CultureWatch

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

On Heresy Hunters, Again

Mar 12, 2018

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: 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:

billmuehlenberg.com/2009/11/27/on-biblical-cooperation-and-separation/

billmuehlenberg.com/2017/06/17/defence-protestantism-response-catholic-friends/

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: 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.

[1823 words]

23 Responses to On Heresy Hunters, Again

  • Hi Bill,

    How are you? It is bizarre the way some of us think and treat others poorly when in actual fact God’s word says that we must not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to or not apply the golden rule to themselves which is to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, then there are the commandments to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind…as well as love others more than we love ourselves, which when we obey we keep all of the other laws this of course is because God so loved us that he sent Jesus so that we wouldn’t have to suffer anymore for our sin/wrong doing since he fulfilled all the laws of God perfectly. He’s the only one who’s perfect, just think does Allah love his followers or Buddha or Sheva or or any other gods made out of stone or wood love their followers the way that our Jesus does or have a personal relationship with them the way our Father in heaven loves us so perfectly. We were made to worship the Lord not be-lame or nitpick, it matters more how we treat others than how important we are or like to feel by putting others down we need to be building others up, encouraging others as well as stirring them up to put their faith and trust in Jesus especially the way you do Bill, we can all afford to take a leaf out of your book (s) as well as behave more graciously toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. A favourite saying of one author is ”hurt people, hurt people”, you have the joy of the Lord in your life Bill and I am glad you can shrug off your abusers after all they can only kill the body but your beautiful soul lives on for which we can praise our Lord Most High! Thank you with blessings and love from your sister in Christ, Sandra

  • Mr Muehlenberg, thank you for your faithfulness to our Lord and for speaking the truth on so many subjects. I only found your website last year and am grateful to the Lord for your teaching. I have also recommended your site to several others and enjoy when we get together and discuss and share what we have learned of the scriptures and world events through your teaching. Have taken onboard some of your suggestions for adding to our Library and I admit how my attitude to many things has changed since I now focus on reading the scriptures and reading about he lives of Godly men and women. I guess what I really want to say is a big “Thank You” for helping me to stay focussed on the Lord during these trying times in which we live. I know you will continue to stay strong in the face of criticism and please remember that there are many fellow Christians praying for you and your family. God Bless!

  • Many thanks Robyn. Bless you.

  • A very interesting and good article Bill, and I might say, that compared to me you’d be considered a Saint by these ‘Heresy Hunters’ you speak of. I’m what you might call a ‘lapsed Catholic’, or, as someone recently described me, a ‘Lukewarm’ Christian, and that’s fine, I can wear it! Some of my best friends are Atheists, but, they are good decent people, God knows that, and he loves them, I don’t think for one second he condemns them for it, there are world renown scientists that tell us God doesn’t exist, they’ve explained how they believe the Universe and everything in it was created without the need for an imaginary God? I don’t think God condemns them either, and still loves them, they’re honest, that’s what the genuinely believe, why would you hate them for that, I’m sure it amuses God, and he looks forward to giving them the surprise of their lives when the time comes [a very pleasant surprise I might add, not the ‘fires of hell’ type]. Here is where you and others are going to strongly disagree with me, but that’s fine also, I don’t think God really cares much about any organised religions, he didn’t start any, his son didn’t start any, all he wants us to do is LOVE EACH OTHER, TAKE CARE OF EACH OTHER, and FORGIVE EACH OTHER, sometimes the hardest things to do, I mean how do you love and forgive Hitler? But you know what, I do, he wasn’t born bad, no one was, who know what influences he was exposed to over his life, how many time he may have needed help and guidance and didn’t get it? He obviously thought he was doing the right thing for his people, but he wasn’t, but I don’t believe even he is beyond salvation, I honestly pray he got the help he needed on the other side, he didn’t get here! You can disagree with everything somebody does with all your being, but that doesn’t mean you should hate them, does God hate? I don’t think so [unless perhaps you believe in the way he’s depicted in the old testament, vengeful, nasty, unpredictable? I think whoever wrote some of that stuff was on something? Anyhow, most will not agree with me I know, but I honestly think that if we can master the Love, help and forgive thing to the best of our ability, everything else will pretty much fall into place, and should that dreaded ‘Judgement day’ ever come around, we shouldn’t have too much to worry about? Incidentally, to all those who are about to shoot me down in flames, and condemn me to that ‘lake of fire’, I forgive you, and love you anyway!

  • Thanks Girvan, but no, not quite. While I did decry here those who are unhelpful heresy hunters, that does not mean – as I already said – that I think there is no such thing as heresy, and those who twist and distort the truth! Thus this is where I must indeed insist that truth really does matter, and that getting things wrong here is very serious business indeed.

