Rev. Brian M Abshire
A charge of “heresy” is indeed a serious one and not to be made lightly. For as we have defined the term here, heresy is doctrinal error so wrong, that a person believing, affirming and teaching it could not be saved. Therefore it is important NOT to throw this charge around lightly. Not every doctrinal deviation is indeed heresy. Since all men are imperfect, all men have imperfect understanding of the Scriptures. Since all men are different, not all men have the same level of wisdom or understanding. Therefore there are those in the church who hold to less than perfect doctrines, but are never the less to be considered within the household of the faith. For example, children and new believers often do not possess a consistent and comprehensive understanding of the Scriptures and frequently may for a time, affirm something contrary to sound doctrine. Grace, gentle correction and exposure to the truth is normally all that is needed to clear up these kinds of errors and bring them to a deeper, richer understanding of the truth.
But there are also doctrinal differences that divide more mature believers who sincerely hold to different doctrinal positions, yet they display all the characteristics of mature, godly, Christian life and practice. They are humble in their attitude, express genuine love and commitment to the Sacred Scriptures, have abundant evidence of the fruit of the Spirit and in all other ways APPEAR to trust in Christ and Christ alone, for their salvation. Yet, the doctrinal differences are there. Some refuse baptism to covenant children, others affirm a confused understanding of “free” will, still others insist that certain well-recognized psychological phenomenon are really “gifts” of the Spirit and so speak in “tongues.” Even within Reformed churches, there are often significant doctrinal differences between various groups. Some insist that we may sing only Psalms in worship (without any musical accompaniment) while others believe hymns and choruses are perfectly appropriate. There are certain groups who insist that any church not holding to the Solemn League and Covenant is by nature apostate while many Presbyterians think this nothing more than an interesting historical relic from the past.
The differences are real, and one cannot simply excommunicate all those who hold to different doctrines unless one wants to be in the unenviable position of insisting, “We are the only true church, all others are apostate.” Such grandiose claims probably reveals more about the psychological and emotional problems of its adherents, than it does about the “purity” of their doctrine. But the question is, how do Christians deal with the very real differences that separate them from others, without falling into a hopeless subjectivity that destroys any claim to ultimate truth? The Bible IS God’s Word and it IS the final authority in matters of faith and practice. How then do sincere Christians deal with different interpretations of its teachings? Furthermore, the historic Reformed faith, as hammered out in detail by the great Reformation creeds, is today held by only a handful of believers, in comparison to broad evangelicalism. Baptists make up the single largest group of Protestants in America today, with Pentecostal and Charismatic groups closing the gap yearly. If in fact the Reformed Faith IS an accurate and reliable summary of Bible doctrine, how do we deal with all those in the church of Christ whose doctrine significantly departs from historic orthodoxy?
Sociological Reasons for Doctrinal Diversity
While Christians must begin with Scripture in order to understand the nature of the world, we ought also to be aware that there are other factors that affect our understanding of Scripture. Man is not a blank slate. Scripture affirms the validity of the pagan proverb, “bad company corrupts good morals…” (1 Cor 15:33). In other words, a man does not arrive at his belief structure in a vacuum. There are environmental factors that act on him, just as there are spiritual ones. Furthermore, the Scriptures warn repeatedly of the dangers that false teachers cause to the body of Christ. Hence most Christians arrive at their understanding of the Faith from what they are taught by their pastors, what they read in books and what is believed by those around them. If they have good pastors, read good books and are in fellowships where good doctrine is normal, then they too will have good doctrine. But if the opposite is true, then generally speaking, their doctrine will reflect this too.
