Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Of "Heretics"

I want to talk a bit about a couple of threads in this ongoing conversation that I actually consider tangential, but nonetheless deserving of discussion. The first is the issue of Dave Fleming and his alleged heretical beliefs. The other is the "sloppy bookeeping" stuff, but that will go in a separate post.

To preface, however, let me say that:
a) I don't have any inside information regarding these matters, and they are actually sort of fuzzy to me (more on that as I explore them). What I will do is present the information presented by the elders in the Tuesday night meeting to the best of my recollection, and then try to explain and/or clarify the implications of this info to the best of my own understanding and ability. (Anybody who has actual experience with these items firsthand, feel free to correct me.)

b) Feel free to ask questions related to this stuff to the elders, provided you can get to one of the meetings. They are not shy about answering these things. They were very transparent and very honest, and very patient with a few folks who thought there was gold in them thar hills. Turns out there wasn't much. But, again, I'll get into that when I get into that.

So let's get into that . . .

In a comment on a recent post, Jonna Watson writes:
Did the elders expound upon the reason why Dave Fleming was permitted to speak given the new information the church board was faced with that week (from Dr. Foster)?
I have not yet heard much discussion on this point, and I do think it's an important issue to explore.

Here's my understanding of the chronology of how the "Fleming's a heretic thing" went down:

Let's remember that in the days of yore, Fleming was first hired by Dr. Foster as a personal advisor, not as a staff member of the church. Fleming, to my understanding, is a personal marketer of sorts and a crisis management-type counselor. Later, Dr. Foster instructed Randy Thompson to alter the contract so that the agreement between Fleming and Foster became between Fleming and BCC. The elders actually have documentation of this instruction, and you can see it if you ask nicely. ;-)

In any event, Fleming, by my understanding mind you, was not initially brought on with the emphasis of teaching in the church, but to work as a staff liaison between Dr. Foster and the staff/elders. The staff/elders were actually excited about this, I think, because communication and collaboration at that time on the leadership level was, well, not good.

I'm willing to guess that the elders did not check Fleming's theology because (a) they initially brought him on as a crisis broker, not a teacher, and (b) Foster hired him as a personal advisor, recommended him, and instructed Fleming's hire, so questioning the guy's theology probably didn't even cross their minds.

I do not know how or at what time Fleming came to start teaching in our church. Honestly I don't really even remember him teaching. I understand it was sporadic but regular during the course of a year, but I may recall one time. (I will be honest in saying the only other teacher I recall with much appreciation other than Dr. Foster was Pete Wilson.) If you have concerns about how and when Fleming came to start teaching, please ask them. They are good ones and speak to a deficiency I've always perceived in our church's weekend strategy; namely, the priority of style over substance. If you ask me -- and you did ;-) -- the presence of a crisis manager in the pulpit is consistent with a general pulpit philosophy oriented around motivational speaking. But that's a dog to hunt another day.

Jonna also commented:
Personally I am very disturbed by the idea of the church I trust knowingly endangering and subjecting their congregation & community visitors to a speaker who they cannot with integrity endorse (which I understand is why they relieved him of his duties the Monday after he spoke) all for the sake of not wanting to interrupt the streamlined process in place.

I agree wholeheartedly. Let's talk about why the streamlined process was not interrupted.
If I recall correctly, Randy Holland said Dr. Foster informed them via e-mail the Thursday before the weekend service Fleming was scheduled to speak that, in researching a series on The DaVinci Code, he learned Fleming did not believe -- and this is a quote, to the best of my recollection -- "Jesus was the only way to heaven."

The elders confirmed, btw, that they all do believe Jesus is the only way to heaven, so we can put that nasty piece of innuendo to rest.
At this point, I'm guessing the elders wanted to confirm this information with Fleming. Remember that, given the chronology of events, Dr. Foster has already declared Fleming "the enemy." So it's not hard to believe that the elders may think Foster doesn't have his facts straight or is playing games. (That is pure speculation on my part, but it is a feasible reasoning behind why...) They asked Fleming to send them a theological statement. Fleming did so and helpfully confirmed that Foster's interpretation of his heterodox christology was correct.

The elders are in a pinch. By the time this info is confirmed, the weekend is imminent. They could not meet because the entire board was not in town.
They had decided immediately to fire Fleming, and I believe Randy Holland when he says they did it as quickly as they could. He did not elaborate much on why the weekend passed and Fleming was allowed to teach a final time, but I will offer some suggestions I think reasonable:
1) at our church the weekend service is EVERYTHING. People demand excellence, and finding someone to show up and speak on that level in, literally, 24 hours was probably not feasible for an elder board that could not convene in the first place.
2) I'm guessing there might have been legal issues involved in how a person can be fired from the BCC organization. In other words, maybe the elders had to convene to be able to emergency terminate an employee. Maybe they couldn't just off and fire Fleming on the spot for legal reasons. I don't know.

