In the first century the term was applied to certain people whose teaching stood at odds with the testimony of the apostles concerning Christ. Their “false gospels” brought division to the church as they chose their own opinion over the eye-witness testimony of those who had been with Jesus.
Interestingly enough, the first visible threats of division in early Christian history were not over any kind of teaching whatsoever. The first threat, in Jerusalem, was over the alleged favoritism shown by Jewish brothers to their own kin in the food distribution line (see Acts 6). The second threat, in Antioch, was over Peter’s hypocrisy in bowing to the pressure of James’ friends and refusing to eat with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-13). It wasn’t until the Judaizers arrived in Galatia and tried to undermine the disciples’ faith that any issue of “false teaching” came into play.
Much has changed over the ensuing centuries and much has remained the same. Christians still deal with the issue of false teaching, there is no doubt about that, but something even more insidious has crept in to try the hearts of the faithful.
Something I like to call the heresy of orthodoxy.
In the second and third centuries the churches began to institutionalize, a trend that swept south from Rome and north from Jerusalem. Apostolic leadership gave place to the consolidation of power in the office of the bishop, and as a result the assemblies lost both their local character and organic nature.
The decline was gradual. A bit of mixture here, a little compromise there. Over time the ways of the church began to look more and more like the ways of the world.
In the first century it had been the religious man–the Judaizer–who threatened the life of the assemblies. That battle was fought and won by men the likes of Paul, men in whose hearts the daystar had risen, who knew the full meaning of Christ crucified and who warred not in the flesh but with mighty spiritual weapons.
Centuries two and three brought an onslaught of a different kind with the influx of Greek philosophy into the Christian fellowship. Little did the disciples realize that the philosophic “Greek” in them was just as anti-Christ as the religious “Jew” (1 Corinthians 2).
So again the battle was fought, and though some believe it to have been won through the formulation of creeds and the ultimate “triumph” of the church militant under Constantine, others feel that the very means adopted by the churches to combat the false teachings of their day did greater harm in the long run than the heresies themselves. Two factors emerged during this time, the first being–
THE OVER INTELLECTUALIZATION OF THE FAITH
When certain teachers began to make outlandish claims about Christ (such as He did not come in the flesh), it caused many of the leading brothers to give serious thought as to what they believed. Seeking to articulate the faith they began to hammer out Christendom’s first official statements of faith. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but eventually the reaction went too far and the focus turned toward rooting out the tares rather than tending a strong, healthy harvest–the very thing Jesus himself had warned against (Matthew 13:24-30).
Thus “truth” became a matter of dogma, of accepting the right doctrinal creed, and this “orthodoxy” became all-important. The faith once delivered to the saints became a matter of the head rather than the heart. Lines were drawn in the theological sand and definitions set in stone. Varying schools of Christian thought began to arise, ancestor to our modern-day seminary.
All this at the hand, not of apostles, but of half-converted, neo-pagan philosophers.
ENTER THE BISHOP
Once decided upon, truth needed to be protected and upheld. So it seemed necessary to some that the churches–once knowing no Head but the invisible yet living Christ–now needed formally ordained “leaders” to guide and protect them from the danger of false teaching and the threat of division springing from self-appointed leadership.
Valid concerns, mind you. Remember that I’m not challenging the end which was sought but the means applied to get there.
Thus began the one-man ministry. Far from being a simple overseer (as in first-century elder-ship), the institution of the Bishop would eventually come to control the spiritual life of the people altogether, ruling over the “sacraments” and dominating all avenues of ministry (read the letters of Ignatius and you’ll see what I mean). This early clergy system represented an entirely new class division within the body of Christ, one that is foreign to Scripture and a heresy in its own right.
Yes, I said it. With deep sighing in my spirit and love in my heart I said it. The clergy system, for all the wonderful, God-fearing, Jesus-loving men and women who fill its ranks, is nonetheless divisive and therefore, heretical.
In the beginning, you see, there were only the brothers and sisters in the church. Early in the life of an assembly the saints would be helped along by the ministry of the apostles, and over time elders would emerge among them. These elders would then form the local equivalent in spiritual stature of the extra-local ministry of the apostles, and the church would have its own home-grown leadership.
But after the second generation of apostles passed from the scene (your Timothy’s and Titus’s), elder-ship degenerated into something other than what it was in the beginning. Man’s tendency to want a visible king re-asserted itself, and what once belonged to the entire church–the responsibility of ministry and the right to guide her own affairs–was transferred first to the ruling body of elders and then to the “chief” among them, the one occupying the place of “overseer” or “bishop.
