113. We are all Heretics

Ken Yinger is a colleague with Fellowship International with many years of cross-cultural experience in Latin America and now Spain. He has agreed to be a guest author in the ongoing discussion about the legitimacy of the Disciple Making Movements (DMM). His submission addresses the challenge that an undirected exploration of God’s word through Discovery Bible Studies (DBS) could lead to heresy.

We are all heretics… to someone.

I think we need to keep this in mind as we move forward with DMMs around the world.  The DBS method of inquiry is certainly a promising method to help engage people with the scripture and to ultimately engage them in a personal walk with Jesus Christ as their Saviour and LORD.

Jesus was a heretic.

I know that we don’t like to think of him that way, but that was largely what caused him to be persecuted and unjustly killed.  I truly believe that some of those who killed him thought they were doing God a favour by getting rid of a pesky and powerful heretic.

Paul was a heretic

He thought the Christians were heretics until he became one.  He persecuted them with zeal in the belief that he was protecting the true Jewish religion.  He persisted in that belief until he had a personal and powerful encounter with Jesus.  Then he became a heretic.  He became the object of derision, persecution, unjust imprisonment, and death.

When Constantine allowed Christianity to be legal, new “rules” seemed to come into play to determine who was in and who was out of the Christian boat.  Once it became the state religion, it was even more imperative to decide if anyone was trying to subvert that religion, and by extension, the state that underpinned it.  Soon the lines were drawn ever tighter around the “truth,” and even more importantly, around those who were able to determine what that “truth” would be.  So, Nestorians were out, based on their understanding of how the divine and human natures of Christ related.  Yet, among non-Nestorians many began to exalt Mary as the Theotokos to the point that as the “Mother of God” she took on more importance than Jesus.  Now, I am trying to help people from the “orthodox” camp to become “heretics” and leave behind centuries of the established “Christian order” to become Jesus-following apostates.

Luther was a heretic

He was thrown out of the church because he dared to read and interpret the Bible for himself.  He dared to question the established norms.  Nevertheless, in a short time, Philip Melanchthon had Lutheranism well on its way to developing a standard orthodoxy of its own.  Calvin wrote his Institutes, and many people began to use it as a tool to decide who was “in” and who was “out.”  And the Anabaptists were out.  They were heretics to everyone – the Catholics, the Calvinists, the Lutherans, everybody.  They were even heretics to Zwingli who had taken the Bible even more seriously than Luther.  Zwingli had replaced the mass with expository preaching, he rid the Gross Münster of all the images, and put his focus on Christ.  I remember standing in the church in Zurich and having chills at its starkness, and even a few tears flowed as I thought of this brave “heretic.” Nevertheless, when approached by Conrad Grebel and George Blaurock about adult believer’s baptism, which they deduced from their own “Discovery Bible Studies,” they were branded heretics and drowned in the Zurich See.  I stood in that place and cried.

Thomas Helwys and Joseph Smyth were heretics.

The first Baptists that we have record of in England baptized each other, as the Anabaptists, Grebel and Blaurock did.  They had come to the same conclusion in a different part of the world and a few decades later.  They were heretics to the Church of England.  They were such heretics that Helwys even supported the freedom of conscious and religion.  Helwys wrote A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity[1], which he addressed to King James.  Yes, the same King James that some Baptists bow down to for the “Authorized Version.” His letter landed him in prison for, you guessed it, heresy and sedition.  Here are a couple of examples of the heresy that sent him to prison, where he died:

“[Is] there so unjust a thing and of so great cruel tyranny under the sun as to force men’s consciences in their religion to God, seeing that if they err, they must pay the price of their transgressions with the loss of their souls. Oh, let the king judge, is it not most equal (fair) that men should choose their religion themselves, seeing they only must stand themselves before the judgement seat of God to answer for themselves, when it shall be no excuse for them to say we were commanded or compelled to be of this religion by the king or by them that had authority from him” (page 37).

“For we do freely profess that our lord the king has no more power over their consciences than over ours, and that is none at all. For our lord the king is but an earthly king, and he has no authority as a king but in earthly causes. And if the king’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all human laws made by the king, our lord the king can require no more. For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure. This is made evident to our lord the king by the scriptures” (page 53)

This “heretic” was the first person to put forward a clear call for religious liberty.  Do we consider that heretical?  Yet, perhaps the most relevant passage relating to the value of a discovery process is found on page 43:

“And now let the king hear with an ear of compassion, and see with an eye of pity, the cruel spiritual bondage that his poor people are kept under by the second beast in these particulars.  The king’s people have the Word in their own language and may pray in their own tongue.  But they must not understand the Word but as the lord bishops will have it understood.  And they must not pray nor administer in the holy things but as they appoint.  Now let the king with a godly wise heart consider in what woeful spiritual bondage God’s people and the king’s are kept by this hierarchy.  ….And they keep the Spirit of God in bondage, and then is the Word of God of no effect, debarring the people of God thereof, tying them to their spirits in the understanding of the scriptures which none may test to see whether they be of God or not, but must believe and obey, or else go to prison, and if they will not yield, either be hanged or banished.”

This was written in 1612, and yet we are still struggling to let people read the scripture for themselves and to interpret it as the Holy Spirit leads them for fear that some might become heretics.  I suspect that if we all read and obeyed the scripture recognizing how our denominational, nationalistic, and political filters colour our understanding, we would be better “heretics” than we are now.  Maybe there is more that needs to be done to continue the Reformation.  Do more Luthers, Zwinglis, Grebels and Helwys’s need to arise and take radical obedience to the scripture more seriously than conformity to the norms of a movement or denomination?  I think the DBS model allows that to happen because it allows and encourages the individual to wrestle with the word of God, allowing God to speak rather that forcing conformity.               

[1] A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1611/1612) – Thomas Helwys – Google Books.

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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development