The Biggest Heresy

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Many pastors fear that if they were honest with their congregations about their doubts they would be fired, and the sad fact is: They probably would be. Not fired for some moral indiscretion mind you. But fired for being honest, fired for taking a stand of integrity. Those in the pews are no different. I can't tell you how many emails I've gotten from people who tell me stories of how they've been given the clear message that their questions are not welcome, and if they keep asking these questions they wont be welcome either. The same is true of seminary professors who are often reluctant to honestly pursue their studies, knowing that if they stick their neck out too far, it might get cut off. So while they should be pursuing truth, they can't. Otherwise they put their livelihood and the well-being of their family in jeopardy.

So we are left with an isolating silence where we think we are the only ones with these thoughts. That's indicative of a deeply unhealthy faith. Something is very wrong here.

On the other hand are those loud and shrill voices who call out "heresy!" demanding that these above people be expelled from their church home or seminary positions. Take for example Norm Geisler who has frequently brought heresy charges against other members of the Evangelical Theological Society, demanding that these scholars scholars publicly recant or face expulsion from the society.

I'm sure Geisler thinks he is a shining example of upholding orthodoxy, but I want you to stop and think how completely absurd that is. Consider the legacy that is being upheld here by those who still see it as their job to be heresy hunters (and let me make clear that this is a phenomenon that is all too common in conservative circles): The history of heresy is one of people being tortured and killed in the most inhumane ways imaginable. It's a history of atrocity, drenched in blood and murder, and it is frankly appalling that anyone would want to associate themselves with this sad legacy. Yet those who still make heresy charges, and do so by means of threat of harm as a way to silence dissent are in fact aligning themselves with that very legacy. 

Ask yourself what's the bigger crime: Not getting the formulation of the Trinity quite right, or slaughtering those people by the sword? What's a greater sin: Questioning a fundamentalist doctrine or working to destroy someone's career and livelihood because they questioned it? The simple fact is, all the so-called "heresies" throughout history pale in comparison to the hurtful ways that people have been ostracized, threatened, and wounded by those who act as the champions of orthodoxy. 

The biggest heresy, the only real heresy, is the idea that trying to silence those by force, threat, and violence who disagree with you is a good and faithful thing to do. In fact it's a sin. It's wrong, and it's time we said so. 

Now I'm not saying we can't take moral or theological stands on things. It's understandable when people want to speak out against beliefs or actions that they perceive as hurtful or wrong. But what matters far more than the things we profess is how we stand up for those convictions. When we do that in a way that wounds, dehumanizes, and harms others then this undermines any good that might have been there. That stance is all too common among conservative evangelicals who want to "take a stand for traditional moral values" but do so in deeply hateful ways, apparently oblivious to the painful irony of trying to uphold morality by being a voice of hate and condemnation. 

Now I think most of us can all name pastors who are basically blow-hards and bullies, but many of us still find ourselves thinking "Maybe they were too harsh, but theologically aren't they right?" One has to ask what it means to be theologically "right"  however if it can result in such rotten fruit. I'd like to propose that we need to seriously reconsider what being "right" means, and propose that you cannot be unloving and "right" because the very definition of being right begins and ends with how our faith is expressed in love (on that point see Gal 5:6)

We need to have the freedom to question, especailly when we question things in the name of compassion. There can't be love if we can't be real and honest with each other. All the more so we need to engage each other with grace. If we are going to "take a stand for morality" then this needs to be characterized by compassion and grace, not by condemnation and hurt. Whenever we see hurt being championed in the name of morality, this needs to be a red flag for us that something is very wrong. That's not Christianity, because the whole point is to love. As the Apostle Paul says, "All of the commandments are summed up in this one command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law" (Romans 13:9-10). John makes the point even stronger: "Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar" (1 John 4:20). That needs to be the final standard we measure things by—because when we are not acting in love, nothing we do is right, and nothing is orthodox.

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At 7:23 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

As someone who's dealt with theological intolerance myself, I'm reflecting on this great irony. Truth is, when I'm on the receiving end of theological intolerance, I experience fear and shame - that I'm not "good enough" as a Christ follower.

I do think the "conservative" Christians who spend their lives fighting what they believe to be "threats" to the faith are doing just that - responding to perceived threats. I'm wondering if, beneath that tough and bullying exterior, they too are feeling afraid and persecuted by the world for their beliefs.

So I often how we can draw from Christ's love to end this cycle of fear and shame. Our work would be not to smash through walls of hate, but to render them needless. Not to defeat the Hulk, but to turn him into Bruce Banner.

At 6:09 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Derek, I would add this. I seriously believe that the conservative fear of heresy is firmly grounded in Paul's epistles where a lot of bones are made about "false teachers."

There is also talk of coming persecution in the last days, and I believe that primes people up for perceiving political or theological climates unfavorable to conservative doctrine as examples of that persecution (i.e. the repeal of DOMA is yet another example of how our "Christian values" are under attack, and the best we can do is circle our wagons until Jesus comes again to punish his enemies)

I think it goes back to how we read our Bibles in one sense, but in another sense, it seems that it also goes back to fear. I wonder if Jesus is coming back, not to punish his enemies, but to demonstrate the triumph of love over fear once and for all?

At 8:40 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Sam, Thanks for your comment on rendering hate (and fear) needless. I found it very insightful. It makes a great contribution of what our ultimate focus needs to be on, so let me add a hearty "amen!" Your statement that "Our work would be not to smash through walls of hate, but to render them needless" reminds me that the verse "perfect love casts out fear" uses the same Greek work to describe Jesus casting out demons. So the way we "cast out" and "smash" is through love overcoming fear.