Little by little the priesthood of all believers, that glorious vision of a nation of kings and priests in Jesus Christ, gave way to a system of church life built upon a distinction between “clergy” and “laity.” Mutual ministry began to fade as God’s people learned to look to certain men instead of to the Lord when they came together.
Historian Philip Schaff agrees with the general fact and overall timing of this transition:
The idea and institution of a special priesthood, distinct from the body of the people, with the accompanying notion of sacrifice and altar, passed imperceptibly from Jewish and heathen reminiscences and analogies into the Christian church… Whether we regard the change as an apostasy from a higher position attained, or as a reaction of old ideas never fully abandoned, the changed is undeniable, and can be traced to the second century.” (History of the Christian Church, v.1)
Of course there is more to the story of the church’s institutionalization, far more than I have space to go into here. But from that time until now, the keepers of the flame of Christian orthodoxy have been testing doctrines, condemning heretics, hunting witches, and blessing crusades. With the advent of the printing press and the further civilizing of society, however, they have taken to gentler means. These days, you’re more likely to find them writing books and holding conferences.
THE HERESY OF ORTHODOXY: A RECENT EXAMPLE
One such conference was recently hosted by pastor John MacArthur and his associates at Grace To You Ministries. When I first heard about Strange Fire, an expose of the Charismatic movement, I experienced the same knee-jerk reaction many others did, as evidenced by the initial firestorm of blogs, tweets, and articles that went out in response. I assumed it would be something of a Pentecostal Bible-bashing by the self-appointed doctrinal elite.
And it kind of was, don’t get me wrong.
But after watching many of the sessions for myself I realized it wasn’t as bad as some people initially made it out to be. The participants were sincere, not malicious, and it was evident they had a genuine concern for the Body of Christ at large.
For instance, I appreciated the repeated emphasis on the centrality of Christ, especially from MacArthur himself. And R.C. Sproul’s video message, probably the best of any session I watched, was a refreshing look at the significance of Pentecost from a constructive and graceful angle.
As to the general focus of the conference itself, let’s be honest: The Charismatic movement makes for an easy target, especially in its extremes. Prosperity and Word of Faith preachers are charlatans and deceivers who prey on the poor and exploit the simple faith of child-like believers. They deserve to be called out for what they are, and MacArthur is right in doing so.
I say this to be fair, and to assure you that I don’t view the holding of a conference to be on par with physical violence (as in a crusade). I do believe, however, in this case as in many others, that the basic animating principle is the same.
When you give yourself to rooting out the tares, you are bound to pull up some wheat in the process. MacArthur and company may have been fair enough to point out the fact that not everyone in the Charismatic movement is a charlatan, but the broad brush strokes they employed otherwise painted more people out to be frauds and fakes than is truly deserved.
Not only that, but there were wisps of elitism in the air at Grace to You throughout the Strange Fire conference. For instance, when Steve Lawson (no relation) quotes John MacArthur as saying, “If you’re not reformed”–in your theology, that is–“you’re irrelevant,” and adds, “If you ask me, you’re just wrong,” I’ve no doubt the heresy of orthodoxy is in play. And when people in the audience laugh and applaud at such statements, I wonder if the Charismatic pew-warmers aren’t the only ones being played for a fool.
THE DANGER OF THE EVANGELICAL MINDSET
The sincerity of John MacArthur and his associates aside, the most apparent feature of the Strange Fire conference was the common evangelical mindset that seeks to confine spiritual life to a precise doctrinal framework. According to this mindset, unless you have every theological “I” dotted and every “T” crossed then you’re on a slippery slope headed straight for liberalism, humanism, atheism, and ultimately hell.
And until this mindset crumbles to the dust, we will never arrive at a higher expression of the church than that which prevails throughout Christianity today. I say this without shame or apology. Sound doctrine is important, but the outer shell of orthodoxy neither determines nor ensures spiritual life. It is not by the precision of a man’s theology but by the practical fruit of his life that you know whether or not he is a true follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Athenagoras said it best way back in the second century:
Among us you can find uneducated people, artisans, and dear old mothers who would not be able to put into words the usefulness of their teaching, but by their deeds they demonstrate the usefulness of their principles. They do not repeat words learned by heart, but they show good deeds: when hit they do not hit back, when robbed they do not go to court, they give to those who ask, and they love their fellowmen as themselves. (The Early Christians in Their Own Words)
So understand: I am not anti-learning, anti-doctrine, or anti-organization when it comes to the Christian life. But when any of these tools are used to bring division between brothers and sisters who call on the name of the Lord Jesus out of a pure heart, I will quickly begin to appear that way. The heresy of orthodoxy is as dangerous a weapon as Modalism, Arianism, or any other -ism you can come up with.
In the next article we’ll look at this subject in further detail, so please stay with me and try to not be offended.