Wednesday, June 17, 2009

On calling stuff heresy

I was over on Wade Burleson's blog Monday, reading this post.

Now, if you get down into the comments, the discussion went off-topic onto whether or not the book The Shack is heresy, and whether or not a church in Nashville is endorsing it, and how Lifeway sells it, which is bad, since it's heresy. Also, the commenter is upset that his church won't let him go to the SBC as a messenger and decry this heresy and condemn Lifeway's selling of this book.

Here's one of the problems: I think calling the book The Shack heresy is a bit much. Now, several prominent and intelligent Christian leaders have called The Shack heretical, such as Albert Mohler, President of Southern Seminary, and Tim Challies, a Christian author and blogger. I'm fairly certain there are others, but those two are some good links. Challies, in particular, is extremely thorough in his treatment.

On the other hand, there are others who find the book to be lovely and inspirational. Among these are Wade Burleson, pastor and blogger in Oklahoma; Eugene Peterson, author of The Message paraphrase of the Bible; and several other bloggers.

Here's the situation, in my mind, having never read that book. It's a work of fiction. If you derive your theology from fictional writings, you are in trouble. Probably with a capital T. I've read the criticisms and the supports, the prevailing opinion is this: For the book: "It's a fictional story showing God's love for us." Against the book: "It doesn't present an accurate picture of who God is." Both are probably right.

I'm not wanting to rail on The Shack or denounce. When I've read it, I'll do that. Instead, I want to look at our tendency to class every disagreement we have among churches and within Christian authorship and preaching as heresy. But what is heresy?

I see heresy as one end of a spectrum of error in theology. First, let's run down that spectrum:

1. Non-Christian religion: based on John 14:6, there is no salvation apart from Christ. So, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other non-Christian religions aren't heresy or any of the other levels I'll list. These groups flat out don't accept Christ as the Son of God in an Orthodox Biblical concept. To be Southern Baptist-y about it: they're wrong, end of story.

2. Annoyance: this where Christians peck at each other over things not at all Scripturally based, and, in truth, need to just get over it. There's no reason to form separate churches or even leave the one you're in. For example, Sunday School or Small Groups? Neither are either explicitly Scriptural or un-Scriptural. Get over it, get along with your church family. Likewise would one find some music disputes here, while other music disputes are in the next group:

3. Disagreement: this is where differing Christians understand the explanation of Scripture in an unreconcilable way. For example, Presbyterians see church government as being a function only of elders. Congregationalists, including most Baptists, see it as a function of the whole local body. Both sides have some Scriptures they point to, and some they gloss over. These disagreements are enough to have a separate church, but are no reason to cast stones or doubt anyone's salvation. Calvinism is another one in Baptist life. Calvinists think Arminians are wrong, Arminians that Calvinists are wrong. While the two often don't reconcile in a church, it is possible to work together between churches.

4. Error: this is where one group cannot accept another's handling of Scripture, and find that it is just wrong. Major debates along error lines: Baptism. We as Baptists, for example, hold firmly to the idea that Baptism is for those who have believed, and is by immersion. Other Christians hold Baptism as being for infants, and by sprinkling or pouring. The difference is so wide it's an error on someone's part. This is disagreement amplified by both sides using the same Scriptures and finding different, mutually exclusive meanings there. Again, you'll create separate churches from it, and you'll find that one group feels their obedience is better than the other groups, as Baptists think that immersion of believers is better than pouring water on infants. Nobody is going to hell over an error but they not be living a proper Biblical life.

5. Heresy: this is where someone claims to be teaching a "Christian" doctrine, but they have twisted it to the point it does not reflect the God of the Bible or true Christianity. For example, a church that denies Jesus dying for your sins, is teaching heresy. A church teaching there is no God, that's heresy. Heresy is the type of thing that believing indicates you are not a follower of Christ. Churches that discover a heretic, one who teaches heresy are duty bound to remove that person from leadership and to treat them as an unbeliever, with the aim towards bringing to the Faith. Churches that espouse heresy ought not be considered churches and should not be involved in religious affiliation with Christian churches. Also, heresy is, by its nature, generally acknowledgable. That is, you'll find major agreement that something is a heresy.

