Christian Converser: Modern Theological Heresy and Theopolitical Positionings Of Doctrinally Orthodox Churches

Welcome to the first post since the blog migrated to its new hosting platform. Theological heresy is something that the Christian Church has always had to be capable of recognising and addressing. For as long as fallible sinful humans are leading church organisations, there is always going to be a scope for different types of beliefs to exist in a doctrinal context. The fact that there are so many denominations and independent non-denominational churches is a clear reflection of this. Some very early divergences that led to heresy were in fact recorded in Old Testament times with many strayings and fallings away in the Israelite population. In the times in which the canon of the New Testament was written there were numerous cited situations. All we can really be certain of doctrinally in the Christian Church today is that the basics of the means of salvation (faith in Jesus Christ) are universally accepted. Beyond that there is a great deal that is divergent and can occasionally lead to charges of heresy, but here we hold that the charges of heresy frequently leveled against churches holding to doctrinally orthodox positions, which are found on numerous “discernment” websites, are unwarranted given there is no clear certainty about how to interpret many passages in the New Testament which different churches have formed different views of. The scope for heresy itself has never really been any different throughout the Christian Church’s storied 2000 year history, but the present age of the 20th and 21st centuries has probably seen more heretical beliefs emerge than any prior time with many of the accepted and generally understood core doctrines of theological orthodoxy coming under sustained pressure. This however is being addressed by newer churches springing up which have taken the place of those that have diverged so that the theopolitical landscape of the Christian Church has shifted significantly.

New Zealand like any democratic country has seen its fair share of that. Like many similar countries, mainline churches were well established in the New Zealand Christian Church sphere from the country’s founding. Most of these stuck to traditional orthodoxy for many decades but particularly in the 20th century the divergence of beliefs began to take hold with the long held beliefs being questioned. At the same time, the development of the Pentecostal church movement in the USA saw its influence become felt in New Zealand and gradually over time these types of churches started to build up and exert a growing level of influence across the Christian Church. There are however notable theopolitical differences between mainline and modern day evangelical-pentecostal churches. Evangelicalism as a whole is something that works across the whole church spectrum in New Zealand, as elsewhere, with evangelically focused movements forming in most of our mainline churches over time, but it is particularly entrenched in the Pentecostal churches movement. Many such churches in term are differently structured and have less open forms of leadership than have often been found in mainline churches. Evangelical-pentecostal churches also tend to align themselves more to the conservative side of secular politics, which as in all churches, is directly influenced by the beliefs of their individual members.

In the earlier development of New Zealand, mainline churches held a great deal of sway in the development of community-oriented social service ministries throughout the country, and the growth of these over time was possible because of the numerical strength of these churches and the acceptance of a wide diversity in the political beliefs of their members, resulting in some notable theopolitical allegiances being formed, especially in the full century prior to the writing of this article. Naturally the key issue for theopolitics is which factor has the upper hand, and positionings of this type have therefore proved controversial over time. It cannot be overlooked, however, that the influence of traditional mainline churches has been substantial and is still evidenced across the community. As more heresies have taken hold, however, resulting in the departure of many members of hitherto orthodox mainline churches, many of these community social services have faltered (for clarity, the conventional definition of mainline churches is that they are Protestant in nature, so the Catholic Church is excluded from this discussion). The result has been an exodus of mainline church organisations from these services over time.

As people have departed from mainline churches over theological controversies and migrated to evangelical-pentecostal churches, there has not been a corresponding pickup of the ministries they have left behind at their old churches to the same degree. This can be attributed in large part to the theopolitical differences in the typical evangelical-pentecostal context, contrasting notably with evangelical-mainline theopolitics. Whereas the latter generally retains a measure of the political and theological diversity of its mainline roots, the former is much more aligned to conservative politics overall, reflecting partly on its American roots but also partly on the significantly different theological focus in pentecostal-style churches. These are much more aligned to individualism as an overall philosophical basis, with limited support for collective group activities in any form outside private families. A part of the reason for this type of alignment, but by no means the basis of all of it, can be found in the prevailing influence of dispensational theology across evangelicalism and its particularly strong uptake in pentecostal-style churches. Dispensationalist views tend to promote short term thinking about the direction that churches can take and the influence they can have in society. The result is that long term outreach ministries, which is essentially an appropriate description of community social service ministries as referred to above, tend to be sidelined and minimised in the ministry focus of such churches. This is, however, only one factor out of several, and the main issue is the predominance of individualism. Another important consideration is that the members of the churches tend to be wealthier overall and therefore have less need and understanding of social service ministries. Although not all theological considerations are clearly stated or articulated in evangelical-pentecostal churches’ statements of faith, or even in the resources they produce for public consumption, these churches are also likely more likely to adopt black and white theopolitical viewpoints, such as that the poor have all brought it on themselves and are undeserving of assistance. The key assumption for these kinds of churches in eschewing substantial outreach ministry is that the work of evangelisation is left to each individual member acting individually and that this alone solves every problem in life. They are mostly focused on bringing people to the foot of the cross but not on helping them with their everyday lives or achieving things throughout their lifetime. This is quite a characteristic of conservative politics and ignores the big picture issues in society as a whole, whereas the traditional outlook for mainline churches has been to focus on changing the societies that people live in. The problem for mainline churches that have branched off into theological heresy is that they have focused on the wrong kind of change, and altering their theology to reach groups that oppose Christian beliefs has weakened them so much that they are unable to maintain their traditional ministry outreaches.

So to summarise, mainline churches have traditionally been involved in a wide range of social community ministry outreaches into their communities. These ministries are part of the distinctive theopolitical alignment that mainline churches in New Zealand tend to fit into. Those mainline churches which have entered into theological heresy have had to discard many of these ministry outreaches, and they are not being picked up by evangelical-pentecostal churches which are picking up people who have left those mainline churches. Thus, the trend of mainline churches diverging into theological heresy has led to significant gaps in social-community ministry outreach provision in New Zealand as a whole. This should give an impetus to those who are members of mainline churches to challenge the prevalence of theological heresy in these churches because of the great harm it is doing to the wider work of the church overall in New Zealand.