calling all heretic dogs: disagreement and respect

Have you ever experienced the ugliness of Christians savaging each other over theological disagreements?

Why do we do it to each other?

Yes that’s right, we. I use the word “we” for two reasons; the first is that I am as guilty as anyone, the second is to emphasise the inclusiveness of Christ and that we all Christians are brothers and sisters in him.

Today I was asked if I would write more posts on the topic of violence in the Old Testament (see my last post). My response was that though I am sure my views about the Old Testament and biblical interpretation will be given a respectful hearing by most people, there are those who will respond with an ugly disrespect that I am not, at this particular point in time, willing to incite.

Maybe you have felt the same.

At different times over the last few months I have been called names like liberal[1], heretic and dog. I’ve been likened to Satan. I’ve had my blogs posted on others people’s Facebook Walls accompanied by dismissive, abusive or personal attacks.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I have it bad in any way; I am not suffering, especially when compared to those who face substantive persecution.

But these experiences do lead me to ask the question – why do so many Christians find it so hard to accept that others believe different things to what they do? Why do they find it so much harder to engage in respectful dialogue?

Do we really believe that we have everything so correct, that there is nothing new to learn, or that others may not have thought about a topic more than we have?

These days I’ve reached a point where I’m not even really worried about what people believe as much as I am about what it means for their lives and actions. Since when did doctrine become the indicator of someone’s faithfulness to God anyway?

I’m sick of people banging on about doctrines and theology in a way that reduces it to meaningless discourse about who has the so-called truth without reference to real life. I’m sick of people banging on about debates that occurred in the 16th century which have little relevance in today’s world. I’m sick of people being abusive or arrogant without having ever taken the time and care to advance a thoughtful, cogent argument of their own on an issue.

But perhaps most frustrating, and indeed most depressing, is the amount of Christians that I speak to about different theological topics[2] who express their desire to have had such controversial conversations earlier, but having felt they would be somehow looked down upon decided against doing so.

Are Christians doing them any favours by being so rigid and venomous about doctrine? I wonder what onlookers who don’t follow Christ think about all this.

This post is perhaps more fragmented than usual, and there is nothing original or profound about it; the truth is I don’t have a fully formulated set of thoughts around this issue. I guess I just wanted to get this off my chest, and maybe hear from other people who feel similar to the way I do.


[1] Though most people have no idea what a theological “liberal” actually is.
[2] Think homosexuality, violence in the Bible, perceived contradictions in the Bible, the historicity of certain biblical events, scientific issues etc. etc. etc.

Posted on August 24, 2011, in Haphazard and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. Matt I don’t even bother to engage in such conversations anymore,
    As I have no theologically training or don’t articulate as well as some, am often not taken seriously or scoffed at, or open to verbal attack,
    this leaves me feeling stupid and unwilling to comment,
    I may get it wrong but I do have a brain, I do have a relationship with Christ and I love to learn and stretch my mind and the way I think, sadly in some peoples eyes it is wrong to question what you have or they have been taught or have an opinion that’s outside the box,
    Matt I encourage you to keep speaking your mind, and turning things upside down and exploring all options, you have the knowledge, skills and the heart to do so,
    there will always be closed minded people who will only except what they believe to be correct as absolute, sad and frustrating as it is..

    blessings Bella x

  2. Matt, I love this post. It parallels a few conversations I have had recently where people feel that they advance debates by name calling, labelling / pigeon holing people they disgaree with.

    I personally feel that we have reached a new low in society where we can’t respectfully disagree with people, especially our leaders. “Jackboot Johnny” “Mad Monk Abbott” “Rudd the Dud” or “Ju-liar” come to mind especially.

    Further afield I apparently can’t disagree with anyone who identifies with being LGBorT without being labelled Homophobe, can’t agree with the pacific soloution without being a racist, can’t disagree with it for fear of being part of the loony left, and if I do anything more than recycle I am automatically identified as being a greenie.

    On the spiritual perspective if I claim to go to church I am labelled a fundamentalist conservative and if I don’t drink I am a wowser. I’m with you, I just want to be able to disagree without the automatic labelling that seems to go with disagreeing these days.

  3. One the problems with the written word is that you can’t see the smile or frown, the twinkle in the eye or the tear. You can’t hear the tone in the voice and really know if the tone is one of anger or kindness. And you can’t feel the kind touch of a hand on the shoulder or see the clenched fists of despair.

    Therefore, depending on one’s personal worldview; what and how others comment can seem to be a personal threat against yourself…..

