“When I see . . . an example of what a noble army of martyrs, women and children included, suffered in those days ‘for the testimony of Jesus,’ . . . I confess myself edified by what I read, chiefly because I am humbled and abashed in comparing what a Christian used to be, with what a Christian is, in our times, even at his best estate.” — A. C. Coxe
One of the examples of martyrs to which Professor Coxe referred was a disciple of the Apostle John, named Polycarp. Polycarp was martyred around A.D. 155 by Roman authorities. After being seized and on his way to his execution, two Roman leaders taunted him with commands to confess “Cæsar is Lord.” He would not. The confession “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9) meant that Jesus alone is Lord. As a result Polycarp was burned alive. This exemplar of the Faith is one of countless numbers of Christians who centuries ago willingly went to their deaths rather than confess anyone else as Lord. They would rather be counted worthy of allegiance only to Christ and consequently be burned alive or thrown to wild beasts than confess someone else as Lord.
Today many calling themselves Christians have a totally different confession, namely that even though they confess Jesus as Lord, there are other equally valid ways of salvation and other Lords for other people. Christ, they say, is the way for them, but certainly people can be saved apart from faith in Christ. Therefore Krishna, the way of Buddha, Allah, etc., are equally valid as ways of salvation, nirvana, or God consciousness. This is pluralism, the idea that the ways of salvation are many (plural). And there are others calling themselves Christians who sympathize with this position. They advocate what I term semi-pluralism, the view that a person who is a pluralist is a Christian. Semi-pluralists also believe that a pluralist who teaches others that Jesus is not the only way is not a false teacher. In short, for semi-pluralists the doctrine of the uniqueness of Christ is not essential to affirm for salvation. Put another way, the semi-pluralist believes that “Christians” can believe Jesus is Lord, but at the same time intently reject Jesus as the only way. In both these scenarios, pluralism has reared its head against the Church of Christ. What follows is a case in point illustrating pluralism and semi-pluralism.
Douglas K. Stuart
In 1995 I became a member of First Church Congregational in Boxford, Massachusetts. Douglas K. Stuart was the senior pastor. Stuart is also a professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, and is co-author of How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth. After becoming a member of First Church, I began to hear of a church tradition that took place on Memorial Day. The tradition was a pulpit swap—on one Memorial Day Sunday Stuart would preach at a neighboring church, and on the next Memorial Day Sunday the minister of that neighboring church would preach at First Church. On these occasions the two churches would gather together at the location of the host church. I had also heard rumors of the visiting minister being heretical in theology. It was then that I decided to visit this neighboring church to find out exactly what the neighboring church’s minister believed. After all, I am one who staunchly believes that anyone teaching and preaching at a church that I attend must be sound in doctrine.
So I attended one service at this church. After the service I approached the minister in order to find out what she believed. I asked her a series of questions that were supposed to lead to the all important question, “Is Jesus the only way of salvation?” When I arrived at that point, she noticed that I was heading there, and asked the question herself, “Is Jesus the only way?” I replied, “Yes, is He?” She said “Absolutely not, I know of many fine Jewish people and it is hard for me to think they are going to hell just because they do not believe in Jesus.” I then asked, “So Krishna and Buddha are other ways?” She said, “Yes, but Jesus is the way for me.”
I then took this news to the deacons of First Church, thinking that this would be a “no-brainer.” Simply put, the visiting minister should not be allowed to preach at First Church. However, what followed in that deacons’ meeting rendered the preaching issue a remote secondary concern. Douglas Stuart stated to the deacons that the visiting minister, in spite of denying that Jesus is the only way, was a “Liberal Christian” and “not a false teacher.” Months later he would defend his position at a meeting at First Church, and he used the Bible to do it! In his mind a person can intently reject Jesus as the only way and still be a Christian. Moreover, that person can teach others that Jesus is not the only way without being a false teacher. At that meeting I stood up and publicly rebuked Douglas Stuart, calling him to repent and warning those assembled that he was deceiving them. To my sad realization, an elder, two deacons and other members of First Church defended Stuart and challenged me! As a result of Stuart’s lecture some elders, the associate pastor, and deacons adopted Stuart’s compromising theology. In time it became clear that First Church was not going to discipline Stuart.
