Cults, Heresies, and Heterodoxies
- The Challenge
- Orthodox Christianity, Essential Beliefs
- "Christian" Cults
- Biblical Interpretation
- What Next
Top of page The Challenge
An unexamined belief is not worth holding. But religion and spirituality can be a touchy subject even so. There is often a great deal of emotion wrapped up in religion. Your reaction to this article may be favorable, or it may not be, based on an emotional reaction. Whatever your initial reaction, our challenge to you is for you to set aside the emotional aspect of your perspective for the moment, and examine whatever you believe about God in light of the actual available evidence.
There is an old saying that we should not discuss religion or politics in polite company. We disagree with that idea! Americans, especially, have a tradition of open dialogue and debate. It is through legitimate civil discussion that we can grow intellectually and spiritually.
Sometimes we shy away from discussions of serious issues with friends for fear of offending them or embarrassing ourselves. We believe, however, that it is important and meaningful to discuss tough issues with friends. Our experience has been, that when we discuss significant issues with people we care about, in a manner that respects the other's views, those friendships are deepened. Issues of theology are very interesting and can lead to great discoveries and friendships. The very process of truth-seeking is a marvelous experience in itself.
We hope this article will encourage dialogue among friends. Of course, it is important to approach such discussions with an attitude of sincerity and vulnerability. The most productive plane for these discussions is to base them on reason and evidence rather than dogma.
No religion is held on the basis of pure blind faith—otherwise it would be superstition rather than faith. Certainly most folks have what they think are valid reasons for their beliefs about God. So there really should be no logical reason why someone would be reluctant to discuss his or her religious views!
The only potential problem is the way that such discussions take place. There is a wrong way to go about it. An attitude such as the following is as unproductive as it is unreasonable:
"Well, that's the way it is. I believe what I believe just because I want to believe it. And furthermore, don't confuse me with the facts!"
A more rational and productive attitude is:
"You know, I have always been under the impression that such and such is true. But, I know that there are a lot of views out there. What do you believe about God? In fact, I would be happy for you to try to convince me that what you believe is true! If you'd like to chat about it, we may decide to agree to disagree. But that's OK. We'll both learn something in the process."
Spiritual truth is too important not to discuss. It is more important than "your pride or my pride." It is in that spirit of love and truth-seeking that we offer the thoughts in this article. So, you might want to email this article to a friend or relative to strike up a conversation about matters of faith.
Top of page Introduction
The Bible is a document that is really not that hard to understand. And yet many groups twist it this way and that, giving it different interpretations. God must look down on us humans and "shake his head." How could we so badly mess up what He has clearly given us?
One of the objections to Christianity is that there are many different groups all claiming to be Christians. And yet we all give different messages. How could there be so much disagreement if Christianity is reliable?
Well, the simple answer is sin. It is man's sin that spoils it. We are all subject to it (Romans 3:23). The real problem with doctrinal divides is not what the Bible says or does not say. It is our proclivity to read into it what we think it ought to say based on pre-conceived notions or tradition.
The purpose of this article is to give a defense for the historic orthodox Christian faith. This has been an important part of the church from its very beginning. The writers of the New Testament over and over warn about false teaching and aberrations from the true Christian faith. The circle of those to be considered Christians is pretty large. But there are groups that simply cannot be considered within the circle. These are the cultic or clearly heretical groups.
In addition, there are groups or individuals that have moved far enough away from the center that we believe need to re-examine their views. These include the liberals on one extreme, and the legalists on the other. We are not saying that that these folks are not Christians. But a term that might be used is heterodox, that is, unorthodox or out of the mainstream.
But we must be careful in all of this. This history of Christianity is such that some have drawn the circle too small. All sorts of charges have gone back and forth in the name of Christ. And this is not good. Charges of heresy have been unfounded. Indeed, the definition of heresy has even changed over time. While we have moved beyond burning people at the stake, Christians still often harbor harsh feelings toward the views of other good Christians. We have personally felt the weight of people that hold to views like a trapped elephant. We have seen how people can consider themselves a member of their denomination first, and Christians second.
