CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

You Can Visit But Not Stay: Avoiding Theological Excess

Sep 18, 2015

There are plenty of things in life that may be worth visiting, but you really would not want to stay there for too long. When I pass a Krispy Kreme donut shop I am often enticed to pay a brief visit, and imbibe of the goodies. But because they are not all that good for you, it would be rather unwise to linger, or visit too often.

In the same way a couple on an average wage may go out to a really expensive restaurant once in a while, say to celebrate their anniversary. It is OK to do so on such occasions, but would be disastrous if they made a practice out of it – they would soon be broke!

Similarly, if you are a Christian who never fellowships with other believers, but instead spends all your time with those who mock, criticise and despise Christianity, you may well find yourself getting out of spiritual whack. You are in need of some balance here.

balance 2So we may do some things or visit some places but generally speaking it is not always wise to stay there too long. And it is the same biblically and theologically speaking. There are some theological extremes which may have some helpful aspects, but if we spend all our time there and do not get the biblical balance, we will soon be out of kilter.

So much of the Christian life is about avoiding unhelpful extremes, and getting the biblical balance right. Thus if you spend every minute of your Christian life studying, reading and immersing yourself in all things eschatological, but nothing else, you will soon find yourself in a very skewed place.

Is the study of eschatology wrong? Of course not. It is a part of God’s revealed truth, and the return of Christ is a wonderful doctrine found in Scripture. But if that is the only thing you concentrate on, while ignoring other things, such as Christian fellowship, prayer, and the study of other core biblical truths, you will soon find yourself acting like, or becoming, a cult.

Indeed, most heresies and cults operate just like this. They will take one aspect of God’s truth and elevate it above everything else. They will minimise or ignore other key Christian doctrines while emphasising their one pet doctrine. That is always a recipe for trouble.

For example, a group might be worried that the church does not teach much about angels. They start asking, “Hey, when is the last time you heard a good sermon on angels?” They start to think that there has been a conspiracy of silence about this biblical issue.

So they really get into angels. They have sermons on angels, write books on angels, hold conferences and seminars on angels, and become utterly obsessed with angels. They soon establish the First Church of Angelology. And soon enough they are denouncing every other church and denomination for not emphasising the importance of angels.

Now, are angels something the Bible talks about? Sure, but they are not the only thing it talks about. To make angels your number one emphasis or priority means you have left biblical Christianity and simply become a cult. You will just end up in heresy.

We are to proclaim the whole counsel of God as the Apostle Paul said. To isolate one or two biblical truths at the expense of all the others will almost always result in you going off into error, if not outright heresy. Keeping the biblical balance is always crucial in the Christian life and in our doctrinal life.

Let me give a few examples here of places you can visit but not stay. There are some believers who struggle with low self-image, or with the truth that God accepts them and loves them. They may always picture God as a harsh tyrant and a stern judge. They can’t seem to relate to God as a loving father at all.

So then they get exposed to some teaching that really emphasises the grace of God. Indeed, some emphasise it so much that we call them hyper-grace teachers. That is all they talk about. That is their only message. So for our poor brow-beaten believer, when he stumbles upon this teaching or this church, it may do wonders for him – at least at first.

He finally comes to see how grace works, and how he is accepted in Christ, and so on. So for him this teaching or this church will seem like a real God-send. And it may well be – for a while. But as always, simply moving from one unhelpful and unbiblical extreme to another really does not do much good.

Sure, getting away from a distorted picture of God as a stern taskmaster who is more like Allah than Yahweh is a step in the right direction. But to end up in the opposite camp where sin, forgiveness and repentance are all minimised if not rejected altogether (as is the case with most hyper-grace teachers) simply exposes you to more error and out of balance doctrine.

Sure, at first it may be the very message a person like this needs to hear. And it may well help him heaps. But the trouble is, while it is good if he visits there, if he ends up staying there, he simply substitutes one truncated gospel for another. So stay there for a while to get your life and theology back to the biblical middle, but do not spend the rest of your life there.

Let me offer just one more example. Some Christians can be overly negative, pessimistic and complain a whole lot. They may tend to see the worst in everything, and they may tend to be overly morose and negative in their speech and thinking. This can be a real problem as even secular counsellors understand.

We even speak about psychosomatic illnesses and so on. If you are always bummed out, speaking negatively, and seeing nothing but trouble everywhere, that may well have a negative impact even on your physical health. If you say every day, “I feel lousy. I’m going to die. I am in a mess,” well, that may have some impact on your physical condition. There is a connection there.

In the same way, if you always say to yourself, “I am just no good” or “I will never amount to anything” and so on, that may well keep you from moving on and making a difference. And often these critical words can come from our parents, and have a lasting negative impact on us.

Sure, in these cases, you will want to get out of such ruts and get into a place with some more positive and uplifting vibes. Which is why many of these folks will be so powerfully drawn to the positive confession movement and the name it and claim it gospel.

