First, what is a “false flag?” Wikipedia (twiw) says

The contemporary term false flag describes covert operations that are designed to deceive in such a way that activities appear as though they are being carried out by individual entities, groups, or nations other than those who actually planned and executed them.[1]

Let’s boil it down further to suggest that it a deception that leads to the conviction a person not responsible.  It’s not the same as framing someone for a crime. It’s more like creating the scenario that allows one person to blame the other person for such a wrong.

That wasn’t so hard. Sure, it might be difficult to ferret out, but it’s easy to see how it might work, especially as a political intrigue. But could it happen in our daily lives? Might we ever fall into such a trap? I don’t think it’s very difficult to do. Not that it happens a lot, but we are a deceptive bunch of people, we humans.

There is a passage in the New Testament that provides a framework for dealing with something like this. It’s a large part of the Sermon on the Mount. After the Beatitudes we get some practical methods for dealing with ourselves and others. A few years ago I took a little different angle on interpreting these and came up with this outline.

  1. Don’t do it.
  2. Don’t even think about it.
  3. And don’t cause someone else to do it.

This doesn’t work for all the ethical commands but it does work for the first two.

With respect to murder

5:21 – Don’t commit murder.

5:23 – Don’t think the thoughts that resemble murder

5:25 – Don’t give others cause for these thoughts and actions.

With respect to adultery

5:27 – Don’t commit adultery

5:28 – Don’t practice lust — that’s the equivalent

5:29 — Don’t cause another to commit adultery by

1. Divorcing her (unless that was the cause in the first place)

2. Marrying a divorced woman

That’s pretty straight-forward. Not only is there an ethical command but it comes with a social context. We are, after all, part of the body of Christ, a covenant community where we are all bound together. Though these might be rare in church life they are none-the-less present. But the net is this: We are to not set up a situation that would cause the other person to sin. Don’t give your brother cause to sin against you. Don’t cause your wife to commit adultery. Don’t cause another woman to commit adultery.

Now let’s return to the original question: Can bad theology create a false flag? Can bad theology create a situation where someone else deceived so that they would sin as the seeming right choice? We saw that in the matter Jesus challenged. The willingness of the Pharisees to divorce led both them and their wives into adultery. The woman was given a tough choice: Go with another man or be destitute. And who, really, wants destitution. Their poor theology created the deception and led to the sin.

Can this happen today? Does it? I think so. Consider this scenario

  1. Christ may come back “at any tiime”
  2. “At any time” may mean tomorrow, or in the next few years
  3. Therefore don’t wast time doing anything but evangelism

First, the misdirection: It involves a re-definition of “at any time” from “imminent” to “a good chance of it being immediate.” For the past two centuries Christians have either burned out on the hype or misused their time because of the seeming immediacy. Of course evangelism is one of the highest callings and functions of the church. But it does not stand alone. If it did there would be no II Timothy 2:2 — no “long game” for the church to play. The escahtos of the church is not the apocalypse of the church. We are not simply awaiting an end but another step continuation of the Kingdom.

In this case the church is led into neglect of some of its most important functions. Both Peter and Paul took care of the destitute. The taught practical things about work, about ethics, about education, about the need to understand theology (as best one can), and even about civic engagement. And they weren’t even postmillennial. The church was long ago called to all of these things. Our neglect of them may end up (no, has ended up) as a distraction from having a strong long-game with respect to gospel outreach and proper church growth.

I’m not ready to call this neglect a “sin” but I am ready to say that it is an egregious error, a short-sightedness that lead to sin. It is the parent of sinful neglect.

That’s the error of the revivalist, as I see it. But what about today’s modern-styled evangelical? What misdirections have we committed? This is tougher. It’s always hard to identify the weaknesses of one’s own fellowship.

  1. Christ may not come back for a while so let’s play the long game
  2. Let’s put social justice (even a sound Biblical understanding) really high to make up for the past
  3. Let’s be about this unbalance work to make up for past generations

Whether the postmodern evangelical or a good number of orthodox evangelicals such an imbalance seems common. We don’t like to think of ourselves as making mistakes let alone committing theological error. But if we are brutally honest with ourselves, perhaps we are making an error as serious as the revivalist errors.

This formula works for an imbalance even in an emphasis on teaching.

  1. Christ may not come back for a while so let’s play the long game
  2. Let’s put teaching and training really high to make up for the past
  3. Let’s be about this unbalance work to make up for past generations

Then there is the idea of church growth. This is a problem because every church wants to grow. For some it is a modest desire and for others it is all-consuming. But in any sense growth is what bodies do. But the church growth movement of the 60s and onward created a problem. It inserted sociology in place of theology.

  1. We need to grow this church.
  2. Sociologists say we need to look at felt need and appeal to target age groups.
  3. Our new ministry is an outreach based on socio-economic characteristics.

You know how the process goes. Special mailings to families with new babies. Contact new neighborhood residents. New buildings create excitement and draw new members. Place the sermon on the bottom shelf. Advertise. Etc. Etc. Etc. What’s missing? This is about pew filling. Its not about evangelism or education. We have placed an undue burden on pastors. Pastors place it on themselves.

Building programs burden a congregation’s budget. We have buildings so large that some fellowships spend 90% of the offering on the mortgage of a building used one day a week, or two at most. We may be very, very conservative both politically and theologically but we have become progressive consumerists and are paying the price.

The bad theology, actually sociology taking its place, sets up a false flag and we take the bait. The massive church mortgages in our nation testify to this error. I’m not even afraid to call this heresy because theology is exchanged for the offering plate.

Now it’s time to be appropriately gracious. NO church can do everything. Each fellowship has its God-given particular ministry. Some would look at any special emphasis and say it is an imbalance, an error. That’s what critics do, and it bothers pastors and church leaders constantly.

What I’m talking about here is when we make a decided imbalance and pretend that we can make up for the errors of the past. It’s a sort of nostalgia for some perceived perfection that really never was. The problem is not that we have specialties but that we try to contrive something that is not ours to contrive. It is when we decide to be in error rather than beginning with balance (as best we can) and finding that place of service where the Lord will use our fellowship.

So, yes, bad theology can set up a false flag, a distraction from what we are to be about and replace it with some perceived action that creates a dangerous imbalance.