How does one differentiate between heresy and honest reasoning and speculation? How does one differentiate between someone whose quirky unorthodoxy is acceptable and even refreshing and someone who is a dangerous heretic threatening to divide a congregation? How do we differentiate between genuine and necessary efforts to achieve consistency in viewpoint from single-issue religious hobbyists and wannabe prophets and tinpot dictators with a personal following? How do we address the role of our historical and doctrinal context that leads to the Church of God being all too often a safe haven for cranks and wackos rather than a loving family for godly oddballs and outcasts. And how do we tell the difference between the two?
These are a lot of questions, but the subject has brought itself rather forcefully recently for a variety of reasons, some of them messages I have heard, some of them conversations I have participated in and the commentary of other people about this same issue. No one who knows the Church of God or has any kind of experience with it would deny that it tends to be a home for a lot of really wacky speculations, and much of the time this comes from the top down. Our unhealthy patterns of top-down governance have led to an environment where power is sought to bolster personal insecurity, provide a good income for people often with otherwise few marketable skills, and also provide a way for one’s personal pet ideas and theories to be treated with respect and even reverence because of one’s positional authority. We have to face this honestly if we are going to be able to do anything about it. If we do not like a state of affairs where dogmatism on speculative (or heretical issues) is fierce and where doctrines are used as wedge issues, we have to look at our own role in creating the current situation before we can effectively do anything about it.
Why do so many people make doctrinal castles out of sand? And how do you tell the difference between someone who is a wannabe prophet or leader from someone who merely has an interest in exploring ideas or following trains of thought to their logical or illogical conclusions? For one, a genuine student of God’s truth that is not simply looking for a following or a wedge issue is going to be interested in a big picture of biblical truth. They may have a recognizable approach to wrestling with Bible questions, but at the same time they are going to be interested in the whole picture and not just a small part of it. They will not be focused strictly on one book of the Bible, one doctrine of recognizable dispute (for example, calendars or the identity of the antichrist), one area of interest. A genuine student of the Bible will show through their behavior and through their conversation some attempts at balance, at dealing with biblical tensions, without thinking that they are the be-all and end-all of biblical insight and knowledge. And they will recognize and appreciate not merely the patient listening of others, but the participation and perspectives of others. And a genuine student of the Bible will not be looking for a following for themselves, but rather will simply wish to express their own thoughts and opinions and judgments based on their own experience and research, with an interest in seeing how that perspective is seen from other valid perspectives and part of a larger whole.
We make doctrinal castles out of sand for a variety of reasons. For one, that’s the example we learn from, if we have sat through sermons that consisted of wild leaps of imagination and speculation about prophecy with barely a single (misinterpreted) scripture of passage among all of the puffery and wild leaps of imagination. We make doctrinal castles out of sand when we view scripture from a “Greek” perspective and only see a passage or verse as having one meaning or area of applicability when it probably has several, or maybe even dozens. We make doctrinal castles out of sand when we look at one small aspect of doctrine or one small part of the Bible without taking the whole biblical context into consideration, and by taking deeper understanding that results from long years of practice and consistency as obvious and basic truths that should be accepted without question or explanation.
In truth, becoming a mature Christian under self-control is hard work and takes a long time. I would not pretend to do it perfectly, but my attempted virtue has shown me very well of its difficulty. If our goal as a religious culture is to train people in self-control, it is a far more difficult task than to have a personal following of sheeple who lack interest in taking personal responsibility for their spiritual lives. To be blunt, I have no personal interest in having a group of people hang on every word of mine, because what I enjoy is conversation with give and take with those that have something to offer me outside of myself and my own (probably skewed) view of the world. We must model the behaviors we wish for others to learn, and if we want people who are capable of giving an answer for their faith and capable of governing (with the help of God’s Spirit) their thoughts and words and actions, then we need to respect their capacity to read the Bible and understand it for themselves.
