Wolves in Shepherd’s Clothing

-...inwardly they are ravenous wolves.- (1)

Gentle Reader,

I heartily dislike any person who and any teaching that takes Scripture and distorts it. Passionately disdain, if you will. Have trouble concealing my animosity. I want to quote Aaron Sorkin’s creation, President Josiah Bartlet: “No, you’re wrong. Just stand there in your wrongness and be wrong and get used to it.”

Yeah, that whole loving people while speaking truth thing that God wants us to do…I have to work hard on that.

I’m not talking about things that people can legitimately disagree on and still be under the umbrella of historic, orthodox Christianity. My frustration has nothing to do with that. There’s room for colorful people to work together all for the glory of our Savior. I enjoy that kind of spirited diversity, so clearly planned by God.

What sends me into a frothing-at-the-mouth fit are those who masquerade as Christians and aren’t. Those who take the Bible and use it for their own agendas. Those who seek to hide their falseness behind God.

Wolves. In shepherd’s clothing.

Recently I was exposed to a group such a this, one I’d never heard of. The fact that this group had escaped my notice isn’t at all surprising; there are all sorts of cults and semi-cults and plain strangeness floating around out there. I would continue to go about unaware today had not a loved one been hooked by what I hope to convince you is the false teaching of Shepherd’s Chapel, based out of Gravette, Arkansas. (I will not be linking to the Shepherd’s Chapel site or to the sites of any followers referenced in this or future posts, though I will provide enough information for you to search yourself. I will not contribute traffic and therefore legitimacy to these people).

The rabbit hole is deep here, folks. But before we can get into Arnold Murray and his teachings, it is important to step back a century and look at Ethelbert William Bullinger, for he serves as the springboard from which Shepherd’s Chapel emerged.

Bullinger, born in 1837, was active in the Anglican church during the second half of the 19th century. He was a low-churchman, pushing for reform and liberalization of structure. In 1867, he became clerical secretary for the Trinitarian Bible Society and would hold that position until his death in 1913. During his tenure, the TBS was responsible for distributing Spanish-language Bibles following the 1868 revolution in that country, developing a Protestant Portuguese-language Bible and publishing a Hebrew translation of the New Testament. Bullinger himself published three major works, the last of which, the Companion Bible, has had an ongoing impact.

This was by no means an unintelligent man. Bullinger was noted for his skill in translation. He well understood Biblical Hebrew and Greek.

But understanding does not always equal right interpretation or application.

Bullinger’s views began to widely diverge from his contemporaries, first in the arena of dispensationalism. Dispensationalists hold that God has interacted with humans in different ways in different times/eras. The focus is distinctly eshcatological; all true dispensationalists hold to premillenialism and most to a pre-Tribulation rapture of the Church. Crucial to dispensationalists (and Christians in general) is the idea that the Church began on Pentecost.

In contrast, Bullinger taught that the Church began at the close of Acts with what he saw as Israel’s final rejection of God’s grace. The shift in start date appears minor, but it has serious consequences. Bullinger saw the early Christians in Acts as belonging to the “Period Under the Law.” Such a view presents great difficulties, for Paul wrote many letters during the timeline of Acts detailing the interaction of Law and grace; how Christians in general and Gentile Christians specifically were not bound by the ceremonial aspects of the Law. Further, the decisions of Acts 15 make little sense in a “Period Under the Law” context. And if the Church did not begin on Pentecost, just who are the people in Acts? Are they Christians at all?

“Hyperdispensationalism,” as Bullinger’s teaching may be referred to, places serious emphasis on Paul. Proponents believe that the Church is only revealed in the Prison Epistles. Many, though not all, therefore do the Reformers one better and reject every sacrament, for Paul taught neither water baptism nor Communion in his later letters. This presents us with a fantastic example of removing individual texts from the whole, for, taken together, Paul’s teaching in these later letters is consistent with his teaching in the letters found within the Acts timeline.

The emphasis on Paul is troubling in another way, for it contains an extremely subtle anti-Semitism. (We will see this play out as we get into the teaching of Arnold Murray and Shepherd’s Chapel). While dispensationalists in general are not supercessionists (meaning that the Church replaces Israel), dividing the “Jewish Church” from “the Church” as Bullinger and other “Acts 28” hyperdispensationalists do leaves a distinct impression. If the “Jewish Church” in Acts existed under Law and “the Church” of the Prison Epistles and into today exists under Grace, then surely “the Church,” without all of the obligations to ceremony and ritual and distinct lifestyle, is “better.”

This stance of “betterness” makes greater sense in light of the Victorian age in which Bullinger lived. These years saw the rise of British Israelism, which asserts that the people of Western Europe, England especially, are the descendants of the 10 “lost tribes.” This view helped give rise to the “Christian Identity Movement,” which essentially offers a white supremacist interpretation of Christianity.

The years of Bullinger’s life were marked by society’s massive and intense interest in all things spiritual. False religions wearing a Christian mask exploded during the 19th century – Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, to name a few. Thus Bullinger was in good, bizarre company when he taught:

* soul sleep. Upon death, a person exists only in the “memory” of God. This inert state is maintained until the Resurrection and judgment. From this often follows the teaching of annihilationism, meaning that people cease to exist in any way upon death.

* a denial of the Holy Spirit’s person-hood. This lands Bullinger squarely in the non-Trinitarian camp, condemned as heresy for a couple thousand years.

* the “Gap Theory” of creation. There exists an unspecified amount of time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 during which God created the world, destroyed it and made it again.

* the Gospel message is encoded in the Zodiac.

* emphasis on Biblical numerology.

* Noah and his family were spared death in the Flood because of their genetic perfection. (Seeds of racial supremacy).

* “two Adams,” based on an incorrect handling of “adam” and “‘eth-‘Ha adam” in Genesis 1 and 2. (This is a cornerstone of Shepherd’s Chapel teaching and something we will examine at length).

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list. Humorously, Bullinger may have been a member of the Universal Zetetic Society. They believed that the Earth is flat.

Bullinger’s denial of the Trinity is enough to place him outside the umbrella. Modalism, the heresy that God has revealed Himself in three ways or forms throughout history rather than existing eternally in Trinity, was condemned as early as Justin Martyr’s First Apology, dated to 155-157 A.D. He wrote: “For they who affirm that the Son is the Father, are proved neither to have become acquainted with the Father, nor to know that the Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God.” Hippolytus’ Against Noteus in 203 A.D. and Tertullian’s Against Praxeas in 213 A.D. stand as further early witnesses to the Church’s affirmation of the Trinity.

The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, drafted in 381 A.D., states:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

And [we believe] in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us, humans, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and became fully human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. He suffered death and was buried. He rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who in unity with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. [We believe] in one holy universal and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.

If any part of the creed is objectionable to a teacher (excepting the East-West schism over filioque, a fascinating topic but beyond the limits of this piece) then the witness of the Church through the ages is clear: The teacher is not Christian.

Whether or not E.W. Bullinger is in Heaven today is not something I can know. I believe that each one of us has the opportunity to embrace truth up until the very last moment of life. God is gracious and merciful. If he chose to cling to his denial of the Trinity and his other at-the-very-least odd beliefs, then he is not in the presence of God. I hope that he rejected all of it and asked Christ to save him.

The trouble is, Bullinger was a teacher. A leader. He left a large body of work for others to run with. This is precisely what Arnold Murrary and Shepherd’s Chapel has done.

Until next time.

My journey to faith. (15)For all the posts in the Wolves in Shepherd’s Clothing series, go here.

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