Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Contending for the truth can become arrogant ignorant denunciation of true if errant Christians

Heidi Swander of Olive Tree Ministries wrote this timely article that came in this morning's email from that ministry.
At what point does a fellow Christian deserve to be ostracized for their perceived apostasy? Where do you draw the line regarding Christians you will and will not fellowship with? When has a spiritual leader made a definitive decline into error? Sorry, that's three questions. Well, think about them for a moment. They're important questions to answer.

While you're thinking, I will admit to you that I am weary of the spiritual immaturity of many "discerning" believers. I am tired of the circular firing squads that have been drafted that position Christians to repeatedly fire on each other. I'm worn out from bitter, caustic diatribes toward fellow believers who have not proved to be ambassadors of the enemy at all, but someone we have short-changed by not allowing discourse on their perceived error.

Don't get me wrong: There are plenty of times, in these last days, when we must "contend earnestly for the faith." But the wise man or woman must discern when to contend and when to counsel. Let me explain what God has been teaching me.
You can read the rest of the article at the link.

I say it's timely because I've very recently been pondering much the same problem in "discernment" ministries I keep tabs on, as recently as last night. The problem as she describes it is a lack of spiritual maturity that gives no grace to someone who has committed some infraction of doctrine according to the "discerner's" standards, even someone held in great esteem by much of the church for their Christian teaching and work.

In the last few months I've heard some of the best of the best denounced in terms that brand them as apostates just because of such an error, or even just on the "authority" of some other "ministry" whose facts have not been independently checked.

I cringe when I hear such revered leaders as theologian R C Sproul, pastor and teacher John MacArthur, or Bible teacher Kay Arthur, denounced in such terms for some infraction according to the ignorant "discerner." The list is much longer than those three but those three come to mind. But such greats as Luther and Calvin have also been treated to such denunciations, and the latest volley of imprudent excoriation I heard was blasted against that venerable church father, Augustine. I even prayed that the Lord would make such "discernment" teachers aware of their folly and this email from Olive Tree I regard as answer from the Lord since I have reason to believe it goes out to many of those teachers.

Clearly much of it comes from sheer ignorance. They know just about nothing about the history of the church or the rightful place of any of these names in the regard of the church, they trust in their own uneducated first impressions, they magnify their own sense of the truth and righteousness at the expense of Christians of far greater stature than themselves.

It's one thing to discover and lament a doctrinal flaw in a leader's thinking, it's another to let that discovery or opinion lead you to treat that person as no longer a Christian.

I'm only going to mention what I heard said against Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in the fourth century, although Heidi Swander is really only addressing attitudes toward one another in today's church. The principle is the same. Is Augustine really a Christian or not despite his doctrinal errors? I say he is. I say we'll find him among the Lord's company at the very end.

What I've learned about Augustine over my Christian life has been pretty well balanced, treating him as insightful but flawed. He's held up as a theologian whose teachings had a great deal to do with inspiring the Protestant Reformation, and yet he's also acknowledged to have promoted views that gave support to the later development of Roman Catholic errors.

In other words Protestant leaders have taken what is of value in Augustine and have for the most part not fallen for his errors. But ignorant arrogant "discerners" with no knowledge whatever of Augustine except some quotes they recently heard attributed to him that they disagree with, no sense whatever of the historical place of Augustine, or of the circumstances which shaped his theology, speak of him as of the devil himself. Although I happen to agree that Augustine was very very wrong about, for instance, the identity of the angels who procreated with the daughters of men in Genesis 6 -- in fact I strongly agree with this "discerner" in this case and regard it as a very important point the church should be studying in the last days -- and Augustine's view does happen to be an interpretation is still accepted even among Protestants, and promoted by Calvin as well, sad to say, yet I cringe at the arrogant posturing ignorance of a denouncer of one of the best known fathers of the church as far more offensive than even Augustine's grossest errors. And it's a barrier to getting the teaching about Genesis 6 taken seriously by more Christians too.*

How ironic that he accuses Augustine and Calvin of attitudes that he himself is committing, pride, excessive trust in his own understanding and so on. If he thinks he is above being seduced by his own flesh or the wiles of the devil, above ever teaching anything that might mislead, unaware of the shoulders he himself stands on for his own doctrinal understanding, let him think again. He'd deny he has any such attitudes, but clearly he simply hasn't subjected himself to very rigorous self-examination.

