Each summer our family spends time on the shores of western Michigan. Swimming in the cool water of Lake Michigan and riding its waves on floats or with bodies never grows tiresome.
Sadly, however, each summer the newspaper brings word of yet another drowning and, with it, further cautions to our children. Most often the cause is one of the strange phenomenons of the lake, that of riptides (or, more appropriately, rip currents).
All along the coast of the Great Lakes, sandbars form near the shoreline. Where we were last week, you could wade out about thirty yards to water that became more than waist deep, then suddenly climb up a sandbar where the water was only around your ankles. As winds, waves, and currents continually crash and change the shape of the sandbar, weak spots can form in it. Suddenly, without warning, one more wave can break the weakened wall of the sandbar loose. Like a broken dam, the deeper water closer to the shoreline that had been pooled up behind the sandbar streams out through the opening away from the shore. This is the rip current, and this large volume of water moving like an unseen river can travel several miles an hour.
Swimmers caught in this rip current often panic, trying to swim directly back to shore. They can be carried out several hundred yards and can tire, as even an Olympic swimmer would not be able to overcome many of these currents. This then leads to drownings. The best thing to do when caught in one is to not panic and fight the current, but to remain calm and start swimming parallel with the shore. Once out of the current, you can then start to swim back in.
The danger of the rip current lies in that it occurs under the surface and happens when one would least expect it. The beach can be sunny, the waves not dangerously high, yet all of a sudden a swimmer can find himself being swept out into deep waters.
The Scriptures warn of this phenomenon in a spiritual sense when it comes to false teachers. Years ago in seminary, my New Testament professor, Dr. Renwick Wright, had us read through all 27 books and log our reading by listing particular doctrinal matters found in each section. One of the things we discovered was that each New Testament book has warnings about false teachers. One of the ways they are described sounds similar to a rip current:
These are men who are hidden reefs...wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam (Jude 12-13). These are springs without water and mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved. For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from those who live in error (II Peter 2:17-18).
People going to church, often enticed there in our modern era with advertisements that sounds like a day at the beach - "Enjoy some spiritual sunshine!" or "Come party with us this Sunday!" - walk in unaware of the danger. The over-friendly atmosphere hides effectively the strong undercurrent produced by false teaching that may sweep them out into the sea of unbelief.
In the mainline denominations, the case of false teaching is well-documented and, sadly yet deservedly, the people are leaving them in droves. But the hyper-congregationalism many are running to, so rampant in our land, is no protector either. In our day, too many "ministries" and "churches" are forming where people are being deceived by false teachers. Men and women without training, without ordination, with their only authority self-derived, start teaching from the Bible, set up a church, and off they go. If the spiritual casualties they are producing could be documented like drowning headlines, there would be an outcry in the land.
Is there any basic test to detect false teachers and false teaching? With riptides, there is one sign that you can look for that might help you avoid the danger. If the water is turbulent and cloudy with sand, then you should avoid going in those waters. This is a sign that the sandbar is breaking up. In like manner, as these verses indicate, there is a sign of turbulence when false teaching is present. Always connected to false teaching are distorted views of sexuality and a disregard for the sacred bonds of marriage.
So if you are in a church setting where sensuality makes people laugh instead of blush, where immodesty is prevalent, where sexual sins are dismissed as private matters, where divorces are routine, where being gay-friendly is celebrated, then look out. Instead of being in a place where Christ's gentle flowing river of life should be nourishing your soul and producing Biblical holiness, you are in extremely dangerous waters. Rather than drowning by fighting the current there, you need to leave and find safe waters.
Many houses of worship really should have a sign out front reading "Danger: Rip Current - Beach Closed."