Discernment Blogging and Other Internet Witch Hunts Christians Should Repent Of

heresyDuring my first semester in Seminary, our class was discussing Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, who has written five New York Times bestsellers on the topic of the Bible. For those unfamiliar with Ehrman, his works in a nutshell espouse that the Bible has been corrupted by Christian orthodoxy and the Bible should not be trusted. For those uninitiated to his personal life, Ehrman began his career as an Evangelical Christian but drifted towards agnosticism due to concerns regarding the nature of evil and human suffering. In the midst of our discussion, one young lady (and I say “young lady” because I went to Seminary in my late 30s) who had never uttered a word in class before stubbornly raised her hand with a twisted face of disgust. She boldly proclaimed to the class:

“Bart Ehrman was never saved. He’s going to Hell. And furthermore he’s a false teacher and heretic.”

She casually pulled out the mother of all Christian derogatory terms … the dreaded “h” word: “Heretic.” As I recall, the professor was mortified and attempted to spend the next few minutes vainly attempting to explain that she had absolutely no idea what the “h” word meant.

So exactly what does “heresy” mean? In his recent book on heresy (simply entitled Heresy), Alistair McGrath defines “heresy” as “a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes, or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it.” Leaning on Galatians 1:8 and 2 Corinthians 11:4, I would argue more specifically that “heresy” boils down to a false doctrine that espouses a different Gospel, a different Jesus or a different Holy Spirit than presented in Scripture. The history of Christianity is littered with such false teachers that the Christian body gathered to determine were out of step with the clear teaching of Scripture. The poster boy for Christian heresy is the 3rd century priest, Arius, who infamously (and quite incorrectly) espoused that Jesus was not eternal. In 325AD, a group of church leaders met in Nicaea, heard arguments for and against Arius’ doctrine and overwhelmingly ruled against Arius’ doctrine. The end result was the Nicene Creed, which is a basic statement of faith about the divinity of Jesus.

And who exactly determines what is “heresy”? Or a “false teacher”? Well … that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Denny Burk does a fantastic job discussing the Biblical marks of a “false teacher” on his blog, so there’s no use in rehashing good work already done: http://www.dennyburk.com/how-to-identify-false-teachers/

At the same time, Jude 3 adjures Christians to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” The treasure of the Gospel message has been entrusted to all believers for safe-keeping. But how we put this principle in practice in the age of the Internet is downright ridiculous. Any believer with a dialup modem has the accessibility to start up a blog. Social media makes the world infinitely smaller, whereby any believer can directly interact with pastors and Bible teachers around the world. The anonymity of the Internet also allows believers the ability to troll, snark and shame other Christians without any accountability or filter. The combination of the accessibility, anonymity and globalization of the Internet has turned Christianity into a circular firing squad. We all shoot each other and no one gets out alive.

This week, Beth Moore posted on her blog that a twenty-two year old woman recently tweeted on her Twitter feed: “false teacher @BethMooreLPM.” Regardless of your opinion about Beth Moore’s theology, simply tweeting that someone is a “false teacher” without expressing any justifiable reasoning is pretty reckless behavior.

Unfortunately, such impetuous behavior is far from uncommon. A whole genre of Christian blogs (called discernment blogs) exist simply to root out false teachers and expose heresy within the church. I love the name “discernment blogs,” because the name actually insinuates that the bloggers are Biblically discerning and the reader really needs to get more informed. Many of these discernment bloggers pour through hours of online sermon podcasts and youtube videos from various pastors to root out false teaching. Other bloggers write thinly veiled book reviews that are really just an excuse to attack pastors that they never liked in the first place. (For example, I recently read a book review of Alistair McGrath’s book on heresy that actually argues that McGrath’s definition of heresy makes him a heretic.) Like the Mystery Incorporated gang from Scooby Doo, bloggers and podcasters are loading traps and searching for clues to sniff out the monsters lurking in the closets. The conclusion is predictably an emphatic call by that blogger for that pastor to resign from Christian ministry.

But let me re-emphasize one of these last points to let it fully sink in: Bloggers are intentionally listening to pastors’ sermons with the expressed purpose of demonizing and destroying pastors. The whole idea is really “the tail wagging the dog” … If your sole purpose is to destroy pastors, you’ll find some evidence to destroy them. If you comb through the thousands of sermons that some long-running preacher has presented over the years, you’ll probably find something with which you can disagree.