This is not healthy for those involved or for the church. The Bible calls us to unity John 17:20-23; Romans 15:5-7; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Ephesians 4:1-16; Philippians 1:27; Colossians 3:12-16. Sectarianism is a sin. There is, in fact, a great deal of lattitude for differing views on many subjects within Christianity. But there is a line that must be drawn in the sand, and we will try to draw it.
Top of page Orthodox Christianity, Essential Beliefs
Over the centuries, Christian leaders have agreed on certain elements that are key to the faith. While this is not necessarily all-inclusive, below is a list of the essential beliefs that are consistent with "being a Christian."
- There is one God. While there is only one God, he exists in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus, these three manifestations of God exist in one divine being or essence.
- God, the Father, made everything that exists—visible and invisible—and continues to sustain it.
- Jesus Christ, is true man, and at the same time is of the same nature and essence as God the Father. As the Son of God he is truly divine. That Jesus was born of a virgin is supporting evidence of his dual nature of both man and God. He lived a perfect life while on earth, having come to suffer and die for mankind as a ransom for our sins. After he died on the cross and was buried, he came back to life on the third day after his death (was bodily resurrected), an event which had been predicted in the Bible.
- God, the Holy Spirit, is also true God and is to be worshipped and glorified as such. The Holy Spirit invites each person to partake of Christ’s blessings which are offered to us, and to experience a personal relationship with Christ. The Holy Spirit gives us the saving knowledge of Jesus, our Savior, so that we can trust and believe and rejoice in Him. The Holy Spirit also comforts, guides, and sustains us in the faith.
- God is perfectly holy and perfectly just. Mankind, from Adam on, has separated himself from God by sin and thus deserves death and eternity in hell. Nobody is good enough to meet God's standard of holiness.
- Salvation is the condition of being saved from sin, death, and God's wrath. Because Jesus lived a perfect life in our stead, by his crucifixion to take the punishment for our sins, and by overcoming death in his bodily resurrection—believers can confidently look forward to eternal life in heaven. Salvation is given by grace through a living faith in Christ; that is, it is a free gift from God to all who repent and trust in Christ as Savior and Master.
- Baptism is a means, an instrument of, or a sign of acceptance of God's grace.
- Jesus' own teaching and his attitude toward the total truthfulness and supreme authority of the Bible—God's inspired Word—make the Scriptures our final rule for faith and practice.
- All believers in Christ are members of one spiritual body, the Church.
Top of page "Christian" Cults
While there may be several kinds of cults, we are interested in the "pseudo-Christian cults." These are the groups that call themselves Christians, but really are not.
There are several characteristics of a cult. Here is a partial list of characteristics that are common to them. Every cult does not necessarily have all these characteristics, but all cults have some of them.
- Typically, there is a central human character who has a controlling influence over the cult members even years after his death. The Heaven's Gate cult, the Fundamental Latter Day Saints (FLDS) group, or the Jim Jones cult are examples.
- Behavior is cliquish to the extreme. They teach that if you are not a member of their particular group, you will not go to heaven.
- They participate in the esoteric, i.e. they may claim to have a specialized and secret knowledge that can only be apprehended by those in the group.
- Another tactic is to withhold aspects of their theology until you are well entrenched within the group. You may not learn about the strange and aberrant aspects of their teachings up front. Mormons fit into this category.
- They put extreme pressure on their members to stay in the group. They may teach, for example, that to leave their church body condemns the person, sometimes even to a hell even worse than if they had never been part of their church in the first place. In some cases, leaving the church also ostracizes you from your own family and friends. This is especially true of both Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses.
- They overbearingly warn you against reading religious materials that are not published by their group. This tactic is a method of mind control. God wants us to seek Him freely (2 Corinthians 3:17). Intellectual honesty begins with a willingness to consider evidence contrary to ones current view. A forced adherence to a belief system is artificial, thus not honoring to God. Any group that discourages you from reading other materials in order to seek the truth is almost certainly a cult. Jehovah's Witnesses are the prime example of this.
