Tag Archives: conservative evangelicalism

Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up? Part II

I pointed out in the previous post that many in the church are caught up with the spirit of the heresy hunter.

This War on Theological Terrorism is nothing more than arrogance and intolerance being passed off as “truth telling” for the sake of Christian orthodoxy.

I gave a few examples of how the real source of division is not from those proposing that Love Wins or from anyone else questioning our traditional “safe for the whole family” interpretations of Scripture. Mostly what we are seeing are the gatekeepers of conservative Christianity behaving badly.

It’s really nauseating. There have been more outcries against Rob Bell’s ambiguity regarding hell than there has been toward American greed, idolatry, militarism, and intolerance. And all of that is in the church! Excuse me while I throw up in my trashcan.

Are there real doctrinal threats? Yes. Are heretics alive today? Yes.

But before we look at what the NT qualifies as heresy, and who are true heretical threats, let’s think about the seriousness of the error made by heresy hunters.

Forsaking Love For Heresy Hunting

Let’s consider the stern warning given to Ephesus by Jesus in John’s apocalypse. I think it speaks to a certain segment of evangelicalism today.

I see what you’ve done, your hard, hard work, your refusal to quit. I know you can’t stomach evil, that you weed out apostolic pretenders. I know your persistence, your courage in my cause, that you never wear out. But you walked away from your first love—why? What’s going on with you, anyway? Do you have any idea how far you’ve fallen? A Lucifer fall! Turn back! Recover your dear early love. No time to waste, for I’m well on my way to removing your light from the golden circle. You do have this to your credit: You hate the Nicolaitan business. I hate it, too. Are your ears awake? Listen. Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches. I’m about to call each conqueror to dinner. I’m spreading a banquet of Tree-of-Life fruit, a supper plucked from God’s orchard.  Rev 2:2-7 (MSG)

Notice that the Ephesian church was commended for their love of the truth in the face of pretenders, but they were firmly warned that their very identity as lovers of Christ would soon be lost if they chose instead to be known as haters of heresy. They would lose any ability to influence the world for the good news of Jesus.

The Nicolaitans (false teachers) may be carrying on some nasty business, but the work of the church is to love Maker and neighbor.

As far as I can tell, I think the Christian fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century against extreme German (ir)rationalists and other European liberals (scholars denying the deity of Christ) has continued unabated into the 21st century against anyone challenging any conservative or reformed theological tradition deemed acceptable by the gatekeepers… no matter how peripheral the issue may be. If you oppose these men, they will write a book against you. You can count on it.

It’s time to stand up against this behavior by refusing to buy into the fear mongering, tattle telling, and name-calling that has many Christians forsaking their first love.

Who Are The Real Heretics?

I think the criteria by which we may discern false prophets and teachers from faithful followers of Christ should begin and end with the following:

1. Do they accept that Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God?

In Matthew 16:15, Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” This has to be the question of the ages. Believer or pretender? How a person answers this question determines how we regard them. Faithful teachers will avow the words of Peter, “You’re the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Does the person in question answer in the affirmative?

And who is a liar? Anyone who says that Jesus is not the Christ. Anyone who denies the Father and the Son is an antichrist. Anyone who denies the Son doesn’t have the Father, either. But anyone who acknowledges the Son has the Father also.  1 John 2:22-23 (NLT)

Declaring “Christ is Lord” is saying something (Rom 10:9-10).  Don’t think for a second that this is not a meaningful confession. Now maybe it has in our day lost some of its original meaning, but it’s not something you should easily ignore because you don’t like the one confessing it. Get over yourself. Love demands that you take them seriously.

If they confess Christ, then consider their behavior.

2. Do they lead moral lives, and are they leading others to do the same?

The Old and New Testaments are clear that beliefs and behavior are signs of a person’s standing with the Lord. You can’t separate belief from behavior (Rom 6; Eph 2:1-9; Jam 1:19-27).