He also falsely accuses those who refer to themselves as "Augustinians" or "Calvinists" of buying into everything said by those men and of "trusting in man instead of in God." He doesn't even have a clue what a person means by identifying as a "Calvinist" for instance, he just freely makes it up as he goes along, it MUST mean we're blindly following a man and not God. He's outraged at a false teaching and he's going to tar everything and everyone who ever got anything good out of the teacher with that error, deserved or not. And I don't think I've ever heard this particular "discerner" recognize, correct or apologize for any error of his own. He just thinks he's being misunderstood or persecuted when anyone objects, just goes into a litany of his good intentions and how no he isn't saying this or that. (Don't know how many times I've heard him say Hey it's not that I think I'm Mr. Perfect and the like, but again, how he acts doesn't quite fit his disclaimer.)

Augustine's writings are so voluminous it's possible nobody has ever read all of them and many Christians know next to nothing about him. Some of us may know about his conversion experience in which God used the voice of a small child playing a game to bring him to Christ, we may have read his Confessions, his autobiography which became the model for autobiographies ever since, we may have read his City of God in which he presents the enduring world of the spirit over the world of the flesh, of which Wikipedia says:

Augustine is the most influential Father of the Church in the West and through Western Christianity The City of God profoundly shaped Western civilization.
All of that is valuable despite his support of Roman Catholic errors, and Augustine's teachings were part of what inspired Luther toward his rejection of those very errors. Calvin too made use of some of Augustine's theology. It was a theology supportive of the Reformation's theology of salvation by grace through faith and dependence on God BEFORE Roman Catholicism had grown into what it later became.

Just because the Roman church has taken possession of him and calls him a good Roman Catholic does NOT mean he was himself a Roman Catholic in the sense someone like Aquinas was. The Roman church also took possession of Ireland's patron saint Patrick, although Patrick himself never had anything to do with Romanism. It's a big mistake to take what Catholic historians have to say about him as if it were THE truth.

Augustine is rightly considered one of the early fathers who belongs to the true church DESPITE the parts of his teachings that veer over to the superstitious errors of Romanism. One of my big problems with Augustine is that he spiritualizes the first part of Genesis. He apparently made plenty of errors of that kind although he ALSO developed enough of a theology of grace to inspire the Protestant Reformation.

Who of us is perfect? We have to be able to tell when a professed Christian has truly gone off into apostasy -- there are plenty of those these days -- oh, PLENTY! -- and one of my own discouraging discoveries has been how many true Christians don't have the discernment to reject them but even embrace them. But there are plenty of true Christians who make some theological errors that are far from the level of apostasy, who should not be denounced the way I've heard so many denounced recently by certain teachers out of profound ignorance, and yes, out of what Heidi Swander calls spiritual immaturity.

I recommend reading Heidi Swander's article all the way through.

* It is sort of sadly interesting regarding Augustine's interpretation of the events of Genesis 6 that he made the comment I quoted in the previous post about trusting in yourself over God if you don't believe the gospels as written. Perhaps he simply makes an exception in the case of Genesis 6, as the discerner I'm talking about here reports him (or was it Calvin) as saying the idea that angels copulated with human women is simply false due to its own intrinsic absurdity, which certainly is a case of imposing his own prejudice on the scripture rather than accepting it as written.

The "discerner" however went on to accuse him of adding to scripture and deserving the curse of being eliminated from the Book of Life, which is REALLY not fair. Wrong interpretations of scripture are NOT the same thing as adding to scripture.