It simply is not enough to say that all men should be Bible scholars and depend upon their own intelligence, wisdom and understanding to arrive at doctrinal truth. God gives the church pastors and teachers who have the responsibility to TEACH His people. If the church did not need teachers, then God would not have given them to her. Therefore, if the pastors and teachers do not teach the truth, then the people of God will not receive the truth and cannot therefore believe the truth. Granted, in all fellowships, there will be some men with greater insight, ability and perseverance than others. And when these men encounter various errors, they like the Bereans, will search the Scriptures, discover the truth and depart from churches with less than correct doctrine; but not always. Often men remain in churches with less than optimal doctrine because of other factors. The men who leave are the exception, not the rule. Most people trust that their pastor will teach them the truth, and therefore will believe what they are taught. And if they are taught error, then they will believe error because they know nothing else. Apollos is an example of this dynamic to a certain extent. He believed the gospel and taught it. But Pricilla and Aquilla had to straighten him out on some issues. His doctrine was good, in so far as it went, but not perfect. He needed someone to teach him in order to improve his doctrine.
Secondly, in modern culture, the church presently suffers from what sociologists call pluralization; i.e., problems resulting from a plethora of options. Any given community will offer Christians a wide variety of churches, worship services, fellowship opportunities and doctrinal standards. Many of these churches will deliberately tailor their programs, emphasizes, etc., specifically to attract certain kinds of people. Since we live in an anti-intellectual age, deeply influenced by pietism, the average Christian is NOT motivated by the search for truth, but for a warm, intimate relationship with God and a comfortable social environment. It is only “natural” then for Christians to seek out those churches that make them feel comfortable and provide them that experience.
Thus it can be hypothesized that certain personality types will tend to gather at churches comprised of similar personality types simply because they “feel” more comfortable there. This assumption may seldom be verbalized, or even recognized, but it is a factor never the less. Thus for example some people are drawn to “traditional” churches; others may seek out “activist” churches, while still a third will desire more “emotional” fellowships. Over time, there may well be a “sorting” effect where various personality types join like-minded churches thus affecting the very complexion of the church or denomination.
Is it just an “accident” that Baptists are renowned for being evangelistically oriented while Presbyterians are known as the “Frozen Chosen?” Is it just a coincidence that Pentecostals and Charismatics place a great deal of emphasis on emotionalism? In other words, it is NOT necessarily the doctrine that makes the people, but rather the personalities of the people that are attracted to certain kinds of doctrines. The Scriptures warned that this would be a problem wherein men would gather teachers to themselves who would tickle their ears (cf. 2 Tim 4:4). But it does not necessarily follow that all men everywhere would necessarily choose evil teachers. Christians just might choose teachers who make them “feel” comfortable, who emphasize certain doctrines, and ignore others.
This perspective can be verified observationally by noting that Church membership in America is directly related to social class. The higher the socio-economic ladder one climbs, the more one tends to be drawn to specific denominational affiliation (e.g., Episcopalians are mostly comprised of the top 2% of the population followed by Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists. Charismatics and Pentecostals, in general, tend to be made up of the lowest classes in American culture.).
Hence, doctrinal divisions may have more to do with social class, then genuine theological convictions. It may not be an accident that the best-educated segments of society are largely drawn to churches with the best-developed doctrinal systems. Furthermore it is significant that the higher one’s socio-economic status, the less appropriate are overt displays of emotion. Thus those of poor or working class backgrounds are not only more comfortable, but may actively seek out churches where emotions, not intellect are more highly valued. Since emotion and experience, rather than academics are valued, such churches are more likely to adopt, permit or even encourage doctrinal error. It also works the other way. Historically, it can be argued that Presbyterian churches were so enthralled by impeccable academic credentials that they STILL insist on their seminary professors having degrees from prestigious secular universities, even though this led directly to theological liberalism and apostasy.
Now granted, this tendency is a general rule, with many notable exceptions. But if this analysis holds up, it does help to explain WHY there exist such differences in doctrine between various evangelical Christians in American culture today. The plurality of churches allows believers of similar temperament and values to gather together in places where they feel comfortable because experience, not doctrine is considered the essence of the Christian life. The pastors and teachers are never exposed to a more structured and consistently Biblical doctrine because it is not deemed necessary to their ministries. Since one cannot teach what one does not know, the average Christian is seldom given the opportunity or the motivation to develop a better theological understanding of the Scriptures.
