Hospitality For Heretics

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
22nd October 2011

Tagged: heretics hospitality truth

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Hospitality is a sacred duty and joy of the Christian. 

God’s commands are unambiguous: “seek to show hospitality” (Romans 12:13); “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9); and “Do not neglect to show hospitality” (Hebrews 13:2). In addition, hospitality is part of the qualification of the elder (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:8).

The word translated ‘hospitality’ is derived from “love of strangers or foreigners”.  It is the opposite of xenophobia it is philoxenia. And the command in Romans 13 is to pursue hospitality – to actively look for it.

Furthermore Jesus promises the reward and blessing upon those who will show hospitality, especially hospitality to those who come in his name. “Whoever receives you receives me… whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (Matt 10:40-42). The third letter of John commends hospitality, especially that shown to missionaries and condemns those who refuse to welcome brothers (3 John 5-10). 

It is therefore startling to read in John’s second letter: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works (2 John 10-11).  For some scholars this seems inconsistent with John’s emphasis upon love, and his consistent reminder of the commandment that we have from the beginning “that we love one another” (John 13:34, 1 John 2:7, 3:11, 4:7-12, 2 John 5). They have had real difficulty in accepting this teaching of the scriptures.

The Rev C.H.Dodd was an ordained Congregationalist minister and a world famous New Testament scholar of the mid-twentieth century. He was a Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, given the responsibility of training generations of church leaders. In his commentary on 2 John 10, Professor Dodd wrote that John had “incautiously expressed himself”, and recommended that we “decline to accept the Presbyter’s (i.e. John’s) ruling here as a sufficient guide to Christian conduct” so “rejecting the Presbyter’s ruling upon this point as being incompatible with the general purport of the Teaching of the New Testament, and not really consistent with the teaching of these epistles themselves”. Jesus’ love and death were for the whole world and so it is not “possible to exclude from its operation even the most obdurate heretic”. Thus we must keep on speaking terms with people “however disastrous their error may be”.

But Professor Dodd’s problem was not really John’s inconsistency. His problem was the “harsh note” that John’s teaching sounded “in our ears”. It was neither Christian nor English to ostracize people whose opinions we dislike. To “stigmatize any ‘advance’ as disloyalty to the faith” was to “condemn Christian theology to lasting sterility.”

So how does a Professor of Divinity, a New Testament scholar and an ordained clergyman explain his rejection of the teaching of the New Testament?  Simply by finding a context, outside the scriptures, that would make the Biblical command temporary, local and no longer applicable. It’s a method used to follow the world, rather than the word. It’s not hard to think of disputes, where even so called Evangelicals, use this method.

To discount the clear teaching of God’s word, professor Dodd suggested that John’s advice was for a “situation of extreme danger to the Church”, a situation of “being overwhelmed by a plausible and pseudo-Christian theosophy”, a time when “it was touch-and-go” so that “It is possible that the boycott of heretics was the only policy that could have succeeded in preserving the distinctive witness of the Church”. 

However, professor Dodd admits “we do not now know exactly” how close the emergency was, only that there are “hints” that it was touch-and-go. Presumably the chief hint is the command to boycott false teachers – though that would be rather circular. It is also hard to square the ‘hints’ of being overwhelmed with John’s clearly articulated confidence in the future, seen in the first three verses of 2 John or in 1 John (e.g. 2:20-27, 3:8, 4:4, 5:4).

By this method of so-called ‘scholarship’, John’s commands are reduced to “emergency regulations…in the hour of stress”. Furthermore, on the axiom that “emergency regulations make bad law”, John’s commands are completely rejected for today. It was only ever advice for a particular situation and not of permanent value, except as a “starting point for any discussion of the problem”. Indeed, according to Professor Dodd, while it is ‘possible’ that the boycott was the only policy left to deal with the crisis, “Yet we must doubt whether this policy in the end best serves the course of truth and love, upon which our author lays such stress.”  So even as an emergency regulation it was doubtful!

This method of dealing with politically incorrect scriptures enables people to maintain some degree of orthodox Christian standing while disagreeing with Bible. Yet this is exactly the kind of problem that 2 John is dealing with, people who come in the name of Jesus but teach a gospel different and even contradictory to his. A generation after C.H.Dodd argued against John’s boycott, British establishment scholars and churchmen published the scandalous books Honest to God and The Myth of God Incarnate. They were scandalous not only because they denied the very heart of Christianity, but also because they were written by men who were paid to profess the faith, not undermine it.

Christians must be hospitable, but not naïve. We are not to let false teachers abuse our hospitality to promote false gospels. The creation of purported historical scenarios to re-contextualise the clear teaching of scripture is a false method that evangelicals must avoid. An evangelical is not one who professes belief in the Bible as the word of God, but one who, without twisting it, lives by what it says (2 Peter 3:16, James 1:22f).