Sunday, October 27, 2019

Hold the Fire: Don't Shoot Your Third Cousins

"Daddy, I think you just shot your third cousin!"

Martin Luther used profanity in his writing to describe fellow Reformer Ulrich Zwingli's theology about the Eucharist.

Bob Jones, Sr., told his students in 1965 that Billy Graham was "doing more harm in the cause of Jesus Christ than any living man."

Some pastors turned their chairs around -  showing their backs in protest - when Anne Graham Lotz was invited to speak at a large ministerial gathering in the early 1980's. She shared, "When I concluded my message, I was shaking. I was hurt and surprised that godly men would find what I was doing so offensive that they would stage such a demonstration, especially when I was an invited guest."

I routinely notice some folks in Christ’s Body - what Richard  Blackaby calls "self-appointed orthodoxy police" -  snubbing other Christians because of a difference in theology - sometimes calling them “false prophets,” warning others to not listen to them. Some websites today – from self-appointed spiritual policemen - even regularly review other ministries and preachers to see if they pass their “doctrinal purity litmus test.” If not, readers are warned to avoid them.

In our social media day, there’s also a bad practice of taking sound bytes of someone’s sermon (usually about 60 to 120 seconds) and trying to use that to paint the speaker with broad strokes as doctrinally incorrect. It's the same tactic political pundits use when they take one sound byte of a politician and try to characterize them in broad, sweeping, inflammatory strokes.

Sometimes the desire for doctrinal purity narrows our focus much narrower than the Lord’s. I’ve written about this before numerous places (see list below).

False Prophets

The Old Testament, Jesus, and Paul warned of false teachers. More specifically, in the OT God often spoke through visions or direct revelations to prophets, like Daniel, Isaiah, or Nathan. These prophets spoke for God and at times foretold the future.  When people claiming to be prophets arose and gave messages that did not come from God, they were labeled "false prophets."

In the era of the New Testament and beyond, particularly with the distribution of Paul's letters, the primary way God was speaking was through the revelation of Jesus Christ in Person - and then through the written Scriptures. When teaching came into churches that contradicted the witness of Jesus, the Old Testament writings, and the New Testament, that instruction was labeled "false teaching" or "false teachers."

In the Bible, a false prophet was worthy of being put to death. To label someone a false prophet is much different than saying, “I disagree with them over some doctrinal points, they come to different conclusions than I do in some matters, I think they are in error on some points," or "I don’t normally recommend that person’s teaching or writing.” 

No, to call someone a false prophet is to put them in an altogether different category.

False teaching abounds today and has the following characteristics: (1) teaches a doctrine other than that which agrees with basic, biblical orthodoxy, particularly related to the person and work of Jesus Christ, and (2) leads others into practicing, excusing, or normalizing sexual immorality.

In today’s culture that has jettisoned absolute truth and embraced the sexual revolution, many false prophets abound. But methinks not as many as some suggest (quite emphatically, I might add!).

Evangelicals – or evangelicalism – are terms encompassing a broad number of people. While these people and groups disagree over secondary doctrinal matters (church government, mode of baptism, role of the gifts of the Spirit, role of women in ministry, divorce and remarriage, whether or not God “speaks” today, soteriology, eschatology, etc.), there are some basic, orthodox beliefs that evangelicals agree upon. That broad agreement looks something like this:

·      The deity of Jesus Christ,
·      The exclusivity and necessity of salvation in Christ,
·      The authority of the Scriptures (different terms are used by different groups to describe this),
·      The call from God to the Great Commandment, the Great Commission, and the Cultural Mandate,
·      The return of Christ,
·      The eternal nature of humanity,
·      The distinction of male and female,
·      The marriage union consisting of one man and one woman,
·      And the gift of sex as something to be enjoyed within the boundaries of Christian marriage.

Progressive Christianity

If someone does not believe in those basic things, I would not call them an evangelical Christian. Today, some “Christian” churches are embracing the category of“Progressive Christians.” This PC folks often do not hold to those basic tenets listed above.

Like Pashur in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 20), their message changes to fit the current culture, and they promise “peace” to people, telling them what they want to hear (promising their best life now). Meanwhile, there are still faithful Jeremiah’s holding to orthodoxy and preaching, “The Bible says . . . .”

Again, many false prophets abound today. It is not uncommon among Progressive Christianity for preachers to deny some or all of the above list. They may embrace any of the following:

·      Multiple ways of salvation (many roads to heaven)

·      Universalism (everyone is saved)

    Open Theism (God does not know everything.)