- Cults typically use Christian terminology, but pour different meanings into the words. This is why they so easily trap people. For example, heaven, hell, salvation, Jesus, faith, gospel, etc., may have very different meanings than those of the historic orthodox Christian faith (Galatians 1:6-9). Mormons are especially guilty of this.
- Thus, cults usually have a different Jesus than the one of the historic Christian faith. Mormons, for example, use Jesus in the name of their organization (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) but they have constructed a Jesus far different from the one in the Bible. For example, they say that Jesus is the spirit brother of Lucifer (the devil)—denigrating the unique position of Jesus. The Bible warns about this very serious error (2 Corinthians 11:4). Mormons also say that Jesus is merely the "god" of planet earth, and that there are many gods—one for each planet. Mormons thus really teach polytheism, which is contrary to the God of the Bible. The Bible teaches that there is only one God (who appears to us in the three persons of the Trinity).
- Cults invaribly teach that salvation is by your good works. But what makes Christianity unique versus all other religions is the teaching that salvation (entry into heaven) is by faith, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). While orthodox Christianity teaches that nobody is good enough to earn their way to heaven, every cult has developed some system of obedience that the member must follow in order to get to heaven. Biblical Christianity teaches the importance of good works in the life of the believer, good works being an evidence of a true saving faith. But good works come as a result of faith—not as an initial requirement for eternal salvation. (See I've lived a pretty good life. I'll go to heaven, if there is one, won't I? and our Christian Cram Course).
- Pseudo-Christian cults typically use the Bible as one of their source texts. But they emphasize other materials—books or pamphlets—published by their own group, as being on par with the Bible or as the last word in biblical interpretation. When you study these other works, you will find that they conflict with the Bible in key areas. (A basic law of logic says that if two things contradict each other, both cannot be true.) Such contradictions discredit these teachings. Truth is internally consistent, not contradictory. Mormons, for example, have other books besides the Bible.
- Jehovah's Witnesses have their own version of the Bible. This is another tip-off that something might be amiss. Scholarly examinations of their New World Translation Bible have shown it to be filled with purposeful errors designed to mislead the reader and conform to pre-conceived theological ideas.
- Others have simply chosen to deny the authority of Scripture, choosing what to believe is true and discard or ignore what they don't like. This may be particularly deceiving as these folks may actually be part of "main line" Christian denominations. While some might merely call their teaching heretical, other may go further and consider them cultic.
Top of page Heresy
Heresies are viewpoints of professing Christians that differ flagrantly from the Bible. These differences are unabashedly at odds with Scripture, not merely differences of opinion about interpretation. An example of a modern heretic is now-retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong. Spong has called for a fundamental rethinking of Christian belief, away from theism and from the afterlife as a reward for human behavior (Spong). He rejects the truth claims of such Christian docrines as the virgin birth and even the bodily resurrection of Jesus. This man's views are heretical, and should be condemned by all Christians as such.
Top of page Heterodoxy
There is a good bit of wiggle room within the historic orthodox Christian faith. That is, there are a number of doctrinal issues that Christians can debate but not divide over. While we believe that there are correct and incorrect interpretations on these issues, we admit that they are not absolutely clear in Scripture. Some of the issues that are legitimately debatable from Scripture include: infant baptism, women in ministry, use of creeds, worship style, the precise nature of man’s free will, and eschatology (views about what the Bible calls the "end of the age"), etc.
Thus some beliefs may be incorrect, but are not crucial to being a true Christian. Our plea is that we need to be most charitable to our Christian brothers as regards to these issues. Let's show unity, melting down the denominational barriers, going arm and arm to proclaim the gospel! We can debate these issues and others vigorously without dividing over them.
But, outside of the above listed areas are certain concepts—such as the nature of man (his sinfulness), the nature of God (his holiness), the divinity of Christ, the uniqueness of Christ, and the authority of Scripture—that should not be compromised. The central issue for Christianity is that salvation has been attained for all who believe on Jesus. Since salvation is by grace through faith, it is crucial to have a correct understanding of the object of that faith.
