering would make no difference to God. If she was right, then she was doing as God commanded. We lived happily this way for over ten years. Then an article by Floyd Chappelear caused me to re-examine one of my fundamental assumptions and I realized that I didn't understand I Corinthians 11:16 as well as I thought I did. After several years of additional on-and-off research on the matter, I came to the conclusion that I had been wrong and I now teach that the head covering does serve a purpose in worship.

I guess because of my past stance, I'm sympathetic to those who disagree. I know that they came to their conclusion honestly, just as I have to mine. In addition, there is no way that I can "force" the issue on any sister in Christ. The purpose of the covering is a sign of submission; it is a voluntary act on the part of a woman to show that she is under authority. If a woman was forced to wear a covering even though she did not believe it necessary, then it would no longer be an act of submission. So while I teach on the topic once in a while and happily answer questions about it when asked, I'm quite content to worship in a congregation where all the woman do not wear the covering. To me, it just means more teaching needs to be done on this and related topics. The fact that a woman doesn't wear a covering does not impact my worship or my wife's worship of God. The fact that my wife wears a covering doesn't impact the non-wearers' worship. We can work and worship together while continuing to discuss and analyze the issue.

For the same reason, we have some here who believe the second serving of the Lord's Supper on Sunday evening is wrong and others who see it as necessary. Those who believe it is wrong simply don't participate in that portion of the service, yet they chose not to judge their brethren because they understand what they believe, from the Scriptures, that it is necessary. We talk about it from time to time. At times the discussions might get heated, but in the end, both sides co-exist. Those who partake of the second serving understand that to chose not to do so doesn't impact them, nor can they say that the choice is wrong -- just too narrow from their point of view.

We even have a pacifist worshiping here among military people. The two sides disagree, but they talk and study from time to time. The pacifist chooses not to be judgmental of his brethren because he understands that their belief doesn't come from an arbitrary choice but from their understanding of the Scriptures. The non-pacifists see the pacifist as a weaker brother in this particular area and are willing to work and worship with him so long as he doesn't take the position that everyone must believe as he does. You see a pacifist can choose for himself not to fight for a government and be perfectly pleasing to God. The non-pacifist can choose to serve in the military with good conscience knowing that God has established the governments. Each choice won't keep a person out of heaven from what we know of the Scriptures because the allowance to serve in the government contains the option to chose not to serve in the government. Like the vegetarian, the pacifist can be wrong about his conclusion and still live pleasing to God.

There is no agreement to disagree. There is an agreement to allow for growth and an agreement on at least one side that a narrower view doesn't cause harm to that individual. A similar argument cannot be made in all issues, such as remarriage after a divorce for some reason other than fornication. The teachings are clear that to do so causes adultery and the church is not tolerant of sin in its midst. Here the individual's choice places him in direct contradiction to what God has commanded, his soul is in jeopardy and action must be taken. A person who doesn't see the harm "in theory," though they are not in the situation, might worship with us so long as they are not advocating it to others and are willing to study the issues from time to time. But when a person comes among us saying their ideas of allowing remarriage for reasons other than fornication must be right and that the church must accept people in those circumstances, well, they are marked as false teachers and are asked to leave because what they are advocating is an acceptance of sin.

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