From discernment ministries to watchdog groups to bloggers to anonymous Web site commenters, the Internet has created a breeding ground for unbridled criticism. Though truth and correction are essential to the health of the church, this new wave of heresy hunters may be taking things too far. Their targets are not the likes of David Koresh or Jim Jones—we would thank them for that. Instead, they're aiming at many of today's most popular charismatic Bible teachers, including Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes.
These zealous soldiers of orthodoxy aren't afraid to fight dirty, either. Armed with ample evidence to prove their case, they quote, deride and scoff at any ministry they "discern" as dangerous. In this biblical blitzkrieg, no question is too trivial, no accusation too personal and no ridicule too cruel.
Blogs and Web sites are littered with cartoonish caricatures of well-known Christian leaders labeled as "heretics," "pimps and pimpettes," "bozos," "Bible-thugs" and "fairy godmothers of the faith." Online databanks are loaded with transcripts and video clips of damning evidence: everything from salaries and sailboats to litmus tests on the Trinity and the hypostatic union. There's no need for dialogue or discussion; one side of the story is adequate ammunition in this fight for the faith.
Have these modern-day knights of the cross truly been sent by God, or has a new era of witch-hunting begun in the church? In the quest for truth and accountability, does anything go? Or is there a way to clean up the messes in the church without lynching good people and inciting division in the body of Christ?
I believe there is. We can be safe and pure if we replace our anger, fear and criticism with honesty, wisdom and humility.
The Fog of War
In the war on error, the battlefield is a foggy, dangerous place. The lines distinguishing the good guys from the bad are blurred by a dangerous mixture of fear, zeal for truth, and a willingness to shoot first and ask questions later. On the offensive are a wide variety of apologists, discernment ministries and watchdog groups. On the other side, aware of the forces gathering against them, a diverse group of ministries have fallen back into defensive positions.
Discernment ministries may have a unified cry—"Purity in the church!"—but each prosecutes the war differently. Some are balanced and moderate. Like the Bereans of old, they ask rational questions, draw our attention to error and advocate sane interpretations of Scripture. These "Bereans" seek accountability, balance and sound doctrine.
Others bring a more penetrating tone to the debate. Like the prophets of old, their messages burn with righteous indignation. As Nathan did to his friend King David, they point the finger of truth, plead God's cause and herald His displeasure with sin. These are the ones who make us squirm in a healthy way. The "Nathans" call us to repentance, integrity and justice.
The problem is that criticism is a slippery slope, and sometimes "Bereans" and "Nathans" go too far. Many of them unite on certain issues and form a pack mentality, eliminating any opportunity for other opinions or discussion.
Today many take up arms over what they see as shallow or destructive theology. One renowned media minister may be dismissed as a "cotton candy preacher," while another is denounced as dangerous and deceptive. The most common feuds arise over the prosperity gospel and the recent trend toward feel-good theology. Other battles are fought over prophetic mysticism, the teachings of the Word-Faith movement and the "dominion now" emphasis.
A growing number of conflicts break out over ministerial ethics. Given the embarrassing pervasiveness of hucksters, charlatans and moral failures in the ministry, heresy hunters feel duty-bound to expose and denounce ministers they believe have become too rich and arrogant. Enraged by the endless financial improprieties, abuses of authority and sexual escapades of many, they rightfully fight to restore purity to the church.
Adding to the confusion of the battlefield, the accuser of the brethren darts back and forth from side to side, sowing the bitter seeds of anger, religious bigotry and divisiveness. In the war on error, it is the enemy who incites the conflict, supplies the ammunition and benefits from the carnage that follows. Brothers brawl before a watching world, and we are all wounded in the fog of war.
The Cult of Crusaders
Then there is the growing cult of extremists. Their battle cry goes much further than "Purity! Truth! Integrity!" It becomes, "To the devil with those who are different!" Let's get one thing straight: Confronting error is biblical. As a church body, we are to prune ourselves of dead or poisonous parts. But it's hard to find any scriptural examples of ministries dedicated solely to this task. It's even more difficult to stop the mission-minded parties who form pacts and networks to grow stronger in their fervent pursuit of exposing fraudulent Christianity. These contemporary crusaders are drawn together by a few disturbing characteristics:
• They are self-righteous and mean-spirited. Rather than stating their cases respectfully and graciously, crusaders believe hostile tirades prove their points. Their diatribes are laced with bitterness, sarcasm and contempt for everyone outside themselves. Like schoolyard bullies, they use intimidation to gain control. At times they even attack one another! Though they see themselves as intellectuals and scholars, true scholars don't name-call, mock and condemn others for thinking differently. We should all keep in mind that pride—even in our own orthodoxy—is a greater sin than being too encouraging or positive in one's faith.