May we here offer a somewhat broader view of who is a Christian. This view is similar to those offered by the founders of the Restoration Movement in the early 1800's—Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone.
We consider to be our Christian brother or sister anyone who:
1) believes and confesses that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, trusting in Him alone as personal Savior (and by necessity accepts the authority of the Bible),
2) repents of his sins (thus acknowledging and forsaking his sins), and
3) surrenders to Jesus as Lord—that is, Master—seeking to conform his life to the will of God (as evidence of a saving faith, as best he understands God’s will and his duty).
Here is where we draw the circle of legitimate believers. Yet, there are those within Christendom who espouse views that put them on the edge of this circle, and even outside the edge. We would call these heterodox beliefs. These generally fall into two broad categories: left wing liberalism and right-wing legalism. Those of the liberal persuasion tend to interpret the Bible in such a broad way as to include views contradictory to biblical teaching. Those of the legalist persuasion tend to interpret the Bible in such a narrow way as to exclude reasonable interpretations that do not agree with their ultra-strict views. Thus liberals are too inclusive, and legalists are too exclusive.
Both viewpoints have certain teachings that are, in fact, outside the bounds of the historic orthodox Christian faith. The confusing thing is that both groups are found within denominations that are recognized as mainstream. Unorthodox beliefs have crept into the midst of some mainstream denominations.
Both extremes are motivated by the best of intentions. Liberalism is often motivated by a heart-felt desire to be inclusive; thus liberals are marvelously people-oriented. Legalism is often motivated by a sincere desire to be faithful to God; thus legalists are zealously committed to their doctrine.
Actually, both extremes tend to do the same thing—pick the passages of Scripture they like and dismiss the ones that seem to disagree with their pre-conceived notions. You might say that they tear out the pages of the Bible that they don't like. The correct way to interpret Scripture is to harmonize all of it. In this way, there should be no problematic passages. That is, there should be no passages that have to be brushed aside as not agreeing with the ones you prefer.
Tim Keller in his book The Reason for God points out that both liberals and legalists are self-righteous! He says: "In a religious framework, if you feel you are living up to your chosen religious standards, then you feel superior and disdainful toward those who are not following in the true path. This is true whether your religion is of a more liberal variety (in which case you will feel superior to bigots and narrow-minded people) or of a more conservative variety (in which case you will feel superior to the less moral and devout)."
Or as K. C. Moser pointed out, liberals and legalists ultimately come back around to meet each other. Both tend, in different ways, to deny the atonement (the fact and importance of Jesus' sacrifice for our sins). Both liberals and legalists ultimately affirm that human acts or experience are the grounds of our relationship with God. Rather than trusting in the person and work of Christ crucified, both liberalism and legalism entail some form of self-righteousness or works righteousness—as we will see below.
Liberalism—Five Critical Issues
Liberalism is the denial of the authority of the Bible in key or arbitrary areas foundational to the historic orthodox Christian faith—especially the denial of supernatural events, historical accounts, exclusive claims of Christ, or selective moral precepts of the Bible.
It was the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, who warned, "The chief danger...will be religion without the Holy Spirit, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, and heaven without Hell." We see several issues that are problematic for liberals:
1. The Authority of Scripture. A wave of liberalism swept Christianity from the so-called German school of "higher criticism" in the Nineteenth Century. A result of this was to no longer accept the Bible as inerrant (without error). Or some may say that the Bible is not authoritative on matters of science and history, while maintaining an inspired view on matters of faith. Some may say that the Bible "contains the word of God but is not the Word of God." The problem with all this should be obvious. If you start throwing things out, where do you stop? Well, you don't, as the obnoxious result of John Shelby Spong's theology (above) shows.
