Here is a truth you can count on: it does not matter which great Christian leaders you admire, there will always be a host of heresy hunters who will have declared them to be heretics, apostates and now burning in hell. Name your fav leader, and they have all been accused of this. It could be a C. S. Lewis, or a Chuck Colson, or a Charles Finney, or a John Wesley or a George Whitefield to name but a few.
The more I study church history and read about the great men and women of God in the past, the more I see this happening. Everyone can become a target of the theological purists. They have their doctrine nailed down in a tight little box, and if anyone dares to have one belief even remotely outside of their box, they are condemned as the antichrist and cursed as infidels.
I have known the wrath of these heresy hunters myself, with plenty of them hurling their anathemas at me because I do not fully endorse all their pet doctrines and pet peeves. So some of them have assigned me to the flames because I do not think exactly the same way that they do. Happens all the time, alas.
Of course Billy Graham has been another one who has been called every name under the sun. Having just passed away, I recently penned a few pieces on the famous evangelist. And sure enough, the heresy hunters came out in force, accusing him of every sin they could think of.
And by implication, I must be guilty of all these theological sins as well, since I dared to write some positive things about the man. For daring to offer a tribute to this just departed preacher, the wrath of the heresy hunters has fallen on me as well.
So what can be said about all this? While I will more specifically deal with Graham and his critics in a moment, much of what I have to say is true of all sorts of other Christians as well. The bottom line is this: no Christian leader has all of God’s truth, and we all get things wrong at times.
I sure do not have all the truth, and I have shifted over the years in some of my theological emphases, and I may well do so again – hopefully only on secondary matters however. And all the great Christian leaders of the past two thousand years have also had their pluses and minuses.
No one is perfect, and one day when I stand before my Lord I am sure that I will discover that I have said or taught things that were blatantly wrong, perhaps even untruthful. I am so very glad that God is patient with me and gracious to me. If my life was in the hands of some of these heresy hunters, they would have written me off long ago.
Thus to hold anyone up on a pedestal as a perfect leader or preacher or theologian is foolish indeed. The more humble these leaders are, the more they would admit that they do not have it all together. And the really godly ones will stand firm on biblical truth while still admitting that they always can learn more, and get things more right.
But the heresy hunters demand 100 per cent theological perfection NOW – or else. And of course this perfection means seeing things exactly as the hunters do. They are theological purists who build themselves up by tearing others down. They are modern day Pharisees who condemn most other folks, while thinking that they and their handful of followers are the select few who alone have God’s approval.
Pride and arrogance of course abounds with these folks. They will claim that they are just standing up for sound doctrine. But believing alone does not make you a true Christ-follower. The devil believes as well, and is likely a better theologian than most of us.
Anyone who knows a thing about me knows that I have strongly and consistently emphasised the importance of right belief and sound doctrine. But our orthodoxy must also be paired with orthopraxis. It is far too easy to have most of the right beliefs but live like the devil: cold, arrogant, judgmental, and condemnatory.
We have all met these folks. They are the defenders of the faith most high, but they can also be the most unloving, ungracious and un-spiritual people you will meet. They smugly and arrogantly sit in judgment on everyone else and think they are somehow doing God a favour.
So the truth is, I do grieve greatly at all these self-appointed heresy hunters who are out there. They are self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy who will turn on a brother and treat him like dirt in an instant if they do not fully line up theologically in every single area.
But let me look a bit more at Graham. Do I agree with every single thing he said and did? No of course not. But guess what? That does not make him an apostate or a heretic. It makes him a flawed leader, just as every single Christian is a flawed follower of Christ.
I can still praise a man for the entirety of his life work even if I have concerns with particular aspects of it. One area often raised concerning Graham is a brief interview he did with Robert Schuller back in 1997 in which he seemed to indicate salvation might be found in a somewhat broader sense.
Let me say a few brief things about this. Just as one verse in the Bible must be assessed in light of the entire Bible, so too a brief comment made by a Christian leader should be seen in light of his overall teaching and preaching. Those several dozen words he uttered back then must be stacked up against the many millions of words he preached over the course of his whole life.
It would be so very easy to go to the websites or books of the heresy hunters, find one or two dubious or dangerous sentences, lift them out of context, and then proclaim them to be arch-heretics and the devil’s tool. Just ignore everything else they said and did and focus on a few remarks that might be a bit dodgy.
Not that I wish to belabour all this, but one Christian apologist offered a fair and balanced look at this episode, rightly urging us to be cautious and to be willing to give Graham the benefit of the doubt. I think he has taken the proper Christian path here: http://www.ukapologetics.net/11/graham.htm
And of course plenty of others condemned Graham as the antichrist because he dared to work with others to further the gospel. I won’t rehash all this here, but I have said often enough now that I am willing to work with others where possible, even though some real theological differences may well exist between us. See these articles for starters:
Let me say four more brief things to those who denounce Graham and people like him, and leave it at that. I realise the heresy hunters will simply become further enraged at me, but for those others who want to hear where I am coming from, this may be of some small use.
One. If you think folks like Graham are Satan’s spawn and to be condemned as heretics and apostates, then you are saying the same about me, since I more or less support these men. If that is what you think about me, well, that is up to you. That just betrays some rather ugly, ungracious and ungodly censoriousness on your part. But it is God and his opinion of me that really matters, not what you critics think.
Two. Heresy hunters are a dime a dozen, and they bother me to be honest, as I believe they greatly bother our Lord. There is of course real heresy and real apostasy out there that must be dealt with, but that is a far cry from what so many of these armchair critics are on about.
Condemning everyone else as a heretic who does not line up exactly with you and your doctrine is not a sign of godliness or spirituality, but the very opposite. But I speak to all this in greater detail here for those who are interested: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/04/09/on-heresy-hunters/
Three. I will always run with the line Moody gave in such situations. The story goes like this:
One day a lady criticized D. L. Moody for his methods of evangelism in attempting to win people to the Lord. Moody’s reply was “I agree with you. I don’t like the way I do it either. Tell me, how do you do it?” The lady replied, “I don’t do it.” Moody retorted, “Then I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”
Four. When these armchair critics have helped to bring as many millions of people into the Kingdom as Graham did, then I might take the time to listen to them more seriously. Until then, I really cannot be bothered, sorry. I just do not have the time or interest to pay much attention to these folks.
In sum, those who are heresy hunters will simply detest me even more now that I dared to write this piece. They will denounce me as a false prophet who should be burned at the stake. As I say, I am not writing for them – all I can do is pray for them and hope they learn a bit more about how truth, love, grace and humility work together.
For those who are more open about such matters, this is hopefully my final piece on all this. I repeat: I may not have liked everything Graham said or did, just as I don’t fully and entirely approve of so many other Christian leaders. I don’t even always agree with myself sometimes! But I have little doubt that when I get to heaven I will find Graham there and many others who were judged so harshly by so many while on earth.
I have had countless critics over the years. Some have said I am far too hard, too doctrinaire, too fundamentalist, too narrow, and too exclusive. And of course plenty of other critics have accused me of being far too soft, not doctrinaire enough, too liberal, too broad, and too inclusive.
Guess what? I sure can’t please everyone! And I don’t want to. If I ran my Christian life based on what all the armchair critics said about me, I would be forever immobilised. But I will keep doing what God has called me to do, and the only one whose opinion of me I will be really concerned about is God himself.
If all the critics don’t like that, well, too bad.