Whether we like it or not, approve of it or not, or accept it or not, doctrinal differences exist and not all those differences are heresy, or even necessarily harmful. Romans 14 is clear that there are some issues that each individual must decide before God for himself being “convinced in his own mind.” No one else can judge their conscience in these matters. In New Testament times, with a mixed church of Jews and Gentiles, the matter of food was crucial. Some could not in good conscience eat meat sacrificed to idols. Others could and did. The Apostle Paul was very clear that no one should judge another on something like this. Though some knew that food sacrificed to idols was harmless, others did not have this same understanding. If they ate, their consciences would be defiled and they would have been in sin.
It is significant to note that Paul does NOT rebuke the “weaker” brother for not having better theology. Instead, he warns the “stronger” brother not to allow something as mundane as food to become a cause of division. It would appear then that God is more gracious towards us, even in our error, than we are often towards one another.
Hence the Scriptures allow a degree of tolerance on some issues that some of us today would find difficult to accept. Tolerance can of course become an excuse for intellectual laziness or even an abandonment of ultimate truth. But perhaps we should consider the issue of “tolerance” from an engineering perspective. For an engineer, “tolerance” has to do with how closely two things have to fit together to operate acceptably. An example of this is the old Colt 1911 semi-automatic pistol. Developed to counter the drug induced charges of the Moro guerillas in the Philippines, the U.S. Army needed a hard hitting, and reliable side-arm for its officers (the men had rifles, the officers had only pistols. Reports had some officers shooting guerillas six times with their .38 revolvers and still being killed by their machete wielding attackers).
The original 1911 had extremely sloppy tolerances (some old timers insist that if you held it up to the sun, you could actually see daylight through parts of it). However, the loose tolerances allowed the 1911 to operate even in the harshest environments. It did not jam easily. Even in wet, muddy, jungle conditions, it continued to function reliably. It was NOT the most accurate handgun in the world, but it was a reliable one.
Though now superceded by the Beretta 92, the Colt 1911 is still a popular handgun and widely used in shooting competitions. However, to increase accuracy, the TOLERANCES have been significantly tightened. Special tighter barrels, bushings and slides have all been designed to increase accuracy out to literally 100 yards. But the push for accuracy and the tighter tolerances makes the gun less inherently reliable. It jams more easily, requiring barrels to be throated and polished to feed ammunition reliably. It must be cleaned regularly and lubricated properly. In many respects, a custom-built 1911 is the finest handgun in the world, just don’t get it dirty. And all the work needed is too expensive for the casual shooter.
In many respects, this aspect of “tolerance” illustrates the problem facing the church. Yes, increased accuracy is desirable, but it comes at a cost that at this point in time, in this stage of the sovereign work of God in history, that the average Christian is not willing or able to pay. There does appear to be in Scripture an acceptable degree of “error” (in the engineering use of the term) that we are expected to deal with.
In the past two thousand years, we have made great strides in developing a comprehensive understanding of the Scriptures. There is no doubt that the high-water mark of Christian theology was the Reformation and the great Reformation creeds. But the reality is that some of the brethren (and let us be honest here, at the present time, MOST of the brethren) no longer share that understanding. Baptists and Methodists combined, at the time of the American War of Independence made up less than 10% of the population. Now, Reformed churches of ALL stripes probably make up less than 10% of just the Christian population. As a consequence, large segments of broad evangelicalism now hold to some form of Dispensationalism, Arminianism or other error. Now ANY error is serious and has repercussions on every aspect of the Faith. The church militant has largely lost the battle for Western culture as a direct result of embracing these errors.