Save that accusation for the heretics who DID tamper with scripture in the early centuries and produced the Alexandrian Greek texts --or if you are a Westcott and Hort fan, then it is the Textus Receptus that was so altered, and all its manipulators, which according to the logic of W and H's theory involved an entire convention of the greatest names of the early church getting together specifically for that purpose, who are of course all going to hell. Sometimes people just don't think THROUGH their invented scenarios.

Anyway, if everybody who misinterpreted scripture based on his own personal biases were guilty of adding to scripture just about nobody could be saved. It's always disappointing to discover people doing this but I suppose any of us is subject to it and must be very careful for that reason.

I'm aware of some instances off the top of my head: I just happened to hear a discussion on Christian radio about the various views of wine in scripture which included the common idea that Jesus didn't REALLY drink wine, although scripture says He did, and that whenever wine is mentioned in the Bible it REALLY means extremely watered-down wine although there isn't the slightest clue in scripture itself that that is the case -- and these manipulations of scripture come from Fundamentalists who have their own axe to grind against alcohol. Apparently it was one of these fundamentalists who got the entire Christian church to use grape juice instead of wine, within the last hundred years or so. Welch was his name, of Welch's Grape Juice fame.

Are they all going to hell for their refusal to take scripture at its word?

I ran across quite a collection of rather agonized attempts to avoid coming to the obvious conclusion that Paul in 1 Cor 11:2-16 is saying women must put something over their heads during worship, that was extremely disappointing as I saw one otherwise justly highly esteemed preacher after another go to such lengths.

The idea that Paul meant long hair is really just stupid, excuse me but it is, it shows a bizarre inability to read in context and a strange lack of appreciation of the mind of Paul. The average Christian might not deserve to be called stupid for this misreading (though since we all have the Holy Spirit there's something wrong there too) but their leaders should have corrected them as they aren't stupid, but they go ahead and confirm this utterly ridiculous misreading.

The passage has its knotty points to unravel but the overall message is NOT that hard to figure out in itself. There is really no excuse. The early churches got it although many of them also found ways of not quite obeying it completely, according to Tertullian, yet the churches ALL obeyed it more or less down to the middle of the 20th century. NOBODY interpreted it as requiring long hair. The reference to long hair was recognized as the mere example Paul offered as one of his arguments.

Worse than that, however, is the contingent that understands that Paul IS calling for a covering to be put over the head, but, based on absolutely nothing in the text, and certainly based on nothing we could ever suspect of the apostle Paul in general, they decide it's really a culture-bound matter that applied only to Paul's own time and not to us. It REALLY means, according to them, that women are simply to dress in a sex-appropriate way. BALDERDASH! Paul is emphasizing the physical HEAD as the whole point of all his arguments and it takes some kind of self-delusion to ignore his obvious meaning!

(My study of all this is far more temperate, I don't erupt like this there if you'd like to go read my blog Hidden Glory and follow the argument in some detail).

I have to suspect this latter group of being motivated by a fear of the opinions in the church, a sort of feminist backlash. They all show a nervousness about the topic in one way or another and a few of them admit to that nervousness, just as the preacher who discussed the meaning of wine in the Bible also did. Rubbing your congregation the wrong way is NOT a fun experience. But it's sad that so many end up compromising the word for such a reason.

That's at least as bad as Augustine or Calvin's refusal to believe that angels copulated with women, simply on the basis of their idea that such a thing is simply absurd, although scripture unambiguously SAYS that is what happened.

Are they all going to hell for adding to scripture?

Oh and here's another one. Well, it's not exactly a case of misreading the Bible, but it is a case of insisting on a false view of history because you don't like the implications of the true history: This is the case of the King-James-Only people who claim that the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures known as the Septuagint was actually produced some centuries after Christ, rather than what is generally known about it, that it was produced some centuries BEFORE Christ and is most likely the scripture quoted by Him and His disciples.

May the Lord forgive us all for such indulgences of the carnal nature.