The unfortunate part of this is that there is no need to doubt the reliability and authority of Scripture. It has been looked at in depth for thousands of years and there is adequate evidence to accept the Bible as trustworthy. (We have various articles on our site about this, such as MAPS and Modern Scholarship.) If you as a liberal think, for example, that there are errors or contradictions in the Bible, we challenge you to cite specific situations. Much has been written to show that all challenges to the Bible have been answered to a degree which should be satisfactory to a reasonable person. Indeed, there has never been a time in history to have more confidence in the Bible. (See the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy signed by nearly 300 noted modern scholars.) By the way, here is a site that addresses all known challenges to the Bible: Bible Query.
Liberal Christians are faced with a serious problem. They consider themselves to be Christians, yet are unwilling to affirm the authority of Scripture. While it is not necessary to view the Bible as inerrant to be a Christian, at the very least, the Bible must be a basically reliable and trustworthy historical document. Without this basis, to claim to be a Christian would be suspect if not irrational, since everything we know about Christianity comes from the Bible.
We should be reminded not to tamper with God's word (2 Corinthians 4:2) as it is indeed inspired by God himself (2 Timothy 3:14-16; 2 Peter 1:20-21, 3:16).
1. The Social Gospel. After having thrown out much of the Bible, liberals found themselves with little to proclaim. So they turned to social action as redemptive. Social action is a proper part of the Christian life, but it is not the gospel. The gospel is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of the sins of fallen man (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). This gospel is the central theme of the Bible! Saint Paul has multiple warnings about preaching another gospel (Galatians 1:6-9, 2 Corinthians 11:4). See our article What is the Gospel. By preaching a gospel of works by the social gospel, liberalism actually becomes another form of legalism! Liberalism sees our reconciliation to God as a subjective exprerience found through the communal or universal love of God apart from the objective or propitiatory work of Christ on the cross. As a result, it is our human love which reconciles us to God. This is works righteousness, thus self-righteousness!
2. Unbelief in Miracles. Liberals want to give naturalistic causes for biblical miracles, or discount them all together. This is a dangerous tact. This is the view of atheists! If God exists, miracles are possible. Indeed, if God can create the universe from nothing, the miracles of Jesus such as turning water into wine should be a piece of cake. Further more, Jesus himself insisted that his claim of divinity was based on his miracles (John 10:25, 38; John 14:11; John 15:24)! To discount his miracles turns Jesus into a fraud. (Or if you deny that Jesus said these things, it turns the Bible into a fraud). Jesus' greatest miracle was his resurrection. If one denies this one, what do you think about Paul insisting that doing so turns the Christian faith into a sham—and further that Christians are most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15)? Isn't Paul saying that if you deny the miracles of Jesus that Christ that you are wasting your time pretending to be a Christian? See our further comments about miracles.
3. Redefinition of the Word Justice. The definition of justice is the administration of punishment or reward. The Bible makes it clear that God, being perfectly just, has both aspects of wrath and of mercy. Liberal-minded Christians may emphasize only one aspect of the nature of God—his mercy. But to ignore God's wrath is to ignore huge chunks of Scripture. Try doing a Bible word search under wrath. The tragedy of this view is that one cannot understand God's mercy unless he first understands God's law and wrath. Since we are saved from something—specifically God's wrath—the message of salvation makes no sense if the hearer does not understand from what we are saved. We think that if you are not preaching the wrath of God, you are not preaching the gospel.
4. Misuse of Matthew 7 Concerning Judging. Jesus says, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged." (Matthew 7:1). This is one of the most quoted verses of Scripture. Opponents of the Bible may never have ever read the Bible, but they know this verse! Liberals twist this verse to mean that we cannot know the truth. Obviously this is ridiculous. The whole Bible is about making right judgments. In context, Jesus in this passage is telling us how to judge; that is, not to be hypocritical (Matthew 7:5). Jesus is condemning those who make public pronouncements against an activity that they themselves participate in. Upon reflection, it is the liberals who are breaking this command, as they are the first to judge conservatives! Of course, we cannot condemn others, because only the Lord has full knowledge of a person's actions and motives (John 5:22; Romans 14:4, 10). Elsewhere the Bible commands us to "judge with right judgment" (John 7:24). We are to "test all things" (1 Thessalonians 5:21) using Scripture as the standard (Acts 17:11). We should recognize and avoid false teachers (Matthew 7:15-20; 2 Corinthians 11:4; Galatians 1:6). We should discern and rebuke false bretheren who are encouraging others to sin (Ephesians 5:7,11). As put by Henry Morris in his Defender's Study Bible (page 1015), "In other words, we should be able to judge that which is wrong, in either doctrine or practice, and avoid (or correct) those who are involved, but we must not condemn them—God will do that."
