Two Dangerous People in Your Church: Heresy Hunters & Tower Topplers
These are two of the most dangerous people in your church because they help create what they claim to stand against.
My favorite Andy Griffith episode growing up was “Mountain Wedding.” In it, hillbilly family the Darlings are being harassed by kooky troublemaker Ernest T. Bass, who has declared that he’s going to marry their daughter Charlene. She just got married in a ceremony performed by local sheriff Andy Taylor, but because the ceremony wasn’t performed by a preacher, Bass says the marriage wasn’t legitimate and pledges to woo her and marry her. So the Darlings call Sheriff Taylor back to deal with Bass. The whole episode, Andy finds himself putting up with crazy people on every side. He has to talk the Darling patriarch down from taking justice into his own hands (they’ve thought about just shooting Bass), while he also has to try to talk sense into Bass who communicates mainly by throwing rocks through windows and performing spoken word poetry while banging on a tuned-up gas can.
Have you ever been scrolling through Twitter and happened upon one of those nasty fights between evangelicals? It’ll have you feeling like Andy Taylor. There’ll be the trigger-happies on your right eager to deal justice to theological troublemakers. There’ll be the window-breakers on the left eager to disrupt sacred institutions and throw rocks to shatter beliefs which, to traditionalists, are crystal clear.
“…eager to disrupt sacred institutions and throw rocks to shatter beliefs…”
Both groups enjoy “stirr[ing] up conflict in the community” (Pr. 6:19), thus enjoying something that’s on a list of things God finds detestable. I’m going to call these two groups “heresy hunters” on the one hand and “tower topplers” on the other.
There have been times I’ve been tempted to be both of these types of people, and I want to acknowledge that this probably helps me understand what I’m writing at an unfortunately deep level. First, the heresy hunter. This is the guy who watches the words of fellow Christians hawkishly in order to confirm that, yep, they’re a heretic. I knew it. I knew they weren’t one of us. Hey everyone! Guess who’s been a wolf in our midst! That’s a pretty dark way to seek a dopamine rush.
“…the guy who watches the words of fellow Christians hawkishly in order to confirm that, yep, they’re a heretic…”
Second, the tower topplers. These are the evangelicals who feel a calling to disrupt what strikes them as theological and ethical rigidness in the church. They savor Jesus’ way of challenging traditions and chafing the religious leaders. Yet when it comes to the New Testament’s doctrinal and ecclesial formulations found outside its red letters, they’re not big fans. Tower topplers are often provocateurs who love to push the buttons of people who care about correct Christian belief until they’re able to get an ugly response and can say, “See! This person who claims to follow the Bible so closely—look at how un-Christlike he is!” It’s just as fun for tower topplers to see fundies have a great fall and hip evangelicals make loud exits (say, from evangelical to exvangelical) as it is for heresy hunters to discover the commie in the ranks.
What makes you a heresy hunter or a tower toppler?
So, what makes someone a divisive heresy hunter or disruptive tower toppler? Let’s make a couple really important clarifications: The truth is, some heresies need to be outed and some towers need to be toppled. People who care about right doctrine aren’t what I’m calling “heresy hunters.” And neither are people who care about challenging rigid traditions, which lift us farther aloft from the needs of everyday people, what I would consider “tower topplers.” Such people on both accounts are best described as “Christians.”
What I’m calling heresy hunters and tower topplers wield constructive tools like truth and grace into battering rams. It’s important to discern when a concern for truth crosses the line into eagerness for a fight, or to discern when a desire for Jesus-style status-quo table-flipping crosses the line into a game of Taunt the Traditionalist or, worse yet, Jesus Jenga (where you pull out enough theology planks to where eventually the whole thing crumbles). Tower topplers push, while heresy hunters pounce.
“They make fellow Christians worse.”
Here’s what makes heresy hunters and tower topplers two of the most dangerous, divisive types of people in your church: They make fellow Christians worse.
These two paths are self-fulfilling prophecies: They want to find heretics. They want to create defensiveness. They seem so eager to say, “See! I told you so!” that they largely make it happen.
Here’s what I mean: If you become hostile and mean and suspicious toward someone you suspect might be on the fence theologically, then how are you going to avoid pushing the person off onto the other side? Beth Moore seems a case in point. Sure, there were important theological questions about complementarianism and egalitarianism at play, as well as the Trump divide, but you’ll never convince me that meanness from some of her fellow Southern Baptists didn’t play a part in her exodus to Anglicanism. Heresy hunters can be so good at it that they create exactly what they’re looking for.
“Heresy hunters can be so good at it that they create exactly what they’re looking for.”
It’s the same with tower topplers. You keep poking at my faith, my church’s faith statements, my faith’s traditions, my political persuasion, etc., and it’s going to take intervention from heaven, or a coma, to keep me from feeling defensive. In this way, tower topplers within the church create what they’re looking for: besieged fellow Christians whose defensiveness comes out in ugly ways.
Enough blows from the battering ram, and what was once just a tower is forced to bolster itself into a fortress. What had always felt a bit rigid now has to fortify itself into full-blown dogmatism. And then—whaddaya know? I always knew my church was full of red-faced sectarians all about preserving power and not about being like Jesus. The self-fulfilling prophecy comes into full bloom when the tower toppler ends up blaming his fellow Christian for the fight in the first place, as if it was the other guy’s first choice to fight the battles in the precise places where the battering ram kept hammering.
So, can I offer a couple simple pieces of advice? If you think you might be functioning as a heresy hunter or tower toppler, please stop. And if heresy hunters or tower topplers are dividing the church you love, please pray. Pray that the people who lead and influence your church would help make you better followers of Jesus, not worse.