The Greatest Heresy

The Greatest Heresy

Many pastors fear that if they were honest with their congregations about their doubts they would be fired, and the sad fact is: They probably would be. Not fired for some moral indiscretion mind you. But fired for being honest, fired for taking a stand of integrity. Those in the pews are no different. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten from people who tell me stories of how they’ve been given the clear message that their questions are not welcome, and if they keep asking these questions they wont be welcome either. The same is true of seminary professors who are often reluctant to honestly pursue their studies, knowing that if they stick their neck out too far, it might get cut off. So while they should be pursuing truth, they can’t. Otherwise they put their livelihood and the well-being of their family in jeopardy.

So we are left with an isolating silence where we think we are the only ones with these thoughts. That’s indicative of a deeply unhealthy faith. Something is very wrong here.

On the other hand are those loud and shrill voices who call out “heresy!” demanding that these above people be expelled from their church home or seminary positions. This is still quite common today, and, while this no longer involves physical violence like it used to (because secular laws have now made that illegal) it remains a case of people in positions of power knowingly harming others in order to silence dissent, and doing so believing that this is a shining example of upholding the faith.

Related: The Bible Isn’t Perfect And It Says So Itself – by Zack Hunt

Stop for a moment and consider what it is we are defending when we focus on who is “orthodox” and who is a “heretic.” Consider the legacy we are upholding here: The history of heresy is one of people being tortured and killed. Is that really something to be proud of and uphold? Ask yourself what’s the bigger crime: Not getting the formulation of the Trinity quite right, or slaughtering those people by the sword? What’s a greater sin: Questioning a fundamentalist doctrine or working to destroy someone’s career and livelihood because they questioned it? The simple fact is, all the so-called “heresies” throughout history pale in comparison to the hurtful ways that people have been ostracized, threatened, and wounded by those who act as the champions of so-called orthodoxy.

The biggest heresy, the only real heresy, is the idea that trying to silence those by force, threat, and violence who disagree with you is a good and faithful thing to do. In fact it’s a sin. It’s wrong. And the fact that so many churches, seminaries, organizations and theological societies still do this is something we should be ashamed of.

Brave New Films

Now I’m not saying we can’t take moral or theological stands on things. It’s understandable when people want to speak out against beliefs or actions that they perceive as hurtful or wrong. But what matters far more than the things we profess is how we stand up for those convictions. When we do that in a way that wounds, dehumanizes, and harms others then this undermines any good that might have been there. That stance is all too common among conservative evangelicals who want to “take a stand for traditional moral values” but do so in deeply hateful ways, apparently oblivious to the painful irony of trying to uphold morality by being a voice of hate and condemnation.

Also by Derek: Healing Toxic Faith…Did Jesus Die to Save Us From God?

Now I think most of us can all think of those pastors and theology professors who are basically bullies, but my aim here is not to focus on these bad apples, but on the much larger problem that we as the church often see these bullies and thugs as being right. We often find ourselves thinking “Maybe they were too harsh, but theologically aren’t they right?” One has to ask here what it means to be theologically “right”  however if it can result in such rotten fruit. I’d like to propose that we need to seriously reconsider what being “right” means, and propose that you cannot be both  unlovingand “right” at the same time because the very definition of being right begins and ends with how our faith is expressed in love (on that point see Gal 5:6)

We need to have the freedom to question, especially when we question things in the name of compassion. There can’t be love if we can’t be real and honest with each other. All the more so we need to engage each other with grace. If we are going to “take a stand for morality” then this needs to be characterized by compassion and grace, not by condemnation and hurt. Whenever we see hurt being championed in the name of morality, this needs to be a red flag for us that something is very wrong. That’s not Christianity, because the whole point is to love. As the Apostle Paul says, “All of the commandments are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:9-10). John makes the point even stronger: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar” (1 John 4:20). That needs to be the final standard we measure things by—because when we are not acting in love, nothing we do is right, and nothing is orthodox.

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About the Author

Derek FloodDerek Flood is the author of Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did He is a featured blogger for the Huffington Post, Sojourners, here at Red Letter Christians, as well as writing regularly at his website A longtime voice in the post-conservative evangelical movement, Derek’s focus is on wrestling with questions of faith and doubt, violence in the Bible, relational theology, and understanding the cross from the perspective of grace and restorative justice. Follow Derek on Twitter @therebelgod and Facebook.View all posts by Derek Flood →

  • Andrew

    We have a number of traveling “preachers” around and on our campus. They usually stand on a bench or slab of concrete and tell all the girls they are sluts and going to hell, and tell all the guys something vaguely accusatory about being homosexual if they play sports or shower too long. It doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but I can guarantee those “pastors” have never converted anyone to Christ. Not the real Christ, anyways.