    I’m no stranger to controversy. I’m conservative in my theological beliefs about Christ and salvation – but think the church should butt out of the issue of same sex marriage by the state. I’m Charismatic / Pentecostal in my experience and yet broadly inclusive of all “Christian belief” apart from those heretical word of faith types and those twits who think that Jesus is the way to wealth and oh don’t forget the liberals who deny the divinity of Christ…they really get up my nose….and while I’m at it those who deny women from ministry and yet also those who think a woman should have a job just because they are a woman.;)

    Sorry about the rant! However…I have come to the conclusion that we must know what it is we believe and why! To know what we believe, means that we need to know what those who have gone before us believe and why they believe it. Because belief of any kind doesn’t happen in a vacuum: therefore many of the debates of the 16th century and earlier are important for us to know, because they didn’t happen in a vacuum either; rather they were issues that were deeply embedded within a framework of social justice and concern.

    Therefore theological caution is needed to ensure that our thinking and message is in line with that of Biblical intent stemming from the past, outworked in a modern / present framework. How we do that is going to raise the ire of many who hold different methods of interpretation to what we do; and will also raise our own ire because they hold a different method of interpretation than what we do. 🙂

    Sorry to hear that others have called you dog, liberal, heretic etc..I have been there and its not a nice place. understatement But it has forced me to consider and process if some of what those others have said had any element of truth in it.

  4. Hey Brother,

    Timely post (see my Facebook wall with GetUp petition and the 40+ comments that follow).

    Completely agree – and have been on all sides of this debate – the attacker, the attacked, the one who silences and the silenced. A beautiful and timely reminder that we all need to be a little more humble, loving, graceful and relational.

    Looking forward to continuing this discussion and expanding on these thoughts. Especially when considering the actions they lead to.



  5. Thomas Pearson

    Thanks for writing this Matt.

  6. I don’t reckon it’s so much the interpretation of theology but more the execution of it.

    People aren’t given space to disagree, discuss or even agree with what is said in churches. You go to church some guy gets up and talks about the bible then sits down we sing and go home. Because this person is speaking God’s word they must have said the right thing so i’ll see you next Sunday.

    Repeat this 52 times a year and you are brain washed in a way, whether it’s good or bad stuff the preacher is saying you take it as right. So when someone comes along and says something completely different to what you have heard in your bubble it must be wrong.

    I think the only way Christians can realise that we are all still humans and all have different views and interpretation based on our surroundings is to have more space for dialogue and digestion of what leaders blab on about.

  7. Hi Matt,

    Essentially you are taking a post modern interpretation to devolve meaning. You have some goods points (particularly, why we use religion to project ourselves onto people) but lack clarity.
    My background has involved legal training, i am, very much aware of the importance of textual interpretation as compared to literal. The flaw in your argument is this: If you are just interested in their lives and actions – how are you determining if your or there actions are good/acceptable or bad/unacceptable? most likely leading to a cyclical argument.

    A core conception of theology and dogma must exist from scripture. Take for example a priest i recently heard about who doesn’t believe in the resurrection or the virgin birth ect. reducing christianity to some form of dayism. As C.S.Lewis roughly quipped, ‘Jesus was either Mad, Bad or the Son of God.’

    Surely, this blog really is a rehash or the old Romans vs James debate? or the conception of where the Church as the body and the individual meet?

    Please clarify.

    Liberal. (see it’s not that bad.)

    • Hi Dan,

      I think you have possibly misunderstood the nature of this post. It certainly does lack clarity, a point I concede in the post itself, since what I have written is more question than answer.

      I don’t necessarily share your construal of postmodernism; I think possibly you have oversimplified postmodernism into the all too-often stated maxim – “There is no truth”.

      As I mentioned to someone today who commented on this post, I am not denying the need for doctrine; what I am denying is the use of doctrine without reference to real life. Of course our judgements of actions and ethics requires some foundation, I don’t believe I ever denied that. What I do deny is merely the inverse – foundations without actions.

      My view of Scripture is high, though I don’t believe it to be the only source of theology, since the biblical authors themselves did not share this view! Moreover I find Lewis’ dictum, which is often quoted, to be wrong since there is at least one other option – what if Jesus was just wrong – not a liar, not crazy, not Lord – but just mistaken? (Obviously I believe he is Lord).

