Thursday, May 28, 2009

Heresy, error and difference

I have been reading Frank Viola’s book Reimaging Church as I have mentioned previously, and I like a lot of what he has to say. The book raises some questions that are left unanswered other than some sweeping generalizations. Case in point would be divisions over doctrines. Frank Viola would claim that as long as we agree on faith in Jesus Christ, we are not permitted to divide on any other issue. I am still working through this (and Alan Knox just posted on this topic this morning). I get what he is saying but I also think that when you get past the generalizations, the issue becomes more muddled.

As an example. My wife and I hold to the plain reading and traditional 1 Corinthians 11 interpretation that women should cover their heads while praying. We could (and do) get past that in fellowship. If a husband and wife are not convinced of this, that is their concern. We are following Scripture and our conscience and as such this brother’s wife not covering her head does not impact us.

On the other hand there are issues that run up against Scriptural prohibitions. For example, if we take Paul at his word and agree that women are not permitted to teach ( 1 Tim 2:12) and yet we have brothers and sisters seeking fellowship who insist on women teaching in the context of the assembled body, what then? My wife and I would not sit under teaching from a woman, so do we just have to excuse ourselves if a woman teaches? Or just sit there and deal with it when we believe that we are in violation of Scripture by doing so? Do we force the other couple to refrain from the wife teaching? It seems we find ourselves in a situation where irreconcilable differences do exist and yet we don't see where separation is permitted. So what are we to do?

It is not a perfect situation but I think we need to make distinctions between heresy, error and difference.

In the wide world of faith, there are heresies, errors and differences. Heresies include a whole host of issues, mostly stemming from the nature of God/the person of Christ and on justification by faith alone. Those who hold to heresies are disqualified by Scripture from even being considered brothers in Christ, holding to a “different gospel” that is anathema. Then on the other side are differences. Brother can have differences in doctrine and still be in fellowship. Quibbles over the end times are differences. I am in fellowship currently with a number of brothers who hold to a dispensational hermeneutic and I work with it (sometimes gritting my teeth!). A number of women cover their heads in our local assembly but some don't.

In the middle are errors and here is where the sticky part comes in. Errors do not disqualify one as a brother but they certainly impede fellowship. The issue of women teaching I mentioned about is one example. Baptism is another one. If I were an elder in a church and a couple came to me to ask me to be involved with the baptism of their infant, I would have to refuse to be involved in what I consider to be an unscriptural practice. Paul certainly wouldn’t spend the time he did writing about doctrine and correcting errors if the issues he was dealing with were unimportant.

This would bring us back to the Apollos issue (Acts 18: 24-28). He was teaching but doing so incorrectly. Aquila and Priscilla corrected him. They were not content to merely let him go on falsely. We don’t know what he was saying precisely but we do know that what he was teaching was far enough into error to warrant correction. We also don’t know what would have happened if he had rejected the teaching of Aquila and Priscilla, but can we assume that they would have merely shrugged their shoulders and went along to get along?

There is no Biblical warrant for division of fellowship outside of heresy and unrepentant sin. I concede that. On the other hand, there is not much dealing with doctrinal differences between brothers at all. The “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos” argument Mr. Viola makes doesn’t seem to fit into this idea of dealing with errors, perceived or otherwise. We do see Paul writing to correct and instruct in all manner of issues, especially in 1 Corinthians. Ranging from sin in the church to the Lord’s Supper to headcovering, Paul covers a lot of issues. There is a world of difference between dividing over petty or non-vital issues like music styles and dividing over issues that rise to the level of violating Scripture.

So what are we to do. Just suck it up and deal with it? Avoid any activities that might cause dissension? Go our separate ways? There are issues that are going to come up and when they do, how do we deal with them? If the local assembly in fellowship is not the venue, then where do we deal with doctrine?


Alan Knox said...


You've asked some good questions - the questions that are always raised when someone begins to talk about unity. For me, before I separate from someone, I want to make sure that I have a biblical basis for separation. I find a few biblical reasons: divisiveness, failure to work, unrepentant immoral living, teaching contrary to the gospel.

There were major problems in the churches during the first few decades. In fact, most of the NT was written because of those problems. The authors of Scripture did not separate from their readers because of these problems, and they did not leave their readers living in those problems. Perhaps mutual discipleship and maturity (as we see modeled by the NT authors) is a better response than either apathy or separation. Of course, we have to have a relationship with the person before we can disciple them or be discipled by them.


Jonathan said...

Good questions. I think we need to carefully consider what the essentials are. Unfortunately through recent history everyone's list of essentials seems to be longer than their list of non-essentials (or disputable matters). I think we do need to recognize that unity is very essential - our Scriptures speak a lot about unity. We must first agree that unity is central to our shared faith. Then when we look at other issues that have one or two verses as support - we need to approach them with a measure of humility, and be willing to agree to disagree.

Interesting stuff to struggle through though... for me it's what happened when somebody doesn't believe unity is essential and I do... can I tolerate that? But yes, I must... I am not the judge.

God bless!

Faithful Servant said...

Haha, I like what John has said..."Over the years everyone's list of essentials has grown much larger than their list of non-essentials."

When facing these very issues you've mentioned Arthur I've taken the perspective of our individualistic, and combatitive nature playing a major part in these types of situations. Case and point, we often refrain because others will not stand to reason or listen to the correction or proposed dialogue concerning matters they have already determined to serve pragmatic purpose in their Christian walk.

It is what it is, and you can't tell me otherwise. I think this has become the focal point of our contemporary discussions regarding peer correction and admonishment. I would also go on to say I know these things to be true because more often than not, I've responded in this very manner...