    What’s always interesting is the crowd that gathers around them though. It usually starts as a sort of side-show attraction, but eventually some very compelling and interesting conversations begin to emerge in the peripheral of the crowds. Strange that such a misguided and hateful kind of ministry can in some cases foster legitimate faith-based conversation.

    I don’t think I actually had a point with this. I liked the article and this is what it made me think of.

  • jonathan starkey

    Christian gossip seems so spiritual.

    Things I don’t doubt: The mediatorship, advocacy and High Priesthood of Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God through which I gain access to the Father, and He is the Son of Man, the head of the Church and reconciler of all men.

    It’s all about Him. In Him through Him.

    By faith according to a promise, not by works of the law, but a free gift.

    I don’t need to be afraid, of questions, because it’s all about Him. Every question asked we should be able to point to Jesus.

    • jonathan starkey

      Violence, anger, malice, slander of anyone is a work of the flesh.

      That’s how I know, I haven’t attained it yet.

      I am the greatest sinner.

      Everyday I murder someone in my heart or with my tongue.

      Lord I really need you.

  • mike

    My pastor delivered a sermon on this topic last Sunday, his point was that doubts themselves are not bad, in fact they can lead to stronger faith. He admitted having doubts in front of us all. It was humbling, encouraging and inspiring!

    • Jonathan Starkey

      My faith is weak, that is why I have one whose faith was not weak. I don’t trust in my own faith, but have faith the Christ was faithful. The faithful servant. My faith is weak, but he takes what is feeble and adds His faith to it and offers it to the Father.

      So my faith is trusting in His faithfulness.

      And that is the belief that will be credited as righteousness.

      • Jonathan Starkey

        I believe in the faith of the One whom He sent.

        Not my own, but His.

        I do doubt. I doubt in my abilities to have faith, but I don’y doubt His.

        If I have doubt in myself that is a good thing. It means I can put all on Him.

        • jonathan starkey

          One Faith, Jesus’ Faith.
          One Baptism, Jesus’ Baptism.
          One Resurrection, Jesus’ Resurrection.

    • Hi Mike –
      I like this comment a lot.

      The church sometimes views doubt as the opposite of faith (and therefore bad). But I agree with your pastor. Faith is not the absence of doubt just like courage is not the absence of fear. Being courageous means acting nobly despite our fear; and the more we grapple with our fear, the more courageous we become. Being faithful means trusting God despite our doubts; and grappling with our doubts can make us more faithful.

      Best –

  • Frank

    There is no love is supporting, condoning, celebrating, affirming or remaining silent over sinful behavior. That is hating your neighbor.

    • Andrew

      Frank, you’re my Rorschach

      • Frank

        Not sure what you mean by that.

        • Digger

          What Andew means is that, if you cross your eyes just a little bit and look THROUGH your post, it looks like a naked rabbit trying to stab my mother to death. Does that make me crazy?
          (Andrew–NAILED IT, didn’t I?)

