As I have charted the course of the Christian Church down through the centuries, one thing that stands out to me is how various religious groups have seen fit to emphasize certain teachings and practices above others. At times this seems to have been related to a response to external factors - persecution, the secular philosophy of the period, or the challenge of relating to the broader culture.
Lately my mind has turned to the question of how doctrinal extremes develop. I will not attempt here to offer my opinions on particular teachings that I think are extreme, but rather will identify one specific factor that I believe contributes to the phenomenon of doctrinal imbalance.
Man is a rebellious creature. I do not think he is rebellious simply because he is a fallen being; certainly that is a factor, but another factor is found in another part of his makeup. Being fashioned in the image of his Creator, man was never intended to be dominated by other men. Any time men threaten the freedom of other men, everything within them cries out for freedom - freedom to be realized either by the hand of God or the arm of flesh. In other words, by any means necessary.
It is no wonder, then, that when religious institutions become corrupt and oppressive - either by authoritarian rule or the imposition of limits on the whole counsel of God - men will understandably break away from those institutions. Those who break away will emphasize those aspects of religious expression that were previously restricted; and because their movement is the product of a direct reaction to the undesirable elements within their former tradition, they may heavily accent theological or practical ideas that are in violent opposition to it. In an effort to diminish the influence of the former religious order, they will often go to hostile extremes in the opposite direction.
The question, then, is not whether the sovereign hand of God was at work in the Protestant Reformation, for instance, but rather to what extent there may have been "over-correction" on the part of the reformers. By over-correction, I simply mean that a new faction may "throw out the baby with the bathwater" so-to-speak in an effort to effect a more sound theological or governmental church structure.
One relatively modern example of this can be found in the Pentecostal movement at the turn of the last century. The Pentecostals, after having arisen from the Holiness movement to a large extent, came into an understanding of divine healing. If we go back and read about some of the attitudes the Pentecostals held towards medical science, we will find that they were none too flattering. In many circles, visiting a medical doctor was considered sinful. Even today elements of this attitude are in existence. One of the early Pentecostal denominations split over this very question.
It seems that when God affords insight into particular facets of his Truth not widely known are understood during a moment in history, that people will instinctively gravitate towards this knowledge to such a degree that they abandon other aspects of God's counsel and even good old-fashioned common sense. It is almost as if the attention of men becomes more narrowed as it embraces new understanding, that its capacity to understand other points-of-view becomes inhibited. In my mind, I have no doubt that God provides illumination that seems new to people, but the danger is realized when people take their new-found awareness to an unbiblical extreme, and emphasize it beyond it's intended scope. When this happens, the adherents begin to interpret everything in the light of this "new revelation"; this new realization is erected into a framework within all other theological questions are to be answered, resulting in error. And such area compounds with successive generations until it is corrected.
When we consider some of the more controversial teachings and teachers in the Church today, I think it would be wise to keep this in mind. Some men are very quick to cry heresy and write off ministers because of their perceived imbalance. In many cases, their criticisms and warnings have a great deal of truth to them, but oftentimes if they were held to the same standard they applied to others, they themselves would be condemned.
We should consider the possibility that some teachers, though perhaps extreme, may have diverged from a legitimate truth. And while we must always remain on guard against false teachers, we should all keep in mind that "For now we see through a glass, darkly" from a limited perspective, and that Church history is full of men who got it right in some areas and probably completely wrong in others. A mature man or woman of God does not go out of his or her way to create divisions unnecessarily. If God wrote off every preacher who was in error in some area of their theology, I think we would all be out of a job, and those who would have otherwise come to faith in Christ through our preaching would just have to go to hell.