    Jesus Christ was not God.

·      The LBGTQ movement – embracing homosexual/lesbian marriage, transgenderism as normative, etc.

Mark my words. If a preacher denies the basic of evangelicalism (which is simply basic historical orthodoxy), they are a false prophet. I believe Progressive Christianity should not even be called Christianity. Historically, Christianity has been tied to a belief system coming out of the Bible. To embrace a belief system that is dug out more from the culture than God’s Word is not actually Christianity.

In a culture rejecting truth, we need faithful preachers of historic Christianity as false prophets will abound.

Different Conclusions

However, I see evangelicals today taking aim at other evangelicals – who still believe in basic orthodoxy but come to different conclusions and practices about some of the secondary matters (which are many – I’ve already listed some in this article).

The social media day has created "experts" behind every laptop or smart phone. A caustic, critical spirit has taken over our culture and keeps influencing the way believers relate to one another.

When Christians move into their “theological tribes” or “camps,” how easy it becomes to narrow our vision of Christian theology. Suddenly our tribe (whether that is Reformed, non-Reformed, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, immersion baptism, pedobaptism, pre-mill, post-mill, and dozens of other categories) becomes the one that is “right.” Our tribe is the one correctly dividing the word of truth.

While it is good and necessary to come to our theological convictions and conclusions over secondary matters, it is always wise and good to give grace to others in the Body who affirm basic orthodoxy but disagree with me and my tribe over non-essentials. If not, how easy it is to major on minors and miss the point.

The Reformers Luther and Zwingli bitterly feuded over the doctrine of the Eucharist, evangelical Christians today can do the same. I read in Christian History magazine once where Luther even cussed out Zwingli once in writing because he held to a different conviction. The false prophet! The heretic!

Thankfully, argumentative Luther did not have facebook or a website! He’d be warning everyone about that false teacher Zwingli and other reformers who didn’t agree with his theology on transubstantiation.  

John Calvin, writing about Luther, said these wise statements:

"I wish, moreover, that he had always bestowed the fruits of that vehemence of natural temperament upon the enemies of the truth, and that he had not flash his lightning sometimes also upon the servants of the Lord. . . . lest that happen to you which Paul threatens, that by biting and devouring one another, ye be consumed one of another. Even should he have provoked us, we ought rather to decline the contest, than to increase the wound by the general shipwreck of the Church."

In our zeal, sometimes we shoot the wrong people.

Here are just a few modern examples:

* If you embrace immersion baptism, you quickly tell someone who sprinkles infants how “unbiblical” they are. (I knew a Presbyterian pastor who was an intercessor for Romanian pastors who refused to attend Baptist pastors’ meetings because when he once went they jumped on him about infant baptism.)

* If you believe women should never teach men or preach, you call women like Beth Moore or Anne Graham Lotz false prophets, unbiblical, or not pleasing to the Lord.

* If you believe the Lord no longer speaks today and no longer uses things other than the Bible to speak to His people, someone who disagrees is easily labeled a “heretic.”

* If you are a cessationist, you could label someone like Jack Hayford, RT Kendall, or Wayne Grudem as un-orthodox.

* If you embrace Reformed theology, you say that you have the true Christian theology and that anyone who does not agree is missing the mark.

*If you believe the baptism of the Spirit occurs at salvation, you could call Jim Cymbala or someone like him a false prophet, heretic, etc. for believing the baptism occurs after salvation.

* If you are a pre-milliniest, you say that anyone who denies the rapture or embraces a post-mill stance “does not believe the Bible.”

The list could go on and on.

3 Theological Tribes

Or, imagine 12 people who are born again, love Jesus, and love His Word.  They divide into three groups of four each and in each group begin instensely studying the Scriptures, coming to their theological convictions. After several years of study in their own “tribes,” each group comes to these conclusions:

Group A – This non-Reformed group baptizes by immersion, allows women to speak and teach to men, is pre-millenial, thinks the idea that God chooses who goes to hell is fiercely unbiblical, believes in a congregational form of church government, and staunchly holds to a cessationist view of the gifts of the Spirit.

Group B – This Reformed group baptizes infants by sprinkling, does not believe in a Rapture, does not believe tithing is a New Testament principle, follows an elder-led form of church government, embraces post-millenialism, and forbids any women from teaching any man or speaking publicly.

