By Chris Lee
I recently read with interest a Christianity Today article reporting that Hank Hanegraaff has converted to Greek Orthodoxy. I used to be a regular listener to Hanegraaff’s “Bible Answer Man” radio show and was more than a little surprised to hear he had left Protestantism.
Hanegraaff is not alone. Over the past few years I’ve read a couple of other stories about evangelicals, sometimes prominent ones, converting to either Orthodoxy or Catholicism. In fact, I have a colleague who was a minister in the Evangelical Free denomination but left to convert to Catholicism. I don’t know Hanegraaff’s reasons for making this change, but I believe many are drawn to the idea of finding “the one true Church” and to having an ecclesiology that safeguards doctrine and prevents the “lone ranger” approach to biblical interpretation.
Working with Proclamation! magazine and Life Assurance Ministries, I come in contact with a fair number of former Adventists. Within this group, of which I’m a part, I often see extremes at both ends of a spectrum.
Many of us had bought in so deeply to the idea that we were part of the “True Church” that we couldn’t shake the desire to find the real “True Church” when Adventism turned out not to be it. Those of us in that camp tend to be drawn to rigid doctrinal positions and are uncomfortable with doctrinal uncertainty, even on the secondary issues. We tend to latch onto a denomination, teacher, or particular doctrinal “ism” and plant our flag there.
Others of us were so fed up with Adventism’s rigidity that when we left we vowed, “From here on out, it’s just me and my Bible”. Those of us in that camp are prone to shaky doctrine or, sadly, sometimes outright aberrant doctrine. We tend to have a hard time accepting any spiritual authority at all and likely have a hard time finding a group of believers with whom to unite.
This brings me back to Hanegraaff. I suspect that Hanegraaff’s zeal for well-stated, established, doctrine with few grey areas likely makes Greek Orthodoxy appealing. I have often heard him criticize the “me and my Bible against the world” approach as leading to bad doctrine. And he’s right. Unfortunately, a lot of contemporary evangelicalism is rather weak on teaching doctrine, and there is a tendency to think that doctrine is an “every person for themselves” pursuit. This idea does, indeed, lead to bad doctrine in many cases.
So is there any middle ground between the type of loose, doctrinally weak evangelicalism that Hanegraaff has criticized and the rigid hierarchical ecclesiologies of Orthodoxy and Catholicism? I think there is, but it takes some effort. The suggestions I will make below would likely apply to many evangelicals, but I will address them specifically to former Adventists.
Learn and understand the creeds of the early Church.
As Adventists we had the idea that the great creeds of the church were somehow suspect because they were “man made”, as if the creeds were in some way a contradiction to the Bible. The earliest Church creeds were mostly made to defend the faith in response to heresies which had arisen or were competing for prominence. This was the Church doing exactly what the Church is supposed to do: coming together as a Body of Believers to pray, study, and align faith and practice with the word of God. We don’t need to create brand-new doctrine on the key points of Christianity generation after generation. We can benefit from the deliberations of believers who have gone before us. If we cast aside this received wisdom, we do so at our own doctrinal peril.
Let’s face it, the way we learned to “study” the Bible was terrible. We took preconceived notions and read them back into Scripture, crazily leap-frogging between proof texts using the most tortured non-logic imaginable. There’s a way to approach the study of the Bible that guards against leaping to crazy conclusions or pulling things out of context. It takes work to master. At my church, three year-long courses are offered that are designed to build on each other with the earlier courses being required prerequisites for the latter courses. At the end of the process one is equipped to identify a passage as a unit of thought, ascertain the main exegetical point of the passage, interpret the point in context, and apply the interpretation to life. It’s not easy, but if we discipline ourselves to do this inductive study, it’s pretty hard to get too far off on some wild tangent. If everyone studied this way, confusion on any principle point of Christianity would be rare.
Seek out a Church where the Bible is taught using the approach above.
In the last decade or two, wide swaths of evangelicalism have gotten caught up in designing services and sermons that cater to felt needs. It’s not at all uncommon to see sermon titles like, “10 Ways to Raise Your Kids Right”, “5 Ways to Reduce Stress”, or “6 strategies for a Better Work/Life Balance”. While the Bible might have some things to say on these topics, texts are often employed in questionable ways in order to have a nice text for each of the bullet points in the self-help list. This misuse of Scripture is not good for those of us who have spent a good portion of our lives in the morass of proof-texting; it will not help us re-learn Christian doctrine and conform our worldview to the word of God. Good, solid Bible teaching is a must. It’s worth seeking out.
Exercise humility, then exercise it some more.
As someone who spent most of his life as an Adventist, I hope I can be forgiven for saying that, culturally, we’re not the most humble group of people by and large. That reality doesn’t necessarily change when we leave. We still tend to be overly opinionated and have difficulty listening to others, really listening for understanding. Seek out a good Bible-believing Church, get plugged in, and recognize the fact there are no doubt many people there who are a lot more knowledgeable than you are. I’ve been out of Adventism for awhile, and I still consider myself to be something of a baby Christian, especially compared to many people at my church who have devoted their entire lives to understanding and obeying the word of God. I have a lot to learn from them.
I also think that exercising humility extends to the need to submit to spiritual authorities that God has put in our lives. I’m fortunate in that God has given me a pastor who is an incredibly humble man. It’s easy to submit to someone’s leadership when you know them to be a humble and trustworthy servant-leader. It’s worth getting to know the leadership of the congregation you are joining. This will make it much easier to submit to their teaching and, when needed, correction and reproof.
All of the suggestions I have made above get to the idea of aligning ourselves with truth, being in community, and valuing sound doctrine. I believe they represent a way forward for evangelicalism that avoids both the perils of rugged individualism and sloppy doctrine as well as the pitfalls of rigid ecclesiology and anachronistic ritual.