I do know they said they did it as fast as they were able, and the Monday after the weekend sounds pretty fast to me. Should the incomplete board have scrambled in a day to find a weekend-worthy replacement? Maybe. Heck, probably.

There are two other issues involved in this event, also. The first is how long Dr. Foster knew of Fleming's errant theology. Fleming told the elders Foster knew for months.
I do believe the elders when they say Fleming told them that. Foster supporters at the meeting Tuesday night said that Fleming could be lying. I can't think of a reason why Fleming would lie about that, but I admit it is possible, mainly because I have no clue what sort of person Fleming is. Apparently the staff and elders thought he was a great guy and very important in the maintaining a link between themselves and Dr. Foster. They couldn't think of a reason why he would lie, and they doubt he did, but even they admitted, for the sake of fairness, that Fleming could have been lying.

In all of this, though, is the real question as to Fleming's theology. Not believing Jesus is the only way to heaven is how Foster described it. Someone has mentioned that Fleming denied Jesus' divinity, which is not the same thing. I have no idea of knowing without seeing the theological statement he provided the elders, but it is possible that Fleming is some sort of universalist or some variation of inclusivist. To give some perspective, the chief "mere Christian" himself, C.S. Lewis, espoused some form of inclusivism. What that means, in Lewis's case, is that he believed people could only be saved through Jesus, but that they might be saved without knowing they were saved through Jesus (until they reached heaven, of course.)

I do not believe that, btw. I'm pretty much a hardcore, fuddy duddy, 5 solas Reformational soteriology type of guy.
Those words may or may not make sense to you. And that's sort of the point. There are people who think C.S. Lewis was a heretic for his inclusivism. I think he was wrong, but not a heretic.
It's possible, therefore, that "Fleming does not believe Jesus is the way to heaven" is a misinterpretation of some form of liberal theology or emerging "wide mercy"-type universalism. To be clear, it does not belong in our church. But I will be honest in saying that, given the fuzzy facts regarding the allegation, given the elders relatively swift move in terminating Fleming, given that Fleming was hired by Foster in the first place, and given that detailed theology is about as common on the BCC stage as dancing purple elephants, I think this episode, while concerning, is really just a blip on the radar.

In my opinion, that we had a guy with shoddy christology on our stage suggests more about BCC's lack of shepherding in the areas of teaching and discipleship than it does about how quickly the elder board is able to execute operational procedures.

Again: Good question, and please ask it to the elders themselves. Thanks!

Next up: The wild and wacky world of . . . accounting?


At 10:09 PM, Anonymous Jennifer said...

Hi Jared. Thanks for the time and effort you have invested here. Your insight has been very valuable and much appreciated during this troubling time. For the record, my husband and I have been members of BCC 2+ years. We were completely blindsided by the announcement on Sunday.

I find it difficult to believe that Foster was not perfectly aware of Fleming's beliefs from the very beginning. As ardent a reader as Foster claims to be, surely he read Fleming's books before hiring the guy to counsel him. Have you googled this guy? He has a website, a blog, a couple of books, etc. full of all sorts of gobledygook. I'd be very interested on your perspective of his "Zen Christianity."

At 10:41 PM, Blogger Jared said...

Jennifer, wow, that's some kookiness. No, I hadn't thought of Googling him. Too busy inserting the names of old girlfriends.

Just kidding, of course.

I have no idea how long Dr. Foster knew about Fleming's wonky theology. Maybe he knew all along. Maybe he only knew a few months. Maybe he really did just find out that week and contacted the elders right away.

I'm not sure which is worse, actually: That it took so long to find out, or that there was no effort to check a guy's theology before he was allowed to speak from the stage in the first place.

I'll be honest. While I never liked the "premillennial" restriction in our previous Statement of Faith, I do not like that it lacks detail now.

I was actually comforted by the fact that when I submitted to teach Conexus classes on some doctrinal subjects, Dennis Conniff met with me and asked me to submit a personal theological statement. It said to me, at that time, that the church cared about who was teaching its flock.

At 2:21 PM, Anonymous Anna Wilcoxson said...

I truly can not thank you enough for this blog. I believe Fleming spoke 4 times at BCC, but long before that he was a very important part of making our church staff regain some sanity. When Fleming came in, the staff was pretty much each man for himself. Speaking from experience, he helped transform the Creative Art department into a much less dysfunctional machine. Of course we're all still a bit dysfunctional, but creative types are allowed that freedom. Anyway, I just wanted to "testify" to the wonderful help Fleming was to the staff in a business sort of way. We miss him already.


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