Monday, January 30, 2012

The Danger of Friendship with Heretics – Thoughts Following T.D. Jakes’ Trinitarian Confession at the Elephant Room 2

Over the course of my relatively short life, I’ve had the opportunity and privilege of being friends or having some level of positive relationship with both men and women who don’t always agree with me (shocking, I know). Almost all of my Christian friends and I would likely disagree on some aspect of doctrine or application. This sort of tolerable and brotherly disagreement is to be expected inside of close friendships and your own local church body, I suppose.

There are other Christian friends of mine whose doctrinal differences are so important, so far reaching to all areas of faith and life that church fellowship is all but impossible. In fact, my oldest and best friend and I likely could not handle going to one another’s home church for too long. He’s a dear brother in Christ, a trustworthy proponent of the gospel message, and a very good friend, but for better or worse, as men of conviction we could not be members of the same local church fellowship.

The above two scenarios are examples of Christian brethren disagreeing on things while still being Christian brothers and sisters. However, there is another scenario where this is not the case, and I have (or have had) several relationships where I would categorically describe my friend as a heretic, apostate, false teacher, or a combination of some or all of those labels. These same friends may make the same categorical characterizations of me too (that’s only fitting, and I’m not offended by that) if they have any room in their theological framework for someone to disagree to the point of being a heretic.

Usually when I have a close friend, or when I am otherwise closely connected to someone who falls into this final category, it has been my desire and obligation to seek to confront the other person with the hope of winning a brother/sister by “snatching them out of the fire” (Jude 23). Direct confrontation with the desire and goal of correction and restoration is the only truly loving action that one can take. As one who has actually confronted friends (who, like me, confesses faith in and salvation from Christ) on issues of such a foundational nature as those doctrines that literally define the Christian faith, I have a little experience and knowledge of what I am writing.

I can think of a few instances where I desired – almost to the point of feeling compelled – to confront someone regarding the core doctrines of the Christian faith. This was, again, not a Christian confronting a professing pagan, Hindu, Muslim or follower of some other world religion. I was confronting a professing Christian. But this same person’s confession of faith was, in my estimation, so sub-bibilcal that it was not actually a Christian faith. Denying doctrines on the same level as the exclusivity of Jesus Christ was what was to be the focus of our discussion. And therefore, I was genuinely concerned for the salvation of these individuals.

Working up to my meeting (usually I was able to have more than one face to face interaction), I attempted to prepare for all of the relevant issues that I wanted to address as well as any issues or rabbit trails that I thought would be brought up by my friend. In every instance, there were the pre-meeting jitters of nervousness – concerning both a desire to not go through with this confrontation as well as a desire to not make a complete fool of myself and so badly represent the faith that I was trying to defend. There were real stakes to these discussions. No quick quips or vacuous slogans would suffice. The friend I was going to meet was, in every instance, intelligent, thoughtful, deliberate, and well read enough to make me feel rather inadequate. Plus, regardless of where or how our relationship began (co-worker, family member, church member, or whatever), I genuinely liked or loved these people.

Shortly after the initial discussion with my friend (and this is the case for almost every time that I’m recalling), I can remember thinking to myself, “is the difference that we have really that significant?” Or I would think, “maybe I was wrong in my estimation of the severity of his/her error.” Or, more to the point, “maybe this isn’t enough to get bent out of shape over.” I believe that in every one of these initial meetings where both myself and my friend had remained convinced of our separate and mutually exclusive conclusions, I left the meeting with some doubt or downplaying of my own concerns.

Upon reflection and further counsel with other believers following these interchanges, the concerns that had initially brought me to the point of confrontation were re-validated and the answers or defenses given by my friend were still seen to be as hollow now as they had been during our meeting. I had not wavered on my concerns because of the argument given by my friend for his side of the argument, but I had still hesitated...for hours or days even…at least on the severity of the situation at hand.

This hesitation didn’t come because there was substantive clarity given to the issue at hand where we both were shown to be on the same page. Even if a cursory statement of belief was made that we both could agree to, that didn’t (or wouldn’t) help. With the larger issue at hand, that cursory statement of faith didn’t help at all to deal with the issue at hand. For instance, if the issue were one of the exclusivity of Jesus Christ for salvation, a simple affirmation by both parties that “Jesus saves” or “Jesus saves the repentant sinner who comes to Him in faith” does not put the issue to rest because it doesn’t address the other issues. For instance, one issue would need to be specifically addressed would be the validity of other methods or means of salvation in other religions (or whatever).

So what was the reason that I hesitated or wavered on my conviction of the eternal importance of our differences? Well, the major one (at least) is that I really, really liked this person. In every instance, I really liked the individual that I talked to. And the confrontation only did more to make me really like this person. He was very nice and friendly and not at all a fire-breathing anti-Christian raving lunatic. He was polite. He and I had a pleasant exchange. We laughed at different times in our conversation when one of us would say something funny. And we found that we agreed on various other important issues – philosophical, social, and theological.

This was dangerous. The danger was in liking my friend and theological combatant too much…or at least more than I valued the truth and integrity of the gospel of Jesus Christ and His revealed Word enough to press forward with a difficult, and often uncomfortable line of questions and discussion. Had I been around a dozen or more men who, like myself, liked my friend and could agree with him on so many other issues, laugh together at funny things, and express simple skin-deep affirmations about the issues at hand, then perhaps even today I would not count that conversation as one that falls into this extreme category where division is heresy.

And here is where maybe, just maybe, I can have an insight into why Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald (and others) gave T.D. Jakes the right hand of fellowship at the Elephant Room Conference and essentially said that the doctrine of the Trinity – while confession is required to have full access to our gathering – is really not definitional of the Christian faith so much so that a denial of it is to deny Christian faith and posses something that is entirely non-Christian. The conversation this surrounded the interchange between Driscoll, MacDonald, and Jakes left me with the distinct impression that oneness theology may be wrong, but it’s no more wrong and no more of a problem than disagreements about whether women can be elders or the method of baptism.

Furthermore, in many of the comments about the Elephant Room 2 written/spoken by the participants or panel members, there was a general attitude of “Man, Bishop Jakes is a really great guy.” He was nice, friendly, personable, and otherwise a person that you can get along with. And I wonder if that level of friendship skewed the opinion of Driscoll, MacDonald, and the rest of the men in the same way that I experienced during my interaction with my heretic friends.

Whether or not T.D. Jakes is a Trinitarian or not – I honestly don’t know. He said “yes” to Mark Driscoll’s line of questions, but even his clarifying comments left me wanting further clarification. I can tell you this, that if a former member (much less a leader, and much much less a Bishop) of an anti-Trinitarian church wanted to speak at or become a member at my local church, there would have been more pointed questions about affirmations of the Trinity and denials of the oneness understanding. Lovingly and firmly asked, to be sure. But they would have been asked.

Throw my 2 cents into the whole discussion…but that’s what it is.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A sneaky suspicion (and I hope this doesn't come across as self-congratulatory or an admission of heresy, since I intend neither): You had me in mind when you wrote this.

I appreciate a great deal of what you said, and I think you're quite right about a number of things. Despite our disagreements, I appreciate your thoughtfulness, diligence, and love of moral excellence that drive you to discuss and respect the value of others.

Blake H.

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