How to Tell if You’re a Heretic

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.

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The Cross is About Love, not Wrath

Easter season is upon us, and I thought it was a good opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the cross. For all too many Christians, the cross is the great display of God’s wrath let loose on an innocent victim so that we, the guilty, might not have to suffer His wrath.

While we might have many systematic constructions that try to explain this as loving and just, there is nothing in Scripture to give us this notion, and nothing to suggest that the murder of an innocent party might display the love or the justice of God.

While we see God’s justice as retributive (He cannot forgive without punishment), the Scriptures tell us the exact opposite. “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities,” (Psa. 103:10). Jesus, who revealed to us the inner Trinitarian life of the Godhead, shows us the way: we are to “follow in his steps” by imitating Him: “when He was abused, He did not return abuse; when He suffered, He did not threaten; but He entrusted Himself to the One who judges with justice,” (1 Pet. 2:21, 23; see also Matt. 5:38-48; Luke 6:27-31; Rom. 12:17-21; 1 Thess. 5:15; 1 Cor. 4:12-13; 1 Pet. 3:9).

The truth is, God does not need and never needed blood to forgive us. In fact, the punishment of the innocent for the guilty was illegal under the Torah (Deut. 24:11; Ezek. 18:20). God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Hos. 6:6; Matt. 9:13; 12:7). “Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” (Psa. 50:13; 51:17; 40:6; 1 Sam. 15:22; Isa. 1:11; Micah 6:7-8; Prov. 21:3). Yahweh’s declaration is that “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy,” (Ex. 33:19).

God frequently forgives without sacrifice or shedding of blood. The penalty for eating of the Tree of Knowledge was death (Gen. 2:16-17), yet God spared them. No atonement was made. God spares Cain despite the fact that “your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground,” (Gen. 4:10) and preserves Cain from retribution (Gen. 4:15). Yahweh tells Solomon that if Israel humbles herself, prays, and repents, He will forgive them, without sacrifice or atonement (2 Chron. 7:14). A Seraph makes atonement for Isaiah with a coal, not a sacrifice (Isa. 6:7). Sprinkled water will cleans them, not sacrifice (Ezek. 36:22-25). Jesus is constantly forgiving people who have not made atonement sacrifices (Matt. 9:2; Luke 7:48; 18:14) and that “all sins will be forgiven the children of man,” (Mark 3:28), except for the sin of refusing the Spirit.

The Jubilee debt cancellation is a central typology of the cross. Deuteronomy 15 records that the debts of the people were to be forgiven, or cancelled. To cancel a debt means the refusal of the person owed to force the person owing to repay the debt. They were gone and struck from the books, to be remembered no more. Paul declares that Jesus cancelled our debts with the cross: “having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross,” (Col. 2:13-14). If God required the repayment of debt, Paul would not have said it was cancelled, or appealed to the Jubilee liberation for his understanding of the cross. In the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus depicts God as the Jubilee master who “released him and forgave him the debt,” (Matt. 18:27).

Jesus came to destroy the devil and all his works (1 John 3:8; John 12:31-32; Matt. 12:27-29; Acts 10:38; 29:18; Heb. 2:14-15; Col. 1:13, 15; Acts 2:24). Jesus’ death and resurrection is the means by which humanity is led out of slavery (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). Luke 9:31 tells us that “they were speaking about His departure (exodos), which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” His death is the means by which liberation came to the world. He gives “his life as a ransom for many,” and this word “ransom” (lytron) refers to the redemption of being bought out of slavery: “I am Yahweh, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment,” (Ex. 6:6). Paul presents Christ’s death in just this way, as a “release” and a “redemption” (Rom. 3:24; 8:22-23; 1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 1:7-8; Titus 2:14).

It was not God who was estranged from us because of sin, but us from Him because of sin (Eph. 2:1-3). No unfaithfulness of man can nullify the covenant of love and faithfulness which God swore toward humanity (Rom. 3:23, 3-4). He will never abandon us. The cross is the great display of His love toward humanity (Rom. 5:8) by dying for our sakes when we still believed He was our enemy (Rom. 5:10). The cross “makes peace” (Eph. 2:14-16; Col. 1:19-22).

God’s wrath is not revealed toward humanity, but toward Satan and all his minions. The common narrative has it that sin entered the world in Genesis 3, and that from this point on God’s wrath has been exposed against all humanity, and becomes a universal attribute, a component of God’s holiness. But this does not seem to me to be the Biblical witness. In fact, sin and death are the great oppressors of humanity, pictured as the “surface of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations,” (Isa. 25:7). It is an enslaving force that kept humanity “subject to enslavement/bondage,” (Heb. 2:15) in the “domain of darkness (Col. 1:13), a prison set in a deep pit (Isa. 24:22), a “land of deep darkness” where all people dwell (Isa. 9:2). Paul identified the rules of Israel and Rome as colluding with this power (1 Cor. 2:8). Jesus identified it with Gentile power and authority (Matt. 22:25-28), and gave it the name Mammon (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13).

Those who participate in this system of Gentile wealth and power were storing up wrath for themselves by being oppressors (Rom. 2:5). For those who “obey injustice, there will be wrath and fury,” but “if an uncircumcised man keeps the justice of the Torah, his foreskin becomes circumcised,” (Rom. 2:8, 26). Mercy trumps judgment, but judgment without mercy comes for those who show no mercy (James 2:13). Forgiveness will be revoked for those who do not forgive (Matt. 18:32-35). They have identified themselves with Satan, the ultimate one who lacks mercy, and have become oppressors. “Yahweh works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed,” (Psa. 103:6).

Jesus is the ultimate death eater. Isaiah 25:7 presented sin and death as a veil and a shroud that envelops and covers all the peoples. But this statement comes in the midst of a mighty promise:

And He will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord Yahweh will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people He will take away from all the earth,
for Yahweh has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God;
we have waited for him,
that He might save us.
This is Yahweh;
we have waited for Him;
Let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation,” (Isa. 25:7-9).

As we remember and celebrate Holy Week, it is important to remember what is actually going on. Jesus was not murdered by a Father who demands repayment in blood from an innocent victim, like the heathen gods of old. The cross is not the sign of punishment, but of liberation, not of wrath, but of love. It is the mark of release, the place where God was killed and did not retaliate, where God died and in so doing swallowed death.