5. Universalism. Universalism is the idea that there are many paths to God. In Christianity, it is the view that all human beings are saved by Jesus Christ and will eventually come into harmony in God's kingdom. While this is a nice thought, it is not biblical. Christianity is not compatible with other worldviews or religions. They teach contradictory things. Jesus Christ claimed exlusivity. See our Is Christ the Only Way to God? Those who want to say that all roads lead to God simply do not understand the nature of God or the nature of man. Man is sinful, and a just God cannot just wink at sin. God's justice must be satisfied, and Jesus is the only answer to this problem.
Related to all of the issues discussed above is the problem of antinomianism—that is, the rejection of biblical law. This is a serious distortion of Christianity. This is nothing short of the same rejection of Christianity by atheists. The human mind wants more than anything to reject the idea of being judged. Indeed, man's fear of losing one's autonomy is even greater than the fear of the abyss of meaninglessness. So, each of these critical issues is, in the final analysis, a psychological condition that the liberal Christian shares with the atheist by rejecting Scripture—not on the basis of evidence and reason but on the basis of suppressing the truth as Paul discusses in Romans 1,2.
Ultimately, liberalism destroys itself in self-contradiction. We have alreay pointed out how liberals preaches against judging, yet they are the first to judge those who take the Bible seriously. Another example is how liberals sometimes say that they are "Jesus only" Christians. This is an open admission that they deny much of Scripture. Yet ironically, they don't believe what Jesus taught! For example, they deny the miracles, and they deny Jesus' teaching about Himself being the only way (John 14:6). They may even deny the existence of hell, even though hell is discussed by Jesus more than any other biblical figure, and indeed is the third most discussed topic of Jesus!
If one denies the authority of Scripture, and since Scripture is the only source of information about Jesus, how do they know who the Jesus they worship is? While they think they are honoring Jesus, they are not. They have to disregard much of what Jesus himself says to hold their views, especially regarding the authority of Scripture as well as what Jesus claimed for himself! Some 75 times in the New Testament Jesus confirmed that he considered Scripture to be authoritative even down to the smallest notation—"jot and tittle" (Matthew 5:18 KJV)! He said that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35). Further, He claimed that all authority was given to him (Matthew 28:18). The irony for liberals is this: Since it is the Bible which the sole source of who Jesus is, if one denies the authority of the Bible, one cannot know who Jesus is. This is a hopeless self-contradiction.
So liberals, while saying that they are "Jesus only Christians" actually are inventing a Jesus to suit themselves, which is a vioaltion of Commandment against having other gods and is thus idolatry!
As it states in the Evangelical Manifesto, "Those more liberal have tended so to accomodate the world that they reflect the thinking and lifestyles of the day, to the point where they are unfaithful to Christ....characterized by such weaknesses as an exaggerated estimate of human capacities, a shallow view of evil, an inadequate view of truth, and a deficient view of God. In the end, they are sometimes no longer recognizably Christian."
Liberalism ultimately collapses into nihilism (the denial of the existence of any basis for knowledge or truth).
A few words to our liberal Christian friends. First, thank you for often demonstrating Christ's love. Those of us who consider ourselves evangelicals benefit from your demonstration of that love. But perhaps you have a misunderstanding of what evangelicals believe. Some liberal Christians apparently think typical evangelicals believe in the dictation theory of biblical inspiration (that God literally dictated the Bible word-for-word to the biblical writers). In fact, we reject this view. We reject a wooden literalist interpretation of the Bible. For more on this we offer further comments on our site at Biblical Interpretation.