• Their perspective is flawed. Like mad scientists peering into microscopes in search of dangerous germs and viruses, heresy hunters are addicted to finding something—anything—wrong. Their focus is rarely "big picture." Instead, they specialize in detecting the subtle nuances of danger, hobbling together their case for the charge of heresy. While promising to get us the real story on high-profile preachers, crusaders stumble in the world of proper scale because their focus is so microscopic that they miss the obvious. Maybe looking too closely at others is not such a great idea for a ministry.
• They bring their issues to the world. Despite Paul's warning against taking our conflicts before the world (see 1 Cor. 6:1-6), crusaders are willing to air their brothers' dirty laundry publicly and discredit the cause of Christ. Rather than seeking a hearing within the church, the most malevolent crusaders work directly with the secular media to break the story and expose fellow ministers. This leaves the lost with the impression that all preachers are phony and, worse yet, that the grace and peace Christ came to bring aren't real in the church.
• They avoid accountability. Ever wonder who holds the heresy hunters responsible for their message and how it affects others? Tragically, crusaders are often elitist, secretive and hostile toward those who pose such questions. This only helps bolster the belief that heresy hunting has become a true cult phenomenon that not only attracts but also legitimizes the hostility of cynical believers who fail to submit to any form of authority outside of themselves.
Like Saul killing Christians for God, today's crusaders are more dangerous than those they condemn. No one—not even the innocent—can feel safe when a witch-hunt is under way. If the church is ever going to be both safe and pure, we need to deal with the spirit of accusation, and return to the simple power of grace and truth.
Truth Hurts, Then Heals
It's said there is a seed of truth in all criticism. While heresy hunters have clearly careened out of control, we must admit that too many of their observations are dead-on. Too many ministries have become outlandish, unbiblical and unaccountable. Who can blame the watchdogs for bristling at the self-indulgent lifestyles, doctrinal shallowness, manipulative methods and moral confusion of many in the ministry today? It's hard to admit, but the crusaders may be clearer on the problem than many of us.
Unfortunately, they are rarely as helpful when it comes to the solution. Speaking truth is good, but it must always be balanced by grace and motivated by love. This is the crux of the argument against crusaders. There is obvious value in discerning and confronting error in the church. We need more Nathans. And we would do well to follow the Bereans. But there is a huge difference between a champion of Scripture and a crazed heresy hunter sniping randomly at anyone in his sights.
God gives us truth to protect us and free us from the damage sin does. How can we justify using truth to gun down a brother? We are called to confront, but to do so in love (see Eph. 4:15). We are commanded never to speak harshly, bitterly or slanderously. The truth may hurt at times, but when delivered skillfully, it will protect us and heal us.
There is nothing wrong with an impassioned dispute over theology and ethics; in truth, it can be a righteous cause. Without discernment, open debate and passionate prophetic ministry to anchor us, we would surely drift off course. But when we employ a scorched-earth policy against a brother in Christ, God is grieved. We need a plan that allows us to safely confront and be confronted. We need a way out of the fog of war and into the peace of Christ.
Steps to Safety
Can the church be free of both heresy and division? A church that is both safe and pure may sound idealistic, but I wonder what might happen if we followed a few steps to glorify Christ in our disagreements.
1. Let's figure out what victory looks like. Are we trying to discredit a brother or redeem one? When we try to win an argument instead of winning a brother, we shame ourselves. Victory means telling the truth without widening the separation.
2. Let's establish a place to deal with disputes. Our local churches, denominations and ministers' fellowships need to get more involved in the dirty work of reconciling brothers (see Matt. 5:23-24). Why are we fighting before the media? Where no avenues exist, we must patiently build them before we blast a brother.
3. Let's not major in the minors. Jesus reprimanded the Pharisees for straining at gnats and struggling with motes when there were more important matters to attend to (see Matt. 7:2; 23:24). Let's stop smearing one another over petty matters and instead work toward agreement on the essentials.
4. Let's adjust our level of force. Police forces and armies have long understood the importance of regulating their responses to fit the threat. Deadly force is not necessary to resolve a theological dispute. It's time to wise up and tone it down.
5. If we're unable to agree, let's walk away free. The apostle Paul wasn't interested in the findings of those who endlessly critiqued him. He knew the Lord was his judge (see 1 Cor. 4:2-4). If you have been called by God, don't let the critics get you down. Keep doing what God has called you to do, and believe for the day when you will be rewarded by Him.
If we can trim our anger, fear and criticism and begin telling one another the truth graciously, the body of Christ can come into safety and purity. And who knows? Maybe then there will be no more need for the war on error.