G. C. Berkouwer has riveted attention on the dangers of the empirical heretic, by which he denotes that false teacher who, while in conformity to the creeds of the church, propagates doctrine (or advocates actions) that diminish the proclamation of the Gospel (The Church, in Studies in Dogmatics [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976], 381). Operating safely within the confines of the creeds and confessions (he’s no Arian, by Jove!), the empirical heretic undermines the church and, if unchecked, vanquishes its mission. Examples in the contemporary church abound. To wit:
The health and wealth Gospel, according to which Jesus saves us to make us rich, fat, happy and sassy. If we’re not exhibiting exuberant health and material abundance, our faith is lacking. The fact that few godly people in the Bible could make this claim (Jesus least of all) seems never to stop the health and wealthers.
Then there’s its opposite (or is it?). The evangelical socialism such as we see over at Sojourners: the true disciples vest the omni-competent and coercive state with the power to rectify all social injustices — defined, of course, by the political elite. The state nearly applies for a vacancy in the Trinity.
In Protestant liberalism there’s soteric moralism: I am better than thou and, pitying the drunk, the pedophile and the capitalist, utters, “There but for the grace of my own morality go I.” We might term it, as one wag put it, dragging yourself down to Hell by your own bootstraps. Trampling Jesus’ blood underfoot has rarely been more graphically instanced.
And then the conservative counterpart: The Grace Revival, meaning: for too long Christians have required people to submit the Jesus Lordship on pain of judgment. Man’s real enemy is righteousness, not lawlessness; so let’s banish God’s law to the church bus’s back and sin that grace may abound.
Again, over on the Left (and, increasingly, the center-Left) — feminism. Jesus liberates women, and this means, in our Madly Oppressive church culture, a mad rush to get women on the elder roll and in the pulpits thundering forth (or at least cooing sympathetically). And how can we expect the Gospel to be potent as long as we haven’t liberated the lades? It’s sexual liberation that Jesus is all about!
And over on the Right — patriarchy. Culture’s headed to Hell not because it lacks the Gospel but because it lacks ironly Daddies and submissive Mommies and boys who grow up to dictate like Daddy and girls who grow up to mumble like Mommy — and, above all, not to attend college. Daddy’s girls, you know. (Not Jesus’ girls.)
And the loveless churches. Bursting with pride of appearance and truth and zeal, there’s no place for garden-variety sinners (only sinners who deftly conceal their sin, selective sinners). There’s no kindness and forgiveness and care and tenderness — only austerity under the guise of truth-iness. Yet this is no truth, but a loveless lie.
And then the love-ful churches, where love is tantamount to condoning sin. Better: where confronting sin is the only sin. “Our great virtue is non-judgmentalism. Come as you are. Stay as you are. Live as you are. Die as you are. We but love, love, love.” A love that excludes all that would decimate love (immorality, betrayal, drug addictions, narcissism) is never loved. Only the non-judgmental love, that is, the satanically counterfeited love, is on display.
These and other empirical heretics can fly 24/7 under the heresy-sniffers’ radar.
In this way, some of the churches that most pride themselves on their orthodoxy display the most injurious heresy.