      I’m also not sure how this post represents an old works/Law vs. grace/faith debate…

      (P.S. Are you calling me a Liberal, or yourself? It was hard to tell with that upper-case ‘L’ ;-0 )

  8. I think a great deal of it rests on the naive idea that there’s some kind of historical ‘orthodoxy’ to which you can subscribe. Those who do the attacking — accusing people of heresy or liberalism or following Satan — often consider themselves insiders and make ‘others’ of anyone who doesn’t agree with their beliefs in the same way that orientalist discourses ‘other’ non-European cultures or neo-liberal economics ‘others’ views that disagree with their hegemonic discourses.

    Of course the idea that there’s some religious orthodoxy to which you can subscribe is nonsense. Sociologist Christian Smith has published a great many books which show how inconsistent and diverse Christian belief, even so called ‘conservative’ Christian belief is. Orthodoxy isn’t something that survives contact with epistemological reality. We can hold ideas about it but there’s no objective evidence to suggest that anything like it exists…

    But the idea is enough to convince people that they’re right and anything else is a hollow or evil illusion. It’s a comfortable idea. And so anything which threatens their comfortable belief needs to be attacked. Thus… the vitriol and general horribleness which goes on within the wider Church.

  9. Hey there Matty. Hearing you loud and clear mate, and yes I have been the recipient of much abuse over the years, but not just in relation to theology.

    So can I encourage you to keep at it, I love your posts as they make me think and challenge the process of theology and the connection to action and the way we live. I may not agree with everything, but heck I don;t agree with everything I thought 5 years ago either.

    I love this quote from Richard Rhor, “The great teachers are saying that you cannot start seeing or understanding anything if you start with ‘NO’. You have to start with ‘YES’ of basic acceptance, which means not too quickly labelling, analysing, or categorising things in or out, good or bad. You have to leave the field open. The ego seems to strengthen itself by constriction, by being against, or by re-action, and it feels loss or fear when it opens up. Spiritual teachers want you to live by positive action, open field, and conscious understanding, and not by resistance, knee-jerk reactions, or defensiveness. Too many clergy (and Christians generally) study religion and scripture before they critique their own lens and process. They see without examining their way of seeing.” (Richard Rhor, the Naked Now)

  10. Just to digress…. on Bretto’s last point, I would say this…. none of the disciples ever went to Bible college or studied theology, rather they immersed themselves in havin’ a go. I can’t help but wonder if we’re better off following there example.

    • Brewster I would disagree with the thrust of your comment. The disciples spent 3 years with Jesus. The ate with him, ministered with him, lived with him and were shaped and rebuked by him. They were taught by him and through their teaching – we likewise are are taught by their teaching.

      However…often we miss understand what the Scriptures are saying – simply because we are reading them through our modern lenses of understanding and not through their cultural understanding.

      A good Bible college will help the student to live within community, to have a go and to understand the Scriptures within their context and then engage with those principals within our modern context.

      Take for example Mark 11 where Jesus teaches on prayer. A modern understanding of it would be that Jesus is teaching us that what ever we desire we can ask God in faith and if we don’t doubt we will receive what we want….so many set their desires on asking God for what ever it is they want.

      Yet the historical Biblical context of that teaching is rooted in Deut 4 where Moses tells the Israelites that after God has punished them for turning away – if they seek the Lord their God with all their heart mind and strength they shall find what they are looking for which is God!

      The casting of the mountain down in Greek actually says if you have God’s faith…or the Faith of God… not if you have Faith in God… which creates a whole new nuance of thought… the mountain Jesus is pointing to is the Temple on the mountain and again we see a reference to what God says to King Solomon that he will honour the temple as long as it is used to honour him…by the king / nation….when it is stopped being used for that purpose – God will cause the temple to be cast down and destroyed…which we saw happen in the time of captivity.

      Jesus taught his disciples this meaning… and yet those who just want to have a go…often read the Scriptures in an overly simplified and overly literalistic way that destroys the intended meaning of what is being read.

  11. Dear Craig are you implying if you have not been to bible college you are not capable of interpreting scripture or to live in community?, is it not God himself who reveals his word to us when we read scripture, is it not him who gives us understanding, it is not our own understanding or knowledge we ought rely on but his perfect knowledge and wisdom, Can the Holy Spirit not speak to me directly and teach or do you believe it is only through Bible college lecturer’s and theologians that we are capable of learning? please clarify.

    • Isabella…that is not what I said. What I am saying is that the scriptures were never intended to be understood within an individualistic framework. Paul says that we have apostles, evangelists, pastors and teachers…

      Jesus spent much time teaching his disciples. Far to often when I hear someone say you don’t need Bible colleges they are in fact saying…I don’t want any accountability in my life….

