Ethics of Heresy (Part Two)
Drawing the Line
Determining “Heresy” is all about where to draw the line. It is both a doctrinal and an ethical question. Ultimately it is something we aim at much like a bulls eye. It is equally misguided to draw the boundaries too narrowly and allow almost anything to pass as doctrine, too broadly and limit all disagreement and dialogue around topics worthy of honest debate. From the ethical arena, the same metaphor moves in the opposite direction. If you can draw the boundary, too wide in ethical areas, the church will promote moral laity and hypocrisy as an unspoken marks of the church. If you can draw the boundary, to narrow moralism takes hold, making every errant motive and/or sinful struggle a reason for exclusion from the community. A conscious awareness of the grace of God is squeezed out replaced by a willful conformity to a particular group’s moral preferences and expectation.
The ESV study bible has a helpful section on this issue (below are my notes from it).
Understanding Essential vs. Peripheral Doctrine The ability to discern the relative importance of theological beliefs is vital for effective Christian life and ministry. Learning to draw the line rightly allows a church to follow Jesus, in being a people full fo grace and truth. The importance of drawing such lines can’t be overstated for the purity and unity of the church are at stake in this matter.
The relative importance of theological issues can fall within four categories: (1) absolutes define the core beliefs of the Christian faith; (2) convictions, while not core beliefs, may have significant impact on the health and effectiveness of the church (3) opinions are less-clear issues that generally are not worth dividing over; (4) questions are currently unsettled issues.
These categories can be best visualized as concentric circles, similar to those on a dart board, with the absolutes as the “bull’s-eye” (illistrationed in ESV Study Bible.).
The four areas can be labeled as Absolutes convictions opinions or questions
Central area: Absolutes are Necessary to the faith. They deal with what it means to be a Christian (often called point of fellowship)
Here is the line of heresy above heresy —— below difference of opinion and conviction
Second Area: convictions for the most part the classic distinction between Protestant denominations (Issue that necessary demands a measure of unity in keeping with the fulfillment of a given group’s mission as the people of God.) Convictions held in common by a good conscience over which honest debate can be had but not wanting a denouement of ‘heresy’. Some beliefs in this category are not heretical but may be unhealthy in various ways.
Third Area: Arena of individual conscience – dealing more with debatable moral issues like the issue of meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Cor.
Fourth area: questions we all have but may never know the answer to. Did Adam have a belly button?
Method of evolution
Legally speaking this is a burden of proof analysis. In which case, the preponderance of evidence is the criteria of assessment.
“These criteria for determining the importance of particular beliefs must be considered in light of their cumulative weight regarding the doctrine being considered. For instance, just the fact that a doctrine may go against the general consensus among believers (see point 6) does not necessarily mean it is wrong, although that might add some weight to the argument against it. All the categories should be considered collectively in determining how important an issue is to the Christian faith. The ability to rightly discern the difference between core doctrines and legitimately disputable matters will keep the church from either compromising important truth or needlessly dividing over peripheral issues.” (ESV Study Bible)
Given are often only as valid as the biases and core values of a given group. Thus, such psychological dynamics should be assessed, both on an individuals and group level.
Where an issue falls within the above categories should be determined by the weighing the cumulative force of at least eight considerations: (ESV gives 7 added 1 additional step)
(1) biblical clarity;
(2) relevance to the character of God;
(3) relevance to the essence of the gospel;
(4) biblical frequency and significance (how often in Scripture it is taught, and what weight Scripture places upon it);
(5) effect on other doctrines;
(6) consensus among Christians (past and present);
(7) effect on personal and church life.
(8) after above assessment consider in community, your own cultural and personal bias, agendas and perspectives about the issue.
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