The Spanish Inquisition has nothing on the current Evangelical online world when it comes to heresy trials. Though, unlike the Spanish Inquisition, you expect it. There was a time where theologians emphasized that the Christian life was lived coram Deo. Now, however, the work of theology possesses the gravity of a work done coram Mob. Theologians, pastors, and laypeople alike must guard themselves ever so closely, lest any small statement they make about God be the evidence against them in the next twitter tribunal. Facebook knows no mercy.
The church, it seems, is nothing but heretics. The Calvinists are heretics for their views on predestination. The Arminians are heretics for their man-centeredness. The revivalists are heretics for creating false converts. The Baptists are heretics for being Baptist. Some Reformed teachers are heretics for their Federal Vision theology, while others have become heretics for their sacramentalism. Whatever followers of N.T. Wright are called, they are heretics for reasons so multitudinous they can not be recounted here. The Anglicans are heretics for their sacerdotalism and the Methodists are heretics for refusing to separate from the liberals. The Charismatics are heretics for speaking in tongues, and the churches with an American flag in their sanctuary have abandoned the faith for Christian Nationalism. If you are concerned about matters of social justice–your heretical capitulation to the social gospel is easily documented. If you’re concerned about the excesses of social justice, then your’e probably a racist or a bigot. The egalitarians are heretics for compromising the Bible, and the complementarians are oppressors.
The one true church, thankfully, is still healthy and very much alive. It is composed of you, and me, and those who agree with us. God must be relieved to have us.
Obviously, the last two paragraphs were written fully tongue in cheek. With very little time, however, I believe I could identify accusations of heresy, compromise of doctrine or the gospel itself, or some other extreme allegation against dissenters from whatever preferred view in no time at all. I have managed social media accounts for two major Christian organizations and something stands out: the comment sections are a total, unmitigated disaster. No matter how many people I block or ban, toxicity oozes from the comment sections like stink from a sewer. Christian blog and YouTube comments make the TMZ comment section look tame. We hate each other, and ask you to subscribe to our Patreon if you hate the same people that we do. Entire networks are formed solely to oppose people we otherwise agree with 98% of the time. The comments would make more sense often if the reader imagine they were full of curse words. At least then the vocabulary would match the tone.
An Inheritance of Insults
It is past time that we began to do better. It is past time that we stop disgracing ourselves online. It is past time that we learned how to disagree while maintaining fellowship. If we are going to learn to disagree better, we have to acknowledge that the history of the Christian church has deeded us an inheritance of insults. We should refuse to carry forward that legacy.
This problem is not unique to us. Examples are easy to find. Jerome became so angry with Rufinus in a theological spat that the refused to refer to him by any name other than Grunnius Corocotta Porcellius. For those who don’t speak Latin, that translates roughly to “Porky the Grunter.” Research has not yet yielded answers as to whether he insulted his mother, too. St. Nicholas is rumored to have punched Arius (though the tale is widely disputed, it is also widely regaled). Martin Luther’s insults were so legendary, there is now an entire website devoted to them. We hear these stories, and we laugh. They’re common jokes around seminaries and churches.
I can’t help but think of the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5:2. He says, “And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn?” Of course, Paul’s context and the issue at hand was far different. But shouldn’t we? To state the obvious, Martin Luther was sinning when he spoke in such ways. Why do we talk about his foul language as if its a badge of honor, or wish we could talk like that if people weren’t so sensitive these days? Needless to say, naming a rival theologian Porky the Grunter in public debate hardly meets the standard of loving your enemies.
Are we not called to something better?
Learning to Disagree Better
It is time that Christians of all stripes learned to disagree better. There are countless ways to do this, but for the sake of this post I want to suggest we learn just one phrase. If we can internalize this phrase, what it means and what it doesn’t mean, it will make a radical difference for how we engage other Christians with who we disagree. The phrase is this:
“You are wrong, brother.”
Alternatively, “brother” can be exchanged for “sister”.
The threat of heresy is genuine and it does occur in the church. There are men and women who subvert the gospel itself: denying the bodily resurrection, teaching that we can save ourselves, proclaiming the gospel secures worldly riches instead of eternal salvation, or teaching against the Trinity, among other things. There are those who revive old heresies. Some false teachers are easy to identify and should be warned against. But others are simply wrong.
We must learn to differentiate between a malicious false teacher and someone with whom we have a serious disagreement.
Solely because you feel strongly about a particular second or third tier doctrine does not elevate its status of importance. I get it: I have strong opinions, and therefore some strong disagreements. I think John MacArthur’s dispensationalism is novel, lacking evidence, and leads to bad biblical interpretation. That does not make him a false teacher. I am grateful for countless charismatic men and women, and I also have countless disagreements with them on spiritual gifts. I love Presbyterians, I just hate that so few of them are actually baptized. Apologetics folks who love Van Til, just….no. I think the Purpose-Driven model drives you into a ditch. Pastors in my denomination talk about revival like it’s a lawnmower engine that just needs more gas and it drives me nuts. But, each of them in turn can be dead wrong without me either a) being a jerk about it or b) believing that my passion on a subject can make it a first tier issue worthy of separation. These brothers, and these sisters, are wrong. But I am not compelled to destroy them or call them heretics on the basis of our secondary disagreements.
When we learn to say, “You are wrong, brother,” we acknowledge our disagreement for what they are while affirming our love for our opponents that is grounded in the brotherhood and sisterhood we have in Christ. Because they are a brother, or a sister, we owe them a measure of respect and love in our engagements. By recognizing them as a brother or sister, we have a common ground: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all (Eph 4:5). Our union with Christ is greater than our theological opinions or missiological convictions. At the same time, we do recognize our conviction that they are wrong on the matter at hand. Or, at least I think they are—sometimes with great conviction. There is no reason for us to pretend we do not have differences, or pretend that those differences don’t matter! But our certitude about our union in Christ should outweigh and surpass our certitude that we have the final say in the debate.
Our differences matter. But affection does not require agreement.
Christians so often decry cancel culture, but it’s hard to understand why sometimes. When it comes to theological disagreement, Christians have perfected the art of the cancel. We speak it fluently. It has become our mother tongue. Internet trolls could learn a thing or two about online mobs by reading the comments of popular Christian blog ministries. The KGB could take notes on sowing division by monitoring Evangelical internet behavior. The church debated for centuries to establish orthodoxies in the ecumenical councils. Now, we label pastors, preachers, and people we don’t like as heretics after reading a single blog post.
Brothers and sister, things cannot continue this way. Our love for one another must surpass our disagreement with one another. Our desire for truth must be matched by our commitment to the foundational truth that we are united together in Christ. Our zeal for the gospel cannot create a standard of fellowship that is “the gospel + all of my secondary theological, political, and cultural beliefs.”
Jesus said we would be know for our love. Frankly, we ain’t.
If we are going to, we must learn to love one another: online, in disagreements, and in different denominations. Otherwise, what right do we have to talk about a gospel of grace that breaks down the wall of hostility between us?
You may be wrong, brother, but I still should love you. I’m going to try to do better.