          • John

            Freud would have a field day with you, my friend. 😉

  • Patrick Holt

    It is a historical fact that tendencies to be doctrinaire and dogmatic to a sectarian and intolerant degree are part of all three main traditions; Roman Catholicism, Evangelicalism and Eastern or Greek Orthodox. I used to associate the problem of putting too high a premium on being ‘in the right’ and too low a premium on being good with Protestantism. It seemed to me it had to do with the veneration of founders like Luther and Jean Calvin who were prepared to pioneer schism of the Church for the sake of getting the doctrine of grace ‘right’ (and to a lesser extent, getting the interpretation of scripture in general ‘right’). If we are loyal to their memory, then by implication we have to believe that getting theology ‘right’ is almost all important. We are loyal to that schism, and so to its reason. But, the tendency to authoritarianism about doctrinal ‘purity’ is also a feature of the history of other Churches as well. There is a real problem there, it seems to me, with the doctrine of salvation by faith, in that it seems to create the rationale for placing ‘correct’ belief on a higher pedestal than obedience to Christ’s commandments about behaviour, lifestyle, and character, both for individual believers, and as the basis of Church activity and teaching. Then there is the fundamental epistemological problem, which is that God is, in an absolute sense, unknowable, beyond human comprehension, and that there are absolute limits to human comprehension in general. In all humility, we have to recognise as a basic truth that there is no such thing as perfect doctrine, or theology, or ecclesiology, or Christology, or soteriology or cosmology, because we humans were not created with the ability to know perfectly, understand perfectly or communicate perfectly. All we have is best guess, and most reasonable argument, including about doctrine. And that’s ok, because God made us this way. That’s why the Word of God is not a book, but a person, Jesus. That’s why God’s project for human beings is not a religious organization for the spreading a certain theological ideas, but the kingdom of God on earth, which is a society and a way of living. Very much focus on what to believe drives out the more important matter of how to live, and leads to the wholesale ignoring of scripture, and lively and popular churches which turn out people who live no differently from the unbelievers around them, and who, unlike scripture, have nothing to say about a world full of injustice, warfare, corruption, poverty and oppression except “what a pity”.

  • John

    Love this. We need to be able to talk. We need to be invitational. We need to be able to listen to everyone. We need to be able to talk to everyone. We need to not claim our injustices, however great or small, in Jesus’ name.

    Really love this. Thanks, Derek.

  • SamHamilton

    The” only real heresy” is trying to stifle other people by force or threat? Hmmm…not sure I agree with that. There are no other heresies?

    But otherwise, yes, I don’t think it’s a good and faithful thing to try and “silence those by force, threat, and violence” who disagree with me.

  • Steve Russell

    I was the assistant pastor at my last church and I encouraged people to ask the difficult questions. For me, if I didn’t have an answer I would study and search and do whatever it takes to find the best possible answer for it. Doubts simply pushes me to the next level. However, my senior pastor would roll his eyes anytime someone brought up something contrary to the denominations beliefs, shrug his shoulders and move on. (sigh) That is one of many reasons we moved on.

  • Drew

    From a personal standpoint, yes, we should all have questions; not having questions is a sign of either ambivalence or lack of intellectual curiosity.

    From a corporate standpoint, no, not all questions should be welcome for the sake of being a question; that is absurd. If a pastor has major doubts on core beliefs of Christianity, that man should not be a pastor, and is not fit to lead other men. If a pastor has doubts on secondary issues, that is another issue. Look at the damage Rob Bell has caused.

    • John

      A friend told me a story about a vicar in Somerset, in western England. It’s a story from decades ago, and I wonder if it’s at all typical of the time. Or at least maybe not unusual, given the very different nature of pastoral employment in those days. The local church had a vicar who wasn’t a believer. The congregation knew he wasn’t a believer. The vicar did all the things he was supposed to do. He ticked all the boxes. He did his job. He just wasn’t a believer. Somehow, somewhere, there was a conversation, and it was decided amongst the congregation that God had given them this man, and they should be loyal. And wait.

      One day, the vicar was doing his bit at the front. He was in the middle of a sermon, and suddenly stopped, as if he was hearing these words for the first time. In total silence, tears started flowing down his cheeks.

      A man at the back nudged his friend, and said, “Look. Vicar’s been saved.”

      I think we can too often forget about the grace of following from a position of strength, and we can too easily forget our necessary trust in the Holy Spirit.

      • Drew

        It’s a nice story, John, but the Bible is clear about the qualities that pastors and elders should have.

        My pastor is pretty open about having questions or struggles or doubts on some issues, but they are all secondary issues that are outside of the core beliefs of our Church.

        I think the real life story I demonstrated had far more impact than the anecdote you shared, about over 3000 members of Rob Bell’s church leaving and Rob Bell ultimately resigning to California.

        • John

          Drew I think you’re being dismissive on two counts:

          1. Yes, the Bible says what qualities elders should have, but it is also clear about what our attitude should be toward people and authorities God anoints to lead. I think my “anecdote” is a powerful testimony of a group’s trust in God’s will. And incidentally, why is your story “real life” when my story also actually happened?

          2. The Rob Bell story seems more typical of modern, consumer culture. Did individuals confront Rob Bell about their problems with his theology? Did they then get witnesses to back their claims? Did they then bring Rob Bell before the church to rebuke him? I honestly don’t know the facts, and if they did that, then they’ve followed scripture. But I imagine some, if not many, thought, “Nope, this isn’t for me,” and left. And that is not scriptural.