    The biblical position on such things is quite clear. We are all already condemned because we are all sinners who shake our fists at Almighty God and reject his rightful authority and rule. There are no “good” people, be they atheists, religious folks, intellectuals, volunteers in hospitals, priests, shamans, or Sunday school teachers. Jesus made this quite clear in John 3:18: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

    Thus you are amiss as well when you claim that we are all born good. Again, that is a nice bit of humanistic wishful thinking, but it has zero biblical support. As Paul writes in Romans 3:10-12, quoting various Old Testament passages:

    “There is no one righteous, not even one;
    there is no one who understands;
    there is no one who seeks God.
    All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
    there is no one who does good,
    not even one.”

    It is only when we come to Christ in faith and repentance that our self-imposed condemnation can be lifted. When we do, we can then rejoice with the Apostle Paul and what he said in Romans 8:1 “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”.

    And sadly you try to pull the oldest liberal theology trick in the book: you seek to separate the teachings of Jesus from the ethics of Jesus. Sorry, but it can’t be done. The latter flow out of, and are based upon, the former. We are fully unable to love anyone as we should, and it is only when we agree with God about our sinful condition, turn from our sins and cast our trust in the work of Christ that we can be reborn and for the first time in our lives really be able to truly love both God and others. Indeed, the 10 Commandments are based on that order: we must first love God, by his chosen methods, not our own, and then we can begin to love others.

    Jesus fully summarised and affirmed that. As we find in Mark 12:28-31:

    One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

    So to push for a sentimental sort of love divorced from biblical truth is just a dead-end proposition. If we truly love others, we tell them the truth. And God is the source of truth, not humanistic sentimental self-help nostrums.

    Finally, you are also amiss in pushing the tired old line about the God of the OT somehow being different from the God of the NT. They are of course one and the same, and this unchanging, eternal God is always fully holy and righteous, and must always fully hate sin and evil. Simply read the book of Revelation and see how Jesus will deal with all this if you are not convinced.

    But thanks for your thoughts. It goes without saying that the most loving thing I can ever do for you is share biblical truth, and pray that you forget all this man-made wishful thinking and start agreeing with what your Creator says about such things. It is his revealed truth given to us, not our lame attempts to make things up as we go along, that really matter here. Thanks again.

  • Thanks Bill, another no nonsense clear write up. I heard a BBC story the morning after Billy Graham died and the lady said (something like) In over 70 years of ministry, the only whiff of scandal was when it could be said Billy appeared to agree with Richard Nixon on some anti-Semitic comment that was taped. Not bad hey, and from the BBC. Also, I`d heard bad reviews of The Shack, I saw the film last night and liked it, especially the Wisdom bit.
    p.s. I am away for 2 months from this week-end so will be quiet on the internet, will miss you.

  • Thank you so much for this, it’s a keeper! Rev Graham was a great man of God of this day!

    Renee

  • What do you consider Joel osteen? I have a hard time listening to a man who lives in a mansion and wears 1000 dollars suits.

  • I run the danger of falling into the category being criticized, Bill, but you really should reconsider having Charles Finney in that otherwise sterling list of Christian leaders. Finney was Pelagian, a true heretic. If you don’t believe me, read what Mike Horton has written on the man; I don’t think Horton qualifies to be a heresy hunter.

  • Thanks Ken. Ah, but that is exactly why I included Finney, to let it be clear that I do not necessarily think that only those fully of the Reformed persuasion have all the truth, and no one else. While I may not agree with all that Arminians like Finney teach, I do not think they are rank heretics to be burned at the stake. I expect to see Finney in heaven. And yes I have read what Horton has said about him (I have 15 of Horton’s books BTW! And I also have a number of Finney’s!). But as a hard-core Calvinist we of course expect Horton to say such things about Finney! The bottom line is, I don’t agree with everything Finney has said. But then again, I don’t agree with everything Horton has said either! But I consider neither one to be arch heretics to be tarred and feathered!

    And all this proves my point of course. Even leaving aside the Protestant-Catholic divide, we already have folks here wondering about my theological credentials if I dare to give a small bit of aid and comfort to non-Reformed teachers. And on another site I had Arminians attacking me severely for daring to affirm some Calvinist truths. As I keep saying, no matter what I say or do, I just can’t win!

    But thanks for your thoughts.

  • As we try to lead others to the light, and so much apostasy abounds, it is easy for those who need to feel “right” to go after, not the heretics, but believers. I was always of the opinion God allowed us to be broken up into different churches specifically to keep the Truth alive not bound by any group, that is, the Body of Christ is alive and well, in many places. I probably just made a few Catholics mad. Sorry. Keep up the good work Bill. And may we all be kinder to each other.