Here’s an easy challenge to prove how insane Christian discernment blogging has gotten: Search on google.com (or whatever your search engine of choice) for the name of any famous (or marginally famous) pastor or Bible teacher and the word “heretic.” I guarantee that you find some attack blog questioning that pastor’s allegiance to the Gospel or flat-out calling that pastor a “false teacher” or “heretic.” The ease which we use the term “heresy” has made the Christian blogosphere a parody of discernment.

With all of these major-league heretics out there preaching false Gospels, who is out there preaching the truth? Of course, the attack bloggers would say they’re defending the true Gospel. They’re the REALLY discerning ones. The one thing that the discernment blogs have in common is that the blogger happens to be infallibly correct and most popular Christian teachers are indefensibly wrong. It must be an incredibly paranoid and depressing world to live in where no one can see the truth as clearly as you can.

The free-for-all wrestling match of the Internet is no Council of Nicaea. Where the Council of Nicaea brought clarity and consensus, the discernment blogosphere and attack podcasts of our post-modern age only bring confusion and division. Everyone is barking, attacking and tweeting to support their own ideological camps but no one is really listening or learning anymore. The same mouths that are blessing Christ are cursing His followers and that recklessness should not be (James 3:10).

Furthermore, Jude’s commendation to “contend for the faith” was given to believers in the context of a local church body … Not to shameless busybodies hiding behind a computer screen. Whenever the New Testament epistles call for discernment of false teachers, the context is always the local church body. The book of Jude was written as a call for the local church to defend the faith against false teachers that were infiltrating the local church body (Jude 1:4). The books of 1 John and 2 Corinthians also have the same local church context (1 John 2:18-27; 2 Corinthians 11:1-6). The message is that churches should be concerned with proper doctrine in their own body of believers. Similar to the busybodies condemned in 1 Timothy 5:13, anyone more concerned about the affairs of another local church than their own congregation should be condemned. Why are you going to church to church sticking your nose in other churches’ business when your own local church body probably could use your gift of discernment?

If a local church body has an issue with false doctrine, let that church handle the matter through Biblical church discipline in the local church. Case in point: Pastor and author Perry Noble recently preached a controversial Christmas sermon that the 10 Commandments were not technically commandments. Blog after blog pounced on Noble like vultures on a fresh carcass. An apology was issued by Noble, who admitted errors in his original sermon. The blogosphere refuses to surrender and continues to parse Noble’s apology and huff and puff and puff and huff until Noble is forcibly axed from the ministry. I think Noble’s main error is that his apology statement even admits that there’s pressure for his removal from the blogosphere. Pastors have no Biblical need to answer to blogs or podcasts. Pastors are responsible to Christ and Scripture. No one appointed the blogosphere to the protector of orthodoxy in Christendom. The local church is the protector of orthodoxy.

More importantly, the main thing solely missing from all this supposed discernment is love. When we write to attack and destroy, we wind up sounding like the annoyance of noisy cymbals and crashing gongs (1 Corinthians 13:1). It doesn’t matter whether you can understand all mysteries or have all knowledge, discernment and wisdom … If you don’t have love, you are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2). It’s easy to hide in virtual anonymity and attack pastors with no accountability or repercussions for the accusations made. When you have no personal relationship with and scant factual evidence about a pastor, it’s easy to issue a fatwa on their ministry, family and church. It’s harder to pray for our enemies … To look someone in the eye and have a meaningful personal interaction with those we disagree with … To be swift to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger … To forgive as Christ has forgiven us.

To my fellow pastors, let’s ignore this garbage. Don’t write it. Don’t respond it. Don’t forward it. Don’t re-tweet it. Don’t listen to those podcasts. Don’t acknowledge it exists. God has not made you responsible to every rigid theological puritan located across the country with an axe to grind.

Update (12/31/15): I had originally offered up some links to different “discernment blogs” in this article. As my beef is with the genre of discernment blogging and not with specific bloggers, I chose to remove those links.

