As a church planter, I quickly learned that not everyone is excited for a new church in town. We experienced our fair share of critics on issues of belief, expression, and culture. However, one individual particularly stood out, making it his personal mission to inform as many in our neighborhood as possible that our church was a heresy-promoting cult. From posting flyers all over the neighborhood to penning critical blogposts to talking to people on the street (including mission teams in town to work with us), he was zealous to guard the honor of God and the Church by spreading the bad news of who we were. (Ironically, this was the very reason some curiously sought us out.)
I initially responded with frustration and disbelief. I could sort of understand if we were labeled bible-thumping, no-fun-fundies. But a cult? From this difficult season, I learned two valuable lessons.
Are We a Cult?
I consider myself a theologically orthodox pastor holding to a historically guided understanding of the Scriptures and the Church. I feel our church reflects these doctrinal beliefs in word and practice.
Yet, God convicted me in these times of accusation to be humble. Rather than defend myself, I was challenged to consider the nature of the accusations and quietly investigate whether our church was truly being faithful to God and His Word. Were there any occasions of unknowingly communicated theological error in my preaching and teaching? Did our church hold to any doctrinal positions out of line with classic orthodoxy? Were we unwittingly propagating aberrant ecclesiological practice in the name of cultural relevancy?
After a season of reflective study, including internal conversations within our community and leadership along with counsel from seasoned ministry leaders outside of our church, we felt assured that we were indeed a doctrinally orthodox church. I recognize now that this was a beneficial process for us as we evaluated why we do what we do and in the manner we do it.
I don’t know many pastors who intentionally seek to lead their churches into theological error. (Well, unless their actual goal is to lead a cult.) However, wisdom is to acknowledge that we can drift into error or doctrinal murkiness without even recognizing it. Though we may view those challenging the correctness of our beliefs as envious “haters,” humility can lead us to see these people as God’s mercy to reveal possible issues of error to be corrected. May we reflect a continual posture of humble learning as we lead our churches to grow in spirit and truth.
If everyone is a heretic, no one is a heretic.
I used to be that pastor who could identify all that was wrong with other churches, especially when it came to issues of right belief. Heck, I could even do it a way that almost sounded humble.
Being accused of being a heretical cult changed how I speak of other pastors and churches.
I want to express clearly: I believe there are churches that are disobedient to God’s Word. We need to firmly and graciously address error in churches stemming from their deviation from the truth of Scripture. It is a tragedy to observe churches who dismiss the importance of doctrine as somehow antagonistic to their effectiveness in mission. I am not suggesting that we should refrain from addressing clear error, for instance, whether faith in Jesus is the only means to salvation.
Yet, I observe some who seem to make it their goal to discredit otherwise theologically solid pastors and churches over some issues of doctrinal or stylistic difference. If another church conducts themselves differently than we do, the word “heresy” is thrown around a little too liberally. If another church is too attractional, they are watering down God’s truth. We are too quick to accuse another church of not being “gospel-centered”; the reality is they may very well be about the Good News of Christ but it is nuanced in a different way than your tribe or mine may usually consider.
The danger to this is that if everyone we disagree with is guilty of heresy, we lose our credibility when we need to point out actual heresy. If everyone is a heretic, no one is a heretic.
Again, I am not advocating a “everyone’s truth is truth” approach. Rather, may our truth be exhibited not only on our website’s statement of faith but in the grace and kindness we offer to others even when we disagree on matters not of primary importance. We can publicly point out deficiencies of other churches or choose to highlight their strengths. Which course we take goes a long way toward affecting the spiritual health & vitality of our cities and regions.
We need to be humble.
Humility is essential in these matters. If we are accused of error in our belief, humility calls us to seriously consider those charges for the purpose of honoring God and His church. And humility is needed in how we as pastors speak about other churches. Our congregations are watching. So is the world.