In my last post, I said that we should bow to the weaker brother and let him have his ritual. If he thinks that we must be baptized by triune immersion in a lake, then let him get baptized that way. If he thinks all Christians should abstain from alcohol, then don’t crack open an ice-cold Corona with a lime wedge in front of him.
In the non-essentials of faith, let the weaker brother abstain. Don’t try to talk him out of it. Don’t insist on giving him a glass of wine, stay clear of it in front of him as well. Don’t force him to use a baptismal, offer to drive him to a lake yourself.
But, there are times when you have to come after fellow Christians and tell them they are wrong. For example, in my extended review of John Shelby Spong’s Sins of Scripture, I fought for the traditional deposit of faith, above Spong’s redefinition of all the terms.
So, when does a Christian let the weaker brother have his way, and when does he call error what it is? I think there are three categories of theological error. Let’s discuss them.
Like the “stranger danger” movies of elementary school, I think it is helpful to divide theological errors into Green Light, Yellow Light, and Red Light situations. Before we begin, I don’t think anyone — even my own Reformed camp — is 100% right. Everyone has some good and some bad. The idea is to keep reading Scripture and keep re-examining and challenging your beliefs in light of what you learn.
A Green Light group has some disagreements over the gray areas of Scripture, such as mode and method of baptism, place of spiritual gifts in the modern world, or the method of election/predestination. A Yellow Light group is seriously drifting from the Scriptures, and they are usually marked by eisegesis, poor logic, and faulty connections between related Scripture passages. A Red Light group is best avoided; here, you normally will see even non-Christians agree that these people are misinterpreting the Scriptures.
These categories only apply to folks who self-identify as Christians. Though many call Bart Ehrman an “apostate,” that’s not a precise use of the term since Ehrman is open about not being a Christian.
Disunity over Non-Essentials: Green Light
There’s no magic word for these groups. This is just denominaliationism at its finest, people disagreeing over how to baptize or if election is unconditional and individual, conditional and individual, or unconditional and corporate.
We are unified by the essentials and divided by the non-essentials. This shouldn’t be the case, as Paul argues. Unfortunately, we humans tend to get along better with those who see things the way we do. Hence, thousands of Christian denominations.
Drifting from the Faith: Yellow Light
The magic word is apostasy. These groups usually have several essentials (from above) in tact, but they differ in at least one, or have an unscriptural definition of at least one non-essential. This is usually definitional — a key part of distinguishing the yellow lights from the red lights.
Prosperity theologians such as Joel Osteen or Paula White are apostates. Though they preach almost everything you’d expect from a Christian group, they also preach that God will richly reward people who give tithes because God wants people to be healthy, wealthy, and happy.
God does want those things, but he doesn’t define those terms the way that White and Osteen do. God refers to spiritual health and wealth, and happiness as Mortimer Adler described in Ten Philosophical Mistakes (pp. 131-144). The prosperity theologians speak of physical health, monetary wealth, and what Adler terms “contentment” — enjoying the moment rather than gazing fondly back upon the journey of life.
Descent into Total Error: Red Light
The magic word is heresy. These folks deny one or more essentials of the faith, substituting something in its place by a latter day revelation. Yellow light groups redefine essentials through eisegesis or some other method, but generally use (shaky interpretations of) Scripture to do so. Red light folks deny the essentials outright.
Heresies are usually associated with a single individual who claims to receive personal revelations from God that contradict existing Scriptures.
The two main keys to distinguishing yellow light groups from red light groups are the denial (rather than the redefinition) of essentials of the faith, and the strong association with a single individual.
Marcionism is the first (and classic) heresy. Marcion denied the accepted canon of Scripture, believing that only Paul’s writings were canonical (and thus, only Luke’s Gospel was accurate). He also denied that God was one, instead opting for a god of the world (an evil creator deity) and a god of heaven, Jesus’ father who revealed himself in Christ to defeat the evil creator of the world and reconcile the world to himself.
Westboro Baptist Church has all the earmarks of a modern heresy. They ascribe to the error of hyper-Calvinism, denying God’s universal love for his creations and believing that he creates sin in people in order to damn them to hell. They are strongly associated with Fred Phelps, the founder of the church.
Harold Camping’s Family Radio also has the earmarks of modern heresy.
Now that we have that cleared up, when do we fight for the faith? We shall find out in our final installment.