6. Blasphemy: this is an outright lie against God.

(Note: these apply to ideas and arguments as they crop up. I would say there's a section I'd label a drift heresy where, over time, a church slowly drifts away from Scripture. Due to inattentiveness, someday a person wakes up and says "STOP! We're committing heresy!" and is saying something so new they are met with no agreement. This ought to harder and harder to come by with our increasing access to the Word.)

Now, my point is that calling "HERESY!" at every disagreement is counterproductive. Moreover, that calling "HERESY" at even major disagreements is unhelpful. First of all, you need to support that call with Scripture. Second, you need to show that you are not twisting a person's words away from their intentional meaning. For example, one should not accuse C.S. Lewis of heresy for the words of some of his fictional charcters when they speak against Aslan. You should recognize the context, that those words are blasphemous, but they are not the author's viewpoint. Third, one should examine what the accused has said in explanation of their apparent heretical remarks. Does the explanation make sense? Is it a matter where they have just poorly explained themselves? Are we calling it heresy because some people will twist it the wrong way? Next, consult with others. Even Luther quickly found allies in his fight with Rome, and he was also building on the foundations of prior attempts at reform. Do any other Christian leaders see the same problem you do? Do your church leaders (if they're not the ones doing it)? Have other mature believers examine your evidence and consult with you. You are not the only one the Spirit guides, and are not the only one with a Bible. (If you are, share it!)

Finally, be prepared to act based on your charge. You will need to take it to people that can do something with it. In most Baptist churches, if it's the pastor, there's not much you can do in that church. Share it with deacons, perhaps, or what ever structure your church has for that, but your best bet is to go to a different Baptist church, show your maturity through commitment, and then consult with that church's leadership. You can also talk to the people at your association or state convention for guidance. Hierarchal churches should have someone in the next level you can talk to about it. If you're Catholic and it's the Pope, it might be time to move on from Catholicism. Unless you know some good thinking and risk-willing Cardinals that will go talk to him. No matter what group you're in, expect opposition. Lots of it. The more pervasive the heresy, the more influential the heretic, the more defenders they'll have.

You'll have to be willing to separate yourself from the 'heretics.' After all, if you accuse someone of leading people to hell, you shouldn't intend to stick around them, especially as church leaders.

All that to say: calling something heresy is a pretty serious charge. And it ought to stay that way. There are times to use it, and times to put that sword back in its sheath.



  1. The setting for this is out of date, but the principles remain valid.

  2. Great and well-reasoned discussion. Don't you think that in MS/AR/TN one could replace "heresy" with "liberalism" and much of this might apply?
    It's interesting, though: can we as evangelicals decry relativism and the neutering of language while at the same time prostituting our theological vocabulary? I mean, if we first complain because supposedly no one is willing to label anything as heresy and we then in turn label EVERYTHING we don't like as heresy, is that progress?
    One thing I'm experiencing now is the cousin of annoyance, mis-prioritization or overemphasis. In a sense, I don't disagree with the teaching, but it's taking on a life of its own, out of all proportion to Scripture. For instance, emphases on demons and angels and (for some) tongues would fall under this category; I concede the existence of demons and even think there should be a little more cool-headed, biblically based discussion on them. But I will not make it central to my theology or daily life like the person and work of Jesus Christ or the cross is. Prolonged discussion of or emphasis on these things can produce error...which, when it is conceived, gives birth to heresy, and then--when it is full-grown--brings about blasphemy. (Drift blasphemy?)
    I wonder if the other side of the coin is not always recognizing blasphemy for the attack on God's character that it is. I think that the hymn "The Savior Is Waiting" is blasphemous, not because it emphasizes free will--but because it enthrones it and makes God appear to be needy, pathetic and hand-wringing. In other words, it seems to tell a lie about God.
    Nothing on The Shack to read--it's been a minute since I've picked it up--but I appreciate your blog redux.


To deal with SPAM comments, all comments are moderated. I'm typically willing to post contrary views...but I also only check the list once a day, so if you posted within the last 24 hours, I may not be to it yet.

Sermon Recap for June 9 2024

 Good morning! Here is yesterday's sermon from Mt. Olive Baptist Church