Is the error being propagated publicly? It must be refuted publicly—in the pulpit, in print, and in person. Does it rear its ugly head after it has already been defeated? It must again be refuted, however many times it takes. Does that sound fatiguing? Discouraging? Like a losing battle? It is. But that is the call—to defend the faith once delivered to the saints.
The origin of this trouble is not hard to trace. Some of us are wrong some of the time. A few of us are wrong all the time. The internet gives to each one a virtual platform, raised up in the air, from which to survey the theological landscape, spot from a long way off the horrifying wrongness of others, and then to correct them, by name, in tweet and long-form blog post. But what does the Bible say? Should Christians call each other out by name for error or sin? Under what circumstances? In what manner? And how often?
Alexander and Hymenaeus Who Got Handed Over to Satan
“This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you,” implores the apostle, “that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”3 Thus Paul begins his first letter to Timothy. In it he includes detailed and wide-ranging instructions about how Timothy should organize his personal life as well as that of the church. Over it all hangs the pall of anxiety and grief. Timothy will be left with the good deposit of Paul’s life and teaching, but will it be enough? No one is likely to be overawed by Timothy’s commanding manner or charismatic personality. He is young and bilious. There is no indication that he is a sparkling preacher. He is going to have to muck in with a lot of pushy old ladies, vain young men, gossiping widows, and domineering fatherly types. Will anybody even listen to him?
Therefore, in his opening salvo, Paul warns off two people who have already been a hassle for Timothy — two men who hold neither the faith, which is the word Paul uses to indicate not just saving knowledge of Jesus, but also the substance of all his teaching on the subject, nor a good conscience. In other words, there is some discernable dissonance between what Hymenaeus and Alexander are saying and doing, and what Paul would want them to say and do.
I imagine it would be rather discouraging to have your name preserved in Holy Writ for being a person who makes a shipwreck of the faith. As dismaying as being one of the men named for taking a foreign wife in the post exilic return to Jerusalem.4 Or being Diotrephes, who is called out by the apostle John for liking to “put himself first.”5
Whatever the occasion, the naming of notorious people in Scripture largely falls into two basic categories — people who publicly teach something outside of orthodox doctrine and belief, and people who unrepentantly do something outside orthodox practice and faith.
Don’t Say That
For most of us, the internet has badly blurred the heretofore sharp demarcation between public and private speech. Given the chance at a few minutes of fame, most of us are eager to put all our thoughts online the minute we have them. This, in turn, has made the application of Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18 confusing for many people.6 How do I know when I’m being sinned against? When should I go to people privately? When should I call them out in public? Everything is public.