In the civil rights era, there were accusations that the FBI and CIA used what are called “agents provocateurs,” meaning that they infiltrated various protest groups with secret agents whose job was to discredit the organization by starting riots and engaging in violence and vandalism in the name of the group, turning public opinion away from it. I have heard the same charges made by liberal Occupy Wall Street groups, as well as Tea Party groups, who would talk of suspicious people that nobody knew showing up with ridiculous racist signs in order to make the Tea Party look racist.
I am not interested here in the truth or falsity of any specific accusation. But it’s clear that such tactics have been used. And it would be effective. Why would an enemy of a movement not use such tactics to discredit such a movement?
When we think about church history, likewise, it is very helpful to remember that Jesus Christ has an enemy as well that is desperate to destroy His movement, and will not stop at anything to do so. History is full of the occasions when Satan has used direct force. But wouldn’t it likewise be a very effective tactic in the war against Christianity to have lots of double agents, people who looked like Christians, called themselves Christians, but acted in ways that brought shame on the name of Christ?
For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. (2Jo 1:7 NKJ)
For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain. (Tit 1:10-11 NKJ)
But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. (2Pe 2:1-2 NKJ)
Note that verse from 2 Peter especially. As a result of the “many” that would follow their destructive ways, the true way would be blasphemed.
Studying church history has both broadened and narrowed my view of the faith. On the one hand, it’s given me a great appreciation for traditions of Christianity outside of my own, and it has helped me see myself and my church as part of a much greater movement. At the same time, it has made me realize that the true church, in the sense of those who truly believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, have always been a minority in the church, sometimes a small minority. There were always many who were part of the church for bad reasons. Even while the persecutions were going on under Rome, there were various heretical sects that denied the real humanity of Christ, or fell into other grievous errors.
The reason this has often been a challenge for me is that if my Protestant Reformed faith is correct, especially on the point of justification by faith alone, then a great majority of the rest of the church is false. It was and is hard for me to accept that such a large proportion of the church of Jesus Christ has lost the true faith. But when I remember that the church has an enemy, a very clever, crafty enemy, then this becomes much easier for me to understand. Would it not be an effective tactic to discredit the truth of the gospel for there to be many of those who claim to follow Christ, but have a corrupted version of that gospel? And a clever enemy, with the resources at his disposal that our enemy has, might use that tactic at multiple levels. There might be groups that were obviously heretical, denying core doctrines of the faith. There might be other groups who departed from the truth on a more subtle level, holding to many of the historic truths of the faith like the Trinity and the incarnation, and yet undermined the gospel by denying justification by faith alone. There might also be those that actually confessed all the right doctrines, but engaged in wickedness and immorality in their personal lives. This, combined with the continuing sinfulness of the saints themselves as seen in their own personal failures and disagreements about doctrine, would all lead to a great deal of confusion.
And it is an effective tactic. One common attack against those who advocate for the doctrine of justification by faith alone is that the majority of the church for its whole history has not accepted this doctrine. And that is probably true. Similarly, the majority of the church for most of its history has believed in the physical presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the supper. The majority of the church has believed in one sense or another that baptism works saving grace of itself. And many Protestants can be discouraged and embarrassed by the fact that they are in the minority. Even within the Protestant world, the multiplication of sects and doctrines has guaranteed that almost no belief is held by a majority of those who at least outwardly claim the name of Christ. Many Protestants desire to eliminate this embarrassment by some kind of greater outward unity; many work for mergers with other denominations, or even reunification with Rome, in order to present a more unified front to the world. This was actually the reason for the erection of the rule of bishops in the first place, so that the church would have a unified figure to point to that would provide an authoritative witness against the heretics.
This should not surprise us, though. The Apostles all told us that this would happen. Jesus told us that this would happen as well (Matthew 13:22-23). In Revelation 2-3, when Jesus sends letters to the seven representative churches, only two of those churches are really faithful and uncompromised with error.
But when warning us about this problem, the Apostles never point us to some external magisterium. They never point us to a continuing apostleship, or the bishop of Rome, or the collective decision of most of the churches, or anything like that. They point us to the Scriptures. And they point us to the witness of the Spirit that would remind us of the truth. They tell us to watch, and pray, to test the Spirits, to remember the words of the apostles, to hold fast to the gospel. Paul tells us that if another apostle or even an angel in heaven comes with a different gospel than the one he came with, to let him be accursed (Gal. 1:8-9).
We are historic Christians. We believe Jesus promised that His true church would always be on earth, and it always has. We believe that God made us to be in community, that the Spirit of God was not given to us alone as individuals, but to His church, and we should therefore learn from the church, both historically and in our own day. But this does not remove from us the obligation of recognizing that a lot of what might look like the church at first glance might not actually be the church, but a counterfeit, an “agent provocateur,” tares sown by the devil to deceive and confuse, to undermine and embarrass the true church.
So let us hold fast. Do not be discouraged by the majority opinions. Do not be surprised by the confusion of doctrines, by the presence of many deceivers, by many who look close to the truth but who deny it at core points. The greatest danger of these many deceivers, I believe, is that true believers will look at this great number of those who call themselves Christians and yet deny the gospel of Jesus Christ, and think to themselves that for the sake of the unity of the visible church they will deny it themselves, or at least to deny the importance of holding to that gospel, which comes to the same thing. As helpful as the creeds and confessions and writings of the fathers and the witness of history is, at the end of the day the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, laid on Christ Himself, and no other foundation can be laid. Whatever is not of that foundation must be rejected. The witness of the apostles and prophets we have in the Scriptures, and the witness of Christ we have in the Spirit that He sends to all His elect. So let us pray for that Spirit, that we would have discernment. Let us not be ashamed of the name of Christ, regardless of what the devil does. And let us hold fast to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ no matter what the devil says or does.
We cannot see into people’s hearts. I am not advocating here that we denounce all who disagree with us at any point as agents of Satan. We cannot know who those agents are. But we must know that they are out there, and not be deceived and discouraged by them in failing to hold fast to the truth of the Scriptures. Let God be true, and every man a liar.