Doctrine and Heresy at Our Kitchen Tables

For whatever reason, most folks tend to get offended when you label any portion of their religious belief system as heretical. Admittedly, the very word – heretic – conjures up tragic visions of people being tortured and/or burned at the stake for their beliefs. I suspect that the strong negative connotation of this word is at least one reason why many Christian authors and speakers now use the term “unbiblical” to describe errant doctrine.

“Here we go again…doctrine, doctrine, doctrine! Who really cares?” After all, isn’t doctrine the very thing that tends to divide Christ’s church and causes so much bad blood among believers? Can’t I just have my relationship with Jesus…and you have yours? Is it really helpful to label some beliefs right and others wrong? Doesn’t it just alienate people and unnecessarily cripple the cause of Christ in the world? How much “doctrine” do I really need to get into Heaven, anyway?

It might be helpful at this point to share a simple distinction between theology (doctrine) and revelation that was part of an online course I recently completed entitled God and His Word. (You can audit the entire class for free at Covenant‘s Worldwide Classroom, if you want to.) Helpfully, Dr. Michael Williams describes theology as “a human endeavor” and as such, ever in danger of being subjective, relative, and corrupted by our sinful natures. Revelation, on the other hand, is God’s objective Truth, His declaration of His character, ways, and will. How we interpret what God says about Himself is the definition of our doctrine…and therefore, incorrectly interpreted, we have…bad doctrine.

Therefore, I find it critical, for me at least, to periodically look away from the various ideas of all human authors and speakers – and from my own prejudices – and look instead to Christ for His response. We are called, if you will, to carry “human words about God” back to God Himself, Who promises to refine our human words with the refining fire of His Word. Confirming this practice in Acts 17:10-12, Luke commended the Bereans as being most “noble” for checking whatever Paul had to say against what had already been recorded up to that point in Scripture (what we now call the Old Testament). Because Paul had complete confidence that he was indeed speaking truth on behalf of Jesus, he had absolutely no problem with his hearers “checking his work” against the Word of God…and neither should anyone else.

Obviously, this is not a call to completely disregard anything that human authors and speakers have to say about Scripture and spend 100% of our time reading the Bible (to the exclusion of everything else). Quite the contrary, in fact; my own understanding of the Bible has been incalculably helped by listening to and reading what those who know the Word far better than me have said. The old saying, “Two heads are better than one,” is exponentially truer when trying to grasp exactly what God is saying to us through His Word.

For what it is worth, I am sharing these thoughts with you as a “recovering doctrine hater.” For much of my adult life, you could easily have heard me uttering all of the questions that appear above in paragraph two. It has taken a lot of time, study and repentance for me to arrive at a place where I now understand that right doctrine saves, bad doctrine kills. That may sound like an extreme way to put it, but Jesus Himself weighs in on the issue of the importance of sound doctrine with what I personally find to be the single most terrifying verse in the entire Bible:

Matthew 7:21-23 (ESV)
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'”

As part of the online course that I mentioned earlier, I read a great deal about the various “historical” heresies that have cropped up over the centuries. I’ll just come right out and admit that I am somewhat put off by the tendency of theologians to find big, two-dollar words to describe ideas that should – ideally – be placed within the intellectual grasp of anyone professing faith in Jesus, even those without a Ph.D. Put simply, there was more than one time when I found myself wondering how my own personal understanding of Dynamic Monarchianism or Modalism was going to make me a more effective minister of the gospel within my own family and/or the various marriages-in-crisis that my wife and I have encountered.

Slowly, and with much resistance from within, what I have come to embrace is that Matthew 7:21-23 should serve as a huge red flag for all of us who profess to love Jesus but may or may not have an accurate understanding of how we are to apply His gospel Truths to our lives. If our day-to-day lives can barely be distinguished from those of atheists or nonbelievers, it would seem as though Jesus is calling us to ask – and answer – some really hard questions about our own faith. Does He know us? Do we really know Him? Or do we merely know Him as we would like Him to be, while ignoring those unpleasant Truths He has revealed about Himself?

Last week, Dave wrote an excellent blog on the importance of choosing your favorite “Christian” authors and speakers very carefully; you can find that blog entry here. Apparently provoked within his own spirit, my good friend Phil Vinyard also took some time to weigh in on some modern practitioners of bad doctrine in response to what Dave had to say. If you have not done so already, I would encourage you to read both Dave’s entry and Phil’s response. Both Dave and Phil are sharp, well-read, highly-educated Christian theologians; that being the case, then, is it important for “the rest of us” to enter into this conversation and have our own ideas tested?

In a word, yes. Speaking as someone who (up until August of 2009, anyway) had zero in the way of formal theological training, it seems abundantly clear that there is a wealth of really bad (and damning) doctrine swimming around in our culture – much of it perhaps sincerely intended to educate the masses on what the Bible says, but instead ends up keeping thousands of us away from the Truth of Christ (2 Peter 2:1-3), the only Truth by which we may be saved (John 14:6). A lot of well-meaning people across history have invoked the name of Jesus…but then immediately departed from His path. Many more are then led astray, just as the enemy of our souls intends. Paradoxically, the souls in greatest danger are not those living in open rebellion, but those who clearly think they are following Jesus only to find out – too late – that He never knew them.

Like me, perhaps, you may not be inclined to read voraciously or pick up heavy textbooks in systematic theology, and so it will be important for us to pick and choose who we listen and respond to very carefully. Midway through this past semester, it became abundantly clear that the history of humanity has been consistently focused either on 1) rejecting God outright or, 2) subtly reshaping Him into a God of our own choosing.

The net effect of working my way simultaneously through God and His Word and a seven-week class that Phil taught entitled Counterfeit Christianity has been to “collapse” the timeline of human history and see clearly that the heresies of the first century are alive and well in the 21st. Under the inspiration of God, Solomon rightly tells us that there is nothing new under the sun, and all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Believe it or not, the heresies of ancient history really do have a way of screwing up many thousands of Christians in the here and now.

It may not be immediately apparent why it’s vital to understand the various efforts throughout history to deny the divinity of Jesus, but it sure becomes important – in a hurry – when you find yourself (for example) sitting across the table from a spouse serving up divorce papers because someone else has “successfully” twisted the truths of Scripture to justify their own ungodliness, or your son has rejected the biblical Christ to embrace a false version of Jesus that allows him to keep his drug addiction or his sexual immorality intact. It’s in those moments when the Truth of God’s Word should regulate how you respond, and a right understanding of Who God is will make all the difference. If you don’t believe in God’s sovereignty over all things, for example, when confronted with one of the examples I just gave, your world will feel out of control. If, however, you have long read and understood that nothing is outside of God’s grasp, down to the very details, you can lean on His good plan for your life. Your response to crises in your life will look vastly different, depending on what you believe the truth of God to be.

We don’t all need a Ph.D. to speak truth to others, by any means. We do need faithful leaders who consistently point us to Scripture, and we need to be very discerning about who we allow to speak to our own lives of faith. It may not seem winsome to some when church leaders take on Joyce Meyer or Joel Osteen, for example, but it is massively important to contrast what people say about Jesus with what Jesus has already said about Himself. When I am forced to choose between Jesus of Nazareth and his bloody death on a Roman cross, and someone else possessing abundant wealth, a flawless smile and slick stage production, the distinctions really do seem to stand out in vivid contrast from one another.

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