During 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.