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Spiritual Discernment Or Fleshly Criticism?

Apr 6, 2019

How many times have I spoken about the importance of biblical balance? It is such an important thing to get right, and I need to once again speak to it here. In this case it has to do with those who seem to delight in attacking other Christians and other Christian ministries.

This is especially prominent with the heresy hunters, as they are sometimes called. Of course those involved in this work would prefer to speak of themselves as being in a ‘discernment ministry’. However we seek to describe them, they certainly do exist, and can be a mixed bag. Some are much less biblical and Christlike than others.

Now let me be perfectly clear at the outset. Should Christians be discerning? Absolutely. Is there such a thing as heresy which needs to be called out? You betcha. Simply go to my site and use the search function and you will see I have written hundreds of articles on these things.

But there is in fact a very fine line between being biblically wise and discerning, and being a harsh and reckless heresy hunter. For more of my thoughts on the latter, see the following:

billmuehlenberg.com/2014/04/09/on-heresy-hunters/
billmuehlenberg.com/2016/01/07/six-theses-on-truth-error-heresy-and-disagreement/
billmuehlenberg.com/2018/03/12/on-heresy-hunters-again/

To see where I am coming from, I strongly encourage you to read at least one of those articles before proceeding any further. As I wrote in the first piece:

I plead with all the heresy hunters out there – and undoubtedly some folks will think that I am one – to be prayerful, careful and humble as you stand for truth. Staying on your knees is the very best place to be fighting for biblical and theological orthodoxy. If the church has been greatly harmed by heresy over the centuries, it has also been greatly damaged by overzealous, unwise, uncaring, and unloving heresy hunters. A pox on both their houses.

Simply having a different theological viewpoint on any number of issues does NOT necessarily make someone a heretic. One is NOT necessarily an apostate or cultist just because he has a different take on certain issues, especially secondary matters. Yes, primary matters matter: the deity of Christ, the Trinity, etc. There we cannot compromise.

But many areas we can agree to disagree on. And many areas of theological difference are actually quite complex and nuanced, and we need great care in not too quickly and superficially dismissing another person’s position. But so often the heresy hunters have no time for this. It is “my way or the highway”. If someone does not line up fully with their 158-point theological checklist, they are condemned as a false teacher or a heretic.

Straining at gnats

These folks will often be guilty of selective quoting or quoting out of context. They will spend countless hours to find one ‘damning’ phrase or sentence – out of millions of words of someone’s life work. And when they do think they have found something they shout in euphoria: “Aha, Gotcha! See, this proves you are a heretic! See, I told you he was an apostate!” They seem to be utterly gleeful when they present their “evidence”.

I happen to have nearly 7 million words on my website. I am fully convinced that anyone could trawl through my writings and find a phrase here or a sentence there – maybe even an entire paragraph, especially when pulled out of its context – that would conclusively prove that I am a certifiable heretic and possibly even the antichrist!

That is so very easy to do, and it happens all the time with some of these heresy hunters. They are on search and destroy missions. They are certain that some folks are reprobates, and they will spend all their energy in trying to find “proof” for their suspicions.

Most of these folks may mean well and have good intentions. They do care about truth and good doctrine. But sometimes some of them are little more than self-righteous Pharisees. Jesus called them out and so should we. I repeat, there is real heresy. There is real doctrinal error. There are cults and apostate groups.

But we need care, humility and genuine discernment here. Just because someone says something that we differ with does NOT necessarily mean he is a heretic. Just because others differ in various ways does NOT mean they have gone over to the dark side.

And just because a Christian may have a loose association with someone of dubious theological beliefs does NOT mean that he too is a theological liberal or worse. This is known as guilt by association. Again, it is a cheap shot and an easy thing to do. The truth is, I have appeared on stage or in publications with plenty of folks who are theologically dubious – if not worse.

I may have appeared at a prolife rally with all sorts of Christians of various stripes – even with non-Christians. Does that mean I have now become a tool of the devil and a false prophet? I sometimes write for publications that feature a wide-array of writers. So have I denied the faith as a result?

A lot of this has to do with throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Because one Christian preacher or teacher says some things that we may find problematic, we reject him entirely. Never mind the 95 per cent of good, solid biblical teaching he has offered and still does offer.

Some folks are just so eager to totally denounce someone, regardless of the fact that for almost all their career and in almost all their teachings they have been biblically and theologically faithful. But because they may veer off the doctrinal path in certain places or in various ways, the theology police will condemn them and want nothing to do with them.

