John 13:34-35 is one of my favorite verses.
“I give you a new command: Rebuke one another. Just as I have rebuked you, you are also to rebuke one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, by how boldly you rebuke heretics.”
Judging from social media, that must be how many read what Jesus said. Seldom a day goes by that I don’t get another warning that someone has “denied the gospel and forsaken the truth,” putting the church at risk. Our only hope is to listen to brave “discerners” who identify and call out those false teachers among us.
The problem comes when I actually read what the gospel-denying, church-risking, truth-forsaking people have said, and find that about 99% of the time, they have not forsaken the truth, they have not put the church at risk, and they hold fast to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Their sin is disagreeing with the “discerner” on some secondary or tertiary issue and he has his pants in a bunch over it.
There are real threats to the church today. Satan has always been seeking to undermine the truth since the Garden of Eden and will continue to do so until he is cast into the Lake of Fire. He is a liar and the father of lies. There are wolves among the sheep who seek to lead God’s people astray.
But who is the wolf if not the one who falsely accuses fellow believers of being enemies of the gospel? As we need to stand against those who deny the truth of God’s word we need to stand against those who devour the Body of Christ through false accusation and slander. This roots in tribalism, a self-centered belief that demands that other Christians conform to our group rather than simply that they conform to Christ.
This tribalism that leads to division, to attacking fellow believers with false accusations is too often accompanied by a self-righteous sense of spiritual superiority – as if “our group” is God’s special people and looking down on other groups with disdain is justified. This tribalism is evil and ungodly.
It is time we confront this wicked attitude as forcefully as we confront heretical doctrine.
The theological “Boys Who Cried Wolf” create a reaction among God’s people. The more they level false charges against true believers, the less likely we are to believe them when a real wolf is among us. People just roll their eyes and say, “there they go again,” at the risk of ignoring real dangers.
Some of these discernment enthusiasts are wolves, false brethren among us to bite and devour instead of to care for the flock of God. But most of those who participate in this unfortunate savagery are not evil in heart. They’ve been misled into believing that spirituality demands that they be rigid and constantly call out anyone who diverges rom their doctrinal position. They have been taught wrong and an unhealthy spiritual culture has developed which has poisoned the church of Christ.
When we devote ourselves to the doctrines of Christ, we are filled not only with a love for truth, but mercy and grace in how we deal with others. The Spirit fills us with love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness as we relate to others, and the high-handed, self-righteous, tribal approach we are seeing so much today has no place.
Let me be specific. We see this attitude in SBC culture in disparate places, among the extremes. We see it in the hardcore Traditionalist circles that drove much of the angry (and dishonest) anti-J.D. Greear campaigning last year. We also see it in some extreme Reformed circles of the SBC, where calling out heretics and using pejorative labeling for anyone who diverges from their narrow views is de rigueur.
These are small groups in the SBC, but they are vocal and self-assured, so they tend to appear stronger than they are, casting themselves either as the defenders of the Conservative Resurgence or of Reformation truth. Otherwise godly and good people can easily be impacted by the venom they seek to spread.
What they generally lack is a sense of doctrinal perspective and the ability to discuss differences. Those who do not conform to their cherished views find themselves called to account for their fidelity to the gospel.
Some years ago I wrote a book called “Brick Walls and Picket Fences.” I developed the idea long before Dr. Mohler published his essay on theological triage, but the principles are similar.
- There are some doctrines around which we must build a Brick Wall of separation. Those who deny these doctrines are outside the community of faith. If someone denies the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the Blood Atonement, or other such doctrines, we cannot compromise.
- There are other doctrines that require a friendly Picket Fence. We have differences with Reformed denominations over Baptism, with Charismatic denominations, with other Christian groups. We accept them as part of the community of faith but maintain our own home where we can worship as we choose. I argue that such separation aids the unity of the Body of Christ, as long as our attitudes are right.
- There are two more levels of truth – Dinner Table doctrine and Personal Space truth. We sit at the dinner table and discuss issues, but remain a family. Some things we can disagree about and not separate at all. Personal Space truth involves those issues of conscience spelled out in Romans 14-15. Each of us decides what is right under the Lordship of Christ.
It is not good when issues that Christians should be allowed to disagree on, to hold different views of, become issues of separation, fundamental issues of Christian doctrine.
Permit me some examples.
1. What is the role of social justice in Christian ministry? Of course, there were liberal groups that abandoned the concept of personal redemption to simply seek societal renewal. But that is not what is happening in SBC circles. Those who advocate for racial reconciliation are not saying we should abandon the gospel, they are saying that Christ died for one people and that a redeemed people ought to oppose racialist attitudes. Social justice is viewed as a necessary outworking of salvation, not a replacement for it.
Is there a legitimate discussion about this? Of course. But as long as false pejoratives such as SJW and inaccurate descriptions such as Cultural Marxist are thrown around, we will not make progress. Those who widely label Southern Baptists as liberal, or SJW, and make these wild accusations against everyone who stands against racism or abuse are simply not speaking truth. They have either believed lies or they promulgate them.
Feel free to disagree with anyone’s position on social justice issues. None of us is divine or infallible. But labeling those with whom you disagree as anti-gospel or Cultural Marxist is wrong and silly.
2. What is the nature of Same-Sex Attraction? This is a legitimate discussion the church needs to have and I can see the wisdom on both sides. Obviously, same-sex desires were not part of the original creation but by the same token, it is the action, not the desire that is the real sin.
From some of what I read about Sam Allberry, I assumed that he was a pro-gay activist. Then, I read what he actually said and believed. Again, those who were speaking again him were either deceived or deceiving. He is orthodox, upholds biblical marriage, and has a different view of SSA than many.
Have we become so rigid that a man who is orthodox in every way, who upholds biblical marriage, but who differs on SSA must be treated as an enemy of the gospel?
Disagreeing with his position is fair game. You might even convince me. But casting him as an enemy of Christ? That may make you more of a wolf than a sheep.
3. Now, I’m gonna step in it! I do not always agree with Beth Moore. Even a continuationist like me sometimes thinks she takes the “God spoke to me” thing too far. But the discernment wolves are uniformly extremist cessationists who view anyone who isn’t a cessationist as a part of the “charismatic chaos.”
I have followed Beth’s ministry enough to believe that she affirms the gospel of Jesus Christ and loves him. I do not believe she is a false teacher. This lust to label anyone who doesn’t see things “my way” as a false teacher is wrong. It is ungodly. It is, itself, contrary to Scripture.
I can disagree with some of what Beth Moore says without condemning her as false. I can disagree with Sam Allberry (I’m not sure what side I take on that issue at this point) without anathematizing him. And can we not have a simple discussion about the implications of the gospel for issues like racism and abuse and other social issues without resorting to questioning the gospel fidelity of those with whom we disagree?
These are just examples of a widespread problem. A culture has arisen that measures Christian commitment primarily by who and how many we “call out.” We are most pleasing to God when we are condemning heretics. Christianity is an exercise in theological conformity and we must make people toe the line.
I will remind you of what Jesus really said.
“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Yes, there will be wolves among the sheep and we must be on guard against them. But this heresy-hunting horror show is not from God. He calls us to build up the Body of Christ not to tear it down. Love is not weakness, it is the marker of godliness.
If we are going to stand against heretics, we must equally forcefully stand against those who falsely accuse our brothers and sisters of being false. This must stop. It is not right and does not honor our Savior.
As Bob Newhart counseled. “Stop it.”