For the last two thousand years or more the church of Jesus Christ has been plagued by heresies. The charge heretic has been leveled, sometimes justly and sometimes unjustly, at a myriad of perceived errors and wanderings from orthodoxy. The word heresy literally means choice, and refers to a choice a person makes when he wanders from the teaching of the Bible in favor of his own choice.
Of course, the charge of heresy is often used flippantly as a way to dismiss anyone who doesn’t agree with a denominational distinctive or particular brand of evangelical faith. Unfortunately, in some circles, if you don’t align with a specific view of the return of Christ, mode of baptism, choice in pets or politics, you are in danger of being labeled a heretic. It is important to recall the difference between the essential teachings of the Christian faith and those more peripheral doctrines with which we can be free to disagree and still be faithful to the core of the faith. We would do well to remember the saying, In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things love.
In spite of the careless and inappropriate use of the label, it’s important to note that the apostles and the early church were not afraid to denounce error as heresy. The Apostle Paul did not mince words when he said to the churches of Galatia, If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! (Galatians 1:9). Likewise, Peter warned against false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves (2 Peter 2:1).
This does not mean that every time a Christian has imprecise theological thinking they should be called a heretic. If that were the case, all of us would be so labeled! We see in the pages of the New Testament a loving correction of erroneous thinking about God. For example, in Acts 18:26 we find the husband and wife team of Priscilla and Aquila gently correcting the gifted teacher Apollos as they explained the way of God more adequately. Even the apostles corrected each other. When Peter seems to get off track in his understanding of Jew-Gentile relationships as they relate to the great doctrine of justification by faith, Paul has a face-to-face conversation with him to correct his blunder. We, too, should be slow to label and quick to gently correct when imprecision creeps into our thinking about God. A grace-saturated church should leave ample room for believers to grow in their understanding of the Bible.
As heresies have arisen in the history of the church they have been defined and denounced. Most often we have seen this when the church has written creeds and confessions. Creeds and confessions are concise summations of biblical teaching that were meant to clarify and educate Christians as to the teaching of the Bible. Many scholars believe that the New Testament itself has early creedal statements embedded in it. One example is 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 where Paul appears to be reciting an early doctrinal summary of essential Christian beliefs. Of course as the early church grew, and as the New Testament was written and distributed, more precise statements of belief became necessary as the early church battled against heresy. Statements like the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed helped to guide and guard the church in more nuanced and exact thinking about the gospel.
Several heresies arose in the second and third centuries as Christians struggled to understand the nature of Jesus and of the triune God. For example, the hugely influential North African bishop, Arius, taught that Jesus was created by the Father, not eternal, and hence not fully God. This heresy, now referred to as Arianism, afflicted the church for centuries and still shows up today in groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A third century priest named Sabellius taught that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were three different modes or ways God had revealed himself and not three distinct persons of the Godhead. This heresy is most commonly known today as Modalism. Another heresy from this era is called Docetism. The Docetists taught that Jesus was not fully human. There were other heresies in the early church with daunting names such as Subordinationism, Adoptionism, Apollinarianism, and Pneumatomachianism, all of which conspired to muddy the waters of clear biblical thinking.
Enough talk, though, of historical errors. What about the believing Christian at SBCC? Where are we prone to heretical thinking? Allow me to suggest that most of us, at various levels of fault, fall prey to what I am calling the subtle heresy. It is not always easy to spot, either in others or ourselves. It is not as egregious as denying the divinity of Jesus, but can still cause great harm to our faith. This heresy can disappear for lengthy seasons only to reappear when life circumstances turn south. The father of this heresy is a man named Marcion.
Marcion lived during the second century in what is now modern-day Turkey. Marcion taught that the God of the Old Testament was fundamentally different from the God found in the New Testament. Hence, Marcion rejected the authority of the Old Testament and in the process tried to rid Christianity of all traces of Judaism. The end result was that Marcion ended up creating his own Bible that included only a shortened version of Luke’s Gospel and ten of the thirteen letters of the Apostle Paul. Even in Paul’s letters Marcion cut out all the Old Testament citations! Marcion’s temptation (and ours) was to pick and choose the parts of the Bible that he liked and that fit in with how he understood the world. This subtle heresy may have begun with Marcion, but certainly didn’t end with him. Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, famously created his own Bible that was in harmony with his own prejudices and worldview. Jefferson literally cut and pasted, with a razor and glue, numerous sections from the New Testament excluding all miracles by Jesus and most mentions of the supernatural, including sections of the four gospels which contain the resurrection and passages indicating Jesus was divine.
Marcionism is the subtle heresy. This is the tendency in each of us to pick and choose those portions of Scripture we enjoy, which don’t offend our life experience, and then ignore the rest. I believe that there is a bit of Marcion in most of us. When the disappointments or sufferings of life close in on us, it is more than tempting to either ignore or jettison those portions of the Bible that challenge us.
Over almost four decades as a pastor, sadly, I have witnessed many believers cut and paste their Bibles when the truth of God’s Word became uncomfortable or personally untenable in light of their current circumstances. A parent dies prematurely of cancer, a dear Christian friend announces that he is acting out on his same-sex attraction, a heartbreaking divorce devastates, a twenty-something coworker is tragically killed in a car accident, a college friend Facebooks that she is moving in with her boyfriend, a son or daughter leaves the faith. These unwanted, but real life situations can unsettle any believer and will cause some Christians to succumb to the subtle heresy. Often, in the face of grave disappointment or pain, we ignore, cut and paste, rationalize and re-explain those portions of the Bible that are seen to be offensive. With Marcion, we tend to run from our theological and biblical convictions when they become personally uncomfortable and don’t quite fit with perplexing life situations.
Let me offer just one story to illustrate Marcion’s pernicious temptation. Many years ago, our friend (I’ll call Jane), had a random, tragic accident that came extremely close to ending her life. Jane was a committed believer at the time, and my wife and I had enjoyed warm fellowship and ministry in the gospel for many years. After a week in the hospital and time in rehab she eventually recovered from the accident. At the same time of the accident Jane was having an affair and had been unfaithful to her marriage vows. Jane’s life and faith were clearly in turmoil. She eventually made the decision to leave her husband and join her lover. In our conversations, Jane’s language about God and the Christian life began to change dramatically. She began to speak about her God who at times bore little resemblance to the God of the Bible. Passages of the Bible that I know Jane had long believed and obeyed were being discarded, ignored or refashioned. Sadly, Marcion’s temptation won the day.
Allow me just two suggestions that may be helpful in not capitulating to Marcion’s temptation and subtle heresy. First, decide before tragedy comes into your life what you believe about God and his goodness. It is difficult to think clearly in the midst of suffering and bewilderment. Second, decide before the circumstances turn your life upside-down if you actually trust what God says in the Bible. Think biblically about some of the more troubling issues of our day and your life, humbly asking God to give you the grace to be faithful even when it is not comfortable. And lastly, consistently remind yourself that God’s will for our lives is always good news, even when it is hard to swallow.
Carolyn Custis James (SBCC’s recent retreat speaker) has written a book titled, When Life and Beliefs Collide. I have not yet read the book, but the title is intriguing. Life and beliefs do, indeed, often collide. And when this inevitable collision takes place, all Christians will have a spiritual life-defining decision to make. Will we abandon the authority of the Bible, succumb to Marcion’s temptation and rearrange our biblical convictions to suit our current circumstances, preferences and pain? Or, will we humbly accept that God has spoken?