“Theological suspicion is as much a problem as theological heresy

The Bible sounds a scorching warning to those who bring into the Church “damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them” (2 Pet. 2:1). Heresies are serious departures from God-given norms of belief and behavior, and the warning about them is as relevant now as it was when the Apostle Peter’s ink was drying.

But a companion danger faces believing people in the mid-sixties. It is the threat of damaging hearsays. There is a segment within evangelicalism that spots false doctrine and points to compromise with evil where these things do not exist. Protesting loyalty to the truth of the Gospel, such people unconsciously further the cause of untruth.

I was first exposed to heresy as a student in high school. The pastor who welcomed me into church membership was a theological conservative. But there were at least two liberals among his predecessors. One had leveled open attacks against the total reliability of Scripture. The other, who continued to live in town after his resignation, supplied the pulpit occasionally, delivering addresses that almost wholly bypassed the Bible. I heard from a Sunday school teacher that one could not be sure the Book of Daniel is true. Another asserted that the Beatitudes are outmoded. This modernist hangover aggravated my teen-age tendency to doubt. Only my consciousness of conversion and an inescapable call to the ministry held me steady.

The theological hearsay problem I did not face until nine years after seminary graduation. At that time I moved from one pastorate to another. Within three months my successor had insisted that the church leave its denomination, and he rammed his insistence through. In spite of the denomination’s historic stand for an inerrant Bible and a warm spiritual life, he declared it to be tainted with modernism because its headquarters was then transmitting a few thousand dollars a year from half a dozen churches to sound-in-the-faith missionaries serving under a sister denomination in the National Council of Churches.

That there is such a thing as heresy needs no argument. And it should be admitted that some pastors and laymen take little notice of it, unwisely assuming that heretics are merely straw men with no more power to hurt their fellows than a scarecrow.

Evangelicals generally are convinced that this assumption is false. They define their mission as that of declaring unhesitantly “all the counsel of God.” They are not middle-of-the-roaders. They know that unless they build a Chinese wall around themselves, they cannot help being aware of the presence of apostasy and sub-biblical religion.

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Not only pastors but also Sunday school teachers in many churches are having their joy over improved teaching tools and techniques dampened by the discovery that the materials they use have been infiltrated by some of the radical conclusions of form criticism. Although they know that these new materials are produced and approved by their own denominations, they don’t like them. They want junior and senior high school youths to raise questions, but they are dismayed at some questions the lesson materials gratuitously raise. Young people, they readily grant, must be shaken into thinking. But should not thought, they ask, be challenged toward captivity to Christ?

Alert laymen do not have to read more than the newspapers and newsmagazines to be aware of the doctrinal fog over sections of Christendom. They are puzzled over disunity. But like their pastors they realize that the great cleavages of our day are often within rather than between denominations. It is not very hard to detect in most major church bodies a liberal-conservative split, sometimes about fifty-fifty.

A confusing topic for many church members is neo-orthodoxy. It is too patently a theology for philosophers. Many laymen are baffled by efforts to distinguish it from old-fashioned liberalism. It is beyond them how men can speak of the Word of God without accepting a fully authoritative Bible, or of the grace of God without offering assurance of salvation. They cannot fathom stress on sin without belief in hell. Although there are corrective insights to be gained from Barth and Brunner, many laymen have an intuitive feeling, built on the little they can grasp of neo-orthodoxy, that it departs from evangelical faith.

Heresy does indeed exist. But the opposite peril, theological hearsay, is an even more immediate problem in some areas. Whole congregations, whole denominations, whole schools major on it. They thrive on posting liberal or neo-orthodox signs over Christians and groups of Christians where they do not fit. Theirs is the mentality most largely responsible for the religious scandal sheets that deal mainly in labels and libel.

