So for those of my facebook friends who don’t know, this week there’s a virtual “Rally to Restore Unity” being held by Christians on facebook and other places in response to some ferocious theological debate that has taken place on the Internet largely as a result of Rob Bell’s controversial new book Love Wins. The idea is that we as Christians ought to promote unity in the church rather than saying that anybody who disagrees with us isn’t a true Christian. I don’t endorse everything that’s being said by other people, but I do think it’s worth reexamining how the Bible actually defines heresy, which is actually not the way that we have tended to understand things as Protestants who splinter into a new denomination every time we disagree on a theological detail.
For most of Christianity’s history (pre-Reformation), heresy was more or less judged according to whether it created schism, or a splintering of the unity of the body of Christ. The reason that Marcionism, Gnosticism, Nestorianism, Arianism, Pelagianism, Donatism, Montanism (and a whole lot of other –isms you’ve never heard of) came to be seen as heresies is because they threatened the unity of the body of Christ and undermined the ability of Christians to work together as committed disciples.
The reason I make this point is because it’s not enough to be “Biblical” to avoid heresy. The Bible is a complex enough text that you can take bits and pieces out of context to justify a practice that goes completely against the spirit of the Bible. This is why Paul told the Corinthians that “the letter kills but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6), which was actually the verse that caused the great fourth-century Christian theologian Augustine to convert to Christianity after he had trouble taking certain Old Testament passages literally. Of course, some asinine people take this to the nihilistic extreme of saying that nothing in the Bible needs to be taken seriously if every verse can be misinterpreted. And then in response, others say that we must interpret everything literally or not at all.
The reality is that we have to make decisions about which passages get more weight than others when interpreting the Bible. If James says that “faith without works is dead” and Romans says that “we are justified by our faith and not by works,” then do we interpret James in the light of Romans or Romans in the light of James? (Personally I think that some days I need James and other days I need Romans; the fact that they seem to contradict is only a problem if I’m trying to come up with an airtight systematic doctrine that’s purer than everybody else’s.) This issue actually came up when I was helping a friend write a sermon this December. We had to decide how to read Peter’s statement in Acts 10:35 that God “accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” If this is true, then it seems to clash with what Paul says in Romans about God only “accepting” those of us who are justified by our faith in Christ. So do we say that Peter can’t really mean what he’s literally saying or do we somehow hold Acts 10:35 and Romans 5 “in tension” with one another (whatever that means)?
In any case, my point is simply that we need a better litmus test with which to measure true or false Christian teaching than to just ask whether it’s derived in some way from something “Biblical.” The 2nd century Gnostics did all kinds of proof-texting from the Bible to support their heresy. In response, the bishop Irenaeus wrote that Biblical passages are like a set of mosaic tiles that can be rearranged to form different pictures according to how they are prioritized and privileged. He said that properly orthodox Christian teaching arranges the Biblical tiles to form a lamb, while the Gnostics were rearranging the same tiles to form a fox. If the same words can make a fox and a lamb, we need a litmus test that helps us read the Bible in such a way so that we see the lamb of God and not some fox of Satan. The Bible actually gives us several litmus tests to use. Each of them sets the boundaries of orthodoxy (right teaching) according to the needs of orthopraxis (right practice).
First of all and most prominently, we have Jesus’ claim that “all the law and the prophets hang on” the commandments to love God and love your neighbor. What does this mean? The way that Augustine interpreted it is to say that all scripture has the goal of leading its readers to fulfill these two commandments. Thus the way to know whether I am interpreting scripture correctly is whether it leads me to give myself more fully to God and my neighbor in love. Interestingly, the poster child Jesus gives for the second great commandment to love your neighbor was a Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), a man who was not simply a different race than Jesus’ audience of Jewish religious leaders, but someone whom they considered to be an absolute heretic because of the Samaritans’ religious mixture of Jewish and pagan beliefs.
As much as it makes us squirm, Jesus seems to be telling us in the Good Samaritan story that the priest and Levite’s orthodoxy was inferior to the Samaritan’s heterodoxy because the Samaritan was the one who was able to show mercy (though it is also true that when Jesus interacts with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 under different circumstances, he critiques Samaritan beliefs and affirms the superiority of Jewish orthodoxy). There are certainly ways to abuse the litmus test of love. It’s perverse to say that because scripture is supposed to lead me to love my neighbor and God, then I can sidestep any Biblical passages that feel “unloving” to me because they’re uncomfortable. The only way to become a Christian disciple capable of real love is to have layers and layers of corrupt worldly socialization chiseled away from us by God largely through wrestling with uncomfortable Biblical passages.
Another litmus test comes in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. He tells Timothy that the problem with “false doctrines” is that they “promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:4-5). Controversial speculation is the fruit of heresy; advancing God’s work is the fruit of orthodoxy. The goal of a pastor like Timothy should be to cultivate pure hearts, good consciences, and sincere faith. This means making decisions about what to share with which people at what time. When the Corinthians take Paul’s initial teachings out of context to engage in political power-play within their congregations, he explains that they have misused surface-level teachings which were appropriate to them as new believers by trying to make them into absolute norms: “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it” (1 Corinthians 3:2).
The reason God didn’t write the Bible as a flat, static text whose passages offer obvious interpretations at first-glance is because He wasn’t looking to give us a soap-box from which to launch self-righteous tirades against other people. Instead He gave us a dynamic resource full of milk for some believers and solid food for others as the occasion dictates according to the purpose of “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). The reason that God breathed scripture is not to give us ammunition for winning theological cage matches with other Christian but to equip us for doing God’s work. Orthodoxy exists for the sake of orthopraxis.
Notice that I’m not saying there are no boundaries; what I’m saying is that the boundaries exist for a reason – to create dedicated Christian disciples who will work as a unified body to transform the world. Sometimes heretics undermine this purpose by coloring outside of the lines of the Biblical canon; sometimes they stay inside the lines but in a mischievous way that follows the letter but abuses the spirit of Biblical witness. And ironically it’s often the case that the Christians who are the most zealous grand inquisitors of others’ doctrinal shortcomings have been deeply compromised by worldly values themselves. If you have the need to prove something with your doctrinal “loyalty,” then perhaps you haven’t yet received the good news that Christ died to take away our need to prove anything.
A third litmus test that I’ve always found helpful are the fruits of the Spirit that Paul shares with the Galatians towards the end of his letter to them. Galatians is Paul’s angriest letter because some of the Galatian leaders were trying to force a whole slew of Jewish religious practices onto the Gentiles who had converted to Christianity. We have many Galatians in the church today who try to tell other believers which political party they need to vote for and what political issues they need to prioritize in order to be a true Christian. After Paul emphatically exhorts the Galatians not to put their trust in anything other than Christ, he gives them a concrete means of measuring whether they’re living by the Spirit or the flesh: “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22). Whenever our doctrine causes us to be less than kind, gentle, peaceful, loving, joyful, patient, faithful, and self-controlled, then that’s a pretty good indication that we’ve fallen for a heresy of some kind. An orthodox use of scripture will result in the Spirit’s fruits blossoming in our soul.
The test of orthodoxy is more than just asking whether we are being “Biblical.” Far more important is whether we create or remove stumbling blocks for people with whom God wants us to share His love, whether we get our kicks from force-feeding the toughest morsels of spiritual meat to new believers or prayerfully discern between giving them milk or solid food as thoughtful shepherds in imitation of our own Good Shepherd, whether we promote controversial speculation for the sake of our own power play or advance God’s work for the sake of the Kingdom, and whether we justify ourselves with our own doctrinal rightness or devote ourselves to unifying the body of people who are okay with being wrong since Jesus Christ is their only justification.