Internet Explorer 7 and Protection Against HeresyToday, Tim Challies briefly mentioned Internet Explorer 7, which is available in beta form right now, and I went to take a look at it. I found a very interesting list of features, which caused two thoughts to immediately pop into my mind:
- Microsoft is a genius at copying other people's work (the features listed sound very much like the Firefox browser I'm currently using!)
- Microsoft's approach to creating a browser creates a striking parallel in my mind in the discussion about the institutional church and whether or not simple churches are more susceptible to heresy.
The nature of this blog is such that I'm not going to even spend time on point 1. But point 2 is something I wanted to flesh out for you and give you some food for thought. Conventional wisdom says (and some comments on my previous posts have touched on this) that without pastors, elders, and other "authorities" in the Church, a particular fellowship leaves itself more susceptible to heresy. After all, the thinking goes, who is going to be able to step in and say, "Wait a minute! That's not correct. If you look at the Greek word here, which I did in seminary, you'll see that it really means this, and therefore, this is the correct interpretation"?
Now, one of my usual disclaimers here: I am not bashing higher education in theology. I have a bachelor of science in Bible, and I also did about 30 credits toward a master of theology degree (including 5 semesters of Greek). So don't misunderstand my approach here. If you have studied theology at that level, I have nothing against that.
But let me draw the parallels that I saw with regard to Internet Explorer 7 (IE 7), and maybe you'll understand where I'm going with this. Take for example, the common internet problem of "phishing". IE 7 includes a new "Phishing filter", about which Microsoft writes:
[The Phishing Filter] proactively warns and helps protect you against potential or known fraudulent sites and blocks the site if appropriate. The opt-in filter is updated several times per hour using the latest security information from Microsoft and several industry partners about fraudulent websites.
Now, for months, we've been telling people, "Be careful about clicking on links in emails. If it looks like it is an email from a bank or some other financial institution, be extremely careful. That link may actually redirect to a malicious site which will then steal your password and account information." But now, what does Microsoft basically say? "Relax! We've got your back. We'll do the research for you, and every couple of hours, we'll update our list so that you can safely browse the internet. If you happen to click on one of those phishing links, we'll even block the site for you."
Instead of encouraging people to think for themselves, Microsoft claims to do the thinking for you. You don't have to be so careful now, because The Knowledgable One will watch over you and make sure you don't go off into danger.
Or, take the "Fix My Settings" feature. Again, Microsoft does all the thinking for you. Here's their description of the feature:
To keep you protected from browsing with unsafe settings, Internet Explorer 7 warns you with an Information Bar when current security settings may put you at risk. Within the Internet Control Panel, you will see certain critical items highlighted in red when they are unsafely configured. In addition to dialog alerts warning you about unsafe settings, you will be reminded by the Information Bar as long as the settings remain unsafe. You can instantly reset Internet security settings to the 'Medium-High' default level by clicking the 'Fix My Settings' option in the Information Bar.
So, if you happen to change a setting and it puts you at risk, Microsoft will warn you about it, and allow you to click an option that might as well be labelled "Let Microsoft Set My Security to Their Definition of Safety". That's their way of helping the internet community stay safe and out of danger.
Now, I want to clarify here (again!) that I'm not against these types of safety features in principle. In the same way, I'm not against the idea of people in the body of Christ having the wisdom and maturity to hold up a red flag and caution people about their doctrine, their behavior, etc. In fact, as you all probably know, that's a biblical function of elders! They definitely have their place in the body of Christ.
But, and herein is the rub, if this function of elders is presented in such a way that discourages or even stifles the maturing and development of an individual's own ability to listen to the Holy Spirit and seek discernment, it is not healthy. This is true, even if it is done unintentionally. And this is where my concern comes in with regard to too much institutional structure and heirarchy.
First of all, I do not believe that structure and heirarchy prevent against heresy any more than structure and heirarchy prevented financial fraud from happening in Enron. Who was John writing to in 1 John? Was he merely writing to the elders of the church? No. And yet John exhorts all believers to test spirits, to discern true teaching (even gives them a litmus test of whether or not a prophet is truly one of them), etc. It is the responsibility of each and every believer to become so fully rooted in the vine of Jesus Christ that they can spot heresy a mile away.
Ephesians 4 clues us in as to how that happens. Basically, to boil it way down, the more mature and gifted believers are to equip the newer and less mature believers -- with the stated goal of maturity -- to do the work of the ministry. What's the result of this: Disciples breeding disciples. Teachers breeding teachers. Maturity breeding maturity. If anything that we are doing, or any structure we create, or any heirarchy we define gets in the way of that maturing process, then we must very carefully examine whether or not we are doing the right thing.
My sense is that a heirarchical structure of "leadership" and "authority" (not using those words biblically, mind you) does much more to prevent growth and maturity than it does to promote it. Is that anecdotal? Yes, admittedly so. I do not have statistics to back it up. However, I would encourage us all to look at the fruit that has been borne out of the institutional church and ask if there is something that is missing from the overall picture.
For example, as I take a very quick drive-by of history: The church developed very quickly from the NT time into an institution of bishops and priests and "leaders" that "watched over" the congregation. And very quickly, the idea of a congregation member being able to think on their own was squashed. This got to be such a problem (in the Roman Catholic Church) that finally, over 400 years ago, some men stood up and said, "Where did we get so off track?" And they sought to return Bible reading and common-language understanding to the people. Martin Luther spoke out about a "priesthood of believers" that was nowhere to be found.
