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.
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.
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.
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.