I took the issue to Gordon-Conwell Seminary. One other witness and I wrote separate letters to the institution. I also supplied the audiotape of Stuart’s lecture in which he defended his position. Then came another surprise. Stuart would not allow the investigating committee to listen to the tape, stating that it was taped without his permission. Further, the committee did not call the other witness or me. It was all done behind closed doors. Gordon-Conwell then stated in a letter to me that Douglas Stuart “is in conformity to the school’s Basis of Faith” (letter dated 17 October 1997 from Kenneth L. Swetland, Academic Dean, on behalf of the investigating committee). Further, Gordon-Conwell made this troubling statement: “In the technical sense in which Dr. Stuart views II John 7 where the false teacher is an itinerate deceiver, it is possible for a person to hold false doctrine without being a false teacher” (ibid., emphases mine). I wrote back (1) stating that either Stuart has lied, or I have, and that either way someone has to be disciplined, and (2) asking if the committee really believed what they wrote to me, i.e. that “it is possible for a person to hold false doctrine [denying the uniqueness of Christ] without being a false teacher.” Another letter to me followed, not answering my questions, and closed with a request for me to cease making phone calls and to cease correspondence.
[The reader should note that SDM recognizes that Doug Stuart has recently, on paper, affirmed orthodoxy. However, this affirmation was not made to the people he misled in his first lecture in which he defended his position. This seeming change of position strongly conflicts with the aforementioned situation. Despite several meetings with him with SDM staff, he has failed to publicly repent or admit to any false teaching on his part, though documentation exists to substantiate claims of false teaching made in this newsletter.]
Back to Polycarp
Compare the martyrdom and theology of Polycarp with the theology of Douglas Stuart. Did Polycarp (not to mention the hundreds of thousands of present-day martyrs) die for something non-essential? When pressed by the Roman authorities, would he have been accepted by the Christian community as a pluralist “liberal Christian,” stating, “How about this? Jesus is Lord for me, but certainly I believe that people can just as well confess Cæsar as Lord and be saved”? What if Polycarp actively taught this to others besides these authorities? It seems that Douglas Stuart would not label the pluralist Polycarp a false teacher! Such theology flies in the face of the Lord of glory Himself, who stated, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through me” (John 14:6; see Acts 4:12). Such theology trivializes the doctrine of the uniqueness of Christ, a doctrine upon which Christianity stands or falls.
Pluralism has indeed invaded the Church of Jesus Christ. It has paralyzed in many instances the platform of the Church that throughout the ages was laid on the ground of orthodoxy. To tolerate in any way heretical notions of the multiplicity of ways of salvation is itself heretical. Douglas Stuart is one of many sad cases where the Church has been led astray. If Stuart and others are found correct in their views, and if these kinds of pluralistic compromises multiply beyond count and become the norm, then Christianity would no longer be Christianity. If allowed to go unchecked, the mighty proclamation of the apostles that empowered their ministry—the non-negotiable doctrine of the uniqueness of Christ—would disappear, and biblical Christianity with it! But thankfully our Lord Jesus Christ has promised to build His Church, and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). And it is because of this promise that He indeed raises up His faithful remnant to sound the warning, to stand up and say “NO!” to cancerous compromises, and to call people back to the historical prologue of the covenant: “I [alone!] am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
Let this awful and unbiblical compromise be a warning to all of us. Let us, with the courage of Polycarp that is grounded in the Scriptures, never compromise and poison the exclusive Gospel of Christ with pluralistic notions and ever be ready to stand up to defend the Faith once for all entrusted unto the saints (Jude 3).