The paradox of liberalism, as Ron Rhodes says, is a failed attempt to make Christianity "relevant." For everyone to whom Christianity is "made relevent" by discounting miracles, etc., there are likely thousands for whom Christianity then becomes mundane and irrelevant. For indeed, the liberal version of Christianity lacks an authentic spirituality to help people and give them hope in the midst of life's problems. As Rhodes says, if you as a liberal really want to experience the love of God, the place to begin is a living relationship with Jesus Christ in his totality which includes his divine nature and the miracles he performed while on earth.
Legalism—Five Critical Issues
Legaism is the idea that entrance into heaven is determined in whole or in part by specific righteous works or sacraments—and which is usually associated with hyper-literalism, exclusivism, sectism, or cultism.
Liberals know who they are. In fact, they generally wear the label with honor. They can be found in many mainline denominations. However, legalists do not know who they are. Indeed, while they are very familier with the charge of legalism against them, they strongly reject this label. So we must name them. Legalists are primarily (though not exclusively) found among a specific group of Churches of Christ, the hyper-conservative non-instrumental faction. This is not a small group. Especially in the southern part of the United States, there is a Church of Christ in every little town.
It is ironic that perhaps the most liberal denomination in America—the United Church of Christ—has a similar name to the most legalistic denomination in America. For this discussion, the reader should at least know that most members of the hyper-conservative Church of Christ do not consider other Christians as being saved or may even consider us to be of the devil (not unlike how Jehovah's Witnesses view Christians). But this is a one-way street. While we consider them to be true and sincere Christians, they do not reciprocate the view. For more information see our article Bible Questions for the Church of Christ.
We think they the Churches of Christ have much to offer the rest of us Christians. In fact, we greatly appreciate their dedication to the faith. But we do think that some of their theology needs to be addressed. Theological legalism professes to accept the Bible as innerant and the sole basis for Christian truth. This, of course, is the same as the historic orthodox Christian faith. But when you examine legalist teaching closely, you find that it ignores important parts of Scripture that are a problem to their narrow view. Legalism may merely brush off these problematic sections of Scripture as "difficult." Thus, their attempt to be faithful to Scripture results in the very thing that they intended not to do—be unfaithful to it. Here are issues that we see as problematic for legalists:
1. Denial of Original Sin. Legalists deny the doctrine of Original Sin. This distortion of Christianity harkens back to the Pelagian controversy. Pelagius was a monk in the Fifth Century who taught that there was no Original Sin and thus grace was not necessary for salvation. The church condemned him as a heretic. It seems that every generation has had to deal with the same issue among professing Christians.
Christianity is different from every other religion or worldview. Christianity insists that man is inheritantly sinful. While we are not without the ability to do good, every aspect of our nature is touched by sin. Because of this condition, God's gift of his one and only Son to live the perfect life that we cannot, and to die on the cross as payment for our sins was absolutely necessary. If man is essentially good—then the penalty of Christ's sacrificial death does not fit the crime. In fact, if man has it in himself to be good enough to satisfy God, who needs Jesus? This is the same error in understanding that Islam, communism, secularism, and liberalism all make. These worldviews are united that while man may make mistakes, all it takes to redeem us is law and education and token tolerance to God or each other (let's all just get along, OK?). Ironically, by denying that man is basically sinful, such legalists may never have thought about it but they find themselves in bed with anti-Christian groups in this regard. All of history proves that these utopian ideas are inadequate.
As Dinesh D'Souza points out in his book What's So Great About Christianity, quoting St. Paul in Romans 7:19 (For the good that I would, I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do.): "Here Paul in a single phrase repudiates an entire tradition of classical philosophy founded in Plato. For Plato, the problem of evil is a problem of knowledge....But Paul denies that this is so. His claim is that even though he knows something is wrong, he still does it. Why? Because the human will is corrupt."
