So far this week, we’ve seen that rebuking is a normal and necessary part of the Christian life, and that sometimes rebukes — especially those of false teachers — must resort to harsh and cutting language. The next question to answer, then, is whether Christians have the authority to go so far in a rebuke as to tell another professing believer — even a supposedly Christian pastor — that his message is Satanic and he is going to Hell. This is where it starts getting dicey!
The Message or the Messenger?
Jesus called people “evil” or some variation of “Satanic” or “of the devil” on multiple occasions. Was he referring to something specific they’d said, or was he actually passing judgment on their souls? Let’s take a look.
Matthew 7:11 — In the sermon on the mount, Jesus told his listeners they were “evil”. Here he was referring to the fallen nature that afflicts all people everywhere. We are all born “evil” and in need of God’s miraculous intervention for our salvation, but this is by no means a final judgment of Jesus’ hearers. Many of those “evil” people would go on to become believers.
Matthew 12:33-37 — This time, Jesus is responding to accusations by the Pharisees, and calls them “evil”. Here, he goes farther than a general acknowledgment of human sinfulness, telling them that they are rotten to the core, judging by the things they say. He is still not making a “final” judgment concerning their eternal destination, though he does make a connection to the “day of judgment”, letting them know that their current course has them on the fast track to Hell.
John 8:44 — Speaking again to Pharisees, he turns up the heat, telling them flat out that they are not children of God but of the devil. Shortly thereafter, they tried to stone him, and when that didn’t work, they began plotting his murder.
John 6:70 — Jesus tells his disciples that one of them “is a devil”. He was speaking here of Judas, whose coming betrayal was both Satanic (Luke 22:3) and a fulfillment of Scriptural prophecy (John 17:12).
Mark 8:33 — As we saw yesterday, Jesus rebuked Peter and the disciples by saying “Get behind me, Satan!” Here he is not saying that the disciples are themselves Satanic, but that the message about Jesus they were all thinking and that Peter had spoken was a Satanic lie.
So from this short survey we see that Jesus used similar language for several different purposes: to bring conviction of sin to a congregation, to rebuke a false message from a Godly teacher, to rebuke falsehood from false teachers, and to identify someone who was literally an agent of Satan. At the very least, it appears that saying that people and teachings are of the devil is not forbidden.
Interestingly, Jesus was himself accused of being possessed by Satan (see Mark 3:22). Accusations of heresy being flung about by professing believers of different theological persuasions is nothing new, but obviously, not all accusations are created equal!
Just because Jesus said things doesn’t mean everyone can. He is God, after all. But we also see those He appointed as apostles speaking with similar authority.
1 John 3:18 — The apostle John writes, “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil”. He is not just condemning individual sins here. He is saying that those whose lives are marked by continual, unrepentant sin are servants of Satan. Doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily stay that way, but they are certainly lost right now.
Jude 4 — Jesus’ brother speaks about false teachers within the church who are “ungodly people” preaching a perversion of God’s grace.
James 4:16 — Another of Jesus’ brothers — who, by the way, at one point believed Jesus to be crazy (Mark 3:21) and did not believe in him (John 7:5) — told people who thought too much of themselves that they were arrogant and evil.
Acts 5:3 — Peter told Ananias (a professing believer and by all appearances a generous tither) that it was Satan, and not the Holy Spirit, that had filled his heart… at which point Ananias died, followed soon thereafter by his wife who was guilty of the same Satanic deception.
Acts 13:10 — Paul called a false teacher “son of the devil”.
1 Corinthians 5:5 — Paul commanded the church in Corinth to “deliver… to Satan” a man in the church who was living openly in sexual sin. By this, he meant to remove this person from the church, and make sure he knew that his actions were evidence that he belonged to Satan and not to God, in the hopes that he might eventually come to repentance and salvation.
1 Timothy 1:20 — Similarly, here Paul tells of two false teachers within the church whom he had personally “handed over to Satan”.
The Church’s Authority
Of course, the apostles in the first century had specially designated authority that we do not have today. Jesus gave them the power to perform miraculous signs and wonders so that people would know they spoke for God. Did they alone have the authority to pronounce a sentence of judgment or level a charge of heresy, or are all Christians empowered to do so?
1 Corinthians 5:5 — Right off the bat, from the example shown above, we see that Paul is commanding the church to deliver a man to Satan, not anyone with special apostolic authority.
1 John 3:10 — John was writing to churches, not to other apostles, when he said that it was “evident… who are the children of the devil”. Those who abide in Christ and have his Word abiding in them will be granted the discernment through the Holy Spirit to know whether someone is a child of the devil based on the evidence of his actions.
Titus 1:9 — When instructing his coworker how to appoint pastors, Paul told Titus that men who would lead must be able not only to teach sound doctrine but to recognize and rebuke those who contradict it. He reinforced this later in his letter when he said to “rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” (see Titus 2:15)
These letters to the ancient church are the same ones we use today to understand the role and authority of the local church, the qualified pastor/elder, and the individual Christian.
Still, it is a fearful thing to pronounce judgment on a man, or to accuse him of heresy. It is clear that the authority to rebuke and judge is given to Christians, but we must always keep in mind the one single criterion that allows us to make these judgments.
God has NOT given us our own authority to judge. He has given us HIS authority, and we may only pronounce or proclaim judgments which God has already made. We may not speak where He has not spoken. If we are going to tell someone that he is “of the devil” or that that his message is Satanic, we had better be prepared to prove it based on the authority of Scripture. Good doctrine, as often as bad, is condemned as heresy. The only way to be sure that we speak with God’s authority is to have, as Martin Luther had, a conscience “captive to the Word of God.” We can do no other.
For further reading on this difficult subject, check out The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love by Jonathan Leeman.