Are Christians on Poplar Street (First Baptist Church of Christ) “headed toward paganism” and “abandoning scripture so they can feel good”? Have they moronically voted to overturn gravity? These are the conclusions of two Telegraph columnists who torched a faithful body of Christ for praying, studying and then opening their sanctuary to straight and gay couples seeking to be married.
Defending the faith once delivered to the saints has a long and sometimes honorable tradition, but ardent defenders can get carried away. These two warriors for the true faith concluded the Christians at First Baptist (one columnist included the entire Episcopal Church for good measure) are pagans, heretics, and just plain stupid.
My own denomination condemns gay marriage, forbids it in the church and bans Methodist pastors from officiating at such ceremonies, a rule I disagree with. But we Methodists aren’t calling each other heretics — at least not yet. That, some of our detractors say, is what’s wrong with Methodists: we don’t have enough theological testosterone to attack sin and identify heresy. We disagree too politely, they say.
Here’s the problem with perfect theological clarity and zealous righteousness: once you accuse others of heresy and paganism, where do you stop?
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Some churches only baptize believers while others baptize infants. Some ordain women while others refuse to do so. Catholics have more books in their Bible than Protestants. Icons are highly important in the Eastern Orthodox tradition and largely disparaged in some Protestant circles. Catholic priests can’t marry; Protestant pastors can. There is heated debate over predestination, ordination, the sacraments, Jesus’ death on the cross and whether the Bible — God’s inspired word — must also be inerrant and infallible. I could use three to four columns to mention subjects over which Christians disagree strongly. Which of these positions constitutes heresy or paganism? Which is serious without rising (or descending) to heresy? Over which can Christians amicably agree to disagree?
Debate over theology and Christian conduct can be healthy and productive. Every church reads the Bible through its own lens, thinks and prays its own way to conclusion aided by theologians, seminaries, clergy and laity, a unique understanding of scripture, tradition, reason, experience and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
If we lob the heresy/paganism grenade at every brother and sister in Christ with whom we have a bitter dispute we’ll all be wounded.
Those who passionately defend the faith will rightly point out that Jesus warned about wolves in sheep’s clothing and the writers of the epistles got downright nasty in identifying false teachers. Point accepted.
But few of us (this writer included) have the spiritual insight of Jesus or Paul. On a recent two-week trip to Europe I revisited the horrors inflicted by murderous Christian zealots upon other equally faithful Christians. Eager to separate the wheat from the tares, these purifiers tortured and killed those whom they called heretics, expropriating their property and erasing their memory. Rooting out heresy is a bloody business.
Although I congratulate those beleaguered Baptists for their process and outcome, not everybody sees it that way. That’s perfectly acceptable; good people of faith meet God and read scripture differently. But a spirit of humble confession, respect for the other and a firmly reasoned rejoinder is the better route.
Creede Hinshaw, a retired United Methodist pastor of 36 years, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.