Friday, May 26, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: Heresy and Clerisy

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

It’s been a while, but Gretta Vosper is back in the news again. (Immanuel Can and I discussed her previous exploits here and here.)

This time, the United Church minister — the denomination’s only out-of-the-closet atheist — has dodged a bullet in the form of a looming heresy trial. Turns out the UCs just couldn’t bring themselves to pull the trigger. The United Church General Council says Vosper will not be placed on their Discontinued Service List, and she may continue to offer God-free services to a handful of aging parishioners.

Fear of Appearing Intolerant

Tom: Put yourself in the General Council’s shoes, IC. What on earth is to be gained by continuing to associate your denomination with a woman who is not just agnostic about God’s existence, but determined to remove every hint of it from the gatherings over which she presides?

Immanuel Can: I think what you avoid is the thing the UC is most desperate to avoid: the appearance of seeming intolerant. You avoid any kind of synod or trial, any action that could be spun as a modern witch hunt, purge or inquisition by the secular press. It’s an expression of the UC’s first priority. It’s clear that it’s “united” at all costs.

Tom: You certainly do that, but you are left “united” about nothing more significant than the desire to be taken seriously by the world. Gretta certainly wants that too.

This is one of the hazards of denominationalism: you set up an extra-biblical power base, fully financed, with all its obligatory political mechanisms, and you’re left with something that in our present environment is not even equipped to accomplish the one thing you really need it to do: establish a public distinction between the false and the true.

Compare that to the early first century church as described in Acts. You wouldn’t need an inquisition. You could just call Gretta for a casual conversation with the apostles, catch her in an obvious lie, and watch her fall down dead.

The Inclusiveness Problem

IC: I want to say this carefully, but Gretta Vosper isn’t really the problem. I mean, she IS a problem, but she’s not the main one the UC is having. She’s a symptom. What we discover here is that the UC literally no longer stands for anything but keeping people superficially together — “united”, if you will. The parameters of the union they conceive are now so broad that nothing is a make-or-break issue.

There is a problem to inclusiveness, though: there is an inverse relationship between broadened terms of inclusion and the intensity of members’ commitment. What I mean is that the more people you include, the fewer beliefs they have in common and the less-firmly they believe them. Eventually, if you include everyone, there is no truth statement about the entire group possible, except that they are all “human”. And that is why ever-expanding inclusiveness inevitably has to dead-end in some kind of blank Humanism. With Humanism, however, “do your own thing”, not “unite with others”, becomes the ultimate imperative: so there’s no reason for a church anymore.

Tom: Yes. That “intensity of commitment” point is significant. As we pointed out in our earlier exchanges about Vosper, the majority of the members of her church hit the road when she first came out. Those that are left have all the focused religious commitment of a Taylor Swift lyric.

What puzzles me though, if you’ve read the article, is why the General Council went back and forth for three and half years in public about how to deal with Vosper only to cave at the end. That only makes them look incredibly weak and indecisive, and it gave the Little Atheist That Could a big media push that she was able to exploit for sympathy on Twitter with the hashtag #heresytrial. And after all that, there WAS no trial. Tactically, waffling was an awful move.

A Broad Consensus

This is another hazard of denominationalism: the need to gather a broad consensus. Had Vosper been merely a heretical member of a single local church, agreement to distance the local manifestation of the Body of Christ from this woman could easily have been reached in a ten minute conversation, most of which would have been various versions of “Sheesh! Unbelievable!” Or even if Vosper’s original congregation had been given a democratic vote, it’s highly likely she’d have been out on her ear five years ago instead of splitting her church.

Instead, here they are. Something about this doesn’t work.

IC: Well, and the clerical system is partly to blame. When you have somebody you’ve declared to be a “pastor”, you’ve cut them off from equality with those they are supposed to be serving, so nobody has a real right to speak into their actions. You’ve set them above other believers and given them an exclusive right to speak. You’ve conceded their superiority on matters of theology, and associated them with the caste of putative religious experts and the institution that sanctions them.

Tom: Very true.

IC: So the whole UC power structure has an interest in not having one of their “pastors” exposed. And there isn’t really another body charged with the obligation to modify her.