2. Misunderstanding of the Gospel. Just as liberals distort the message of the gospel, so do legalists—but in a different way. To be fair, while liberals seem to purposely distort the meaning of the gospel, legalists only change the meaning mistakenly, in our opinion. Legalists may say that the gospel is a formula: Hear, Believe, Repent, Confess, and Be Baptized. (Or they may say that the gospel is the whole of the New Testament.) Actually, the gospel is clearly defined in the New Testament as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to save man from sin and God's wrath (1 Corinthians 15:1-11, et.al). It is specifically the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16)—not the power of man unto salvation. Note that each of the five points in their formula have to do with what man does. While each of these five points are very important for a Christian, they are not the gospel. Further, the Bible specifically separates baptism from the gospel (1 Corinthians 1:17-18), so the gospel is not sacramental. For more on this, see our article What is the Gospel.
3. Works Righteousness. Legalists put emphasis on obedience. Indeed, we at Faith Facts agree that modern Christianity puts too little emphasis on obedience, and we appreciate the Church of Christ for attempting to bring us back to an obedient faith. But we think that they have gone too far when they say or imply that good works actually save us. There is just too much evidence in the New Testament saying that we are saved by God's grace and not of our own works. We could quote over 100 passages of Scripture that verify this. (Anyone who would like the list may email us.) But the most quoted passage is Ephesians 2:8-10. This passage explicitly explains that we are not saved by our works but by faith, but that works are a result of faith.
The Churches of Christ are also correct that the Bible commands us to do good works. But historically Christians have consistently said that the way that we reconcile the two concepts of faith and works is by understanding that while we are saved by grace—God's free gift in Jesus Christ—a true saving faith will show itself by the fruit of good works. But this is not the same as saying that it is the works themselves that save us. For more on this, we refer the reader to our Christian Cram Course.
We are of the opinion that legalism is the same idea that was condemned by Jesus (Pharisaism—Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 18:9-14) and condemned by Paul (Judaizers—Acts 15:1-21, Galatians 2:3-9, 14-16, 5:2-4).
Works righteousness has the effect of denigrating the work of Christ and boosting the work of man. Thus, legalism preaches the opposite of what John the Baptist said in John 3:30: "He [Jesus] must increase and I must decrease." And it is contrary to to what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:2: "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."
4. Denial of the Work of the Holy Spirit. Legalists are not monolithic in their beliefs. But many of them actually say that the Holy Spirit is no longer active today. Apparently those who say this are overreacting against Christians who believe that salvation is through the work of the Holy Spirit. In order to be consistent with their view of the importance of man's contribution to salvation through works, they feel they must deny that the Holy Spirit, while He is part of the Trinity, is no longer active. Or perhaps they are reacting to charismatic Christians who put a very high emphasis on the work of the Spirit. But for whatever reason that they take this view, it strikes us a most problematic construct of the Bible. The Holy Spirit is mentioned over and over again in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Denying the work of the Holy Spirit is very close to being the unforgivable sin that the Bible speaks of in Matthew 12:31-32 and Mark 3:22-30.
5. Sectism. Legalists, in one way or another, always separate themselves from other Christians, thinking that they are the only ones going to heaven. This is in direct violation of the many commands in the Bible for unity as listed earlier in this article. And it is exactly what the cults do.
A couple of words for our friends in the Church of Christ. Thank you for your example of dilegent study and devotion to the Word of God. You are a model for us to return to a true biblical faith.
But we ask you to consider the numerous calls to unity in the New Testament. There are many issues that Christians may debate but not divide over. Yes, many of us may be wrong on certain things. But a man who has lost a leg, or even both legs, is still fully a man. This is the foundation of the Restoration Movement of which you are an heir. Consider returning to the central concept of unity taught by the founders of your movement, Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone.
Top of page What Next
The Bible tells us to test all things and to hold on to only the good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). If you suspect that you are involved with a group that fails the tests given above, get out now. Look for a Christian church that is part of the historic orthodox faith—one that accepts the Bible as authoritative in its entirety in its intended context.
You may be in an errant church because your family and friends are there. You may be there because inertia is keeping you there. Whatever the reason, it is not a good enough reason to stay.
For further information on this topic, here are some good web sites: