Mind the Gap(s)
Note: This article was originally published on reformation21 in May 2011.
Error and heresy are not always immediately obvious. Some problems are indeed glaring, and ought to require only a functioning pair of eyes and ears in order to determine the problem. God says that something is black; a man says it is white. QED.
At other times, however, error and heresy masquerade under the appearance of—or perhaps more insidiously alongside of—an apparent 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.
An Uncomfortable Emptiness
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 given the context of the day—but 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 are truths that the man will neither commend nor defend.
Such a man may never have openly contradicted what God has plainly said. And yet he has consistently and repeatedly failed to affirm when God declares something to be black—or he has consistently and repeatedly failed to deny that such a thing is, by way of contrast, white.
The problem lies not in what he says, but in what he does not 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 dissonance—more precisely, an uncomfortable emptiness.
Excusing the Gaps
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.
Alternatively, 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 raises up men to declare the truth again in all its splendour, in all its scriptural substance and biblical balance.
Listening for the Gaps
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, while never pretending to cover everything. And this leave less space for these crucial gaps.
Still, we must watch. Confessions do lay a foundation for a full-orbed unity. There can be intelligent and rich agreement between brothers even when they recognise 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 listen to the gaps.
Jeremy Walker is a pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church in Crawley, England. He is the author of several books, including The Brokenhearted Evangelist and The New Calvinism, A Personal and Pastoral Assessment.
"Seven Characteristics of False Teachers" by Danny Hyde
"Refuting Theological Error" by Nick Batzig
"Truth According to Scripture" by Whitney Gamble
Only One Way: Christian Witness in an Age of Inclusion, edited by Richard D. Phillips
God's Truth, Man's Lies: Pursuing Integrity in a Dishonest World, with D.A. Carson and Al Mohler