Regardless of whether not we think a person’s theology is bad, or that their prophecies are true, it’s how they live that reflects their heart in relation to the Lord. If they speak truth but live like the devil, they’re a false teacher.

If they confess Christ, does their life bear evidence of Christ at work within them (Jn 15)? Jesus said to examine the tree. Does their tree bear fruit of the gospel? Are others coming into the mystery of Christ and his eternal purpose through their ministry? Are folks being set free?

And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Jesus, John 8:32 (NIV)

Paul spoke about what Christian evidence looks like in Galatians 5:22-23. He said it looks like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

If their conduct is worthy of the gospel of Jesus, then ask their community.

3. Are they supported by reputable members of the Christian church?

What are members in their local Christian community saying about them? And what are folks in your own community saying? What you hear matters to a certain extent (Eph 1:15-17).

You will want to check with those believers you respect who are outside of your own tradition. Let’s be honest, denominational thinking can cloud our judgment. Don’t just ask a Jew… ask a Gentile. Don’t just ask another Baptist… ask a Methodist, an Anabaptist, and a democrat.

Also, what are outsiders saying about them (1 Tim 3:7)? You may have to talk to them to get the real story. If you go to the religious leaders, they may say, “he’s a drunkard and a fornicator” as they did our Lord. Instead, what does the unbelieving neighbor across the fence say about them?

We should all put down any gossip or misinformation we hear in this process (Prov 16:28). Don’t listen to hearsay. If you can, go to the person directly (Matt 18:15-19). If you can’t, speak with those who know them. If you can’t do that, then read their book(s) or blog for yourself. Pray and ask the Lord for discernment.

Remember that many distortions and lies were told about Jesus and the early church. Imagine hearing “eat my flesh and drink my blood” out of context. That can (and did) start some nasty rumors. It was troubling enough to Jesus’ original audience.

So, don’t just get ticked off and leave the scene. Ask questions. Seek understanding. Get clarity before jumping to conclusions about another brother and sister in Christ. Always think the best and believe the best about another person. That’s how love works.

Look at it this way… you may not simply be rejecting a troublemaker, you may actually be opposing the Lord himself. If they are a believer, you’re doing just that. And if they’re an unbeliever, you should be heaping hot coals and giving cold water in Jesus’ name, not being hateful and ugly to those you deem to be a theological threat.

Confession, behavior, and community. All of these must be considered together. None of these questions should be considered apart from the others. Do they all check out? If so, embrace them in the Lord.

So What Is Heresy?

What should be considered “heresy” in the church?

While there may be some unsettling notions that challenge some of our core theological ideas, I believe we can set up a clear boundary around what should be recognized as real heresy.

Heresies are those doctrines and teachings that undermine the person and work of Christ. Real heresies contradict the testimony about Jesus that has been handed down to us by the apostles. 

Real heresies strip the incarnate Christ of his elevated position of God’s highest honor (Phil 2:6-11). Christ is the exact representation of God’s being (Heb 1:3). He himself is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by him (Jn 14:6). He is the only mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5). He is the divine Word made in human flesh (Jn 1:1-14).

Anyone who denies the earliest and most reliable testimony of the person and work of Jesus should be considered a false teacher propagating doctrines of demons. These teachings are meant to deceive and lead others astray. Both the NT and the early church testify to this.

No doubt, some have unknowingly been a conduit for this demonic activity. But unfortunately, many conservative evangelical Christians have broadened “heresy” and false teachers to include anyone that questions what they deem “historical” orthodox Christianity. I have found that it’s usually a critique of Western Christianity that gets you labeled a heretic these days.

But this isn’t heresy according to the NT.

For example, some believe that those claiming that Genesis 1-2 is an ancient pre-scientific cosmology (not to be read literally) are heretics. It wouldn’t be the first time. They did it to Copernicus and Galileo. Of course, now you will be considered an idiot if you don’t believe in heliocentrism. Think about it. Our history of over-reacting really needs to stop with this generation.

