Wolves among the flock

"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. (Matthew 7:15)

Editors note: The largest Protestant church in Canada has been in the news a lot lately. Sermons have been preached, about recent public statements from their moderator, in churches and denominations of virtually every stripe. We feel it necessary to also examine this matter, while providing additional details and background. Regardless of your denomination, or country, this story should serve as a warning to be on guard. What is happening here could very well happen in your church or denomination (or may already be).

The United Church of Canada is the nations' largest Protestant denomination with over 3 million confirmed members and adherents (in a nation of 30 million people). This denomination was formed in 1925 through the union of Canadian Methodists, Congregationalists and 70% of Canadian Presbyterians. The church, which presently has 3,872 individual congregations (and even more ordained clergy), presently values it's church property at $4,148,348,727.

While details of their beliefs, or doctrines, may be found in their "Basis of Union (1925)" and subsequent documents including "The Statement of Faith (1940), the following statement from their Public Relations and Information Unit expressed the state of their church today. "The United Church accepts the traditional Christian beliefs but there is a wide latitude of personal interpretation enjoyed by both lay members and professional ministers. As a result there are strongly liberal positions, ultra-conservative beliefs, and many shades in between. ... The Bible is regarded as the wholly adequate guide or resource for the person who wants to understand Christian faith and life."

In summary, they embody the common phrase being bantered about in many (even evangelical) churches today... "Doctrine divides, love unites". The common interpretation (and practice) of this maxim, is to down play any "doctrine" or "creed" or official "Statement of Faith" -- holding that each individual can interpret scriptures as he or she sees fit. And then, out of love, we are to unconditionally accept whatever they come up with (and believe), no matter how different from our own understanding of scriptures. How far this is from the example of scriptures. By this standard Paul (or any apostle) should have never corrected wrong beliefs or practices in the churches of their day (read 1 Corinthians for example) -- "cause all that doctrine divides". This sounds ludicrous? Yet, it is a common idea today. Functionally, these people believe that no one (not even scriptures) can establish what is right and wrong, let alone what is necessary for salvation. The fact is, without the clear and plain teaching of scriptures being our guide, a person can believe anything at all -- in the name of Christianity. The reformer, Martin Luther, warned of this very thing in one of his great works. "For your teaching is designed to induce us, out of consideration for Popes, princes and peace, to abandon and yield up for the present the sure Word of God. But when we abandon that, we abandon God, faith, salvation, and all Christianity!" 1 This is the same reformer who, in his usual plain speaking way, stated that if every person can interpret scripture in their own way, they can all go to hell in the own way as well. And, truly, when standard and accepted methods of understanding scriptures (which have been used from the days of the early church) can be thrown out, to allow for a new interpretation or understanding of scriptures, truly many people are going to hell in their own way. ...And still calling it Christianity.

Returning to the specific topic of the United Church. Their newly elected moderator, the Right Reverend Bill Phipps, gave an interview to the Ottawa Sun (Oct. 24/97). During this interview he was quoted as saying, "I don't believe Jesus was God, but I'm no theologian." When asked about the nature of heaven and hell, he responded, "I have no idea if there is a hell. I don't think Jesus was that concerned about hell. He was concerned about life here on earth... Is heaven a place? I have no idea." Continuing he said, "We've got enough problems trying to live ethically and well here, to have any knowledge of what happens after we die." Further clarifying Phipps' statement that Jesus was not God, he also clearly proclaimed, "I don't believe Jesus is the only way to God. I don't believe he rose from the dead as a scientific fact. I don't know whether those things happened. It's an irrelevant question."

For anyone one individual to state such things would surprise no one. Especially if they did not call themselves a Christian. But for a pastor, and even more so, for a moderator of an entire denomination to clearly state these heretical beliefs, it understandably brought cries of outrage (from a number of Christian denominations and churches). A few United Churches and associations publicly distanced themselves from Phipps' remarks. For example, the United Church's Presbytery of Halifax, NS, voted to "dissociate itself from the theological statements made by the moderator." Some of these United churches also formally called for the resignation of the moderator. Ultimately the church's general council was called upon to review the propriety of his statements.

Phipps was asked if he had been misrepresented by the Ottawa Sun article and he responded, "With one or two minor exceptions I think (reporter) Bob Harvey did a good job of summarizing what was a long, open, and free ranging discussion." Moreover, Phipps has restated and even expanded upon his beliefs in other settings following this interview. These beliefs are genuinely his.

While acknowledging the controversy sparked by his remarks, Phipps has been quick to point out that a great number of churches and individuals, within their denomination, have expressed support for his statements. Phipps has publicly apologized for his remarks though, not that he made them, or believes them, but that it caused a controversy and hurt a few people. (This is supposed to help the "unity"). He also tried to somewhat distance the church (i.e. denomination) from his statements by saying, "that the opinions expressed by me were mine alone and, unless stated specifically, not United Church policy." But can this truly be done? Remember, he is their moderator, an ordained pastor within the denomination, and still a practicing pastor of his United Church (Scarboro) in Alberta. Even the 36th General Council news called him, "A prophet in a baseball cap." 2

A prophet? How about a false prophet and one that makes obscure appeals to history and tradition for justification of his unorthodox beliefs... "I believe my faith is well rooted in scripture and Christian tradition..." To flesh out more of his beliefs, here are a few excerpts from a statement he issued following the controversy...