Turning Christianese

christianeseEvery time the new year rolls in, Time Magazine holds a humorous reader poll to ask the American public which words should be banned from the English language. I’m not sure why the American public should be allowed to vote on this matter, because I’m pretty sure the American public is the source of these nasty earworms in the first place. In previous years of the Time Magazine poll, the American public has voted out text speak “OMG,” the nasty rump shaking craze “twerk” and the most easily discernible life observation of all time: “YOLO.” Because – you know – no one’s ever died twice. For real.

This year, Time Magazine’s list of words to potentially be “banned” included such cultural idioms and worn-out catchphrases as “bae,” “bossy,” “turnt,” “said no one ever” and “om nom nom nom.” Time Magazine also got into some hot water for humorously suggesting that the word “feminist” by eliminated from the English language. Oops.

(For the record, I think that “bae” should clearly be “banned” this year. Any word developed simply because it’s lazier to pronounce one syllable instead of two simply must go. By 2025, we’ll be a monosyllabic culture for sure. But I digress …)

Christians, it’s time to start voting some of our own secret language off the island too. You know, the “Christianese” words and phrases that only people who grew up in church understand. “Christianese” is the secret code language that Christians use like the Freemasons use secret handshakes (or do they?). You can tell whether someone has been inoculated into the Christian subculture simply by the way that they speak.

So here’s thirteen Christianese terms that I would suggest that we stop using in 2015. I’m sure there’s many additional phrases that belong on this list, but allow me to pick on these pet peeves for a moment:

  1. “He’s still on the throne”: Thank you Captain Obvious. Christians usually roll this phrase out to attempt to reassure someone going through a hard time. The intent is well-meaning. But when a family member has died or a doctor just informed someone they have inoperable cancer, folks undergoing grief and pain need a listening ear, prayer and your physical presence more than trite catchphrases and misappropriations of Romans 8:28.
  2. “I’ll pray for you”: Usually Christians use this phrase when they mean the exact opposite. Chatty old Margaret from church has cornered you in the church parking lot at the end of the prayer meeting. Your stomach impolitely won’t cease rumbling … Your youngest child is screaming from his carseat … Your wife is rolling her eyes and pointing to her watch … Your heart already belongs to Chic-Fil-A. But dear, sweet Margaret won’t stop talking about her boyfriend’s niece’s hairdresser’s infected goiter. You need an exit strategy. You utter the ultimate conversation shut-down: “I’ll pray for him.” Conversation over. But do you really mean it? Probably not … But now the family can get along to its sweet tea and chicken tenders. If you’re going to actually take the time to pray for someone, go ahead and say “I’ll pray for you.” But if you have zero intention of actually praying for someone, just tell them something genuine instead of dishonest … Like “I wish I could keep listening but I’ve got to somewhere else to go.”
  3. Anything related to “open doors” or “closed doors”: There is no door. It’s a figment of your imagination. Just prayerfully do something. The end.
  4. “Jesus wants a relationship – not a religion”: Arguably the greatest oversimplification of Christianity ever uttered. And simply absurd, unclear and untrue. It’s really like saying “my wife wants a relationship – but not marriage.” My wife would slap me, because she does wants commitment. And Jesus does too. This phrase is simply code language in hipster churches for “you don’t have to be too committed to Jesus like those fundamentalists,” which is Biblically inaccurate (see Luke 14:25-35). Right, let’s start producing some marginally committed people loosely affiliated with Jesus … I’m sure that’ll work out well. And it’s also a confusing and unhelpful phrase for the unchurched attempting to understand what Christianity is all about. If the term “religion” simply means an organized collection of beliefs about the world (see: dictionary), then – yes – Christianity is a religion because (surprise) we have organized beliefs about the world. Sometimes a spade is a spade. And here’s the kicker: The Bible describes Christianity as religion (see James 1:27). Stop the insanity.
  5. “Hedge of protection”: Because in a car crash, a shrubbery probably will not protect you. Pray for the airbags to properly function. Because #YOLO.
  6. “Traveling mercies”: Are there multiple categories of mercies? Are there some other types of mercies I should be praying for? And are “traveling mercies” the opposite of “loafing around in my sweatpants while sleeping in on Saturday mercies”? I could use more of those.
  7. Any terminology for a room in a church facility that does not exist in any other plane of reality: Like “narthex.” Narthex sounds like a prescription drug that alleviates indigestion: “Honey, did you remember to take your narthex?” Or “sanctinasium” and “gymuary” … Which really means that your church hangs out in a gym because you can’t afford a sanctuary. Or “fellowship hall” … A term which single-handedly and permanently associated Biblical koinonia with friend chicken. In the real world, it’s called a “cafeteria.” Or a “crying room.” Who’s crying? Should I be crying? Should I anticipate crying at this worship service? Do I need tissues? In all seriousness, could we possibly use any term that sounds more like “our church hates you and your crying baby”? I mean, even Chic-Fil-A and McDonalds don’t even have a “crying room,” and there’s usually a lot of babies crying there.
  8. “God has led me somewhere else”: Meaning God really hasn’t led me somewhere else, but I’m bringing God’s name into it so you won’t challenge me.
  9. “Missional”: Which really is a condescending way of saying that our church REALLY serves Jesus through its commitment to social justice and your church is a bunch of pansies hosting a tea party. Boom.
  10. “Unspoken prayer request”: Other than church, name one place where we ask someone to do something but don’t tell them exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. I never say to my wife: “Honey, please fix me something extremely specific for dinner … but I’m not going to give you any hint whatsoever about that extremely specific thing I want you to make.” It’s a recipe for disaster. And it is for prayer too. If we really took Galatians 6:2 seriously, “unspoken prayer requests” should never exist.
  11. “I’m not gifted in that area”: Meaning I’d rather set my hair on fire than work with kids.
  12. “Community”: OK … This one really makes me want to rip my hair out. The old school traditional church talks about the mellowship of “fellowship” … A term which engenders visions of fried chicken, one crockpot meals and opaque jello casseroles in the aforementioned “fellowship hall.” To establish a contrast, the kool kids have developed a new word for Biblical fellowship to distance themselves from traditional church: “Community.” Here’s the problem: Clearly, the term “fellowship” is pretty alien to the outside world … But the phrases “community” or “life in community” or “living in community” have virtually zero meaning outside of church either. Not one single unchurched person texts their BFF: “I have a real desire for authentic community today so let’s go see Anchorman 2 together.” Not one single unchurched person meets a friend at Starbucks because they want to “do life together.” To the contrary, I have heard unchurched people talk about spending time with others or – as the 90s kids called it – “hanging out.” Can’t we just talk like normal people? I really want to do life separately from anyone who suggests that we do life together.
  13. “Be authentic” or “be real”: For crying out loud, don’t be authentic, be you, be real, be transparent or be yourself. The only thing you to need to be is to be Christ. So imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). And lead others to imitate Christ. We need less of you (and me) and more of Jesus. If you’re busy being yourself, then you’re not focusing on being Christ.