The gatekeepers may say it’s mere novelty that drives an emerging evangelicalism. But they need to humble themselves and remember that some things which appear new to them, others have found to be old forgotten teachings and traditions of the church. And then leave room for legitimate insights into faith, science, and biblical theology.

Remain Humble, Teachable, and Loving

Finally, let’s return to the verse we began with in the first installment.

The “teaching that you have learned” (Rom 16:17) could be used to mean what some people first learned in their 8th grade Sunday School class with Mrs. Jones. I’m sure old lady Jones may have been a godly woman who loved the Lord, but neither she nor your pastor is the final arbiter of truth.

Truth is discovered in communion with Christ and the church—even those members of the church that make us uncomfortable.

This often means that our knowledge of the truth will need to be revised and expanded after many seasons of Christian growth. The truth doesn’t change, but our perceptions of the truth will in due season.

The interpretation of Romans 16:17 that allows you to defend everything you’ve ever been taught by your mom, your denomination, your favorite pastor, and John Calvin… just isn’t what the apostles had in mind.

The apostles were referring to those things that have been clearly taught about the person and work of Christ.

Dear brothers and sisters, we must remain humble. I surmise that there is much about my own theology that falls short of God’s glory. If I knew what needed to be corrected, I would (on most days) gladly do it.

Can you say the same?

Walk in the light you have. Remain humble, teachable, and loving.

Are you getting all of your life from the living Christ, or from all of your theological opinions? Do we share Christ together? If so, all that is left is love. Without it we’re just making noise. It doesn’t even matter who is right or wrong when love is lost (1 Cor 13).

Hear the words of Jesus…

Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.  Jesus, John 13:34-35 (MSG)

Love and teach the truth. And leave the heretics to Jesus.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

Advertisements

Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book One

N.T. Wright is one of the leading voices within New Testament scholarship today. Wright taught New Testament studies for twenty years at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford Universities. He presently holds the Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Andrews, Scotland.

Wright, a prolific author, has written over forty books, including both scholarly and popular works. His major academic series Christian Origins and the Question of God is making no small contribution to NT studies. There are six proposed volumes in this series. The fourth volume is anticipated as being Wright’s magnum opus on Paul.

Wright undoubtedly stands at the summit of NT scholarship. I sincerely believe he is the most important of Christian thinkers alive today. His writings offer fresh insight and a stimulating challenge to evangelical Christianity.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise as to why I have chosen one of his books as the first in a list of five books offering up a new vision for evangelicalism.

In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (Feb. 2008), Wright challenges the notion of “going to heaven when you die” and spending an eternity in some bodiless future. For if this was the case, Wright says, “then what’s the fuss about putting things right in the present world?”

Is our evangelical language of our future existence reflective of NT orthodoxy? Do we have a consistent biblical message on “life after death?” Wright doesn’t believe so, and he claims we have instead embraced a Gnostic view of the future that fouls up our presentation of the gospel in the present. He believes we have lost sight of the biblical vision for the future.

Our future home is not “heaven”—for this is where God is presently—another dimension altogether. Our hope is in this spiritual heaven coming down to earth. The climax of all human history is the consummation of God’s spiritual realm (heaven) breaking through to our earthly existence. Therefore, in Wright’s view, it is “life after life after death” that we find our hope, and a hope for the world.

Wright’s greatest emphasis is on “resurrection” and “new creation” that has already begun in this world. It is time to realize the great significance with that which is at the heart of our faith in Christ (1 Cor. 15:12-28). He writes, “it is (resurrection), principally, the defining event of the new creation, the world that is being born with Jesus.”

It is in the resurrection of Christ that happened in this old creation that gives us hope for a new creation taking place right now in the 21st century.

“Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible…” (pg.75).

This “new creation” should not be confused with baptizing the culture into Christianity and attempting to enact a utopian dream, as some evangelicals have embraced. Wright says that his misplaced trust in the myth of progress does not work because it does not fully account for evil.

This myth may sometimes run parallel to our Christian hope, but it “veers off toward a very different destination” that ignores the need for the cross of Christ upon the natural fallen creation. It doesn’t see the need for change within, only uniform capitulation to a set order of ideas.