  • That’s a very good view of the heretic seekers who prowl around us. Yes we must have right belief (and right living) and sound doctrine. Yes none of us are perfect and have the correct understanding of the truth of the Bible 100% right. The problem we as humans of free will in this fractured world face is that everyone has contradictory interpretations of the Bible, be it significant or not. Yet as Christians we know there can be only one Truth. That’s a paradox we all face when dealing with other Christians with a different understanding and belief of what the Bible truly says. How one deals with such a dilemma reveals the amount of sincerity and wisdom. The irony of it all is many Christians use the argument about absolute truth and morality to discount the atheistic worldview. Yet the very same Christians neglect to see the “dirty laundry” on our side where we have an equally relevant and significant issue; a huge number of denominations with contradictory beliefs and doctrines. So will the true denomination stand up please!
    A long time ago I struggled with my belief system looking for the perfect church. I always believed in God but never really understood who Jesus was until after I resolved my struggle. After about a year of searching and testing a large number of churches, I gave up and realised there is no perfect church here on earth simply because they are all run by humans, and because all humans are imperfect we then end up with imperfect churches; lots of them. In my pursuit of trying to find the non-existent perfect church I ended up discovering the true Jesus instead. Thank God for that.
    Does this mean we should never attend a church? Of course not. Attending a good Bible teaching church is to be encouraged very strongly provided we take the attitude to decide in our own mind on whatever the church says is true or not by referring to the Bible and praying to God. We all know there are cults out there that forbid such a practice for obvious reasons. Any church that has a similar practice should be avoided. I have a few disagreements with the priest, who happens to be a very humble person, in the church I attend and we agree to disagree with much kindliness. Try doing that with a cult – one would be shunned if not expelled as a heretic. That’s one difference between a good albeit imperfect church and a cult.

  • Hi Girvan,

    I am not here to shoot you down in flames, although at the same time I’m sure you don’t want what you wrote to be dismissed simply on a phrase found towards the end of your contribution.

    However certain beliefs that we have do need to align with the Bible and in the case of Catholics, the church and the Bible. In the New Testament – 2 John, John makes it clear that if we do not abide in the doctrine of Christ, then we do not have God:

    9 Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; 11 for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.

    We always called to be gracious, civil and polite but at the same time I take the Bible, including the above passage, as authoritative. That does not mean that I am labeling you with v.9 above but it does mean that people who clearly fulfill that aspect the Bible instructs me not to welcome him or her into my home.

    I hope your day goes well.

  • Bill. I have long ago come to the conclusion that there is not a pastor, preacher or bible teacher with whom I can agree a full 100%, however there are many with whom I can agree 90, 95 or maybe even 98%. The next thing I want to say is that I do not want or expect anybody to agree with me a 100%. The bible says “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” It is sad however that many substitute feelings, even some experiences, for doctrine.

  • Thanks for this article Bill. I had also noticed a number of you tube videos recently (which I didn’t bother watching) trying to denounce Billy Graham. We should be testing the fruit of a person’s ministry and I particularly appreciated your article the other day about how Billy Graham and his ministry team made a conscious decision to be accountable to each other so no hint of scandal could stick. We all should take a page from that book. Bless you and keep preaching the gospel, just as he did!

  • Please excuse a little bit of pushback, Bill. Charles Finney was not merely Arminian but objectively Pelagian, not just from the perspective of a “hard-core Calvinist” like Horton. This is not a matter of the Calvinist-Arminian divide but of historic Christian orthodoxy against a false teaching condemned by the church since the fifth century. Is Finney’s “Systematic Theology” within your collection? Read what he has to say about original sin.

  • By the way, note I made no similar objection to John Wesley, a thoroughgoing Arminian and convinced foe of Reformed teaching on soteriology (but a friend of George Whitefield at the end). Of Wesley’s Christian credentials there can be no doubt. The same cannot be said for Finney. The Second Great Awakening was of a very different–and in some ways counterproductive and deleterious to posterity–nature than the First. Finney’s revivalism played no small part in creating many of the ills of evangelicalism today.

  • Thanks again Ken. Yes I have his Systematic Theology, yes I know what he says on original sin, and yes I find it problematic. And I am quite aware of the various criticisms of his evangelistic methods and his understanding of revival as well. Given that everything you said could have come straight out of a Horton article, let me say that I like much of what Horton has to say, but nonetheless find areas where I disagree with him as well. All of which sorta takes us back to what I was trying to say in my article! But it is not my intention here to belabour all this. Thanks again. Blessings.

  • We all ought beware lest we become like Job’s comforters of whom he says: “Doubtless you are the only people who matter,
    and wisdom will die with you!” – Job 12:2 [NIV]…

    I once heard someone more learned than myself remark that it is sometimes possible to get right answers when asking the wrong questions, and even to get bad answers when asking the right questions! Humility is the handmaid of all genuine love of God’s own truth.

  • Bill, you and most of the above commenters have more tact and patience to deal with heresy hunters than I do. That must come with maturity.

  • Thanks Ross. But I feel I have a long way to go in getting all this right!

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