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True and False Dualisms

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Nikita Khrushchev described a period in the Soviet Union’s history when petty theft was a problem, especially in the government-owned plants. Guards were placed at the factory entrances to scrutinize the laborers as they entered and departed. At the Leningrad timberworks, one of the guards spotted Pyotr Petrovich leaving the yard with a wheelbarrow filled with a bulky sack. With the notice of thievery by the workers making its rounds to all the government-owned factories, a guard became dutifully suspicious.

“Come on, Petrovich,” said the guard. “What have you got there?”

“Just sawdust and shavings,” Petrovich replied.

“Come on,” the guard said, “I wasn’t born yesterday. Tip it out.” Out it came—nothing but sawdust and shavings. So he was allowed to put it all back again and go home.

The same thing happened every night all week, and the guard was getting extremely frustrated. Finally, his curiosity overcame his frustration.

“Petrovich,” he said, “I know you. Tell me what you’re smuggling out of here, and I’ll let you go.”

“Wheelbarrows,” said Petrovich.[1]

In Christianity’s desire to think straight in a crooked world (a worthwhile and legitimate goal), the devil has conveniently smuggled in more than a few unholy beliefs that hinder the measuring process. Is it possible that in our desire to rid ourselves of unrighteousness that we are, in fact, looking in the wrong places for the evils that provoke us? While we are scrutinizing the sack of wood chips and shavings, the devil is smuggling wheelbarrows.

Heresy most often enters the church under the cover of some orthodox position. Heresy is like a crooked ruler. While it can never be used to draw a straight line, it is straighter than anything else in the drawer. There is enough straightness in the ruler for it to be called a ruler, but it is out of whack just enough so that it cannot be trusted for making accurate measurements. Irenaeus, a second-century straight thinker, wrote this about the insidiousness of error.

Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to be inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than truth itself.[2]

One of the most pernicious heresies that neutralizes Christians is relational dualism that passes as ethical dualism, the belief that staying away from the stuff of this world will keep us from sin:

  • The spirit is good, the body is evil.
  • Spiritual things are good, material things are evil.
  • Grace is good, law is bad.
  • Heaven is good, earth is evil.
  • God is a God of love, not a God of law.
  • God is our father, not our judge.
  • The soul is good, the mind is bad.

There are other dualisms: Old Testament vs. New Testament, church vs. state, Israel vs. Church, eternity vs. history. Heretical dualisms make ethical opposites (e.g., good vs. evil) into relational opposites (e.g., heaven vs. earth). True ethical dualism is defined as good and evil, obedience and disobedience, holy and unholy, right and wrong, virtue and wickedness, hypocrisy and sincerity, love and hatred, honor and dishonor.

The Christian’s relation to the world is often presented in dualistic terms. Holiness is defined as an escape from this world, if not physically through some cataclysmic eschatological event like a pretribulational rapture, then certainly by being separated from the affairs of this world in an unwillingness to acknowledge that God has made us stewards of His good creation of which one day He will demand an accounting (Matt. 25:14-30). These relational dualisms have been with the church for centuries, and they have been effective in spreading gangrene through what would normally be a healthy body.

Endnotes:

[1] Os Guinness, “The Christian and Society,” in James M. Boice, ed., Transforming our World: A Call to Action (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1988), 52.
[2] Irenaeus, Against Heresies (1.2). Cited in Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984), 6.

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