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My opinion?

by Jaynan Clark Egland (President, WordAlone Network)

February 6, 2004

I’m still in recovery after reading an article this past week in The Washington Times by Julia Duin, “Heresy better idea than Schism.” I suggest that you read the entire article at:

At a recent annual diocesan council meeting an Episcopalian bishop, the Rt. Rev. Peter J. Lee, quoting a Presbyterian scholar, James McCord, said publicly, “If you must make a choice between heresy and schism, always choose heresy . . . For as a heretic you are only guilty of a wrong opinion . . . As a schismatic you have torn and divided the body of Christ. Choose heresy every time.” This “teaching” was shared in response to the actions of the orthodox Episcopalians within The Episcopal Church who oppose the consecration as bishop of Gene Robinson a practicing homosexual.

Much can be said in response to such a public condemnation of, and stereotyping of, those fighting to uphold the Orthodox and historical teachings of the church regarding marriage and family, but I will share only a few comments at this time:

  • Are we to accept that “heresy” is a matter now of personal opinion? In this era of the reign of personal opinion, preference and experience we easily give away our confessional, doctrinal and historic understanding of right teaching of the Christian faith if we allow what is presently happening across the Christian church to become a mere sharing of “opinions.” We live in a climate where no one opinion is more or less acceptable, correct or true than another, but rather always subject only to its present and personal context. Though the dictionary may define heresy as “religious opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine” it does not concede, nor should we, that this “opinion” is not subject to close scrutiny regarding its orthodoxy in light the whole history of the Christian Church, not just today’s interpretation of relative truth.
  • Are we to deny the historical witness that heresy paves the way to schism? The dividing of the earthly, institutional churches has often been on the basis of heretical teaching that is rejected by a confessional remnant that won’t go along to get along. Later in the above-mentioned article the bishop adds, “Church unity is more important than theological uniformity.” Structural, institutional, visible unity of the church can never be prioritized above right teaching of the gospel and upholding the truth as we are confronted by it in the scriptures and our confessional writings. Those within The Episcopal Church now being brow beaten for their witness to Orthodox teaching and practice are calling for theologically sound doctrine and uniformity of practice that will reflect that teaching and not the heresy du jour.
  • Who is responsible for the schism? Those who struggle to maintain the historic teaching of the church or those who are introducing “a new thing,” an additional revelation of truth? We, as Lutherans have the articles of the Augsburg Confession (AC) to seek direction from here, but especially during these trying times I direct you to the final article of the AC, 28, “The Power of the Bishop.” Just as it addressed the Church 500 years ago, it calls out to us today to reconsider where we are going and who would be leading us there. We are reminded concerning right teaching and church leadership of the following considerations:

. . . “According to divine right, therefore, it is the office of the bishop to preach the Gospel, forgive sins, judge doctrine and condemn doctrine that is contrary to the Gospel, and exclude from the Christian community the ungodly whose wicked conduct is manifest. All this is to be done not by human power but by God’s Word alone. . . . St. Augustine also writes in his reply to the letters of Petilian that one should not obey even regularly elected bishops if they err or if they teach or command something contrary to the divine Holy Scriptures. . . . Our teachers assert that bishops do not have power to institute or establish anything contrary to the Gospel. . . . it is patently contrary to God’s command and Word to make laws out of opinions or to require that they be observed in order to make satisfaction for sins and obtain grace, for the glory of Christ’s merit is blasphemed when we presume to earn grace by such ordinances. . . . Our churches do not ask that the bishops should restore peace and unity at the expense of their honor and dignity (though it is incumbent on the bishops to do this, too, in case of need), but they ask only that the bishops relax certain unreasonable burdens which did not exist in the church in former times and which were introduced contrary to the custom of the universal Christian church . . . St. Peter forbids the bishops to exercise lordship as if they had power to coerce the churches according to their will. It is not our intention to find ways of reducing the bishop’s power, but we desire and pray that they may not coerce our consciences to sin. If they are unwilling to do this and ignore our petition, let them consider how they will answer for it in God’s sight, inasmuch as by their obstinacy they offer occasion for division and schism, which they should in truth help to prevent.” (Excerpts from Augsburg Confession, Article 28)

So who really is responsible for bringing schism to the church? In my “opinion”? The very ones charged with preventing it. Church leaders across the denominations may try to lead us “a new way” but that does not mean we have to follow.