Sorting Through Theological Claims – Part 28 min read
Categories of Theological Camps
So then, knowing the importance of thinking in categories, we move on to actual categories in which we can think. These categories are not final, and there are many additions that could be made. But they should give us a good footing as we apply what has gone before.
The first and broadest distinction one could point out is obviously whether one is saved or lost. This will determine how accurately he can handle truth, since the difference is between having the mind of Christ and being utterly blind.
Such blindness results in a seemingly numberless set of beliefs, which we call religions. A religion is a set of theological beliefs that determines the lifestyle of its adherent. For us as Christians, we face several types of religions. If we can grasp these different types to narrow our sphere of assessment, filtering through their faults becomes much easier. Firstly then, we have to face non-Christian religions, such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the thousands of tribal religions. The blindness of these religions should make clear to us how invalid they are. We also have to face apostate religions that masquerade as Christian, such as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and even Oneness Pentecostalism. These come from a background which had a form of truth, but they totally departed from Biblical orthodoxy at some point. Then we also have religious cults to deal with, which never had the truth and follow a false teacher, while still claiming the Bible to be authoritative. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, and Christian Science fall into this category. Finally, there are secular religions, such as atheism and Agnosticism, as well as other philosophies. Though secular, these are indeed religions, because they have a set of beliefs about God, and those beliefs determine the lifestyle of their adherents. The vastness of these systems contributes nothing to their validity, as an honest assessment of them will show. Thus, even though they represent many beliefs, we do not need to feel intimidation from them.
Being convicted of Christianity, then, we move on to categorizing differences within it. These categories allow us to more efficiently sort through the many different groups and claims that come up as we study theology.
Theology Distinctions. Whether broader than or more specific than denominational boundaries, there are several key doctrines or approaches which people define themselves by. Some are liberal with their theology, while some are conservative. Some identify as Calvinist, some as Arminian, and some as being in between. Some are continuationists (they believe in tongues, healing, and such), while some are cessasionists (they believe the sign gifts have ceased). Some are dispensational, while some are covenantal. Some are strictly evangelical; some are ecumenical (find no problem mingling with Roman Catholicism and similar false systems). When filtering through theological claims, these distinctions serve as helpful dividing lines between truth and error, while bringing needed conviction on a wide range of issues.
Broad Denominational Distinctions. Examples of these would be Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist/Wesleyan, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Anglican/Episcopalian, and non-denominational. Of course, there are many more examples than these.
Trans-Denominational Distinctions. Within broad denominational headings, there are more specific denominational headings. For instance, Baptists can be divided into southern Baptist, independent Baptist, reformed Baptist, etc. Or with Wesleyan churches, there exist the Salvation Army, Free Methodists, the Church of the Nazarene, etc.
Congregational Distinctions. Even with a common building name, there will always be differences from church to church, mainly in methodology, administration, and spirituality.
Personal Distinctions. But even within the same congregation, there exist personal beliefs that will never be identical to another set of personal beliefs.
Categories of Departure from the Truth
In dealing with these differences, we must understand the different levels of departure from God’s truth. Not every error is extreme, and not every disagreement is pivotal. However, many times they can be. A suggestive list of categories may help us in distinguishing the extremity of certain views, depending on what they are. To understand this list will help us to more competently assess and interact with different movements claiming to be “religious” in any sense of the word. It will be our obligation to define which category each issue falls into and interact with it accordingly.
- The first level of difference is Christian Liberty. This category deals with personal convictions, which may vary from person to person. When two disagree on a personal conviction concerning which Scripture hasn’t given a clear answer, neither are automatically right nor automatically wrong. Rather in this case, their conscience is their guide and the glory of God their goal. Brothers in Christ can have full fellowship even in disagreement on these things. But they must be careful not to offend or criticize the other regarding his convictions. (See Romans 14).
- On the second level, something a little more weighty presents itself, that is, Interpretation Differences. Some may see a Scripture passage as meaning one thing, while others see it as meaning another thing. For instance, some disagree whether the Eternal State is described in the whole of Revelation 21-22 or just in the first eight verses of chapter 21. Since there will be a right and a wrong in this case, this disagreement is more extreme than with Christian Liberty. Even so, such a disagreement does not need to hinder fellowship on any level.
- On the third level, there is Wrong Doctrine. This is a false understanding of Scripture’s teaching on a more foundational level than differing interpretations. This is where fellowship can start to be hindered, since it concerns a broad range of Biblical subjects, as well as what is taught publicly in an assembly. While it may not be sin to hold these things, they do tend toward further error. (Error generally multiplies). For instance, whether one is amillennial or premillennial will affect his theology in other areas, like a Christian’s relationship to political activism. Romans 15:14 provides a solution to this plausible error: “And I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another.”
- The fourth level – more extreme still – is Sin. This is a departure from truth in one’s walk. For instance, idolatry, though not a belief per se, does stem from false or missing belief surrounding the preeminence of Christ. Fellowship, depending on the greatness of the sin, can be hindered even further than with wrong doctrine. At times, the assembly will have to take public action, as laid out in 1 Corinthians 5 and other places.
- Fifth we find a very extreme form of error, Heresy. This is not simply a misunderstanding of Scripture, but a departure from one of its major truths. For instance, a heresy would include the idea that Christ atoned for sins in Hades or that Hell ends in annihilation. These ideas have consequences that diminish the pure gospel and must be addressed, as Paul showed by writing Galatians. Fellowship and correction are the goals of addressing the issue: superficial unity cannot be achieved by overlooking it.
- Sixth, there is what we could call Damnable Heresy. This is departure from a foundational truth of Scripture. One cannot be a saved person while embracing a damnable heresy. These kind of heresies would include a denial of Christ’s Deity or a denial of Justification by Faith. Depending on how the belief is held, attacks on the sufficiency, inspiration, and infallibility of Scripture can fall into this category also. (These could also fall into simple heresy, depending on how adamantly the error is propagated and believed). When one believes such things, he should be considered a heretic and fully avoided. “Mark them which cause divisions among you, contrary to the doctrine which you have learned, and avoid them.” (Romans 16:17). “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.” (2 Peter 2:1)
- Finally, and most extremely, there is Apostasy. This is full and final separation from Christianity after being enlightened to it and being part of its professing community. The reason this is the most extreme of errors is this: apostates cannot be saved after committing to their apostasy. That is what Hebrews 6 teaches. Now, there are two categories in dealing with this: full apostates and borderline-apostates. Apostates who have fully rejected Christianity are to be avoided completely and reacted against by contending for the faith (Jude 3-4). Borderline-apostates are to be fearfully approached with the gospel message – approached, because they need to be saved, and fearfully approached, because we could easily be drawn into their snares. “And of some have compassion, making a difference: And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.” (Jude 22-23)
[Tomorrow, in the will of the Lord, the third and final part of this article will be posted, as the subject is discussed of why so many different beliefs can exist and what we can do to challenge ourselves to remain true and honest].