Because of my recent work on LGBTQ issues and a variety of other theological changes I have gone through in the last year or so, a number of concerned individuals have expressed “concern” about me. Now, in evangelical circles, you know you’re in trouble when people start to express concern, or say they’ll “pray for you.” These are polite ways of saying you’ve gone off the path and they’re worried for your soul–a sort of Christian equivalent to the Southern practice of concealing an insult behind the expression, “bless their heart.”
Evidently–for reasons that are completely beyond me–some evangelicals see the love of God expressed toward gay people to be the equivalent to apostasy. Looking past my befuddlement for the moment, I started thinking about apostasy and the nature of heresy.
Originally, heretics were those who deviated from Paul’s assertion that Gentiles can be vindicated by faithfulness and perseverance in justice and mercy, those who claimed instead that everyone must adhere to the “works of the Torah,” by circumcision and the purity rites of the Torah in order to be vindicated before God. This is what the Pharisees were up to–they focused on the minutia instead of on the heart of the Torah, mercy and justice and doing good deeds, loving their neighbor as themselves. So the original heretics were people who elevated non-essential matters into the heart of things and twisted everything out of shape because of that. Since evangelicals like to elevate everything to the level of faithfulness to the gospel, they might do well to dwell on this for a while.
Today, however, we are pretty happy to apply the “heresy” label to anyone we don’t agree with or who expresses something we are not used to hearing. We don’t like unfamiliar things (apparently, they’re scary and dangerous), and so we apply the “heresy” label to shut up any opposition like the little authoritarians we are. The problem with this approach, of course, is that there will always be people who want to know why something is supposedly off-limits and anathama. They might even read people outside of the approved lists, and generally, they find out these things aren’t heretical, though they might be a bit different from what they’re used to.
The trouble here is that a heretic is a person that goes outside the bounds of the orthodox faith, not somebody who goes outside the parochial reservation of conservative evangelicaldom. The boundary of orthodoxy is generally considered to be the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, which are ecumenical.
That is, unless someone is denying something in the ecumenical creeds, they aren’t a heretic. The things in the creeds are essentials. Everything else is adiaphora, non-essential. The fact that someone disagrees with the Westminster Confession of Faith or the 39 Articles does not make them a heretic, because these confessions are parochial, not universal. They are not binding on the whole Church.
This forces us to distinguish between the things we believe are right, and the things we believe are required. One must believe that Jesus died for us and our salvation, according to the Creeds. One is under no obligation to hold any particular explanation of how Jesus died for us and our salvation, even if that explanation is right. When the universal Church settles on a doctrine of justification, we can have an ecumenical council to add it to the essentials. Until that time, we are free to explore a variety of interpretations.
Now, justification is a pretty important issue, and even it is not a part of the ecumenical creeds. What then of a minor dispute concerning how to read a mere seven passages that may or may not be relevant to gay people today? Such a discussion is so far out in the adiaphora that you can hardly see it because of all the weeds.
So if you think accepting LGBTQ people is heresy, or apostasy, or some other nasty label used to slap around people’s consciences, please do remember that there are essentials and there is adiaphora. The essentials are in the ecumenical creeds. The adiaphora is not. The particular construction of doctrines in the Creeds are not in the Creeds.
So please. Cool your jets. Loving gay people does not endanger the ecumenical creeds, the Trinity, the virgin birth, the death of Christ for us and our salvation, His death and burial, His descent into death, or His resurrection and ascension, nor His kingdom or His bodily return to judge the living and the dead. It does not end one’s belief in the Father or that Jesus was His Son, the Word of the Father come in the flesh, nor the procession of the Spirit or the holy and apostolic Church, the resurrection of the dead, or the life of the age to come.
If you deny one of these things, you’re a heretic. If you don’t, you’re not. And that’s how to tell if you’re a heretic.