Truth without grace

Francis Schaeffer used to repeatedly speak about the ugliness of defending and proclaiming truth without love and grace. As he said in The God Who Is There: “There is nothing more ugly than an orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.” Or as he said in an appendix to his 1971 The Church Before the Watching World:

We must affirm the possibility of right and wrong with regard to systems and categories. We fall off the cliff on one side if we do not do so. But there is another side to the cliff: None of us is completely consistent in our Christian thinking. We must declare non-Christian systems false. And furthermore we must declare as true the Christian system…. And yet we must understand that none of us is totally consistent in presenting the Christian system…. We must be careful not to see everything as relative…. Yet, we must not fall off the other cliff by thinking that any of us expresses the Christian teaching in a completely perfect fashion…. This balance keeps us from a sectarian way of thinking; it keeps us from chewing up everyone who differs with us on any point of Christian doctrine. This is a very practical cliff indeed.

The Bible is crystal clear on these matters as well. We must speak truth, but we must speak it in love (Ephesians 4:15). Our conversation must always be full of grace, seasoned with salt, (Colossians 4:5-6). We must be prepared to give an answer to everyone, but with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15-16). And we must be gracious, not contentious, as we contend for the faith (Jude 3).

It is too easy to be ugly, harsh, cold, and unloving when we present truth. Of interest, I was just alerted to a Q&A session with some evangelical and Reformed heavyweights. I was quite taken by one set of questions and answers. Douglas Wilson was asked about how we can love others and also denounce error and falsehood.

He spoke of imitating Christ in all aspects: showing mercy to those in need while showing toughness to those in deliberate and wilful error. Wilson is known for his very sharp mind and his cutting wit. He is especially good at demolishing bad arguments and pointing out the foolishness of a person’s position.

Indeed, he has even penned a whole volume on using rhetorical devices for the sake of the gospel. Most of the biblical characters effectively used irony, sarcasm, satire, ridicule, mockery and the like as they took on their opponents. I discuss his book here: billmuehlenberg.com/2011/05/11/4389/

But then something very interesting happens. John Piper, who most certainly is also concerned about truth versus error, mildly challenges Wilson, reminding him that the tenderness and gentleness of Christ is also something we must model.

Getting the balance right is often difficult, as R. C. Sproul acknowledges, but it is what we must seek to do. The entire thread is well worth watching. It begins at the 8:47 mark (and Piper’s 5-minute reply begins at the 24-minute mark):
www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnBCeCJzJSc&feature=share&fbclid=IwAR2YhdwFVRZzP5G987aIpZA25MW-VDj3QEd_P5MILVbS89E3Q4yDigOEyJs

I really appreciated that exchange. I am a real fan of Wilson, but also a real fan of Piper. I think the two together offered us a very helpful and biblically-balanced view. I love to defend truth and expose error, and I think I am pretty good at it. But I think I am often not doing it with the love, gentleness and respect that I should.

Do we have tears in our eyes while we denounce error and refute false teachers? A prophet like Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet. It broke his heart to pronounce divine judgment on God’s people, yet he knew he had to do this. He did not gloat in this or relish this. It broke his heart, because it also broke the heart of God.

Often when I hear or read some of these heresy hunters I see absolutely no grace, no love, no tenderness, no brokenness; just a censorious, judgmental spirit – and that in the wrong sense of the word. They seem to have none of the love of Christ. Why do I suspect that if some of these folks lived some centuries ago, they would be among the first to demand various believers suspected of heresy be burned at the stake?

We are used to the secular left resorting to ugly name calling and denunciations any time someone dares to disagree with them. ‘You racist, bigot, homophobe, etc.’ But sadly far too many Christians can do exactly the same thing to one another. We are so very quick to attack and accuse one another.

We are so eager to pronounce anathemas on other believers, so very quick to denounce someone as a heretic or apostate. Please, we must stop! Yes, genuine false teachers and preachers need to be called out. But just because someone has a different take on some issues does NOT mean they are the antichrist leading others to hell.

In sum, we do need some of these discernment ministries – or at least aspects of them. Much of their work is helpful. But we do not need some of the gung-ho heresy hunters and their relentless crusades. As always, we need the biblical balance here.

I do realise that by simply writing this article, some Christians will now be fully convinced that I am a false prophet who must be totally rejected. Well, so be it then. I will keep doing what God has called me to do. Please pray that I do so wisely and graciously.

Afterword

There are countless examples I could give here of great champions of the faith who have been attacked and denounced by the heresy hunters. Let me offer just one. I refer to the great Christian apologist and thinker Ravi Zacharias. He has a legion of critics, as do most Christian leaders. One of the things he did which brought out the heresy hunters big time was when he finally agreed to proclaim biblical truth at a big Mormon gathering.

So many of these critics quickly denounced him, saying the usual things: ‘See, I told you he is a heretic! This proves he is a false prophet!’ But in another Q&A session found online, he explains what happened, why he went, and how he preached Jesus. You can see it at the 41:20 mark:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHTZrxHB-so

Please do watch. And yes, I am fully aware of other criticisms levelled against Ravi. But if you want to further attack him, please save your comments UNTIL I first write an entire article on such matters, thanks.