"I believe that in Jesus we know as much of God as is possible in a human being, but he did not reveal nor represent all of God... The 'resurrection event' is difficult to harmonize in the Gospel accounts..." Phipps favorably referred to the Jesus Seminar (the organization that votes on what they think Jesus actually said) as a great example of the "deep spiritual yearning in our society" He ended this statement of October 29th by saying, "Thank God that the general public is also interested in a credible expression of Christian faith in our cynical age." This "credible expression", that Phipps refers to, has to be a Jesus stripped of all supernatural. He also believes that all this press about his remarks makes for good evangelism. Evangelism for what gospel one might ask?

The December 1997 issue of the United Church Observer asked Phipps to expand on his Ottawa Citizen remarks. The article featured a picture of Phipps with a statement "Jesus is at the center of my life and faith". In the question and answer format of the Observer article, here are a few very revealing sections of Phipps' answers, plus my comments as "C:"...

Q: Who is Jesus to you?
A: Jesus embodies as much of the nature of God as you can embody in a human being. I see Jesus as coming from God revealing part of the nature of God. ... If anyone says Jesus represents all of God, I think that's heretical. Jesus had to struggle in his own time and place...
C: Denying that Jesus is God, God with us (Matthew 1:23), is to deny His ability to save. For if Jesus is merely man, a sinner like you and me, His death could never pay for our salvation. He, as every historic creed of the church ascertains, was fully God and fully man. Colossians 2:8-9: "Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily."

Q: How do you describe the Bible?
A: First, Jesus is the Living Word, not the Bible. The Bible is a whole combination of things; it does contain some history, a whole lot of mythology, poetry, letters, (and) legends. The mythology expresses a larger truth than history can. I like the line: "I take the Bible seriously, not literally."...
C: If you do not take the Bible literally, you can never take it seriously. Reducing it to metaphors, mythology, and cute stories, enables anyone to explain away every doctrine they feel unnecessary, offensive, or irrelevant. Like the technique of the Jesus Seminar, this method enables you to create a new gospel (Galatians 1:6-7) -- to fashion God in your own image as merely another idol. (And no two of these "gospels" will ever be the same!)

Q: What does Jesus' resurrection mean to you?
A: Without the resurrection there would be no Christian community or Christian faith... I don't have any idea what it was. The Gospel accounts each tell a different story. Paul. for example, in the earliest record we have, didn't mention the empty tomb.
C: Phipps has adopted the textual critics' claims that the gospels were not written by the apostles, but by their followers in later generations -- writing what they thought "might have happened". So to him, Paul's writings are probably the earliest accounts in the New Testament. Manuscript fragments show this theory to be a lie, as early excerpts of the gospels are known to exist. Besides, even Paul clearly referenced Jesus' literal resurrection... Read all of 1 Corinthians 15. Verse 14 summarizes it all... "And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain." If Jesus did not physically rise from the dead, conquering death, we have no hope. History testifies to the literal, physical, resurrection of Jesus Christ. Romans 10:9 "If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved."

Q: Do you believe in a heaven? in a hell?
A: I believe there is an ongoingness to life after death. I have no idea what the nature of that is. I do not believe there are places called heaven and hell. That makes no sense to me at all. Heaven and hell are more here than in the afterlife...
C: Luke 12:4-5, Jesus said: "And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!"

Phipps' closing comments, in this interview, were: "The whole Christian church is in danger of hiding behind dogma and words that were written 1,600 years ago. I'd rather meet the living Christ than one wrapped up in language we don't understand."

Notice his use of 1,600 years, reflecting his belief that the New Testament was not written down by apostles called and inspired of God. In fact, the Scriptures -- the Word of God -- are the complete revelation of who God is. In them are everything God would have us to know of Himself. God (Jesus) has never acted in a manner contrary to Scriptures. The revealed Word is in complete agreement with the Living Word. Truly, the understanding of the doctrine of Scriptures is the understanding of who God is, His requirements for mankind, and His plan of salvation. We must count on this revelation, our very salvation depends upon it. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

As for the General Council's examination of the propriety of Phipps' remarks, they generally supported him. Along with praising the diversity of beliefs in their denomination, and encouraging a renewed dialog amongst members on who Christ really is, one of their recommendations was, "That the Executive of General Council express gratitude and respect for the unique gifts our moderator brings, and for the contribution that he will be able to make to the Church during his term of office."

Nothing like welcoming the wolves to dine on the sheep.

"Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds." (2 John 1:9-11)

Pray for those who believe the Truth, in the United Church (and other churches like it), to stand strong and oppose these lies. One cannot remain silent over (or in a false state of peace with) these issues -- issues at the very heart of Christianity. To opposing views cannot both be right. In fact, doctrine both divides and unites. It divides the truth from a lie and unites, in true love, those who believe the Truth and stand for the cause of Christ. 1 Corinthians 11:18-19... "I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval."

Sources utilized include:
a) The Ottawa Citizen, Oct. 24/97
b) Religion Today, Nov. 26/97
c) The United Church Observer, Dec. 1997
d) Official documents from the General Council Offices of the United Church of Canada...

  • Moderator Calls for More Dialogue Among Church Groups

  • A Statement by the Moderator The Right Reverend Bill Phipps in response to discussion following the article in The Ottawa Citizen, Friday, October 24, 1997.
  • The United Church of Canada Quick Fact Sheet

Other footnoted sources:
1) Pg. 91, The Bondage of the Will. Martin Luther translated by J.I. Packer & O.R. Johnson. 1957.
2) United Church, 36th General Council News, An interview with Moderator-Elect Bill Phipps by John Asling.

"For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves." (Acts 20:29-30)

Written by Brent MacDonald of Lion Tracks Ministries, (c) 1997.
Feel free to duplicate as long as the source is cited.