The Case Of The Unidentified Exorcist
Luke 9:49, 50; Mark 9:38-41
"And John answered and said, 'Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us.' And Jesus said to him, 'Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is for us'." (Luke 9:49,50, NKJ)
In this passage from Luke chapter nine and the corresponding account in Mark nine, inspiration documents the Lord's reply to a statement made by John. This is one of those passages that seems to be plain and clear enough, even simple. Yet, it has been twisted, stretched and perverted far beyond its contextual intent. It is even advanced as a reason for gospel preachers to refrain from exposing false teachers and telling people they are in religious error or immorality.
Here's the kind of argument you might hear: "This man was not following Christ with Peter, James and John and the other apostles. He was working independent of 'Christ's group,' yet the Lord said: 'Do not forbid him.' Hence, even though someone may not be with us (in the Lord's church); even if they happen to be in a denominational body, or teaching some things that are wrong; so long as they are not against us, and so long as they ascribe the name of Christ to their work, we should not forbid or criticize them. This is the "practical lesson" some have derived from this text.
I think we should begin this study by recognizing the tone of this argument and the motivation behind it. There are some in the churches of Christ who have grown weary of what they would regard as "intolerant militance." They do not want gospel preachers to expose false teaching or speak against various expressions of sin. They desire to broaden the base of fellowship to embrace anyone and everyone who claims allegiance to the name of Christ. Those with this perspective, when they hear strong, plain preaching against religious error and "will not endure" it, may try to misuse Luke 9:49,50 to restrain the contender for the faith. But, the case of the unidentified exorcist needs to be studied with these points of observation in mind:
Attention must be paid to what Jesus said about this man. The student who wants to understand the text must carefully consider what Jesus said about this unnamed man. It is clear, He was not a false teacher! Had this man been a false teacher, what would Jesus have said about him? He would have called him a "ravenous wolf," and compared him to a bad tree that bears bad fruit; a tree worthy of being "cut down and thrown into the fire," (see Matt. 7:15-20). But Jesus said of this man, he is "not against us." In Mark's account, Jesus said of this man, "Do not forbid him, for no one who works a miracle in My name can soon afterward speak evil of Me," (Mark 9:39). Based on these recorded words of Jesus, I am this man was not a false teacher! To use this passage in an effort to restrain gospel preachers from exposing false teachers and false religions is to misuse the passage and ignore the commendable words of favor Jesus had for this unnamed man.
Consider just exactly what John 's objection was. John didn't say this man was guilty of some wrong. He didn't say the unidentified man was teaching false doctrine. The only thing John said was, "he does not follow with us!" Carefully note: John made just the one objection. All we know about this man is what we can gather from John's statement and the Lord's reply. All John says is, he was not with them!
Those in the immediate company of Jesus were not the only faithful disciples! In addition to the apostles, many who heard Him were receptive, noble listeners. Yes, "the multitudes pressed about Him to hear the word of God," and in the response of some to Him, he "saw their faith," (Luke 5:1,20). "And when all the people heard Him, even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John," (Luke 7:29). The notion that the apostles were the only faithful disciples is not only assumption; it is in error. Those "with'' Him were not the only faithful disciples. This unidentified man, based on every indication we have, was a faithful disciple of Christ, though not in the physical company of the apostles. (Just a few verses beyond our text, you'll read of Jesus appointing and sending out 70 disciples, and they had the ability to cast out spirits! See Luke 10:1-20).
So, whatever this passage means, we can be certain it doesn't mean that gospel
preachers are to refrain from exposing false teachers and false religions. The
text affords no ground for that whatever. Gospel preachers are to charge false
teachers ''that they teach no other doctrine," (1 Tim. 1:3). Their duty is to
"rebuke" and "exhort," (2 Tim. 4:2). Every gospel preacher and every Christian
must imitate the attitude of Paul who has ''set for the defense of the gospel,''
(Phil. 1:17). In regard to those religions, individuals or theological systems
not divinely authorized, Jesus said: "Every plant, which my heavenly Father bath
not planted, shall be rooted up," (Matt. 15:7-14). Hence, Jesus never endorsed
the rationale of silence or tolerance of anything morally or religiously wrong.
What Does The Passage Mean?
The context is always important. What had been going on before John made this statement? Did he just make this remark "out of the blue?" No. I believe John's statement is connected to what had been going on. John and the others had been fussing among themselves about who was the greatest (see: Luke 9:46-48 and Mark 9:33-37). In these early days with Christ, these men were immature spiritually; so, they said and did things that called for correction. I believe John was simply asserting their loyalty, the only way they knew how. They had done something they thought would merit the Lord's praise, and, perhaps, some great position in His kingdom. Too, they felt that keeping personal company with the Lord made them "better" than others and qualified to "forbid" those who weren't so privileged.
The passage reflects the early immaturity of the apostles. And it teaches that those who are living and working in the name of Christ (by His authority) are not to be forbidden, even if they are unknown to us.
By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 5.3; March 1998