      Yes the Holy Spirit will talk to all directly; but there are many who are destroyed through false teachings and false spirits….take the health / wealth / prosperity lies that have permeated the church…. And those very proponents of this heretical movement will continually say and manipulate others saying – thus say the Lord.

  12. Are you then saying if you go to Bible college you are not subject to false teaching that it would not possible for misconception or misunderstanding at this level?
    After 3 yrs of teaching directly from Christ the disciples still lacked understanding and the penny didn’t drop until after Christs death and ressurection and the sending of the Holy spirit, I am not trying to be arguementive or disrespectful, and I believe Bible college is a valuable resource and great place to learn, but I don’t believe if you don’t go you are not capable of understanding scripture,
    yes we may get things wrong when we have a go, but the great thing about being in relationship with Christ is he will reveal to you when you get things wrong and teach you and show you the way, no matter how many times it takes, it’s better to get out of the boat and trust the Lord has your back than live in fear of getting it wrong because you have not had formal training,
    Christians in third world country’s don’t have Bible colleges or theologians but they truly have an understanding of Christ and have a faith like no other.They live their lives for Christ and rely upon him for all their needs, they experience more miracles than we ever see, there understanding does not come from a school but the Holy Spirit

    anyway enough said,I will agree to disagree, my knowledge may be limited compared to yours but I know Christ and I don’t need fancy words or theology to understand what he taught,
    Blessings Isabella

  13. It seems that perhaps there are some misunderstandings in what people are saying.

    Brewster – I see what Craig is saying; though it is true the disciples did not go to Bible College, we must take note of a few other factors. One is that their general knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures would have far surpassed ours, since the average Jewish male would have known at least the Torah off by heart; we must not forget that synagogue was a place of regular learning and community. In addition, while the disciples may have “had a go”, it is also true that they often needed to be corrected according to the Hebrew Scriptures, the narrative of God and Israel, and also the revelation of Jesus (I think especially of Paul’s correction of Peter).

    This ties in well to the tension between the perspectives of Craig and Isabella (by tension I do not mean hostility, but balance).

    On the one hand Isabella is saying that one does not need to go to Bible College to understand the Scriptures. Of course this is basically true – God has given us a text with which all people can engage, be challenged, be transformed etc.

    On the other hand Craig is pointing out that the Scriptures are in many, many ways complex, even complicated. Since we live so long after the time of writing of the Bible there are many historical, cultural and linguistic differences that we must grapple with. This does in fact require some level of education to get around. We would do well to remember that we would not even have English translations of the Bible if they were not completed for us by scholars – people who have been educated in theology! That is, most people would not even be able to read the Bible if not for theologians!

    We must avoid a polarisation, as if to say there are only two positions – one where college and theological education is everything, and one where it doesn’t matter. To be fair Isabella, I don’t think Craig was saying Bible college is the only way to learn to read the Bible, I think he is far wiser than that.

    At a personal level I have difficulty with the view that we can just have a go and Christ will correct us. I am with Craig on this one – I have seen way too many people walk ways that are, in my view at least, contrary to the Gospel without being corrected (Craig’s example of the Prosperity Gospel is a great example). We must be careful to both allow for people to read the Bible and have the Spirit transform them, and also recognise the need for people who can study the Bible in greater depth than what most people are equipped to do in order to bring to light things not always obvious to most readers.

    It is true, Christians in 3rd world places do not always have Bible colleges and theologians, and indeed they suffer for it (for example, the rampant issues of biblical “heresy” and misinterpretation in China). This does not mean they do not have Christ, that they cannot serve his mission or that they cannot seek the kingdom. It does however mean that they miss out on important aspects of a valuable tool in God’s mission, that is, the Bible.


    • Hi Matt, you nailed exactly what I was trying to say.

      @Isabella; I’m all for having a go. I am blessed that I have had some great pastors who have let me have a go and potentially fail. I totally believe that God does speak to us and it was my experience that in the time I became saved I holed myself up in a motel room soaking up the Bible like a dry sponge.

      I also look back at some of my past sermons and actions and grimmace….and in another 20 years (Lord willing) I will probably look back to this time and do the same. 😦

      I also don’t believe that Bible college is the be all and end all. The only reason I am going is because I feel the Lord has called me to go. And in many ways I am probably a pain in the butt for some lecturers because I am opinionated and question every thing (which is my style of learning)

      I also believe that God can speak to us personally into our particular circumstance through the Scriptures – even though that particular understanding is outside of the contextual meaning of the passage. The danger becomes when that understanding becomes pushed as doctrine or dogma for the body.