The emphasis on your words having power, and that you can create your own destiny, and that you can think and speak your way to success, will certainly appeal to these folks. So they will latch on to these teachings and embrace them as gospel.

And for them, the teachings will probably be very helpful indeed – a helpful corrective to all the negativity and bad thinking they were into before. But as always, to go from one extreme to another in the end does not really solve anything.

Yes we can all be more positive, more encouraging, and look on the bright side of life more often – but within limits. Much of these teachings not only differ little from cultic and New Age teachings, but they end up being quite unbiblical. Many end up claiming we are “little gods” and that we can script our own reality just by what we say.

These teachings end up taking a magical and unbiblical view of the power of words, and the power of thoughts to create reality. So once again, we have some truth here, which may be of help to many. But because it is not the full counsel of God, it ends up going into error.

I have written often about these issues for those who want to see what some of the concerns are with these teachers and teachings. See these two pieces for example:
billmuehlenberg.com/2010/09/29/problems-with-the-positive-confession-movement/
billmuehlenberg.com/2014/06/20/positive-confession-and-the-new-age-movement/

So once again we have the situation where a brief visit may do quite a bit of good. But a lengthy or permanent stay may do great harm. To stay plugged into these new teachings means to get out of biblical balance once again. We simply move you from unbiblical extreme to another.

God wants us to be mature, complete, balanced and whole in our discipleship and our understanding. He does not want us to be tossed about by every wind of doctrine. He does not want us to be simply swinging back and forth from one unhealthy extreme to another.

He wants us to grow up into maturity, both in terms of our life and our doctrine. So we can be thankful various theological emphases exist. Some of the more extreme ones may offer genuine help and comfort – but only if we just visit, and not remain there.

On occasion, perhaps after a rough day, we might treat ourselves to a bit of decadence at a chocolate shop or a dessert place. Visiting there is OK. But we would do real damage to our health and our life if we stayed there. It is the same when it comes to various teachings and theologies.

Some can be of help in small doses, and if balanced with other teachings and biblical emphases. But if the whole package is taken, and we never move out of that place, we can cause real spiritual damage – sometimes permanent spiritual damage.

So we need discernment and wisdom here. Feel free to partake of the occasional Krispy Kreme theologies and teachings. But do not stay there for too long of a time. In the physical life a balanced diet is essential. Water is very important and good for you, but if you lived only on water you will soon be dead.

In the same way many teachings are of some limited value, and can serve as a good corrective to other extremes. But you must not stay there. To do so will stunt your spiritual growth and likely lead you into serious error.

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3 Responses to You Can Visit But Not Stay: Avoiding Theological Excess

  • In my experience, Bill, I have found that the kind of extreme emphasis on one or another aspect of biblical teaching that you are talking about is often found in those who decide they don’t belong to any particular local church, but prefer to get their teaching from online ministries. These teachers often place an unhealthy emphasis on one particular aspect: for example, ‘hyper faith’, prosperity, extremes in messianic teaching, ‘hyper grace’…. at the expense of a balanced, wholistic understanding of the Christian faith. Also, the fact that their whole Christian ‘diet’ is received online results in a lack of community and pastoral care. Because of this they don’t experience the discipline of correction, encouragement and balanced teaching.

  • You are right about becoming obsessive about certain theological aspects. However, one can be labelled as “hyper-this-or that” easily just for bringing up a point of view that might differ or not align with a long held doctrine (which might be wrong by the way). At times I admit we have avoided even sharing our beliefs as others have already “made up their minds” (without study I might add). I agree there are many aspects that can be discussed, visited briefly, but not dwelt on for sure. We do however all need a “Berean” attitude, a teachable heart and mind, and realize that our pastor or best friend might be wrong (or right). We be honest and open in our study. If you go to join a Presbyterian Reformed Church for eg, and say you believe in open display of gifts of the Spirit, you won’t be welcome for membership. If you go to join a Pentecostal church and say you do not believe that, you can’t sign their statement of faith, so can’t take part in their ‘ministries’. Would this be considered theological excess do you think, or a central faith issue? (Rhetorical question). People have strong views both ways, and others think they are not central to faith. There are no clear lines to draw sometimes. I wish I hadn’t started this comment… I’ll end now!

  • Thanks April. I am basically with you. But perhaps we can and should have clear lines drawn on primary doctrines. The early creeds (Apostles, Nicene, etc) sought to do exactly that. We need some clear lines on basic Christian truths, eg., the deity of Christ, the triune nature of God, etc. It is in the many secondary doctrines where we can have more room to move and need to show more humility, eg., on things like types of church government, worship styles, modes of baptism, various eschatological viewpoints etc.

    Some of the examples I mention in my article where certain truths are pushed heavily while others are not may not be clearly cultic or heretical, at least at first, but might easily move in that direction if care is not taken. So doctrine and good theology are very important, but care, a humble spirit and wisdom are also needed.

    I discuss all this further in various places, eg: billmuehlenberg.com/2009/03/16/on-truth-and-unity-part-two/

    And here: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/04/09/on-heresy-hunters/

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