Group C are staunch pre-millennialists, believes the sign gifts are in operation today, believes that speaking in tongues is an automatic result of being baptized in the Spirit, has a church structure that includes a staff and deacons, and believes that to not tithe is a sign of disobedience.

Each group believes in the aforementioned basic doctrines of evangelical Christianity (see above). But, after lots of Bible study, prayer, and reading writings and commentaries of historical and modern biblical scholars, they come to different conclusions about doctrines not specifically related to primary ones. 

So, as they begin comparing their convictions with the other groups, suddenly, they realize the other groups have been “deceived!” They even have false prophets among them. Oh my goodness, we must warn other Christians about these dangerous doctrines. Run from these other groups! Flee from them! 

After a period of time, Group C begins concluding that the people in Groups A and B are probably not even really Christians. “They don’t serve the same Jesus we do!” 

Each group is very proud of their own doctrinal purity and correctness. And they are sure Jesus is pleased with them for being more correct theologically than the other two groups – who surely don’t take the Bible as seriously as do they.

I agree with Richard Blackaby's words: "I understand that many of these theological referees are motivated by a desire to protect the church. One would wish, however, that many of them were not so proud and self righteous in their work." (See his article, Why is it so difficult to believe God speaks?)

It’s kind of like going to a big family reunion and shooting your third cousins.

Our Own Litmus Tests

A problem persists when, in our own theological tribes, we take secondary matters and try and make them primary ones – litmus tests for whether or not someone else is truly orthodox.

If someone agrees with the basic, broad tenets of evangelical Christianity, they are my brother or sister. I may disagree with them over some things, but may my lips speak grace and truth instead of labeling them a “false prophet.”

We're wise to remember Paul's admonition not to "fight about words; this is in no way profitable and leads to the ruin of the hearers" (2 Tim. 2:14 HCSB). 

I love how Peterson put it in The Message: "Repeat these basic essentials over and over to God’s people. Warn them before God against pious nitpicking, which chips away at the faith. It just wears everyone out. Concentrate on doing your best for God."

Through the years, I've enjoyed learning from a wide variety of Christian thinkers, writers, and teachers - all who hold to general orthodoxy but come to different conclusions on secondary matters and practices. My shelves include resources from Charles Stanley, Charles Swindoll, Charles Colson, Kay Arthur, Jack Hayford, John MacArthur, Beth Moore, Brennan Manning, James Dobson, Johnny Hunt, John Piper, Richard Blackaby, Jim Cymbala, Mark Batterson, Danny Akin, Albert Mohler, Gordon MacDonald, Billy Graham, Dutch Sheets, Elmer Towns, Jerry Falwell, Sr., Anne Graham Lotz, Priscilla Shirer, Tony Evans, Charles Spurgeon, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Eugene Peterson, Martyn Lloyd Jones, James Boice, Kent Hughes, Wayne Grudem, Gordon Smith, R T Kendall, Peter Lord, and a host of others. No, I don't agree with all of their convictions and applications, but I learn from each one. Like different facets of a diamond, they all teach me various aspects of the grace of God in all of its forms (1 Peter 4:10).

There will be surprises for all of us when we get to heaven.

The words of Tim Keller, commenting on Martin Lloyd Jones’ sermon “Knowledge Puffeth Up,” come to mind:

“Martyn Lloyd-Jones identifies the marks of someone who has learned to master the Bible as a set of mere information, not extraordinary power. One mark is that you become a spiritual crank. A spiritual crank is someone always complaining about relatively fine shades of doctrinal distinctions, always denouncing others in arguments over Bible translations or denouncing people on the wrong side of the latest theological controversy. A spiritual crank treats the Word of God as something you use, not something that uses you. He’s puffed up on intellectual pride and his theological tribe.”

And Nancy Pearcy aptly shares, “We may preach a God of love, but if nonbelievers do not observe visible love within those ministries or churches and Christian organizations, then we undermine the credibility of our message.

‘The medium is the message,’ to use Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase. And for Christians, the medium is the way we treat one another. . . .

In every age, the most persuasive evidence for the gospel is not words or arguments but a living demonstration of God’s character through Christians’ love for one another, expressed in both their words and their actions.” (Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity)

I’m thankful that the Lord’s table is an awfully big one.

See my related articles: 

Pictures used by permission from Pixabay.

Pardon my formatting on this article. I could not get all of the spacing correctly! 

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