On loving theology more than people

Missing the point by making doctrinal purity an end in itself

St George's in Coptic Cairo

Currently, one of the hot topics in the Evangelical world is Hank Hanegraaff’s conversion to Orthodox Christianity. Hanegraaff, who has been running the apologetics organisation Christian Research Institute since 1989 is best known as the “Bible Answer Man” for the podcast series of the same name joined the Orthodox church on Palm Sunday.

His decision has created considerable controversy among Evangelicals, with some evangelicals declaring that he had left Christianity. Typical of this response was this post from Pulpit and Pen, a Baptist apologetics organisation which began with 1 Tim 4:1, and asserted:

There are numerous reports that Hank Hanegraaff, the well-known talk show host, and evangelical apologist known as “The Bible Answer Man,” has left the biblical Christian faith for Greek Orthodox tradition. 1

Of course, given that our theological position markedly diverges from both Reformed and Orthodox traditions, Hanegraaff’s decision and the negative response to it from parts of the Evangelical world is something that has little direct impact on us, other than to show in my opinion just how judgmental and sanctimonious those parts of the evangelical world can be.

I’d never heard of Pulpit and Pen before (hardly surprising given that they have fewer than 15,000 followers on Facebook) so after reading their post denouncing Hanegraaff’s conversion, I spent some time looking at their website. It didn’t take long to find something truly outrageous, insensitive, and tone-deaf, namely their response to the recent massacre of Coptic Christians in Egypt which was titled, “Why We Should Mourn for the Copts, But Not Assume They’re Christians“.

While the author’s opening paragraph concluded “we should mourn with them”, any thought that the article would take a more – dare I say Christian? – approach vanished when in the second paragraph he segued into a standard “use tragedy as a spur to remind people to repent” preaching approach. Sensing that this would be (rightly I would argue) branded as insensitive, the author defended himself by intoning:

“An article like this one is bound to receive criticism for insensitive timing. We simply refer to the example of Jesus Himself, a sympathizing High Priest, who didn’t put truth in time out through an extended moment of silence.”

before further ramping up the insensitivity by asking “Who are the Coptic ‘Christians?’ ”

In his following paragraph, the author pointed out that the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention prior to the murder of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in February 2015 regarded Coptic Christians as people in need of salvation. After this act of terror, Southern Baptist leaders mourned them as ‘brothers and sisters’. When Pulpit and Pen pointed out the incongruity of Southern Baptists calling Copts fellow Christians despite their IMB stating that they were ‘unreached by the gospel”, the IMB deleted all such posts declaring Copts people who need to be evangelised.

While the author may well be right for calling out the hypocrisy and the attempt to cover up that fact, he ignores the possibility that the stark brutality of the 2015 murder may well have prompted the SBC to see past theological differences and look at what they shared in common with the Copts. For the author, purity of doctrine was being compromised:

“Coptic believers do not hold to the authentic Sola Fide Gospel of Jesus, and if they die while still holding to a salvation of merit, they will die in their trespasses and sins, and receive the due penalty thereof. This may sound harsh, but this position is the position of historic Protestantism (and we believe, orthodox Christianity).”

Actually, it is harsh and insensitive, and brings to mind this 2014 post by Stephen Mattson “When Christians Love Theology More than People” in which he stated:

“But when you idolize belief systems and turn theology into an agenda, it poisons the very idea of selfless love. The gospel message turns into propaganda, friends turn into customers, and your relationship with God turns into a religion. You may have the most intellectually sound theology, but if it’s not delivered with love, respect, and kindness — it’s worthless.”

Nothing in Pulpit and Pen evinces love, but rather a priggish obsession with theological purity which frankly would put me off Christian faith if I was searching for truth.

The relevance of course to us should be clear. While theologically, Pulpit and Pen are far removed from us, culturally, there are strong parallels, particularly in the more conservative parts of our community, in what I would call “justification by pure doctrine”. Make no mistake, it is important to correctly understand what the Bible teaches, and defend core principles such as the unity of God, innate human mortality, the return of Christ, the non-literality of Satan, particularly since those doctrines are fundamental to orthopraxy. For example, if Christ was really God the Son, then he was never truly human, and his example is one that we can never truly emulate. Only if he was a fellow human is his example one that is meaningful to follow. However, the moment orthodoxy ceases to be the platform for true Christian orthopraxy, and becomes an end in its own right, then we have missed the point, Mattson puts it brilliantly:

“We should never give up on theology, academic study, or the pursuit of understanding God, the Bible, and the history and traditions of the church, but these things should inspire us to emulate Christ — to selflessly, sacrificially, and holistically love others. Theology should reinforce our motivation for doing things to make the world a better place — not serve as platforms to berate, criticize, and attack others.” 2

If I was repulsed and alienated by Pulpit and Pen’s declaration that Copts were not Christian, then it is certain that there will be many who will be similarly repulsed by similar material from us. That’s our challenge: witnessing to show Christ first.

Footnotes

  1. http://pulpitandpen.org/2017/04/10/the-bible-answer-man-hank-hanegraaff-leaves-the-christian-faith/
  2. https://sojo.net/articles/when-christians-love-theology-more-people

Author: Kenneth Gilmore

Ken is a Brisbane-based medical practitioner whose interests include Syro-Palestinian archaeology, Ancient Near Eastern mythology, Second Temple Judaism, Historical Jesus studies, and cats.