But what did we end up with? Please don't find me too harsh in saying this, but what differences really genuinely exist between the structure of the RCC and our Protestant institutions? Oh, I know that no Protestant leader claims out loud to be a direct descendent of the authority of Peter. And I know that no one actually claims that what they speak as a Pastor or other leader is on equal footing with Scripture (cf. the Pope's ability to speak ex cathedra). But how does it all function? Frankly, my experience both as a pastor in the institution and as a lay member in the same doesn't show much difference.
With the exception of frequent commenter Ray, I know of very few pastors who handle questions from their congregation very graciously. I have, however, spoken with many, many pastors in my own ministry experience who have talked about people "questioning their authority", "undermining their ministry", etc. In fact, in the interest of full disclosure, I will share that on several occasions, I have been that person accused of undermining someone's ministry. But I can honestly tell you that I was not undermining anything. I was merely trying to ask questions about why certain things were being handled the way they were.
This is not, in any way, meant to be a rant against the Institutional Church. I am not anti-Institutional. And to the extent that many may have pure hearts and motives in the institution, I bless them. But at the same time, I continue to sound the question of concern. Are we really producing mature, able-to-teach, disciple-making disciples of Jesus Christ? Or are people merely encouraged (either directly or tacitly) to accept our word as God's word? Our interpretation as the right interpretation? Our maturity as their maturity?
Let me conclude by referencing a quote that Bill Streger posted on his blog recently. The quote is one by John MacArthur, so I realize I'm like a chihuahua yapping at a great dane in the eyes of many right now! (And to be sure, if anyone at Pyromaniacs stumbles on this, it will spell the end of my ability ever to interact on that blog, since Phil Johnson is an associate pastor with MacArthur!) I don't say this to criticize MacArthur (and I definitely am not criticizing Bill Streger), but to take exception to the perspective given here. This is what MacArthur recommends as the way a congregation member view their pastor. Or, maybe I should say how he recommends they treat their pastor. Rather than make you click over to Bill's post, I'll reprint the entire quote here:
Fling him into his office. Tear the "Office" sign from the door and nail on the sign, "Study." Take him off the mailing list. Lock him up with his books and his typewriter and his Bible. Slam him down on his knees before texts and broken hearts and the flock of lives of a superficial flock and a holy God.
Force him to be the one man in our surfeited communities who knows about God. Throw him into the ring to box with God until he learns how short his arms are. Engage him to wrestle with God all the night through. And let him come out only when he's bruised and beaten into being a blessing.
Shut his mouth forever spouting remarks, and stop his tongue forever tripping lightly over every nonessential. Require him to have something to say before he dares break the silence. Bend his knees in the lonesome valley.
Burn his eyes with weary study. Wreck his emotional poise with worry for God. And make him exchange his pious stance for a humble walk with God and man. Make him spend and be spent for the glory of God. Rip out his telephone. Burn up his ecclesiastical success sheets.
Put water in his gas tank. Give him a Bible and tie him to the pulpit. And make him preach the Word of the living God!
Test him. Quiz him. Examine him. Humiliate him for his ignorance of things divine. Shame him for his good comprehension of finances, batting averages, and political in-fighting. Laugh at his frustrated effort to play psychiatrist. Form a choir and raise a chant and haunt him with it night and day-"Sir, we would see Jesus."
When at long last he dares assay the pulpit, ask him if he has a word from God. If he does not, then dismiss him. Tell him you can read the morning paper and digest the television commentaries, and think through the day's superficial problems, and manage the community's weary drives, and bless the sordid baked potatoes and green beans, ad infinitum, better than he can.
Command him not to come back until he's read and reread, written and rewritten, until he can stand up, worn and forlorn, and say, "Thus saith the Lord."
Break him across the board of his ill-gotten popularity. Smack him hard with his own prestige. Corner him with questions about God. Cover him with demands for celestial wisdom. And give him no escape until he's back against the wall of the Word.
And sit down before him and listen to the only word he has left-God's Word. Let him be totally ignorant of the down-street gossip, but give him a chapter and order him to walk around it, camp on it, sup with it, and come at last to speak it backward and forward, until all he says about it rings with the truth of eternity.
And when he's burned out by the flaming Word, when he's consumed at last by the fiery grace blazing through him, and when he's privileged to translate the truth of God to man, finally transferred from earth to heaven, then bear him away gently and blow a muted trumpet and lay him down softly. Place a two-edged sword in his coffin, and raise the tomb triumphant. For he was a brave soldier of the Word. And ere he died, he had become a man of God.
What message does this send? The only way you can get a good word from God is if you require your pastor to focus completely on God, deny him any access to anything outside the study, and basically beat him into humility and self-denial until all that comes out of him is the word of God. And when he reaches that point, sit at his feet and learn what God wants you to know.
I'm sorry, but I cannot accept that as God's design for His church. If what MacArthur writes is correct (and I see no biblical precedent for this kind of perspective), then we have no need for the Bible in our own language. Martin Luther wasted his time and his life. And putting a pastor in that sort of position is no different in concept (although much worse in result!) than assuming that I can browse the web safely without discernment or caution as long as I use Microsoft IE 7.
Respect the elders. Listen to them. Allow yourself to be persuaded by them.* But do not put them in the position of God in your life. Do not allow them to be the only voice of the Holy Spirit that you choose to listen to. And don't depend solely on them for preventing you from drifting off into heresy! If they happen to get off course, how will anyone know? But if all are doing their homework, a leader off-course will stick out like a sore thumb, and the whole group will remain on course by following the ultimate Leader.
Any group of believers, gathered in the name of Jesus, have access to the ultimate protection against heresy there is: the Holy Spirit. Let's not punt to human structure to create a false sense of safety and protection.
Until next time,
* The link there shows the Greek word that has been translated as "obey" in Hebrews 13:17.