So upon closer examination, “Christianese” really falls into two categories with two different problems: (a) Complete gibberish; and (b) Polite lies.

In the case of the complete gibberish (i.e. “unspoken prayer request” or “hedge of protection”), the problem is that Christians have created their own distinct culture with its own terminology and taxonomy. The only purpose that this specialized language really serves is to clearly communicate with others involved in our little Christian club … And to ostracize others who only speak the vernacular. It’s like walking into a hospital room, hearing the laundry list of medical terms and realizing that you’re not qualified to be a doctor or nurse. If an unchurched person walked into your church’s worship service or small group program and heard the discussion, would they feel like they’re not qualified to be a Christian? How much confusion do we create for the unchurched by forcing them to learn our secret code language and trying to figure out where in the world the narthex is? If our language reinforces an “in crowd” vs. “out crowd” mentality, it’s time to change the way that we speak.

In the case of the polite lies (i.e. “I’m not gifted in that area” or “I’ll pray for you”), we need to realize they are lies. They might be polite, but they area still lies. When we put protection of someone’s feelings over the truth, then we have made the wrong decision. Ephesians 4:15 informs us that speaking the truth and loving someone are not mutually exclusive concepts. We can speak truth in a genuinely loving fashion, and sometimes the most loving things to do is to speak a difficult truth into someone’s life. We would do well to remember that both the words of mouth and the meditation of our hearts should be pleasing to God (Psalm 19:14). Imagine the damage we actually do when we say that we will pray and we don’t. And imagine what would happen if we really did pray.

Believers, let’s commit to speaking clearly and thoughtfully in 2015 and beyond.