          Now, Drew, I’m hoping you can help me. Because while I’ve heard of Rob Bell, I’ve never read any of his books, and I’ve never seen him speak. What made them leave? I know that he holds out the possibility for universal reconciliation, though he has not said he’s a universalist. I know he has criticised some for being more concerned with eschatology than with bringing the Kingdom here and now. And I’m not sure, but I believe he has supported same-sex marriage. I would imagine the third would have caused quite a stir, given the politico-theological climate. I’m not saying that any of these are or aren’t reasons for leaving a church. I’m just asking to be educated.

          Your forthcoming wisdom is greatly appreciated.

          • Drew

            Hi John,

            The Bible never says to follow false teachers and false doctrines. This is an obtuse argument, and I know you are intellectually capable of better. Titus 1:9 is clear that one should be faithful to sound doctrine in other to teach others and refute false doctrines. If the individual no longer knows what they believe or no longer has sound doctrine, they most likely should not be a leader.

            Rob Bell’s Church decreased by over 3000 members after he decided to introduce the false doctrine of universalism to his Church via a book that sold very well and catapulted him to liberal hero status. He has since gone on to accept gay marriage, leave the Church, and make television shows and write books in California. Not a bad gig. I don’t how you defend a false teacher teaching false doctrine; the Bible does not say to continue to follow that teacher or that false doctrine. However, to answer your question, the original issues was his introduction of universalism, which is contrary to the words of Christ.

            Saying that there are many ways to Christ, and you can gain salvation outside of placing your faith in Christ (or, in the case of Bell, introducing the idea, and while endorsing it, not refuting it either), is certainly a reason why I would leave a pastor or Church.

          • John

            Thanks, Drew, though I disagree I’m being obtuse. On the contrary, there is an interesting question. Which is the lesser of evils:

            The vicar who preaches what he doesn’t believe, but what you feel to be scriptural


            The pastor who preaches what he believes, but what you feel to be contrary to scripture?

            Obviously, neither is what you would wish, but I suspect different people, forced to choose, would come down on different sides.

            I’m a bit surprised that the universalist argument was the great deal breaker for so many. It’s hardly a new idea, and the arguments and proof texts on either side are pretty well known. And a lot of prominent people espouse a hopeful, thought not faithful, version of it, even within the Catholic church, which of course tends to be more uniform in its theology.


            Thanks for your time and instruction. :)

          • Drew

            Pastors have the duty to preach what they believe, but Christians have the duty to discern what is being preached. We are not to separate over secondary issues, but when the issues are of importance, then we are commanded to separate.

            Personally, I’d rather have a pastor that preaches what he believes, so that I can leave if it contradicts Scripture. In that sense, I suppose I am glad that Rob Bell exposed his heresy. However, I feel that perhaps he should not have taken a leadership role in the first place of he had doubts on core issues, and I also feel that it was the right of members of his Church to leave over the issue, and don’t feel bad for Rob Bell.

          • John

            I certainly don’t feel bad for Rob Bell. In my brief reading about him, he’s turned into a major celebrity over this.

            Is saying that you hope for universal reconciliation heresy?

          • Drew

            Hoping there is universal reconciliation, in my opinion, is different than giving it credibility as a theological point. The Trinity clearly has that desire in the sense of wanting all to be saved. However, not all are going to be saved, and that is also in the Bible, and to negate that, is heresy, and dangerous.

          • Steve

            You ironically have made the author’s entire point with these comments. Well done!

        • Nathan

          I know this post was made 4 months ago, but please stop lying to make a point. I attend Mars. 3,000 people didn’t depart the church. It seats 3,500 total, and is steadily at about 80-90% capacity. And Rob’s departure was actually planned well in advance of Love Wins. Again, you’re welcome to your opinion, but not your facts.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Love does no harm to a neighbor, indeed. But Orthodoxy can indeed be love- because being right with God is more important than being right with your neighbor. One does not chastise sin out of hate- one chastises sin because he wants to see the sinner repent, and that’s doing GOOD to one’s neighbor, not harm.

    • being right ‘with’ God is not the same as being right ‘about’ God in every detail.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        If one isn’t right about God, how can one be right with God? Orthodoxy is still important, regardless of what the moral relativists who claim there is no more right and wrong say.

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