Invisible Heresy

Baptist theologian Albert Mohler has an interesting blog post called "Heresy in the Cathedral." The subject is retired Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong.

Bishop Spong is, by almost any way you care to define the term, wildly liberal in matters of Christian theology. Nonetheless, he was recently invited to speak at the Anglican cathedral in Brisbane, Australia. Brisbane's bishop is apparently quite liberal even by Anglican standards; his colleague in Sydney banned Bishop Spong from speaking in churches there.

Dr. Mohler argues, and rightly so, that the Sydney bishop was correct in refusing to allow this heretic access to the pulpits of his churches, while the Brisbane bishop was frighteningly lax in giving Bishop Spong an opportunity to spread false doctrines.

What is more significant about this story is Dr. Mohler's outrage. He seems quite annoyed that people like Bishop Spong are being given outlets for their thoughts ("Heretics are rarely excommunicated these days. Instead, they go on book tours."). In saying this, he unwittingly exposes one of the weaknesses of his own Southern Baptist tradition. The action taken by the Anglican bishop in Sydney could never happen in the Baptist world because there is no central authority that can either a) define heresy or b) stop people from spreading it.

For those who don't know, all Southern Baptist churches are completely self-governing. There are local, state and national organizations, but each individual church is free to participate, or not, on its own terms. There is no authority outside of each church. This structure has some advantages, of course. Unfortunately, it also results in a denomination that is vulnerable to theological subterfuge.

Here's the problem: it is difficult to call anyone in the Baptist church a "heretic" for the simple reason that there is nothing to be heretical against. Everyone interprets the Scriptures however they wish. There is no creed or authoritative body of doctrine. There is the Baptist Faith and Message which attempts to identify those things that Baptists hold in common, but each church is free to accept all, part, or none of it.

Since Baptists do not even agree which ideas are false and dangerous, it's easy for subversive messages to reach audiences that do not even know they are being subverted. Even if they do realize what is happening, there isn't much that church members can do about it. This is one reason why there are so many Baptist churches. When disagreements arise, often the only solution is for one faction to secede and start a new church. There is no higher authority that can step in and resolve local disputes.

Dr. Mohler criticizes liberal Anglicans for inviting the heretical Bishop Spong and then allowing the faithful to "make up their own minds." He is correct to do so. Yet the act that he criticizes is exactly what happens in his own denomination. Baptists have nothing equivalent to a bishop who can put a stop to this sort of thing. Dr. Mohler is a smart man so it's hard to believe he doesn't see the inconsistency here. I hope he'll address this point further.

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