Wright declares, “What matters is eschatological duality (the present age and the age to come), not ontological dualism (an evil “earth” and a good “heaven”)” (pg. 95). Evangelicals have also been guilty of preaching the apocalyptic demise of the space-time universe! Therefore, we all must get ready to be raptured for another world altogether.

This belief in a Platonic escapism has pervaded our theology and demanded that we adopt a popular dispensationalist view of the future—a future where we “fly away” and are “raptured” to spend an eternity in a glorified retirement home in the sky.

Wright believes that embracing the biblical vision of the future will lead us to a proper practice of the church. If our beliefs about heaven and the resurrection are wrong, then we are not entirely about the Lord’s business in ushering in the Kingdom of God, more specifically in ways keeping with the example of Christ who has revealed what it means to be human.

It is time we abandon this empty belief for one that appreciates the hope given to us in the NT—a hope where God restores his good creation and finishes the work he began in the universe. Wright states, “What creation needs is neither abandonment nor evolution but rather redemption and renewal; and this is both promised and guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead” (pg. 107).

Wright draws our attention to Christ’s ascension as well as his resurrection. Because of the ascension of Christ, we not only have a savior who is indwelling us and present with his people, but a Lord who is at the same time “gone on ahead of us” by being the first to enter into our promised resurrected existence.

In other words, the work of Christ is finished and yet to be realized. It is reflective of the “already, but not yet” tension of the Kingdom of God.

We await a savior to complete the work he began in us. This completion shall come by way of the parousia or his “coming.”  Wright very simply writes, “he will in fact be “appearing” right where he presently is—not a long way away within our own space-time world but in his own world, God’s world, the world we call heaven” (pg. 135).

Wright challenges our traditional picture of our journey being completed upon death. He argues that there is indeed a temporary “paradise” for believers awaiting the resurrection of the dead and the completion of all things. But if evangelicals ignore the finished work of Christ through the final resurrection of the dead, then we miss the entire Christian hope.

God’s judgment is a good thing, something that believers ought to celebrate—for evil will be dealt with once and for all and heaven will make its home on earth. On the other hand, the judgment gives the unbeliever much to worry about.

While Wright calls into question our modern interpretations of hell that are reflective of a theology from the Dark Ages, he finds it impossible not to believe in some sort of “ultimate condemnation” for those who have rejected God’s purposes for the earth. He says that these folks will cease to bear the divine image, and by their own choice become “beings that once were human but now are not.”

Wright believes that whatever “hell” is in reality, beyond the bizarre biblical metaphors, it should suffice for evangelicals to agree that it is a horrible end. And that should be enough. It is time to stop arguing over evangelical views about hell. Belief in a literal hell is not the true test of orthodoxy.

Wright’s main idea is this:

Heaven and hell ought not be the focal point of the Gospel.

The resurrection and ascension is not designed to take us away from this earth but instead to make us agents of transformation, anticipating the day when, “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

Wright looks at the themes of justice, beauty, and evangelism. What do these look like in light of this radical message of hope? What does this look like in retrospect to the resurrection of Christ and the promise that we will inherit the same? Furthermore, what should the mission of the church be in light of this biblical hope for the future? Wright believes it is “to live consciously between the resurrection of Jesus in the past and the making of God’s new world in the future” (pg. 213).

Finally, I have chosen Surprised by Hope as the first book in this series because it is a much-needed theological challenge to popular evangelicalism. It gives us a biblical vision of God’s good future for heaven and earth.

I pray that Wright’s message will begin a move among evangelical churches to return to the biblical hope for the future, and offer the world more than an escape from a devil’s hell for a distant realm in a bodiless heaven.

For those interested, you may also purchase the 6-session DVD study with this book. It is an excellent resource for both independent and group study.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

Read the next post: Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book Two

* See the first post Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Intro for information on the free book giveaway at the end of this series.


%d bloggers like this: