The horrific tragedy that was the Grenfell Tower fire has been back in the news. Yesterday, it was reported that the Fire Brigade are facing investigation because of their insistence that people should ‘stay put’ as the inferno engulfed the tower. The news has laid out, sometimes in graphic detail, precisely why this would have been good advice but for the renovations on the building that turned it into the worst possible advice. Whilst ‘stay put’ might have been a legitimate response under ordinary circumstances, being as each flat was intentionally designed as a concrete unit through which fire could not spread, it became clear that it was the wrong advice. By the time the Fire Brigade changed tack, it was too late and many lives had been lost.
I spoke yesterday about how heresy often enters the church. It comes under the guise of something that appears fundamentally good but, in reality, is terrible. You can read that article here. But the Grenfell Tower episode offers us a potent illustration of what happens when false teaching has taken hold in a church. When false teaching has taken hold, it can rip through churches and denominations like an inferno.
Just like with Grenfell, it often starts in one small area. But heresy and false teaching has a habit of getting out of hand remarkably quickly. In a well taught, well-led church, it may be that the systems and processes mean that the theological equivalent on a concrete box is built around the individual meaning their heresy can’t spread so easily. But all too often – even in ostensibly good churches – a heretical spark will lead to a fire, and that fire will do its utmost to spread wherever it can. Just as the windows in the tower block – not long refurbished – allowed an escape route for the fire which quickly reached the highly flammable exterior cladding, so heterodoxy will find the weak points in your church.
Again, handled well, fire can be contained and dealt with. It is possible to dampen down the flames and keep it from spreading. But there comes a point at which the only thing to do is to cut your losses and get out. There is a gif that has done the rounds on social media that looks like this:
This is effectively what the poor souls in Grenfell Tower were told and it is a potent reminder of what many counsel within their own churches and denominations. One wonders how bad things must get before some will say enough is enough. There is only so long one can sit in a burning building and say ‘this is fine’ before succumbing to the inevitable and going down with the house.
So it is in the church. We may, rightly, determine that we are not going to bail the moment we hear a fringe adherent voice a theologically inaccurate thought in a Bible study. Were we to do that, we would never stay anywhere more than five minutes. But when such thoughts have made their way from the pews to the leadership, and are being affirmed from the pulpit, might it be time to get out? What about when they have extended beyond one church and are being entertained in multiple pulpits across the country? How about when the national leaders of our denomination are refusing to bring under discipline those who openly disregard the official teaching to which we hold? Will we stay in the building then? What if such heterodoxy starts being affirmed by those supposed to guard and guide our church?
Many of us seem intent on remaining in the burning building until the whole thing comes crashing down around us. Of course, these are not the kind of things from which we simply pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and get on with it. When your house is burning, and you stay put, it rather has a habit of burning you right along with it. At what point do we stop staying ‘this is fine’ and simply get out of there?
In the church, there is certainly a purpose in remaining and fighting against heresy. There is a point at which the house may be saved and your remaining might just help to save it. But let’s not pretend there is also a point at which the house has been lost. It may still be physically standing but there is no hope of turning it around. At that point, we really need to get out before it envelops us and it is too late.
It may be that we are of the view that we will draw our lines and say ‘thus far and not further’. That might well be a good strategy. However, it is no good to let the fire go past those lines and then draw some new ones as if things will be better this time. The same fire is raging and has gone past the point you had determined was the one of no return. There comes a point at which you begin to inhale the toxic fumes even in your bid to fight against the flames.
When fire takes hold there are only two options. You either seek to put it out before it becomes an inferno, or you get out and save yourself knowing that a wreckage will be left behind. There are times to try and stamp out heresy and heterodoxy before it takes hold in the church. But there is also a time to recognise that a place is beyond saving and you must save yourself before you go down with it.