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How to Tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys

Below are some thoughts about how we interpret scripture, in particular, how we use scripture to work out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.


I was reading the passage in II John this week, where he tells his audience not to have anything to do with people who teach anything other than what they have already been taught… not to even “greet” them, according to some translations.


It seems so contrary to the example of Jesus, where he was always getting into trouble for associating with people who did not conform to religious orthodoxy, and where he taught that we should bless those who curse us, etc.


This one passage was sort of the last straw in something that I have been feeling for some time as I have been reading the epistles.  It seems that the early leaders of the church were concerned about heresies coming in, especially because it was not even clear amongst themselves as to exactly what it means to be a Christian, and whether they were all talking about the same things when they spoke of their faith, of the Holy Spirit, and of their own relationship with Jesus.


John was concerned that new teachings were springing up.  This is an observation which has been made by many besides mywelf who have studied his writings.  John may have even gone so far as to put words into Jesus’ mouth in the gospels, in an effort to underpin what he and others felt were fundamental doctrines for those early Christians.  Matthew's, Mark's, and Luke’s accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus are referred to as the “synoptic” (similar) gospels, while John’s gospel is quite different.  Yet it (and not the gospels supported by not two, but three different disciples of Jesus) became the standard of orthodoxy for most Christians, both then and now.


But even when it comes to finding absolute truth through John's writings (and the writings of Paul) it is not easy to get a clear or absolute picture of who is “in” and who is “out” of the one true church.  In I John, for example, he says that anyone who says they do not sin is obviously lying, and guilty of heresy; at the same time that he says that anyone who continues to sin cannot be a true Christian.  Paul does much the same thing with regard to almost everything that he is credited with having taught.  It’s one reason why there is such strong disagreement amongst Christians to this very day, with regard to almost everything that Paul preached.


Nevertheless, I think the problem has come because we ARE trying to find an infallible and air-tight definition to distinguish the good guys from  the bad guys.  And this has always been the weakness in fundamentalism.  One side will insist that one passage is the ultimate proof-text for one position, while the other side will start from a different “fundamental” passage.  Yet the truth, both then and now, is that none of us really has all the answers.  There is a time for shunning someone, but there is also a time for reaching out and taking them in.  There is a need to recognise our fallibility; but there is also a need to aim for perfection.  Each of us needs to find this for ourselves, and none of us has the full membership list from the Book of Life.  Paul and the other apostles would send letters to churches as though everyone reading the letter was part of the good guys, and yet, before the New Testament had even been completely written, they were finding people amongst themselves who disagreed strongly on important matters of doctrine.


There were times when people assumed others were genuine because they spoke in tongues, or that others had the Holy Spirit because they appeared to be prophesying, or because they had been part of the original twelve disciples.  But over and over the various criteria turned out to be flawed.


Conservatives, like John, cautioned against accepting anything new, while Paul tended to open the door wider and wider, until it became popular for many Christians to teach and believe that it really doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you proclaim with your lips that Jesus is your Lord.  In the midst of all this, I think there is a need for a little more humility and a little more common sense (even though there will never be full agreement on what that means either).  Let’s stop taking one passage in total isolation from all others, and try, instead, to recognise the truth in both sides, and pray for wisdom with regard to which is most needed and when.


I must confess that I don’t know exactly where such an approach will lead.  But I do think that “sincerity” is still a pretty good rule of thumb with regard to all of this, i.e. that a sincere person will see the truth in all sides, and seek wisdom to know which side is needed in any given situation.  Or, as Jesus might say, “Wisdom is justified in all of her children.”
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