The visit of Stephen Sizer has got me thinking about heresy. Evangelicals in particular are very concerned about correct dogma. It seems that there are evangelicals in nooks and crevices all over the world usually tagged with some name like “Reformed”, “Calvinist”, “Dispensationalist”, “Arminian,” etc, poised ready to pounce on someone who strays what they perceive to be correct doctrine. Now that we have the net and blogs, we can jump quick and all have a say!
So, for example, when someone speaks out against Dispensationalism and Zionism and offers an alternative, they are attacked through emails and internet, often anonymously. Or, when someone suggests theistic evolution, they are slated as a liberal, and of no value to the church anymore. The other sides of these throw the term around too, Zionists are heretics, as are six-day creationists—at least to some.I received an email recently about a whole movement in evangelicalism that another group of well-intentioned pastors have now declared a heresy. It is intriguing because, this is an amorphous group, without leadership and a clear structure, who are orthodox in every way but hold one or two views that vary from traditional Christianity, and which I would call innocuous. They are imbalanced at best.
Then there was Rob Bell who pretty much appears to hold an orthodox theology from a reformed amillenial point of view, but raised the possibility that one can get out of hell if one freely submits to Jesus as Lord. As far as I see, although some would question his theological construct, that is the only point at which he would be outside of the pale for many evangelicals. Does this mean he is to be written off now as a heretic, a liberal, and cast aside? Is his ministry now invaid? It is not even clear that this is his firm belief, I wonder if he might say in defence, “just asking.”I had a discussion with someone recently who was adamant that a prominent NZ pastor was a heretic because he was adoptionist. I challenged him asking how he knew for sure (had he read and heard this from the guy?), who he was to make that call? and if indeed the pastor is adoptionist, does that mean we right him off eternally and irrevocably? Is this the end of the road for the pastor? The guy was not particularly open to the conversation standing his ground, fiercely contending for the faith.
Now, as I read the New Testament there are two primary marks of a Christian. First, there is faith—we believe in Jesus Christ Lord. Belief of course is more than cognitive belief in the story and person of Jesus, it involves trust, it is relational, it is volitional, it is lived out. Of course the content of faith is not particularly clear. It seems to at least include that Jesus is God’s Son, saviour and Lord, that he rose from the dead, and that we submit to his Lordship in our lives. While we have tried to define this further through creeds and councils, there remains a degree of uncertainty over exactly what we must believe to be “saved” and “orthodox.”Secondly, there is love. Love is an underlying attitude (see 1 Cor 13:1-3) of unlimited and unconditional self-giving to others, Christian or otherwise. Even enemies are to be loved. It is in 1 Cor 13:4-7 a series of verbs, it is what we do. So love should envelope us as our primary attitude toward God and others, it should be seen in our attitudes, it should be seen in our actions, in our relationships, in every situation. All ethics is governed by this one overriding glorious attitude.
Ok, so here is my question. What is the bigger heresy, to get a detail or two or three of Christian faith wrong, or to fail to show love? I suppose it depends on a few things. What is a heresy? It is something that strays from established Christian teaching I suppose. The problem is, what is the established Christian teaching? Who defines it, unless you are a Catholic and have a Pope? If you stray at one point or other, at what point are you the “excluded”? Who decides which are the “fundamentals” which, if we get wrong, see us written off? The problem is that as we Christians sit around and get involved in all this discussion and debate about such things, we fail in mission because we are inward looking. I am a Presbyterian, I know how this happens!Yet, in the middle of the Scriptures, screaming loud and clear, is the golden rule, the royal law, the sum of all law, “love your neighbour as yourself.” Many zealous Christians seem to think they can violate this particular doctrine, in their zeal to protect the faith. Can we? We do have to talk doctrine and resolve questions and challenge and question, but only within the rubric of this overriding ethical imperative—love. So, what is the greatest heresy, to get it wrong say on Zionism, or universalism, or creation? Or to fail to love? I suspect I know the answer.