And this has consequences. After all, we cannot assume that our truth is perfect and sufficient. There are many subjects that the Bible discusses, and our personal (and organizational) understanding of all of them is not perfect. There are often genuine inconsistencies in our approach, and the fact is that some people can offer genuinely new understanding based on their own research as God has given them insight and interest. I know I have seen such (usually minor) aspects of new truth among my own friends and circle of acquaintances, largely springing from a deeper knowledge of scripture, and a more consistent application of it. And this we can expect. Our church culture is fairly new, and its doctrines spring from fairly basic insights, but without a tradition of deep scholarly interest or systematic consistency. As a result, there are (generally minor) inconsistencies in our practice, and we ought to expect that a growing and maturing body of believers with wide scriptural interests and growing ability to handle lexicons and commentaries would be able to point out and start to address some of those minor inconsistencies, or unscriptural elements that we have falsely considered to be genuinely biblical doctrine (like our culture of pietism).
There is a tension, though. We have to be rigorous and sure enough about our basic foundational understanding to reject obvious and flagrant heresy, humble enough about our own research and conclusions to avoid dividing, or seeming to want to divide, fellowships over minor peripheral issues, and teachable enough to continue learning how to apply God’s words ever more deeply and completely in our lives to overcome the immaturity and inconsistency of the past and present. When someone presents serious heresy, there is usually an obvious problem with it, such as a massive worldview error or a tendency to see all verses about a given subject only one way, or applied to only one time or situation. We cannot help but become heretics when our mindset fails to reflect the depth of God’s word as well as its complexity and multiple layers of applicability. Anyone who says that only one meaning of a given passage or only one level of applicability for a law or only one explanation of a given prophecy or only one leader or organization is right is going to have a heap of errors. One perspective, any one perspective, is going to fail to meet the depth and complexity of God’s workings with mankind, and will therefore end up heretical.
In a way, the sort of heresies that are rampant among the larger Church of God culture are signs of our rather superficial understanding of God’s ways and our desire either to follow some wise leader or to be a leader of sheeple ourselves. We pick minor speculative errors to fight about, we quarrel over offices and positions (and are unwilling to accept our removal from these responsibilities, whether for cause or not). If we were more mature and grounded in the faith we would be less fractious, less willing to divide over minor things, and better able to put doctrines in their proper place, to separate clear biblical instructions from sound biblical inferences from possible biblical explanations from sheer conjecture to that which is directly and bluntly condemned in scripture. That requires a bigger picture understanding of how the Bible works together, a commitment to the whole biblical as well as close context of verses and passages and the cultural context of works. All of that takes a great deal of time and effort to understand, and a certain amount of humility in admitting that certain answers may be elusive. We have to admit that we do not have all the answers, and that some things remain uncertain, and this healthy acceptance of uncertainty both prevent us from being cocksure heretics or succumbing to the siren’s call of a confident but largely ignorant heretic who thinks he has all the answers because of a very narrow and limited and superficial understanding that is entirely out of balance.
But until we have a big picture view of the Bible and are able to put together doctrines in their proper place like puzzle pieces, and able to distinguish between sound biblical understanding based on a whole biblical context and our own speculations and opinions that may or may not be accurate, and express a different level of confidence based on different levels of proof or certainty, we will be bereft of our greatest weapons against heresy. Those greatest weapons are accurate and deep biblical knowledge in perspective and balance, a personal and organizational sense of humility, a willingness to accept past (and present error) and to improve our knowledge and practice, and a willingness to accept musing and pondering and speculation about subjects without feeling the need to tie everything down or make every opinion or judgment into a doctrinal statement. If we could do these things, we might be able to focus our efforts on those areas that were certain truth, as well as those areas where we could help provide balance and care for the many wounded brethren among us, instead of endlessly bickering and quarreling about politics and rank speculation. All too often we have enough knowledge to be dangerous to ourselves and others, but not enough knowledge or wisdom to be proper teachers and models of God’s way. We have much room to improve. Hopefully we have the time and God-given desire to do so, to move beyond building doctrinal castles made of sand for our pet theories and interpretations to the more difficult task of helping to edify the body of Christ. That is our purpose as members, after all, is it not?