In this age of Internet communication, it’s been said a rumor will travel around the globe before truth has had a chance to lace up its boots. Now I’m not a fan of either laced boots or cliches, but in this conversation I’m afraid both may be necessary.
Please excuse me if the style of this post is a bit different from my usual modus operandi. I’m afraid as I think about what I’ll be writing here it may come off as a bit “stream of consciousness” (which, incidentally, is a word I cannot pronounce). But I digress (which is kind of the definition of stream of consciousness, isn’t it? Again, I digress).
My reason for writing today is the result of a discussion I had recently with a stranger on social media. This fellow made a post calling a well-known former pastor “a wolf.” I will neither name the former pastor nor the stranger because I want the issue & argument—rather than the emotional connection, positive or negative, to the so-called “wolf”—to be the driving function here.
After the stranger shared a link to a discernment blog which cried wolf, I sent the stranger a note that simply said, “Hey, I’m definitely in favor of calling a wolf a wolf. I’ve gotten in trouble for doing so not a few times. But I think you’re wrong calling him a wolf. Won’t debate with you. Just asking you to slow your roll and pray for him and don’t take everything the Christian gossip rags say as gospel. Peace.”
Boy was I asking for it. And I should have known. I wasn’t even supposed to be on social media anyway. I had decided to not log on for the whole month of March because of the political and theological bickering. I however made an exception (read “justification”) because I had posted an item on Craigslist and wanted to share the link on social media as well.
Perhaps this fellow had a plugin enabled on his browser that hides the phrase “won’t debate with you” because he decided it was a good time to debate. Granted I gave in a bit. Not much though. Just a tad. After my initial note to him, it basically went like this:
Him: “You’re a lemming.”
Me: “Brother, I’m not saying you can’t ever call someone out. Just that I think in this instance you’re wrong.”
Him: “You sound like a cultist!”
Me: “I’m going to bed.”
Him: “Here, read this article.”
Me: “Not right now. I’m going to bed”
Him: “Cultist! Lemming!”
Me: “Look, I’ll read the article. Just not right now.”
Him: “If you’re not willing to learn, then don’t get involved.”
Herein lies the problem in becoming “friends” with strangers online. This dude doesn’t know me! While I’m certainly FAR from perfect, I consider myself a lifelong learner. I try with every ounce of effort I can muster to allow God’s Word to continually shape and mould me… Semper Reformanda! Always reforming! And because this young man doesn’t know me from Adam, he assumed that anyone who dare question his theological acumen (albeit cage-stage) must without question be a blind follower.
The reason this encounter got under my skin perhaps more than it may have at other times is because I’ve been right where he is—quick to ascribe “wolf” and “heretic” to anyone who doesn’t happen to wear the same Reformed brand of deodorant as me. But as I’ve discussed before, staying in that place breeds anger, frustration, and discontent. I don’t want to dwell there, and I don’t want my brothers in Christ to dwell there either.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Doesn’t the Bible call out false teachers in several places?” Yep. And as I said before, I’m all for calling out actual threats to the Body of Christ. But far too often what I see on social media is calling different streams within orthodox Christianity “heresy.” Do I think Arminianism is wrong? I do. But most Arminians I know are not wolves. They are brothers in Christ who I believe are wrong in their understanding of election and justification. Is that a different gospel? It can certainly become that. More often than not however, when my Arminian brothers explain the gospel, they start to get a bit inconsistent with Arminianism, betraying what they profess. Especially when they move from explaining their understanding (i.e., “tradition”) of the gospel to reading Scripture.
Heresy or Error?
Back to my Social Media Stranger. My question to him would be this: I was an Arminian until I was 26 years old. I also served in a pastoral role at two churches before I fully came to embrace Reformed theology. Was I a wolf then? Or was I in error?
What you may call a wolf is in many cases a brother in error. A wolf, according to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:15-20, would be someone who knows that what they teach is contrary to God’s Word, but they teach it anyway for selfish gain.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
Jesus says that these false prophets “inwardly are ravenous wolves.” This is drastically different from the pastor down the street who belongs to a denomination with which you disagree, but who in practice is godly, sacrificial, and humble. This is also drastically different from a celebrity pastor who may tend to overemphasize grace to the point of sounding antinomian. Is antinomianism wrong and a danger? I certainly think so. But that doesn’t make that pastor a wolf.
Since we can’t see the inward man, Jesus shows us how to recognize false prophets—their fruit! Some have taken this to mean that if a leader is ever caught in sin, they’re bearing bad fruit and are thus disqualified from, not only leadership, but from being considered a brother in Christ. I balk at that! Particularly because in one high profile situation, the celeb pastor wasn’t caught, but confessed and stepped down of his own will. To me, that sounds like good fruit! That sounds like something only a regenerated brother could do, because “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). And I believe confession and repentance please God.
If you are seeking a pastor who is utterly free from all sin and its effects, you’ll seek in vain. James, writing in context about church leadership, says that “we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man…” (James 3:2). So guess what… your pastor sins too. So does mine. Know how I know? Not only has he told me that he does, but Scripture plainly teaches that we all do.
Strangely, this encourages me! Not to “go on sinning so that grace may abound,” but rather when I do sin to fall on Christ and say with Paul, “The things I want to do, I don’t do, and the things I don’t want to do, I do. Oh wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me from this body of death? JESUS!! Jesus will deliver me! Only He Who lived a sinless life can deliver me! My pastor can’t. My own righteousness can’t. Only Jesus can!! And He has promised that He will.” (cf. Romans 7).
Bite Your Tongue Instead of a Brother’s Back
I am putting forth a call for my Reformed brothers and sisters to be slow and thoughtful before speaking when you’re about to call someone a heretic or wolf. Ask yourself, “Are they actually intending harm to the Body of Christ? Or are they in error?”
If the former, humbly and mournfully do your best to show from Scripture that what they teach is a false gospel, or that they do not bear fruit in keeping with repentance. If the latter, humbly and graciously seek to discuss the error with them. Instead of writing a blog post calling them out by name and seeking to discredit them, consider writing a post on the issue rather than the person.
It seems that many of the newly minted Reformed gang fancies their theological bickering to be the second coming of Luther vs. Erasmus. I know I’ve been guilty of this. But let’s be honest. Very few of us, if any, are as sharp as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, et al.
I appreciated what Jason K. Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary here in Kansas City recently tweeted: “Of concern: someone who’s always looking for a doctrinal fight. Of greater concern: someone who’s never willing to find one.”
I’m not saying we must never argue and that we need to pursue some kind of faux unity. We must always be willing to fight for the truth. We must always desire the glory of Christ over the selfish ambitions of those who seek to harm His Church. But don’t seek fights where there are none. And when we do find a legitimate fight, let’s approach it with such humility that we plead our case from Scripture with tearful hope in Christ.