Her own error is worse and less changeable because she cannot be modified by her local objectors. And the denominational hierarchy has a stake in protecting her status and preventing her from being unseated from “below”.

Clubs and Hierarchies

Tom: I’ve seen similar things among doctors, police, dental surgeons and lawyers when one of their number is accused of malpractice or even criminal misbehavior. Everybody rallies around to support the member of the team rather than examining the case against him on its merits. The perception is that a finding of fault indicts all of them, not just the guilty party. (Not teachers. They throw their accused under the bus for some reason …)

But the New Testament is not full of these sorts of clubs or hierarchies, is it, IC? The closest we might find is the injunction not to admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. And that’s hardly cronyism, is it?

IC: Hardly. And “elder” is just a way local believers describe somebody who remains completely just one of the local believers. Being an acknowledgement of merit, not an assigned office or rank, it remains as good as the character of the person bearing it. There is no hierarchy or inter-church authority giving an elder exclusive theological power, and nobody invested in protecting an “elder” from eating the fruit of whatever tree he plants.

It’s only because Gretta Vosper has been artificially invested with clerical authority that she has any status at all. She’d be a non-topic, just another heretical false-teacher, except for the problem she makes for the UC hierarchy.

More to Come

Tom: I’m sure in the closet somewhere there are male atheist ministers in the UC, but it’s more than a little ironic that by virtue-signaling to feminism in contradiction to the direct teaching of the apostle Paul, the General Council has made a rod for its own back. Had they not ordained Vosper, it might have been years before another minister pulled this sort of stunt. Or not. It’s hard to tell in this political environment. But Vosper has been “out” for five years now, and other ministers don’t seem to be clamoring to join her. Yet.

Do you think it’s likely we’ll see more of this?

IC: Because of atheism, you mean?

Tom: It’s definitely out there.

IC: No, I’d be very surprised if we did. The idea of a church involves giving up a lot of privacy and independence in order to commit to community. It’s about common commitment to a single truth, a truth that is no longer optional and entered in the individual but rather universal and affirmed by the community. There isn’t much in atheism to sponsor church-type living. It is not only purely negative, but also highly individualistic and empty of particular commitments to truth and morality.

Tom: Agreed.

IC: On the other hand, if you mean “Will we see more clergy going rogue and preaching heresy?” or “Will more church synods back heretical teachers?” I’d say that both are a certainty. We’re already seeing those things.

Standing for the Faith

Tom: We’re not United Church, obviously, but there are lessons here for everyone. How do we avoid the impulse to flee conflict and find the courage to stand for the faith once for all given to the saints?

IC:Build yourselves up in the faith.” That’s a start. You can’t defend against bad doctrine if you have no particular sense of good doctrine. So you’ve got to start learning good doctrine, applying good doctrine to yourself, and then teaching good doctrine to others so as to help them become sound in doctrine.

Then don’t ever bow to so-called authorities that have no biblical warrant. So, no popes, synods, denominational councils, clerical organizations … and especially no pastors. None. Ever. For any reason. Submit only to local elders, as established by biblical criteria; to those who teach according to the word of God, and to God himself.

Radical enough for you, Tom?

Tom: I think that’s where we’re going to need to get to. To surrender the decision-making responsibility God has given us to false gods is cowardice and indecision. It’s abdicating our obligations in Christ. No man can serve two masters, and when someone other than the Head of the Church tries to run the show, it’s time to step off.

Shutting You Out

IC: From the times of the early church, the pattern of false teachers has been add to, or take away from the gospel of Christ, so that the false teacher can claim to possess a knowledge not available to the ordinary Christian, and then to establish hierarchies of spiritual rank (with themselves at the top, of course), so that ordinary Christians must apply to them in order to rise in their ranks. We see that in Galatians, for example.

Gretta Vosper has long ago departed from sound doctrine; but her power would be limited if not for the UC’s anti-scriptural hierarchy. She’s teaching raw atheism; but now the UC hierarchy is providing her a forum and lending its approval to her continuing to do it.

The truth is that there are really two problems here: the heresy and the clerisy.

Which of the two is worse? It’s hard to say: certainly, they feed each other.

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