Yet it is no good saying they “ought” to know better, because the reality is, they “don’t” know any better and it does not look as if they will learn any better any time soon. Broad evangelicals profess their faith in Christ, baptize in His name, build churches to his glory, and do the work of the ministry. Even in Reformed churches, surveys will show that a significant number of their members were brought to faith in Christ through various broad evangelical churches or ministries. Obviously, from our perspective, they could do all these things BETTER if they had better doctrine. But only the worst sort of sectarian nonsense would deny that God is at work in broad evangelical churches to some degree or the other.
Hence tolerance in this sense is not simply leveling the playing field where all doctrines are reduced to the lowest common denominator, but rather the recognition that God in His grace uses ALL of His people to bring about His will, despite all OUR error and sin. There are no perfect people, no perfect churches and no one with perfect doctrine, but God uses all just the same. Hence even as we encourage our brother to develop a better and more consistent understanding of the Scriptures, we ought also be aware of the fact that God is using them. Furthermore, occasionally, there just may be things that He is doing through them that He is NOT doing through us and we might actually be able to learn something from them.
Liberty of Conscience
The great Reformation creeds define liberty of conscience as freedom from the commandments of men that are contrary to the Word of God, or beside it (WCF 20:2). God alone has the authority to bind our conscience and require our faith and obedience. Furthermore, the Word of God is NOT absolutely clear on all points in all places. The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture says that all things necessary for God’s glory, man’s salvation, faith and life are expressly set forth in Scripture or discovered by good and necessary consequences (WCF 1:6). But still the illumination of the Holy Spirit is required for men to understand these things. Even the Apostle Peter says that the Apostle Paul wrote many things, “difficult to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). Thus not all men have the same measure of illumination. Not all men have the same degree of understanding. And not all men agree to what is a “good and necessary consequence.”
Therefore at the end of the day, Christians have to realize that not all differences are heresy. There needs to be grace given to another, who may not yet have attained our degree of doctrinal accuracy. In this life, they may NEVER achieve our desired level of understanding. Brothers MAY sincerely disagree with each other on certain peripheral issues. And God may be more concerned with how we handle the disagreement, then with who was right and who was wrong.
Like iron sharpening iron (Pvbs 27:17), so we ought to strive to encourage, exhort and admonish each other to arrive at a better, deeper, more comprehensive understanding of the Word (Col 3:16). Hence we ought not to judge, but to serve one another, trusting that each man stands accountable before God for his labor (Rms 14:4). We do not have to give up on the truth and accuracy of doctrine to realize that God is truly present in another church, or believer, that He is working in them and through them according to His divine plan.
The challenge of course is for those who DO have a better understanding of the faith to bring their brothers along without the arrogant and contemptuous attitude to often too common among some Reformed churches. If we have the truth (as we sincerely believe we do) then let us demonstrate that truth by loving and serving our brothers. The Chalcedon Foundation has come under criticism occasionally from other reformed ministries because of its willingness to teach Charismatics in particular. We speak at their churches, teach at their conferences and occasionally even train some of their pastors. As a result, there are increasing numbers of Charismatic churches that have adopted a more consistently Biblical worldview. No, they probably will not be applying to the OPC any time soon for membership. But they have discovered the doctrines or grace, they have come to love the Law of God as the expression of His unchangeable nature, they have adopted an optimistic eschatology and are willing to apply their faith in their work, community, nation etc.
Jesus said that the mark of greatness in the Kingdom is being the servant of all (e.g., Mark 10:45). To serve requires humility and grace. A love for truth does not require contempt for those who do not yet know, as they ought to know. But reformed Christians in particular would do well to remember that love and truth are NEVER to be pitted against one another (cf. 1 Cor 8:1). If we truly have the truth, then it ought to be demonstrated by grace and peace and a dedication to winning our errant brothers, not condemning them or judging them. Therefore let us exhort, admonish, encourage and teach our brothers, demonstrating by the grace of our speech, the purity of our love and the sacrifice of our labors that the truth of God is with us. For in so doing, the ancient church conquered the world in the name of King Jesus. And in so doing, will we achieve victory over the nations.