Your second comment challenged me think a lot and brings up some provocative ideas. You mention tracing conservative fear back to Paul's warnings against "false teachers." I think we can see a conflict here between Paul and the Jerusalem church of James who was focused on a legalistic faith. Here Paul is speaking from the minority voice and confronting the majority view prophetically, rightfully calling it "false" because it was opposed to grace. However, in doing so it seems that Paul resorted to angry rhetoric, character assassination, and name calling all of which can fuel the flames of fear and hate. So even though I think Paul was right in his focus on grace, and that James was wrong, I think the way Paul went about this could have been done better, and that we should not necessarily follow his approach "to the letter."

This of course brings up the whole concept of whether we need to follow the NT "to the letter" in order to be faithful to Jesus, or whether we can find a way to follow the spirit of the text, and take it even further.

At 5:35 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Thank you Derek. At the risk of groans and cynical eye-rolls by some (*chuckle*), I'm going to say that my prayer is this: that the ideas you advocate will not just be a "progressive" thing but a Christian thing that even conservatives will feel safe talking about.

If we truly believe in Christ's love, then this has to be possible. But fear stands in the way. Powerful fear.

Being in the medical field, I'm studying a lot about spiritual caregiving and chaplaincy in the health care setting. A lot of its skills are applicable in a larger setting, and I wonder if application of some of these principles will help us break out of futile theological arguments with conservatives, and create deeper levels of listening and engagement.

At 8:38 AM, Blogger Judy Gale said...

Could it be that it's the institutional part of religion that becomes intolerant? I'm thinking in particular of the part that is tied to money, i.e. salaries, (one's "livelihood") whether at places of learning, houses of worship, publishing companies, etc. Is it possible to have spiritual growth, learning, community, etc., without a need for paid positions, thereby enhancing an atmosphere of freedom of thought and dialogue without the threat of losing one's (paid) position?

At 6:54 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks Samari, that's very kind. I hope that too. The reason I was evangelical was because of the grace I experienced there. I still resonate with that. So for me it's not about being conservative or liberal, but about being grace focused rather than being Pharisaical.

At 7:08 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I think it is in part due to that, but I could also imagine that one could have a leader (who could also be a paid professional) who did not think it was their goal to be in authority through fear and control but instead wanted to empower people to develop character as mature adults rather than as "sheep" and "children" and to, as you say so well create an "atmosphere of freedom of thought and dialogue."

That said, I also wonder about the whole pastor thing myself. I don't really see why a group of adults need to have an authority figure like a pastor over them. Why can't we just have community without that? It seems to me that pastors often keep people in a state of immaturity and unhealthy dependency. I'd rather just be part of a community where everyone was treated as an equal.

At 8:57 PM, Blogger Steven Kurtz said...

There was this story I heard about a missionary to India who was preaching in a public forum, calling for conversion, condemning the gods of Hinduism, etc. Some younger men turned to an elder who was sitting silently, listening to the missionary, asking him, "Why don't you refute him?" To which the old man replied, "No; he needs to say these things." It was about recognizing that the dual consciousness, either-or, black or white, heretic or faithful person paradigm speaks volumes about the person who professes it - as a kind of involuntary confession of spiritual immaturity (sorry Norman Geisler, but it is what it is). So let them be confessional. May we have the grace to say, "They need to be that way - at least today. May they continue to grow and evolve into a more compassionate faith, as our Lord showed us.

At 7:04 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Re: why can't we have a spiritual community without pastors?

In our tiny little home worship group, there is a similar struggle. Right now, we're only two young families with the hope of adding a few more. The biggest challenge is how to balance the role of Bible teaching with "real life." None of us feel confident enough in Scripture study to "teach." That's not to say we couldn't, but a person who's spent years studying theology might at least have the confidence (just like I've gained confidence as a physician from years of medical study).

Right now by default we focus on real life (sharing, encouragement, meal, sometimes singing, and prayer for one another). I'm comfortable with the idea that we don't have to have "teaching" every time, but I would love to hear from other folks who are doing alternative forms of "church" to share what it looks like to integrate Scripture into real life and real relating at a group meeting without its being awkward, forced, or dry/intellectual.

At 9:13 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


That's a great story, thanks for sharing it! I like the perspective and the maturity behind it. I would want to stress (and I imagine you would likely agree) that when we see a person's fear and condemnation hurting others (or even harming us) that it is important for us to speak up.

The focus here is not on defending God. God is big and does not need defending. Instead we need to care for and defend people, especially those who are vulnerable.

At 9:17 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I hear ya. One idea is that you guys could listen to a podcast together and discuss it, or work through a good book. We have such easy access to information these days...

At 9:04 AM, Blogger kc bob said...

Your thoughts made me think about Carlton Pearson and how he lost his church when he changed his position on hell. Sometimes folks are simply not ready or prepared for that kind of honesty and theological change on Sunday morning.

I wonder if there is another way, apart from the pulpit, for a preacher to introduce that kind of change into a congregation? Perhaps discussions with elders then other leaders might facilitate a transition to something new?

At 4:43 PM, Blogger Jeremy Myers said...

I was honest about my doubts when I was in ministry.... and I got fired. I hadn't even officially changed any of my views. I only shared with some people that I was studying some things that made me question some of what I believed. I got fired from my job on the possibility that I might change my views. Seriously.

I wrote about some of the areas I was "reconsidering" here:


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