Monday, January 12, 2015

The Church Needs Heresy Hunters

I occasionally see bloggers and other writers complain about heresy hunters in the church. Some of that criticism is valid, as some of those who pursue what they regard as false teachers do so with an uncharitable tone and a careless use of language that would seem to suggest a relish for tearing other people down. While that fact should be addressed, it should not cause us to fail to value those that seek to root out false teaching from the church, because false teaching damages souls.

I, myself, have been called a heretic on occasion, and in each circumstance in which that has occurred I have considered the person making the allegations to be not only incorrect, but also unnecessarily unkind in their condemnation. I recall having been accused of heresy for three reasons over the last few decades: over my Calvinism, my amillenialism, and my holding to an old earth view of creation. Of course, all three of those issues are matters of strong disagreement among Christians that merit vigorous debate. Bring it on. However, all of these are within the mainstream of the historic Christian faith. As such, they do not fall into the category of heresy.

Nonetheless, that point brings to the fore a key problem regarding this question: Christians are not very good at disagreeing. Indeed, many of us seem to lack even the proper vocabulary for engaging in internal debates, with the result that disagreement leads to unnecessary division and overheated rhetoric. Most Christian disagreements do not involve heresy, and any expressions of disagreement should recognize that.

One of the downsides of having taught in churches over a long period of years is the realization that one has changed his mind on the meaning of certain texts or the understanding of certain subjects over the years. Some people joke that they don't even agree with themselves half the time, and in my case it turns out nearly to be true. Being glad that I now have something right -- I hope -- comes along with it sadness over having taught it incorrectly to others in the past. The Harry Monroe who is now a Presbyterian used to be a Baptist, and in the early part of that more of a fundamentalist than he now cares to admit. Among other things, that means that my understanding of the sacraments (not a word I would have used in a positive sense in my younger days) and church government have changed. My appreciation of covenant as an organizing principle for understanding scripture has become much more robust in the last decade. As a younger man, my understanding of the distinction between law and gospel, though moving in the right direction, was less clear than it is now.

While I suppose that this growth could result in arrogance -- look at how right I am now! -- for me it mostly does the opposite: I am humbled that my understanding and teaching to others has been so deficient. I was a slow learner. Such humility ought to inform our interactions with others. I enjoy a good debate -- sometimes I like it too much for either my own good or that of others -- but discussions with those with whom we disagree ought to be charitable. Indeed, sometimes I have set out to teach someone else only to find out that I didn't know nearly so much as I had thought.

While not all of my readers have learned as slowly as I did, and thus have less cause for humility than I, it is nonetheless true that we all have gotten to the truth that we have as a result of the grace of God -- the falsity that we have is our own fault. That means that we should be charitable with others as we engage in these sorts of debates.

So, let's talk about something important. As mentioned above, and as is known and bemoaned by many of my friends, I am a Calvinist. For a quarter of a century, even during my Baptist days, I have held vigorously to the doctrines of grace. This brings me into strong conflict with Arminianism, which I think gets important issues completely wrong as regards the sovereignty of God in salvation. An Arminian would not be permitted to preach or teach in a church of the denomination of which I am a member.

So, I strongly disagree with Arminianism. While this issue is not a hobby horse about which I go around looking for fights, I argue in favor of my beliefs and against alternatives when it seems appropriate to do so. And I admit to getting especially irritated when others mischaracterize my beliefs -- that being a frequent occurrence. But, do I call Arminians "heretics?" Do I suggest that Arminians are not Christians? Of course not, with regard to both questions. While I certainly do not think that Arminianism best accounts for the scriptural data, I do recognize that classical Arminianism falls within the range of historic Christian teaching. With regard to historic Christianity, both Pelagianism and semi-pelagianism have been regarded as heretical, but both Arminianism and Calvinism are orthodox alternatives. I would say that a teaching referred to as "hyper-Calvinism," which denies the free offer of the gospel, is also outside the pale.

Now, on a variety of subjects sometimes people say things that are, strictly speaking, heretical, but the guilty party should not be treated as a heretic. A while back, a friend -- a minister of a different denomination -- posted a quick blurb on Facebook that unfortunately managed to commit two forms of heresy (Manichaeism and semi-pelagianism) within the space of a single sentence. I have known this gentleman for 20 years, and I am quite sure that his beliefs are not heretical. His thinking is just a bit sloppy at times. I made a brief comment on the post, and he immediately removed the post. This is a reminder that there are many times when a person is careless with regard to a passage of scripture or an idea that he shares. Depending on the importance of the mistake, it might be pointed out or ignored. Nonetheless, labels are probably not useful or accurate when talking to others about these kind of errors.

I should point out that with regard to these discussions, it makes a difference who we are talking to. I would rarely confront a layman in a vigorous way over an error. Many have merely been poorly taught, and many are open to better teaching. The point should be to improve biblical understanding. One does not want to treat Christians who are learning in a way that makes them afraid to talk about their faith for fear of making a mistake. On the other hand, if it is a minister who is trained and teaches others that is making a serious mistake, I am more likely to confront that.

Thus, most debates among Christians should be treated in this sort of spirit; however, there are some instances when those in error should be pointed out vigorously, as they deny essential aspects of the faith (the person and work of Christ, justification by faith alone, and other matters of central importance) and/or teach things that do serious damage to those who follow those teachings. Thus, when Harold Camping set dates for the return of Christ based on a clearly faulty reading of Scripture, he brought ridicule upon the church and serious harm on those who quit jobs and sold all that they had in order to prepare for Christ's return. When Joel Osteen openly declaims the need to teach about sin, thus eradicating the need for a Savior from sin, and replaces Christian teaching with an unbiblical prosperity gospel, he denies the faith and damages those for whom his prosperity promises do not come true. When T.D. Jakes denies the Trinity, he denies important and historic Christian teaching. When a minister in South Carolina abuses a biblical text and confuses creature and Creator, he should be corrected in the most serious of terms. When ministers claim authoritarian power for themselves in unaccountable ways, they should be opposed vigorously.

I recently came across this account written by a woman writing about the Duggars, a family featured on a reality show on television that are evidently admired for what are regarded as conservative religious values. The author at the link grew up in a similar culture, which she now, with good reason, regards as abusive. She is now an atheist. Reading several of her posts, I was struck by the thoroughness of her thought, overall congenial tone, and vigorous dislike for this form of life.

And, while reading, I was struck by the tragedy of it. None of what she describes is really historic Christianity, but her experience of it drove her away from Christ. Along her journey, she evidently did not locate a Christian alternative that would allow for faith in Christ without soul destroying baggage. This is why the church needs heresy hunters, as well as vigorous proponents of confessional faith. Prayerful, gentle, but vigilant heresy hunters, as well as charitable, vigorous proponents of historic Christianity.

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