I call them God’s theological sheriffs—believers who are alert to any hint of heresy in others. They seem to be self-appointed, but maybe it’s their special gifting. What I’m not sure about is where their gift comes from—whether it’s from God or elsewhere.
I ask that honestly because even when they’re prosecuting others on the basis of views I would affirm as biblical they most often fail to build up others in the process; rather they seem to intimidate, divide, and discourage. Mostly they like to be viewed as “right”—as the power brokers of truth. One meets them at major theological conferences. Some can be found in churches. Some write books and some have pithy blogs.
I’m also aware that anyone with an eye for missteps in dogmatic theology can prosper wherever they travel. Sloppy thinking and dubious ideas abound. I even have my own collection of arcane notions and careless expressions, I’m sure. But, as much as I want to get things right, I can assure you that it’s not the theological sheriffs I’m looking to for help! I really prefer those among us who consistently speak truth in love. If I can find a few astute friends who are willing to say “I’d love to have a coffee with you” when some of my words “drop to the ground” as careless errors, I count them as special treasures. None of us, after all—short of Christ—is inerrant!
But let me shift away from what sounds even to my own ears like a harangue and instead ask a question about the nature of godly confrontations, a question that invites some reflection and conversation. There are at least two major concerns involved.
One is Christ’s call to community: for us all to be a people known by our mutual love and for our love even of the unlovely. I think of John 13:35, especially, on this. Love is what identifies us as truly Christian. Paul was certainly aware of this affective bond among believers when he instructed others in how to discipline members of the church who were, indeed, errant in their beliefs and/or conduct: “Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:15). Paul would have known and followed what Jesus set out as proper procedures for his disciples as reported in Matthew 18.
Another point—and a contrast—is Christ’s warning against the theological sheriffs of his own day who were hounding him over issues of healing on the Sabbath; and about the spiritual etiquette of kosher cleansings; and about the need to avoid immoral people. Jesus, of course, was scathing towards them as his list of “woes” in Matthew 23 illustrates so well. And Paul was similarly tough towards some teachers as in the case of the Judaizers in Galatia whom he threatened with the label of “accursed”. Similarly he spoke of some of his opponents in Corinth—who were in the church—as “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:13).
So the challenge is before us: how do we confront error without slipping into another error of heart? What, for instance, constitutes an error so great as to call for church discipline? And, on the other hand, what should we do with self-appointed sheriffs who are ready to take up God’s authority as their own by challenging others who believe differently but who may or may not be so wrong?
Is there an irenic and civil, yet wholly Godly and true, path to follow? I believe there is, but let me just ask the question for now and invite others to answer: if there is, what should it look like?