Gather round, chil’ren, it’s story time.
Once upon a time there was a Christian. He was active in his local church and had obtained a small leadership role. He was well liked by people in his community. He was not famous by any stretch of the imagination, but he was by no means an inactive believer. He studied his Bible daily and when he wrote, he often wrote with scripture references galore. He also wrote frequently, and could have been known by some to have always had his nose in the good book.
Then one day he heard of another active church leader. This church leader was teaching strange things. He was teaching things that our Christian believed were wrong and against the Bible. So the Christian did what he thought he should do: he called the other gentleman out on it. He openly wrote that the man was committing error, and if he didn’t repent, he should no longer be a member of the church.
This was not well received by the vast majority of people in the church. Most people called our Christian words that are equivalent to “Bible thumper” and “Pharisee.” Some said he was disrupting the body of Christ. Some said he shouldn’t worry so much about what others believe and just focus on his own faith. It got so bad that church bodies turned against our Christian and kicked him out, seeking instead to keep the church unified. In fact, even the government leaders opposed our Christian, and would banish him to other parts of the country to keep him far away from anywhere that he could disrupt the perfect unity and peace of the brotherhood.
During times of quiet, our Christian would settle back down to his ministry, but as soon as he spoke out against what he perceived to be heresy, the personal attacks and accusations of disrupting the brotherhood would return, and again our Christian was kicked out of his ministerial role. Many people thought our Christian was stubborn and dogmatic, yet he never changed his ways. In fact, to his dying breath, he continued to speak out against the error he perceived to be prevalent in the church.
Who was this Christian, you ask?
It was Athanasius, the deacon – and then bishop – of Alexandria in the early to middle fourth century. At times it seemed like, at least in the eastern Roman Empire, he was the sole voice against the Arian heresy that enveloped the church for almost sixty or so years. It was from this time period that the phrase Athanasius contra mundum (“Athanasius against the world”) came into being, referring to Athanasius’s near isolation in upholding biblical doctrine within a sea of heresy.
Those who look back on history always have a kind of superiority, and ask ourselves “How did that happen?”, as if people long ago were incredibly absurd in thinking, and it could never happen again in our day. The fact is, things like the genocide that occurred during World War II happened for the same reasons the genocide happened in the Rwandan civil war, or even now in some regions of Sudan. We can’t look back at those who lived in the 1930’s and 1940’s and act like we would never let this happen in our time when we have and still are.
I get so tired of hearing the same tired arguments people use in favor of either false teachers or heresy that it becomes daunting to even discuss the subject. Yet we have to wonder to ourselves how such people would be if they lived in times of the past? Would they be champions for the faith of those who came before, or would they be the opponents?
How many people, for example, would be there alongside the Arian supporters, condemning Athanasius for speaking out against Arius and his beliefs? How many today would accuse him, as many did back then, of disrupting the unity of the church? How many would support the move by many Roman emperors to exile Athanasius because he refused to cooperate with the church?
It doesn’t stop there. How many would accuse Martin Luther of harming Johann Tetzel’s ministry, and defend his indulgences by pointing out all the people who claimed to have been blessed by it? How many would attack John Owen for criticizing the Church of England, again disrupting the unity of the church? How many would lament John Bunyan’s refusal to just cooperate with the Church of England, even to the point of his own imprisonment? When consistent, the person’s standards would find them at odds with the greatest theologians and Christian men in history.
This should not entirely surprise us, of course. The apostle Paul wrote long ago that people would begin to “not endure sound teaching,” and will instead, with “itching ears,” begin to “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Tim 4:3). He wrote that God sends upon the church “a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 The 2:11-12). Men stood up for Arius against Athanasius because they preferred Arianism to scriptural truth – should we be any more shocked that men will stand up for error today against scriptural truth?
There is the popular claim that the devil wants to divide the church, and while that is true, I think we should not look to every question of authority or method of discernment as an attack from the devil. Indeed, if there is anything the devil would like more than a disunited church, it is a church united on shaky ground, accepting error and heresy for the sake of superficial peace. Indeed, those who would have us promote superficial peace over doctrine, discernment and theological discrimination are no different than those false prophets of old, who cried out to the people “Peace! Peace!”, when, in fact, there was no such peace (cf. Jer 6:14, 8:11).
Yet we must remember what the apostle Jude wrote, when he instructed us to “have mercy on those who doubt,” adding: “save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 1:22-23). Frustrating as it might be to reach out to those who claim to be of the faith and yet hold to great error for superficial reasons, we must remember that we, at all times, held to great error at one point, and were led astray. As ambassadors of reconciliation (cf. 2 Cor 5:19-20), it is our job to bring the truth of Christ – in its fulness – to all who would hear it, both within and without the church. God bless.