Slice of Laodicea notes an Al Mohler article that brings up good talking points about the state of today’s Church in light of the proliferation of cults. Mohler’s basic comment is that poor doctrinal defense and an inability to nip error in the bud have resulted in Christianity being dogged by a plethora of pseudo-Christian cults all clamoring for legitimacy. Given that Eerdmans, long a stalwart in Evangelical publishing, just published a defense of Mormonism, fueling the growing desire of Mormons to be considered mainstream Christians (rather than gladhanders in bleached white Oxfords trying to dig up the remnants of a civilization as non-existent as Plato’s Atlanteans), Mohler may have a point.
But then again, nah.
Mohler’s piece is written as if no Church existed before 1800. Witness this assertion:
Writing early in the last century, J. K. Van Baalen argued that “the cults are the unpaid bills of the church.” Van Baalen’s influential work, The Chaos of the Cults, represented one of the very first comprehensive efforts to evaluate the various cults of the day from the vantage point of orthodox Christianity. Van Baalen’s survey considered movements and groups such as Spiritism, Theosophy, Christian Science, Rosicrucianism, Swedenborgianism, Mormonism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others.In Van Baalen’s analysis, orthodox Christianity had opened the door for the cults to emerge and to proliferate throughout the culture. Sidelined by pragmatism, distracted by divisions, and committed to a “smallest common-denominator faith,” the orthodox churches had left the larger culture, and even some of their own members, unprepared to meet the challenge of the cults.
If anything, the problem is more acute in our own day. The seductions of postmodernism and the complexities of a pluralistic culture compound the difficulty involved in engaging, understanding, and confronting the cults.
Is the problem more acute in our day? Well, if the Scriptures are to be believed, the first NT writings were not even dry on the page before the Church was confronting cults. We know that the Apostle John wrote to counter the nascent Gnostic heresies and that the Lord Himself called out the Nicolaitans in Revelation. In fact, as long as there has been Christianity there have been cults of Christianity. Paul was constantly squashing one heretical belief after another and even came into conflict with Peter over the Judaizers, a group that Mohler would be forced to tag as a cult if it existed today.
The list of heretical leaders and the groups that formed around them in the early days of Christianity’s spread could take up a leather-bound tome in itself. Mohler’s amnesia here is startling: Marcion, Pelagius, Apollinarius, Montanus, Arius, Nestorianus and on and on. Yes, the Church did put them down, but even today groups of pseudo-Christians cling to the remnant teachings of these heretics. Still, their ideas did not die; even a casual glance around proves Pelagianism is alive and well in the 21st century.
The issue of what constitutes a cult in the history of the Church is also difficult to ignore. To the orthodox Church (and Mohler makes much of what is “orthodox”), Martin Luther and his band of German ne’er-do-wells were a cult. Same goes for that Calvin guy and that fellow Knox. To those early Lutherans and Presbyterians, the Roman Catholic Church was a cult and plenty of Christians today still maintain that view.
In fact, you can trace every modern denomination in Christianity to a blistering reaction by that denomination’s adherents to an “apostate orthodox church.” Methodism, the Restoration Movement, the Quakers, the Puritans, all had a start as folks who came out of a church that was backslidden and given to cultic practices—at least as they saw it. How Mohler fails to consider this is beyond me.
Worse still, Mohler attributes the problem of cult proliferation in the last one hundred-fifty years solely to the Church’s inability to promote correct doctrine. To be honest, I don’t believe that this is the whole story, especially since Mohler lumps seeker-sensitive and Emerging churches in here. Again, an honest assessment shows that these two came not out of bad doctrine, but a reaction against an orthodox Church in America that simply wasn’t doing its job. A lot of denominations started out that way, but when they left their parent churches, the angry ones left behind were bellowing, “Heretics!” even as they smarted over the possible truth behind the breakaway group’s leaving. It was easier to blame them for bad doctrine than it was for being right about the status quo’s calcification and deadness.