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9 Responses to Spiritual Discernment Or Fleshly Criticism?

  • Just a short comment; while we should strive to imitate Christ, we must remember that none of us is Christ. He had perfect insight into the hearts and minds of his interlocutors, we don’t. We must therefore be very careful. The most skilful influencers are those who can change another’s mind and have the person think it was their idea all along. Challenge by asking questions rather than making accusations. Ben Shapiro seems a master of this tactic. Or as Denis Prager says; clarity before agreement.

    For what it’s worth.

    Thanks as always.

  • As a regular listener to RZIM podcasts, I don’t recall Ravi Zacharias ever saying anything objectionable.

  • No wonder I read you first Bill, you always balance things, call out correctly where there is need and find things i would never find on this world wide web.
    What an inspiration you are to me.
    God’s Richest Blessings to you,
    Mark Bryant

  • Bill…I so appreciate your bountiful contributions to the kingdom of Jesus Christ and what a great response by Ravi! Here’s his full (Mormon) presentation too. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7oFuTPdPMI

  • Absolutely correct, again, but a little surprising you would link to a group of hard nosed Calvinists to make that point. I don’t like to make an example of one group or create more opportunities for divisions and for putting up more straw-man arguments but I would suggest, just as an example, the Calvinist/Arminian division is the absolute epitome of majoring in minors.

    This is not to say Calvinists are alone in doing things like that. The problem is these sorts of issues are across the board with Christianity today with every Christian group that I can see blowing less relevant issues completely out of proportion and creating opportunities for false divisions and if we don’t start to realize and understand these problems we are only going to cause ourselves a lot more grief.

    Iron sharpens iron so we are correct to criticize others in love, just as the scriptures tell us to do, but to help the other person, not to cause false divisions over minor matters.

    Other examples would be SDAs criticizing Catholics for not honoring the Sabbath when Catholics do honor the Sabbath with Friday night and Saturday services and the scriptures do speak of having a Sabbath on the first day of the week or Catholics criticizing others for not accepting that the bread and the wine is literally the body and blood of Christ when there is nothing in the scriptures about what we believe happens when we take the communion just that we should do it with a righteous heart. Protestants criticize Catholics for claiming the Pope is infallible but Catholics don’t say any man is infallible – just that they have a robust system in place such that the office should be treated as though it is correct. In reality this is exactly the same as what happens in every Protestant church with Protestants being at least as intolerant of people who disagree with their leaders as Catholics are. These are just a small list of the less important issues that are blown out of proportion. Are people right to point out issues in these matters? Absolutely. Should we honor the Sabbath? Absolutely. Are Catholics correct to take control of who is allowed to take the communion? Absolutely. Should they be areas of division between Christians? Absolutely not. (Mat 23:24, John 9:41, 1 Cor 8:2)

    Was Ravi Zacharias correct to speak at a Mormon gathering? Of course. It is exactly what Jesus would have done but he was also right to be hugely cautious because, obviously, Jesus has the advantage of knowing people’s hearts. This is why we pray for direction over these matters.

    Every one of us is meant to be constantly ready to give an answer to anyone who asks questions of us. It is desirable to be the conduit through which God works. We just need to ensure we are wise enough, or more correctly have access to enough wisdom, to not do it blindly.

  • I asked my dad if I could have Douglas Wilson’s book ‘A Serrated Edge’ and he said yes! Thank you, daddy.

    Ravi Zacharias and R. C. Sproul are up there with Mr M. I read R C’s book ‘The Holiness of God’ on a book swop with a girl from another church it was brilliant I should have bought a copy. Ravi wrote a little book called ‘The Real Face of Atheism’, and I have read that at least four times and its a book to take on holiday to reread.

    I had never heard of Douglas Wilson until now. I don’t know why as he would appeal to me big time for some reason. I have never been inspired by John Piper, (sorry, Mr M) the youth older than me in church read his stuff, and they speak highly of him. I think I was spoiled for choice rather than anything else perhaps.

    You do not have to worry about slipping into error Mr M or being seen as a heretic since you have very wise people on here that would tell you if you did since you are their brother. The more you write and speak the more likely you are to make a mistake and people understand that. You should tell us if we are in error too since its best to be told by a friend than a stranger.

    We should not be arguing with each other while the world is burning, we should all be pulling together and when the fire is out, then go back to nitpicking.

    I do however think a few trusted, and wise men should specialise in that area since people’s gifts should be used to the full.

    nite-nite. . . zzZZ

  • You are dead right – but I wouldn’t call it a fine line though.
    I imagine a divide like the Berlin Wall that separates genuine discernment (those who make a call reluctantly and with “tears in their eyes”) from the “gung-ho heresy hunters” who think they have the inside scoop on all things unbiblical.
    The Pharisees, of course, were the discernment specialists of Jesus day, and look how well they got everything perfectly wrong.

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