Free Speech and False Teachers
Dan Brown's novels (The Da Vinci Code and other books in that series) operate on the belief that there were many different streams of Christianity in the early centuries of the church, but all of them except one were stomped out around the 4th century. This assumption has been popularized in recent decades, despite not having any historical basis, and it resurfaces in our news feed every time some "lost gospel" surfaces. It seems to resonate with our culture's value of free speech - the conviction that no group or idea should be silenced but instead everyone should have a voice. (Don't get me wrong - I love free speech! But I would suggest it is not supposed to be applied towards determining the teachings of Scripture.)
Truly, in our age it is not popular to suggest that a particular interpretation of Scripture or a certain definition of "Christian" is wrong. Religious truths, we are told, are subjective. Unlike facts of science, our beliefs about God, the Bible, and salvation can only be "true" if they are "true for me." What's true for you might be different, and yet it must still be valid.
Dan Brown's version of history may be flawed, but he's not totally wrong. He's just off by a few hundred years. There were competing claims within Christianity, and many of the New Testament letters were written in order to confront and deal with "false teachers," those who taught a variation of the Christian message and who tried to convince churches to follow them. The apostolic authors of the New Testament are much less accomodating than we are, and their approach to different views was very simple: silence it. This Sunday we'll be looking at Titus 1:10-16, where Paul tells Titus to "muzzle" or "stop the mouth" of those whose teaching is wrong.
Keep in mind, he's not telling Christians to go around and stop the mouths of everyone who is wrong (as some seem to take delight in doing). Instead, he is speaking of what we allow to be taught in our church. As Paul says elsewhere (1 Corinthians 5:12, a verse we would do well to reflect on), "What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?" But when it comes to the community of people called to believe and live out God's message of salvation, we must draw our lines clearly and hold them firmly. Though we commit to showing grace and tolerance on less essential matters, when it comes to our core doctrines, there is no room for "alternative doctrines."
In order to take such a hard line on false teaching- or to even use the word "false" teaching- we have to reject the notion of religious truth being subjective. The early church had a standard for truth - God's Word as taught by the apostles sent by Jesus. If someone taught a gospel or doctrine that disagreed with Peter or John or Paul or any of those who had learned from and been sent out by Jesus himself, then they were quite simply wrong.
So yes, the church drove out "alternative" Christianities, but it didn't wait until the 4th century to do so. And likewise, in the 21st century, you will find us confessing historic creeds, carefully restricting who may preach, not promoting popular "Christian" books, and even examining the lyrics of songs before we choose to sing them in our worship. All of this is because we are passionate about the truth of the message of God's salvation, and the responsibility to be faithful to that truth is one we do not take lightly.