Every doctrine of the Church is not nailed down. If we were honest with ourselves we would have to admit this. Get one hundred Christians of all “orthodox” persuasions in a room, and you’ll have at least twenty distinct eschatologies. And while some may say that eschatology makes no difference, many of the cults that arose in the mid-Nineteenth century did so because of eschatological beliefs. Nor does one’s eschatological view exist in a vacuum. The very way we live our lives every day is a reflection of how we think the world will end. If you don’t think that’s true, then compare and contrast Booth’s Salvation Army with today’s Christian survivalists.
I’m going out on a limb here and will certainly get angry comments, but even Paul didn’t have his theology crystal clear on all points—at least as many orthodox Christians might see it today. We know that Paul publicly confronted Peter over his falling in with the Judaizers, but Paul was not so sure of the issue of circumcision early on in his ministry (Acts 15), but then after it was decided that circumcision was not necessary, Paul went ahead in the very next chapter and circumcised Timothy in order to get a better opportunity to preach to the Jews who would have disqualified his testimony because of his uncircumcised co-worker in the Faith. Later on, we have Paul abiding Nazarite vows and ritual cleansings in Acts 21, acts that would drive batty those orthodox believers who eschew anything that looks like a ritual or smacks of legalism.
So just who is wrong here? And better yet, who’s willing to admit it?
It’s that latter sentence that may explain some of the reason why we have cults: dogmatism. Cults— and Christian denominations—exist in large part due to inflexibility of beliefs. They are all backlashes against a rock-solid dogma that chafed. Sometimes (and yes, I know, not always) we Christians must acknowledge some negotiables. Paul did so when he circumcised Timothy. Who here is willing to toss him out for that act? Was it a sin? Was he violating doctrine? Or was the Holy Spirit leading him outside the newly established boundaries just this once in order that some might be saved? That Paul also consented to a similar act (the vows) later on in order to win some to the Lord should give us pause.
Frankly, if Mohler were honest, he’d just skip to the punchline and say, “I’m a Baptist. From my perspective, anyone who baptizes infants is a heretic and their church is a cult.” The problem is, he can’t bring himself to say that because he mentally assents to some doctrinal “wiggle room” himself.
I’m not positive on a lot of points of established “orthodox” doctrine. I believe that because Man is made in the image of God, he’s a tripartite being, just as God is. Wayne Grudem, whose Systematic Theology is a work I deeply respect, does not share that belief. That makes one of us wrong. Applying the standard that Mohler asks, one of us is therefore a heretic.
The Holy Spirit will guide us into all Truth, as the Scriptures say, and yet we see through a glass darkly. I believe both those statements. I believe that the Holy Spirit will progressively make me more like the Lord and I will take on more of His Truth in doing so, but I also believe that I will not have all the answers in my lifetime. As Paul’s “man caught up into the third heaven” can attest, there are answers to questions we may never ask this side of eternity. And if we’ve never asked them, how then can we be perfect in our doctrine?
Arrogance led to erecting a gospel of stone, a weight that not only were the cultists not ready to accept, neither were the leaders of Christian denominations who broke off from the accepted teaching of the day and went down another path. On the other hand, there is no purity in ignorance. Certainly ignorance accounts for the cults and some of those same Christian denominations—ignorance of the Word and of sound doctrine.
Perhaps the reality we face this side of heaven is that on some issues the believer must be more humble, even to the point of saying, “I don’t know.” While I don’t ascribe to the belief that everything is a mystery, neither do I believe that everything is set in granite. I don’t believe that Jesus came to establish a set of dogmas used to crush ordinary people with, and yet He never tolerated erroneous teaching, either.
No matter what the case, we all need a bigger dose of humility when it comes to this issue of who is right and who is wrong. We use the word “heretic” far too often today. The Christian blogosphere is choking on the brutal arguing going on over who’s perfect and who isn’t. I don’t want any part of that anymore. It’s possible to call others to holiness without strangling them to death with a noose of righteousness. That’s the way I’m going to try to take, because in the end, I’m not perfect.
Now where’s my comfy chair?