      On a side note; I do know many wise Christians who have a deep understanding of the Scriptures who have never been to Bible college….and I do know of many who have gone to Bible college and in many ways it would have been better if they never went.

      But as Matt says…its not a polarisation of one against the other…rather it’s to balance both.

      @Brewster – I have enjoyed reading and engaging with your comments – I don’t think you derailed Matt’s topic. though that is up to Matt to decide 🙂 But that is part of my opinionated questioning learning style…. Sorry if I have caused any offence to you or Isabella.

  14. I hear what both you and Craig are saying Matt, and I accept the precept (if thats the correct term) Thanks for the feedback, sorry if I derailed the thread.

  15. Brewster – I agree with Craig, I don’t think you derailed the conversation at all. In fact, after I have written the posts the subsequent conversation is not mine to control, but should be allowed to ‘go where it goes’.

    One thing I didn’t want to raise though, as I find it very interesting, is the use of the term “heretic”. Craig used it in reference to prosperity teachers, and I agree with him. Do you think this is a legitimate usage, or is it a violation of the respect sought in this post?

    Moreover, what in your view are the criteria for using this term legitimately, and why?

  16. @ Matt thanks, I really was just trying to understand where Craig was coming from, as you may have noticed via my first comment that I have been made to feel stupid or ridiculed in the past when I have commented or disagreed with a topic or something that has been taught, I too like to ask questions and not just take things at face value just because thats what I have been taught,
    some of my misunderstanding came out of that place of hurt,
    I don’t have a problem with bible college or theology (infact I would have loved to go to bible college and always looking for ways to learn, that’s why i love reading your blogs)
    but I also really value the power of the Holy Spirit to teach and guide, if I were deaf ,blind and mute the Holy Spirit would be my only source of knowledge am I still capable of learning and understanding, yes
    But I do love to learn and do appreciate there are teachers and scholars whose passion it is to teach us who may have a greater understanding..

    @ Craig you did not offend me , I was just trying to understand you as I don’t know you I wasn’t really sure where you were coming from or wether you considered yourself superior due to your education (experienced this attitude alot) so please accept my appologies, I should have just explained that when I asked you to clarify

    Blessings Bella

  17. Good question about being a heretic Matt. On this topic I think a distinction needs to be made about theory and fact.

    Take the various thoughts on how the atonement…they are all theories – for the Apostles didn’t teach how the Atonement worked…just that it did….therefore there is great leeway for acceptance between many theological thoughts / beliefs.

    However…there are some distinct forms which are destructive and constructive…and within this framework I will call the Prosperity message heretical.

  18. having a play on the political name and theological outlook.
    What about the theology map metaphor – i think its at the beginning of mere christianity? would you consider that a fair example of what you are getting at.

  19. Craig – So could we suggest, at least for some investigating, that heresy is perceivable by the effects certain beliefs/doctrines/etc. have on people’s lives, rather than the violation of a form of objective orthodoxy?

    Dan – I had to dig up my copy of Mere Christianity to recall what you were talking about (it got buried in moving to the new place). I haven’t read the surrounding chapter for years, but having read only that page or so, then yes I think the analogy is good.

    • That’s an interesting response and one worth more thought! I see heresy stemming from two distinct, though intersecting areas.

      1.) How we think about God
      2.) How we think about Creation / each other.

      Much of what we take for granted within the modern church, still has its roots in medieval superstitious Catholicism and not in what Scripture and the early church leaders taught… take our attitudes to marriage – when we condemn those who are in a ‘defacto relationship’ as living in sin because they are not ‘married.’ Yet… our church tradition of marrying before a celebrant / priest became law in 1770 in the house of Lords….before then a wedding was a private affair between the couple and their families….yet we consistently condemn them as living in sin.

      How does our insistence on tithing effect low income families…I know people who are faithfully tithing and yet their bills are unpaid….yet the true meaning of Malachi in regards to the tithe is God’s rebuke to the priests who were supposed to distribute the 3 yearly tithe into the storehouse to the poor, widows, orphans, refugee’s and had nothing to do with building the temple at all.

      There is a huge burnout problem within the church. I have spoken to a number of pastors about this issue and counsel and minister to many Christians who are suffering burnout. – One pastor told me that if Christians burn out – its not his problem…its to do with their spiritual life and lack of faith… pfffftttttttttttttttt I felt like telling him to pull his head in and that he had no right to call himself a pastor….

      And don’t get me started on our methods of prayer…binding, loosing, naming, claiming..etc. lol!

      Yet…. when right thinking, teaching and right practice takes place – true transformation takes place and its a marvellous thing to behold.

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