The last execution of a heretic occurred in Valencia on 26 July, 1826. After a two-year trial, the Spanish Inquisition convicted the schoolmaster Cayetano Ripoll of deism and sentenced him to hang for his unorthodox beliefs.
Today, heretics are tried via blogs and executed with a tweet.
And most of the modern-day heresy hunting seems to be conducted by a network called The Gospel Coalition.
Gospel Coalition Canada investigates Bruxy Cavey
Recently, the Gospel Coalition’s Paul Carter decided to undertake an exhaustive examination of the theological views of Bruxy Cavey, the teaching pastor at The Meeting House, a megachurch just outside Toronto, Canada. Apparently, Carter had heard some bad stuff about Cavey’s teaching (maybe from this brutal assessment that he’s a “false teacher” by Jacob Reaume) and decided to interview him in order to make his own informed determination.
Fifteen-thousand words later (not counting footnotes), Carter brought down his verdict that, “Bruxy Cavey is not a heretic. He’s an Anabaptist.”
Cavey and Anabaptists everywhere must have breathed a collective sigh of relief [sarcasm alert].
Nonetheless, Carter went on to damn him with faint praise, “I have no interest in bringing the Anabaptists into my metaphorical bed, I am merely arguing for their right to exist within our ecclesiological neighborhood.”
I know, it sounds smug, patronising, and sanctimonious, but I think he intends it to be generous.
Sure, Paul Carter should be commended for not simply ingesting the anti-Cavey, anti-Anabaptist rhetoric that’s apparently regularly served up in his circles. He decided he’d find out for himself just how bad Bruxy Cavey’s theology really was. And in his series of articles he picks apart Cavey’s views on Scripture, penal substitutionary atonement, and non-violence in general, and while taking issue with various aspects of Cavey’s theology, Carter ultimately stamps the Cavey file, “Non heretic”.
Gospel Coalition Australia investigates Bill Johnson
Bill Johnson doesn’t fare quite so well at the hands of another Gospel Coalition inquisitor.
Stephen Tan from TGC-Australia has run his magnifying glass over the ministry of Johnson’s Bethel Church in Reading, California, and found him sadly wanting.
Whereas Paul Carter was moved by the emerging popularity of Bruxy Cavey in their native Canada and wanted to check what all the fuss was about, Tan is acting more like a theological gatekeeper. Bill Johnson is the main speaker at an upcoming conference, Awakening Australia, and Tan wants to warn Aussies to avoid it at all costs.
After addressing what Tan calls “a deadly elevation of experience over Scripture” in the ministry at Bethel, he concludes,
“…the upcoming Awakening Australia (which is hosting Bill Johnson, and which was itself founded by a Bethel Missionary & Former Pastor) has the potential to cause much confusion and spiritual damage to thousands of unsuspecting Australians.”
Naturally, the organizers of Awakening Australia pushed back against Tan’s assessment. Several of his assertions were shown not to be representative of Bethel, which Stephen Tan has since retracted and for which he has apologised.
But fellow TGC-Australia member, Murray Campbell says that’s no reason not to listen to Tan’s warnings. He concludes:
“Christian leaders have a responsibility to alert fellow believers to dangerous ideas and doctrines. Correcting and exposing a movement like Bethel is important because the glory of God matters, the purity of the Gospel matters, and the health and life of people matters.”
Campbell then quotes Paul’s warning to the Ephesians about watching out for “savage wolves” and those even from your own number who “will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:28-31)
Stephen Tan clearly felt that the Bethel brand of Pentecostalism will draw disciples away from the faith like the false teachers of old.
Gospel Coalition USA investigates… lots of people
American TGC board member and high profile writer and speaker, John Piper, has himself roundly condemned movements and individuals from across the church spectrum, including Pentecostal prosperity gospel preachers, female seminary professors, Greg Boyd, Brian McLaren, N.T. Wright, and most famously Rob Bell (of “Farewell Rob Bell” fame). In some cases, he has even called them heretics.
Hey, I’m all for robust exchanges. I’m not complaining about vigorous theological disagreement. But a few too many TGC writers seem to be making the assumption it’s their role to pass judgement on heresy or orthodoxy.
Who appointed them to this role?
I acknowledge I can be pretty outspoken in my opinions. I’ve been very critical of Franklin Graham and other right-leaning evangelicals in the US. As I have of Bill Hybels and his pattern of predatory behavior toward women. I’m not a fan of complementarianism. I have argued against conservative Christians who oppose gun reform. And, like John Piper, I have concerns about the so-called prosperity gospel.
But I don’t see it as my responsibility to condemn anyone as a heretic.
Not in my Metaphorical Bed
Interestingly, in response to a critical blog post I wrote recently about Franklin Graham, someone from a TGC-like tradition asked me, “So if Franklin Graham tried to attend your church would you bar him?”
It’s a telling response. It betrays the assumption that if you disagree with someone (in this case, Franklin Graham’s alignment with the Trump White House) you must be inclined to reject them utterly and completely and then disallow them to have fellowship with your congregation. I was left wondering if this is what my interlocutor does with those with whom he disagrees.
It also makes sense of what it means when you say you think someone has the “right to exist within our ecclesiological neighborhood” without wanting anything to do with them in your “metaphorical bed”.
Let them merely exist, but have nothing to do with them. Is this any way to speak of our brothers and sisters with whom we disagree?
It’s also patronizing to our churches. It implies they can’t think for themselves and assess the truth claims of teachers from other traditions. We’re not in the 11th century. Our congregations don’t comprise illiterate farmers and blacksmiths. Our church members are capable of critical thinking and basic research. And there’s this thing called the Internet.
This isn’t to say that church leaders shouldn’t have an interest in assessing the beliefs and theology of influential writers and pastors. But surely it is possible for us to say we disagree with such-and-such and outline the reasons, rather than condemning them completely as heretics?
I get it that the Gospel Coalition sits firmly in the Calvinist tradition. And I get that they have differences with Anabaptists (like Bruxy Cavey) and Pentecostals (like Bill Johnson) and female seminary professors. They have every right to express those differences. But could we lay off condemning every tradition we disagree with as heretical and refusing to have anything to do with them?!