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Dave Moore on Dialogue with Heretics
For just over three years it has been my great privilege to host a weekly radio program, “Moore About Faith.” The program addresses the interface of theology and culture. In other words, I talk about almost anything. Most of the time, I interview a guest, usually on a recent book he’s written.
The remainder of the program finds me interacting with listeners over some critical issue of the day. As Thoreau quipped years ago, it does at times seem to mean talking about the whooping cough of the Princess Adelaide. The “Darva Conger” stories are all too common in our prurient and media-soaked culture.
In any case, I love doing interviews. As a young kid, I studied people like David Frost and Bill Moyers. I was hooked. Now I’m doing it myself. If only I could make it a real job, but that’s too big a digression. It has been a delight to interview Christian scholars like Martin Marty, Os Guinness, William F. Buckley, Paul Vitz, Carl F. H. Henry, Mark Noll, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Touchstone’s own Patrick Henry Reardon. I also interview some people who have no particular sympathies for the Christian faith.
Being the host of a radio program has certain rewards, not the least of which is free books. I’m at 231 and counting. I order books from all kinds of publishing houses—Christian and secular, popular and academic. I visit Barnes and Noble and Borders regularly, as well as the Christian bookstores in town, to discover what’s hot off the press.
Recently, while perusing the shelves at Barnes and Noble, my eyes landed upon Why Christianity Must Change or Die. The author, John Shelby Spong, is the controversial retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey. He believes that traditional Christianity is no longer viable in our postmodern world and must be radically altered, or else it will die.
This is a very interesting thesis, considering that several studies clearly show that conservative varieties of Christianity—and of other religions, for that matter—are growing while liberal Christianity is failing. We see this decline in the coming together of some Christian denominations in order to maintain their numbers.
Spong has abandoned all the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith yet still seems to want to wear the name Christian. My familiarity with his antics did not lessen my outrage. As I thumbed my way through his book, I confess that my anger almost caused me to punch the display of books off the table.
When later I shared this visceral reaction to the book with my two sons (aged 8 and 5), one of them said that we needed to pray for Spong, which we commenced to do. My other son remarked that I needed to learn how to control my frustration better because he did not want me to get arrested. Now that would be quite a headline—“Minister Arrested for Punching Heretic’s Book.” Since I give Barnes and Noble quite a bit of business, they would probably post bail for me.
Back at my office, I couldn’t get Spong off my mind. As I sat there the thought came to me that I should set up an interview with him. I called him, and to my surprise, he said yes. Then my anxiety kicked in. Had I done the right thing? I decided to talk it over with several friends.
Most said it was a good idea as long as I did not lose my cool. So if I stayed calm, the interview would be worthwhile. It seemed to be good advice. You learn in debate to stay calm. If your opponent starts to lose his cool, let him. You can use it to your advantage. He’ll be perceived as defensive and unprepared; you’ll look confident and astute.
I grew uneasy with this counsel, however. My reservations were solidified as I thought through the New Testament. Wouldn’t Jesus treat Spong as he did the hypocrites of Matthew 23? Wouldn’t Paul pronounce judgment on Spong as he did the false teachers in Galatians 1:6–8? It was about this same time that I remembered a story that Dr. John Woodbridge shared with us in a church history class at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
In Against Heresies, Irenaeus relates a story about the Apostle John. Polycarp, a disciple of John’s, communicated this story to many others in the Church, and Irenaeus preserved it in his writings. As the story goes, John was going to bathe at Ephesus. Upon hearing that the heretic Cerinthus was in the bathhouse, John ran out exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bathhouse fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.”
Let me quote a few more lines of Irenaeus because they show how deadly serious he and others of his time were about being guardians of the gospel. Marcion met Polycarp himself on one occasion and said, “Dost thou know me?” Polycarp replied:
“I do know thee, the first-born of Satan.” Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth; as Paul also says, “A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.”
After reading the account of John’s flight from the heretic Cerinthus, I was convinced that if interviewing Spong meant coming across as a non-peeved, affable radio guy—the kind of guy who’d have a friendly talk with Cerinthus—it was a betrayal of everything I hold dear—namely, the Christian faith. So I called Spong’s secretary and said that I needed to cancel my interview with him.Some may inquire as to why it would be allowable to interview some non-Christian scholars, but not Spong. I do not indiscriminately interview any non-Christian. I don’t interview non-Christians who make a point of viciously attacking the Christian faith. An individual who is not open to reconsidering his position can confuse immature believers. Since Christians and non-Christians listen to my program, I believe that it is incumbent upon me to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
People who are intransigent in their unbelief and who are seeking to proselytize others to their position are a mistake to have as guests. It is unwise to allow them another platform for espousing their venomous views. The destructive potential of a Spong—one who is “from us but not of us” (1 John 2:19)—is far more lethal than that of your typical non-Christian. Spong is the proverbial ravenous wolf in sheep’s clothing. Many non-Christians are sated wolves who don’t pose such a menacing threat to the sheep, and at least when you see them coming, you know they’re wolves.
But didn’t the Apostle Paul interact with some skeptics? Indeed he did. Mars Hill is the notable example. Forums where the salient points of Christianity can be thoughtfully given are entirely appropriate. That is why talking with some cultists is profitable while conversations with others prove to be fruitless. It takes wisdom to determine whether a certain opportunity will be a good one or not for the gospel. The godly input of others can be a real help here (Proverbs 11:14; 13:20; 15:22).
But nothing can substitute for having one’s “senses trained to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:11–14). It takes much time in Scripture, Spirit-led prayer, and familiarizing oneself with the church’s rich history to have the ability to make these decisions in a way that honors God and upholds the integrity of the gospel.
One example may help make the point. Many Christians have appeared on Bill Maher’s television show, Politically Incorrect. I have watched every Christian save one resort to inappropriate humor in order to win the favor of the audience and host. This makes a mockery of the gospel. It also should alert us to the fact that there are venues that will compromise our testimony. Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism that “the medium is the message” needs to be appreciated and heeded.
Dave Moore is president of “Two Cities Ministries” and the author of The Battle for Hell. His weekly radio program is heard locally in Austin, Texas, on KIXL (970 AM).