Listening to the Gaps
May 21, 2011
I am sure it has been noticed a thousand times before, but I have noticed it again. We need to listen to the gaps. Let me explain.
Error and heresy are not always immediately obvious. To be sure, they can be. Some problems are glaring, and ought to require only that you have a functioning pair of eyes and ears in order to determine the problem (though we know that those things spiritually discerned need more than mere physical perception). God says that something is white; a man says it is black. QED.
But very often error and heresy masquerade under the appearance of, or - perhaps more insidiously - alongside a seeming orthodoxy. A man seems so reliable and gifted. Perhaps he has a genuine gift of oratory - he speaks and writes and preaches with acknowledged clarity and potency in so many ways. He develops a reputation. People want to know what he says. In so many respects he seems spot on. He seems so effective, perhaps even fruitful. And then you begin to listen to the gaps.
And as you open your ears to the silences, something disconcerting becomes apparent. When he is asked that question, he fudges the answer. When he preaches on that text, you are waiting for the insight or application that seems obvious, even necessary, not least in the context of the day, and he skates past it. An opportunity is given in which you think the moment has arrived for a clear declaration, and the man flits over the surface. He mumbles and stutters when the moment calls for clarity and force; he evades and declines when the time is right for courage and forthrightness. Then you add up the gaps, and begin to realise that there is a truth or truths that the man will neither commend nor defend.
He may never have said that what God says is white is, in fact, black. And yet he has consistently and repeatedly failed to acknowledge or has avoided acknowledging that God declares something is white, or he fails to deny or he avoids denying that it is, by way of contrast, black.
The problem lies not in what he says, but in what he fails to say. And in failing to say it when it could and should be said, he establishes a space, an error- or heresy-shaped space. It takes form over time, gradually delineated by what he actually does say, leaving the hole where what he could and should say might exist. The trumpet makes an uncertain sound when it hits certain notes. It warbles and wobbles where it might ring clear. The symphony of truth develops small but jarring emptinesses.
Perhaps it is carefully veiled. There are certain truths that are more important than others, he says. Certain things need to take priority - can't we all see that? He refuses to major on the minors. Some things are not the crying need of the hour, and he does not need to deal with them. He has no interest in disputes - he is, rather, a peacemaker. He would like to reformulate something, not to change it. He would rather say this than that. We need to be sensitive to the culture in which we find ourselves. We must speak in love. Others are painted (perhaps, again, in the gaps between such statements) as narrow, bigoted, obsessive, heresy hunters, out of tune, outmoded, and - worst of all - unloving and divisive.
Such a man may, before the end, break cover. Error and heresy have a way of hardening into shape, sometimes even of demanding a hearing. The gap becomes compelling, and something must fill the vacuum. Or, it may be that he himself will live and die without being pinned down. He grows old and gray leaving that silence, employing his gifts of insight and oratory, refusing or refuting all attempts to obtain clarity. But then you listen to the disciples. What once was a silence has become a whisper, and the hole is being slowly filled in. Something unpleasant and ugly begins to coalesce in the space left in the first man's teaching. Over time its features become increasingly plain, and error and heresy take form. And as months and years roll on, in perhaps two or three generations, there is a scream where once was a silence, and error and heresy are rampant. The church may sit in stunned sterility as God and his gospel, entangled in the filth of error and crippled by the impotence of untruth, are derided and denied until God is pleased to raise up men to declare the truth again in all its splendour, in all its scriptural substance and biblical balance.
And that is why we must listen for the gaps, and why it is incumbent upon us to declare all the truth we know. We may accept that some truths are more central than others, some more critical, some more applicable and necessary in our age, but let us never imagine that there is some truth which God has been pleased to reveal which we can then dismiss as unimportant or avoidable. Such sentiments too easily provide the holes where error and heresy can take shape. Often Christians who hold to an orthodox confession of some sort are dismissed as de facto schismatics, men who make too much of lesser things, who draw lines where others eradicate boundaries, who foster division where others promote peace. But these solid, time-proved confessions, expressing "the things most surely believed among us," as the 17th century Baptists had it, paint a fuller picture of the main things (they never pretended that it was all things), and leave less space for these crucial gaps. But still we must watch. Confessions do lay a foundation for a full-orbed unity, in which there can be intelligent and rich agreement between brothers who can see all that there is in common, even where they recognise that there is sincere disagreement at points. However, a confession of faith is not a panacea; there are matters that our confessions do not explicitly address, issues in the application of their principles that their signatories did not face in their day. There are matters, for example, to do with our essential humanity - with gender identity and relationships between men and women - that lie subsumed within the general declarations of the confession but need to be made explicit in the present hour.
And so we continue to listen, we continue to watch, we continue to speak. We should tremble to add to what God speaks, to trample upon true Christian liberty or to add the commandments of men to the Word of God. That is not our place. But we tremble, too, to be silent where God speaks, to be less precise and less careful, less full and less clear, when God - for the glory of his name and the good of men's souls - has seen fit, in his infinite wisdom, to make known the truth as it is in Jesus. We cannot be ashamed to say all that God says, in its proper place and proportion. That is our calling. We cannot fail to commend and defend the truth, nor to expose and identify the error. And so we must watch the holes. And so we must listen to the gaps.
Jeremy Walker is co-pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church. He blogs at The Wanderer and is co-author of A Portrait of Paul: Identifying A True Minister of Christ (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).