How do we relate in a helpful way with those who are (or are perceived to be) outside of orthodoxy? When you choose to interact with people with such views, there are certainly consequences to pay but, I propose, there can be benefits to reap in the right circumstances.
Bad examples exist where evangelical Christians have been used by those outside orthodoxy to legitimize their aberrant views. In addition, the scriptures warn us away from false teachers. Yet, I believe in interaction around the scriptures in a way that leads to helpful conversations and theological clarity when such people are considering (or engaging in) moves toward orthodoxy.
Probably the most prominent example in modern times has to be the Worldwide Church of God. They were once a non-Trinitarian, heretical cult (their term, not mine), and are now an evangelical denomination and a member of the National Association of Evangelicals.
A couple of decades ago, I first learned that the Worldwide Church of God was on a theological journey, reconsidering some of its basic beliefs. Everyone had seen The Plain Truth magazine and knew of the teachings of both Herbert W. Armstrong and his son Garner Ted Armstrong. These teachings were largely considered (and rightfully so) to be heterodox. When I first met the local WCG leaders, they were a mix of views-- some orthodox, some not, and still on a journey.
At that point, some would prefer to condemn them and demand they recant and renounce their friends before further conversation. I did not and I am glad others did not.
Today, I have spoken at the Worldwide Church of God (now called Grace Communion International) annual meeting and consider their leadership to be friends. (I have blogged about them here). But the reason I could do that with only a little controversy was because some evangelical leaders chose to engage in relationship and conversation with those outside of orthodoxy in order to bring them to orthodoxy.
I asked my friends, Joseph Tkach (leader of the movement) and Randy Bloom (director of multiplication) to share some insights.
We should never underestimate the importance of making good friends with people who we may consider less than orthodox in their beliefs. I can speak here from personal experience. In my journey from the fringe to the fold, I denied the Trinity, avoided birthdays and refused to have anything to do with Easter and Christmas. When I, along with some of my colleagues, began to understand the gospel of grace, we encountered some very strong resistance. Our denomination was split - shattered might be a better word. Many who had been lifetime friends became almost overnight, bitter opponents.
It was a lonely and rather daunting time. With old friends abandoning me, and wondering where the next attack would come from, I hoped to find some support among the wider community of faith. It surprised me to find that some who seemed to know the most about grace were very un-gracious when it came to accepting us. But it was also refreshing and encouraging to find that many who I had previously labeled 'false Christians' welcomed me and accepted me. Fifteen years later, I remain deeply grateful to those who had the humility and courage to help us 'come in from the cold'.
The very first to befriend me were some faculty members at Azusa Pacific University, Haggard School of Theology... This encouraged me to keep going on this new and unfamiliar path into grace.
Another person that I must mention is Hank Hanegraaff, who was unlike many counter-cult ministers that I had previously met. Hank was one of the first to accept me without suspicion. I discovered that he would come to my defense in his private conversations with others. Ruth Tucker is another person who was encouraging and also defended us from those who were a bit more than suspicious toward us...
I thank God for all those who follow the lead of the Holy Spirit to accept and make friends with those who seem to be coming from a different direction. Just as Jesus did and still does!
I have no doubt that the encouragement and non-judgmental support on the part [of] these fine Christian leaders was extremely helpful as I wrestled through the process of allowing the Holy Spirit to transform my relationship with Jesus as well as my theology and worldview . . .
I must say, there were occasions during my journey when neither I nor WCG were treated with grace by some of our brothers in Christ during our changes. Needless to say, this was both disappointing, hurtful and certainly not helpful.
Now, this transition was before shrill tweets and angry blogs shaped many conversations, but I can imagine the outcry would have been loud and sustained if Hank Hanegraff had defended leaders of the Worldwide Church of God as they were reconsidering their theological errors. I am sure we would have heard that evangelicals were being co-opted, they were being tricked, and were naive. But the reality is that instead, they were helping to move a movement-- and I am thankful for the courage.
I am encouraged some had the courage to actually engage in this conversation. I imagine they dialogued, they instructed, and then they defended as people were on a journey towards more fully embracing orthodoxy. It does not mean we are not clear in our statements and teaching (and I think Hank Hanegraff has never been a subtle man). However, it does mean we deal with people who are on a journey, we celebrate moves toward orthodoxy, and do so with grace and patience.
It's much easier to critique (and there is a place for that), but I also appreciate those who instead of simply speaking against the heterodox, engage and help people to become orthodox. It saddens me that some seem happier when they can label someone a heretic rather than rejoicing when they move toward orthodoxy.
At several points along the way, some Christians preferred to condemn members of the WCG. When they first began to embrace a Trinitiarian view, yet some were still holding to dietary and Sabbath laws, some Christians demanded that they condemn their friends still unsure on the Trinity and recant their other views immediately. It would seem a more patient and winsome approach was the successful one in this case.
Imagine if Priscilla and Aquila had blogged against Apollos, rather than helping him as he sought to understand the truth of the gospel. The decision to help and to celebrate growth made a difference.
Yes, there are heretics and most of the time they will not be persuaded and need to be resisted. Yet, when there is openness, I'm willing to talk to them, be friends with them, and hopefully persuade them-- and I hope you are as well.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay's Missiologist in Residence. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Ed blogs daily at EdStetzer.com.