There are times when it is right to name names when calling out error and there are times when it is not right. How do we make that distinction?
Let's start with the most basic premise of all: When we call out error, our goal is to be redemptive, not to be right. In other words, we are not calling out error to show how right we are. We are calling out error to expose evil, to warn people of danger, to urge people to repent. We are calling out error to save lives, not destroy lives.
As for false teachers and heretics and wolves, we would love to see them repent. But if they refuse, then their blood is on their own heads. They will reap what they have sown.
But who, exactly, are the false teachers and heretics and wolves? Sometimes it is easy to see and sometimes it is debatable. And sometimes it is a matter of opinion. Whose opinion is right?
Do you know that some critics posted videos and articles after Billy Graham's death, saying that he was a false teacher and heretic? And some of those same critics then blasted me as a false teacher because I spoke well of him.
Virtually every day, I see fine Christian leaders called out as heretics and false prophets and wolves, simply because they teach something that some critic differs with. It's not always virtuous to name names.
That's one reason that, whenever possible, I try to reach out to someone privately before writing about them publicly. (I'm not talking about the president or a TV star or the like, where that's not feasible. I'm talking about other Christian leaders or even non-Christian colleagues who are accessible.)
And sometimes, the best thing we can do is describe the error. This way, people can see it for themselves and reject it.
Obviously, if we are addressing a specific statement made by an individual, there's no way not to name names. But it's not always so cut and dry.
In my new book, Playing with Holy Fire, I cite specific examples of errors and abuses that I have witnessed myself or heard from reliable sources. But I chose not to name names, despite some urging me to do so. (Those urging me to do so were in the clear minority.)
To be sure, at other times, I have named names, as in my book Hyper-Grace. There, while writing the book, I could reach out to some of the hyper-grace authors and pastors to see if they were willing to reconsider their views. Plus, their teachings were documented in writing and in other formats, so I could quote them fairly and in context.
When it came to Playing with Holy Fire, which is a wake-up call to the Pentecostal-Charismatic church, I did cite many disturbing anecdotes and examples. But some of them took place decades ago. What if the people involved have changed over the years? I would hate to blemish them if they have truly repented.
In other cases, some of the leaders I speak about are godly people, yet with some conspicuous blind spots. But the moment I point out that blind spot, others will reject their whole ministry, since we tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Is it right to mention them by name?
And since I cite so many examples from around the world, it's impossible for me to reach out to all those involved. This is yet another reason why I chose not to name names. Even more was this true when I relied on first-hand reports from reliable friends and colleagues – but only second-hand to me.
I was also addressing general tendencies. So by citing an example, I was addressing the larger issue.
Interestingly, in the New Testament, sometimes the writers named names (see 1 Tim 1:19-20; 2 Tim 4:14; 3 John 1:9) and sometimes they did not (see, e.g., 2 Cor 11:13-15; 1 John 4:1-6; 2 Pet 2:1-22). When they didn't name names, we can assume that, by describing the error or abuse, the people would know who was being described. The same holds true today.
Either way, whether names are named or not, if the shoe fits, wear it.
If you're a Christian leader and you're convicted of error, then humble yourself before God in repentance and He will give you grace.
If you're a believer and you're convicted of embracing error, the Lord will help you grow and mature as you lean on Him.
As for Christian leaders whose sin is failing to address the error of others, may the Lord give you the courage and resolve to speak the truth in love, regardless of cost and consequence. You cannot afford not to speak.
So, there are times to name names and times not to name names. But it is always time to confront and expose error. It is always time to warn of spiritual danger. And it is always time to reach out in love, remembering that "love covers a multitude of sins" (Proverbs 10:12b).