Friday, March 11, 2011

The Friday Rant- Heresy!

Heresy-  a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma.

The tiny little corner of the Internet reserved for Christians and people who talk about Christianity has been abuzz over the past few weeks.  This uproar is over a book written by Rob Bell, pastor of one of the largest churches in USAmerica.  The book is called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  As this firefight between differing Christian factions heated up, it is interesting to note that at least 99% of the people in the conversation (including me) have not read the book- it is not actually in stores until March 15th (Beware the Ides of March!!!).  I do not know Rob Bell; I heard him speak once and have used his video series, NOOMA, on numerous occasions.  I do know that over the past two weeks I have heard very important Christian apologists battling over Rob's theology.  Among the more serious charges against him is that of heresy.  Many times, in blogs, articles and interviews, I have seen Rob labeled a heretic, all over a book he has written that very few have read.  Such talk gave me a serious flashback...

By 1985 I had been serving as a Quaker youth pastor for a number of years.  Despite my experience among Friends, my knowledge of the wider, wilder world of  Christianity was very limited.  The Quakers I worked with at the time were not only not in the mainstream, we had no idea where the main stream was!  "Evangelical" was a word we used to describe Christians who thought everyone else was going to hell.  I did know one thing- the person I had met who seemed to have the best grasp of what Jesus was trying to teach us was Tony Campolo.  I had heard him speak and taken two of his seminars at the 1982 NYWC.  I had heard him speak at the 1984 Young Friends Yearly Meeting sessions in NC.  With every passionate word that came out of Tony's mouth, I felt like I understood something new about Jesus.  That has never changed.  The words of Tony Campolo always feel to me like they don't represent the institution of the Church, or a political party or a specific form of Christianity.  They feel like they represent Jesus.  And I love him for that.

So imagine my surprise in 1985 when I discovered that Tony had been charged with heresy.  I didn't know about any of this until months after it happened and I received my copy of The Wittenburg Door in the mail (most likely about 2 months late- that was normal for the Door!).  The cover (see picture at top) said it all.  Editor Mike Yaconelli had devoted the entire issue to supporting Tony and satirically tweaking those who were labeling him.  The deal was this:  Campolo was the subject of an informal heresy hearing in 1985 brought about by several assertions in his 1983 book A Reasonable Faith, particularly his claim that, "Jesus is actually present in each other person."  Tony based his statement on a literal interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus says, "as surely as you did it to the least of the brothers of mine, you also did it to me."   The book became a hot button issue, and the controversy caused Campus Crusade for Christ and Youth for Christ to block a planned speaking engagement by Campolo.  Rather than take the biblical approach and sit down face-to-face with Tony, his detractors began doing interviews and writing letters in which they labeled him both heretical and dangerous.  The Christian Legal Society empowered a "reconciliation panel", led by noted theologian J. I. Packer, to examine the issue and resolve the controversy. The panel examined the book and questioned Tony.  The panel later issued a statement saying that although it found Campolo's statements "methodologically naive and verbally incautious," it did not find them to be heretical. (Summary from Wikipedia and my memory).  Many prominent Christians bashed Tony; just as many came to his defense.  But the damage was done.  Christians aired their dirty laundry quite publicly, and Tony's reputation took a major hit.

Tony would recover and go one to greater controversies (like praying with Bill Clinton in the White House and saying that Jesus loves Gay people too- horrors!).  He wrote another book called Partly Right that again infuriated many prominent Christians.  There are still many who see him as a heretic.  In the years since 1985, I have learned something very important about heresy.  It can be very destructive when the "heretic" in question is seeking to tear down the faith.  But it is not always a bad thing.  The other day on Twitter my friend Terry referred to me as "the original heretic"- and he meant it as a compliment.  Sometimes our established dogma needs to be challenged.  Nearly every revival in the the history of Christianity came about because someone did something that the Church hierarchy considered heresy.  The Pharisees thought Jesus to be heretical.  Peter's suggestion that you need not first be Jewish to become Christian was heresy.  Martin Luther and John Wesley were seen by many as heretics.  Spiritual growth is quite often the result of thinking about things in fresh and new ways that seem to conflict with the "way it's always been."  I often told my students that there were only 3 things I was not willing to debate. #1-"In the beginning God..."  (We could discuss the "how" but not the "who").  #2- John 3:16#3- In the end, God wins!  Everything else could be debated. dissected and discussed, because God is so much bigger than our questions and doubts.  Again I remind us- we are not called to follow Church doctrine- we are called to follow Jesus

I don't know what will happen with this Rob Bell mess, but I do know this.  I LOVE that it has us talking about what we believe.  I plan to read Rob's book.  I plan to discuss it with friends, and I fully expect to disagree on the content and the meaning with at least half of them.  And you know what?  Those disagreements will not destroy the Church.  If you believe any book has that much power, then your God is WAY too small.   Jesus will still reign.  Because regardless of what we think of anything else, Rob's title is at least "partly right."  God is love.  And Love wins!

Because of Jesus,


  1. Anonymous3/11/2011

    Thought provoking. I do not agree with it all, but you certainly have made me reconsider a few things. Thank you.

  2. Carl, the other day when I tweeted "when did 'heresy' become a compliment?" I was asking an honest question. You just answered it in more than 140 characters. I cant think of Tony without remembering a story he told the first time I heard him speak. It was about meeting a sad prostitute in a bar and throwing her a birthday party that same day. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. This is one of my favorite posts I've ever read from you.

  3. You are more than welcome, Jason. I also heard Tony tell the "Hooker in Hawaii" story on several occasions, and I used it as a sermon illustration myself. Heresy is a tough subject. I do hope this helps.

  4. Anonymous3/12/2011

    This is the scary part my friend. I have become as liberal as you and more outspoken about what I think. And take this as a compliment you are partially to blame for it. I really miss talking with you. Hope we can catch up soon.


  5. I miss talking to you too, buddy. Looking forward to seeing you in Tampa soon. Welcome to the Dark Side... :)


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