A penetrating and scintillating volume by Harry and Bonaro Overstreet, The Mind Goes Forth, throws the floodlight of clinical psychology on this problem. The Overstreets point out how the far right and far left wings of any movement, whether political, educational, or religious, easily fall prey to paranoid personalities. These emotionally ill people with their compulsive drive toward conflict-creating suspicion often gain footholds and strangleholds on the fringes of orthodoxy. They have persecution and Messiah complexes and usually hold that they are wholly right, while others who differ from them even slightly are utterly wrong. Evangelicalism, with its accent on biblical authority and on there being “none other name given under Heaven whereby we must be saved,” has lately become an unhappy hunting ground for such unfortunates. Persons with a steel will to be kings always succeed in locating some among the redeemed who are eager to be ruled.

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Now the instinct of self-preservation must be gratefully counted as a divine gilt. The mercifully protective power to suspect goes with it. But what remains undeveloped in the naïve person who scents no doctrinal dangers becomes oversized in the one who sees midgets as monsters.

Neurotic suspicion is conspicuous in the unremitting war against Billy Graham. He is classed by some as a compromiser because he wins the support of most Protestants in a crusade city, and because his follow-up workers sometimes channel converts back into churches that are less than evangelical. That these new Christians ignite spiritual fires in some of these churches or soon look for fellowship elsewhere does not impress Graham’s right-wing critics. It never dawns on them that they are making common cause with those liberals who score the evangelist for being too uncompromising.

Guilt by association does not figure only in attitudes toward Graham and his team. An unswervingly evangelical seminary may invite a non-evangelical to lecture on a scholarly subject. Extremists soon publish and circulate a new tract, insinuating that the school has sold out to Satan because it sponsored a speaker who denies the Virgin Birth and ipso facto the deity of Christ. It does not matter that the administration and faculty do not endorse all the speaker’s ideas. The writer of the tract has not taken the pains to read the lecturer’s books, in which he affirms that Christ is God and died in the place of sinners. In his widely circulated leaflet, the extremist tells only part of the truth.

This fungus of ultra-conservatism has manifested a freak spurt of growth since the 1930s and 1940s. In those decades there was a notable exodus of local churches from top-ranking denominations because of foreign missions crises brought on by doctrinal defection on the fields. Such churches considered it their duty to separate themselves and their missionary giving from this collaboration with error.

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What many viewed as a necessary separation soon, in some instances, went further. Today we find believers amputating themselves from solidly orthodox fellowships on the complaint that the separation of these groups is not radical enough: they are not making the combatting of error their central business! That the Spirit is working in such present-day movements as the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (formerly the China Inland Mission), Young Life, the Student Missionary Conventions at Urbana, or Evangelism in Depth, all of which draw sacrificial lay backing, does not register with their opponents.

This unhealthy and infectious misunderstanding blights still more areas. It refuses fellowship with Nazarenes because they are Arminian and disowns Pentecostals as “not quite fundamental.” This is the airtight mind-set that is unwilling to consider the evidence that there are believers among American Baptists, United Presbyterians, Episcopalians, or Methodists, or that there are ministers or churches in these and other communions aligned with the ecumenical movement that promote a biblical witness. This is a prime factor in a tragic spectacle. There are members of God’s family who stubbornly refuse to accept as family members thousands whom the Father has accepted.

Mainstream evangelicalism is not a mediating position. Yet it is squeezed into the middle of a muddle. On one side are those who settle for less than the Bible: on the other those with a beyond-the-Bible exclusiveness. Facing the former, we must graciously and firmly hold our ground, ready to grasp opportunities for communication, regardless of criticism. Facing the latter we must also be gracious and firm, welcoming communication but realizing that here it will come harder, though it ought to come easier.

In his classic treatment of the Church in Ephesians, Paul shows us our stance for confronting error: “That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive …” (4:14).

“But speaking the truth in love” (4:15) gives us our strategy for outlasting and outflanking the hearsay danger. Practiced faithfully, “speaking the truth in love” will stir brisk, cooling breezes to freshen the atmosphere in which ultra-fundamentalist witch-hunting now thrives.

Real or imagined heresies must not halt us. Our goal as soul-winning, life-nurturing Christians, churches, and denominations, members of the body of Christ, is, as this verse in Ephesians goes on to say, to “grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.”

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