The Church in America has had another schism. Not really. But if you paid attention to Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere for the past three weeks, you’d believe it did. The anticipation leading up to the release date of Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins caused controversy enough that you would have suspected Luther had posted another 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Debates, arguments, and fights have broken out and those protective of orthodoxy have started singing AC/DC (“You got that Bell, he’s gonna take you to hell”).Those protective of Bell’s views being within the bounds of orthodoxy aren’t doing much better. Labels like “universalist” and “heretic” are getting thrown around left and right. Every well-known pastor with a website is chiming in on the conflict and it’s bad enough that a guest columnist for Christianity Today is trying to put a moratorium on all contributions made by people without at least a Master in Divinity. It takes every ounce of discipline in me not to agree with him.
But casting my vote for or against Bell, or his book, or the detractors or defenders, is not what I’m going to address. In a short lifetime of 22 years in the American Church, I’ve seen people follow and admire a Christian teacher or pastor for years and then with one controversial doctrinal statement (not a moral scandal, though we’ve seen our fair share of those in American churches too), they put them aside with “That’s such a shame” or “I didn’t know she/he was a false teacher.” For a spiritual culture that has not placed a high value on discernment, we sure do have a lot of anathemas that get passed around.
And that may be precisely the problem. Rather than being a priesthood of believers, we’ve become priesthoods of believers, where each of us is responsible for the protection of our own brand of doctrine and practice in Christian faith. We are all empowered to approve and condemn teachers and preachers as we wave our Bibles around to justify ourselves. Rather than being people who are in submission to discerning elders who are empowered by the Holy Spirit to lead our churches, we shepherd ourselves and very often label that which looks foreign or unfamiliar “Wolf!” It’s gotten to the point that for those outside the Church and for many others who are still in the Church, it’s all a rendition of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” where the villagers never learn that the boy’s just fooling around. So much so that one questions whether a wolf actually exists.
That’s unfortunate…and dangerous. Scripture does tell us that there are wolves. It also tells us that elders are to be responsible under-shepherds and keep a lookout for the wolves and protect the sheep. It also tells Christians to submit to the elders that God has given to do this work. If it seems there are many wolves, it is because there are not many submissive sheep. Bad theology has existed since the father of lies has started his corruption of true creation. It’s not new, and it’s not usually very original. But what has changed is that Christians have taken to being lone rangers in their spirituality, and that has only caused rank confusion.
I’m not arguing for a strong distinction between “lay Christians” and “Christian clergy.” Elders are part of the congregations that they have been guarding. Jesus is the Chief Shepherd/Senior Pastor of the Church, so elders are also under authority. But all of us could be more faithful in submitting to the teaching and direction of the discerning elders in our midst. As disciples, we need to question whether we’re taking on all the work of elders on ourselves for ourselves, or whether we’re submitting to the fathers in Christ that God has given us out of His mercy and love for us. Are you?