Latest posts by Greg Goebel (see all)
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In the conservative Christian movement, we hear and talk a lot about liberal or progressive heresies. But those heresies are the low hanging fruit of theology. Its easy to point out that universalism, denying Christ’s divinity, re-writing sexual ethics to conform with popular whim, or turning the Bible into a secondary historic curiosity with no authority are heresies. Those things have been called heresy for thousands of years. We should point these things out, and we do point them out, and for the sake of souls we need to continue to do so.
But we are hesitant to point out the heresies of the conservative Christian movement. Perhaps this comes from the culture war mentality. You don’t worry so much about your side’s faults during a battle, unless they seem fatal to the cause. And you try not to undercut your allies.
But whether it is coming from our modern left or right, heresy doesn’t cure souls. And often both left and right embrace the same heresies under different names.
We, this movement, this group, we have these issues in our outlook. And they border on or are already identified as heresy.
So what are they? Here are three.
The Sovereign Individual
In American evangelicalism, we are taught that the individual person’s personal relationship with God is the primary and singular fact of his or her experience of the Christian faith.
Baptism is not something God does to us, its something we do for God. Salvation is not linked to baptism (as St. Paul linked it), but instead to a personal prayer or conversion experience alone.
Each Christian is supposed to develop individual biblical “positions” on every topic, and hold firmly to those even if the Church fathers, their priest, and their mother disagree.
Being at worship on Sunday is an accessory to this personal, individual faith. It helps us. It assists us. And when it feels like it isn’t assisting us, we find a new church or we just study the Bible at home. As long as my personal, individual soul is feeling close to God, I’m good.
This heresy is not much different than modern progressive notions about the self. The person is not working toward a telos, an end designed by God, but is instead creating his or her own ends. The individual is not one important, but lesser, part of a long tradition, but instead can chuck tradition based only on his or her personal perspective. Different names, same idea.
The orthodox, Christian view of these things is different. Orthodoxy doesn’t deny the individual, personal experience. Instead, it affirms them. But the individual is always a part of a whole community. And the individual is not working to get God to do things. He is being drawn into union with God, by God. Its always about relationship.
And the relationship is not not just an invisible relationship with God, but through visible means. The Church, the sacraments, ministry, giving, serving. These communal actions are the “how” of relationship. As St. John wrote, “he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” Jesus is creating a People, not a bunch of individuals who like him, but who don’t really know each other that well.
This is radically different than the individualism that we often practice in conservative Christianity. And in order to cure souls with the Gospel, we need to continue to show people a better way.
Prosperity and Blessing
I did some study of the Pharisee movement in the past. They were a fascinating group that we should really reflect on more than we do.
One of the major beliefs of the Pharisees (even within diverse expressions of Pharisaism), was the idea that Psalm 1 is a charter for the blessed life.
“Blessed is the man who…”
They interpreted that Psalm to mean that if you look around your town, and you see some healthy and wealthy people, they must be the people that God has blessed. They’ve done something right. They are the godly people.
If you see poor, sick people, then obviously God has cursed them. They are the wicked people.
Today’s prosperity Gospel substitutes godly for “anointing” or “faith.” But before we get self-righteous about the TV Preachers, we have to look in our own mirror.
We preach the same stuff quite often. We don’t necessarily say that God wants everyone to be fabulously wealthy, etc. But we do mix up middle class values, American success stories, and healthy living with godliness and faithfulness.
Why is it that in a country that is 80% Christian, we assume every homeless person needs to meet Jesus? Statistics should indicate that most of them are already Christians. Why do we think they might not already know and love him? Because they are dirty? Because they have problems? Because they might be sick, or addicted, or perhaps might have difficulty adapting to our social conventions?
This shows us that we see being a faithful Christian not so much as being baptized, believing in Jesus, and abiding in him as being middle class, clean, and healthy. And this way of thinking also has a terrible history of racism associated with it. “Those” people – whether in our neighborhood or in other places – can’t possibly be good Christians like we can.
I’ve been privileged to meet Christians from all over the world – many very poor by our standards. This experience has challenged my subconscious notions that you have to be a middle class American to really be “a good Christian.”
I’ve also known many folks who are struggling, living on the street or with economic challenges. Many of them are already strong believers in Jesus.
Most of those folks want to enter the middle class, be healthy, and be stable, and often churches and church groups are there to help. Most Christian people I’ve met from impoverished countries work tirelessly to help their fellow citizens emerge from poverty. It is a Christ-like thing to do to help others to find a more stable life.
But when we define godliness and faithfulness as anything except loving and being loved by Jesus and people, we are going down a Pharisaical path.
And this heresy is really just another name for the Social Gospel. The Social Gospel was the 20th century liberal name for the idea that all Jesus really wants to do is make the world healthy and happy. The conservative version is not much different.
And it crushes souls. I’ve seen far too many conservative Christians crushed under the weight of a diagnosis or a sudden job loss. Not just the crushing blow of grief or sorrow, but the crushing blow of believing they are being punished. They have believed for their whole lives that their bank account or their health was a sign of God’ s favor, and that they weren’t like those people outside the church. And when life obliterates that, what is left? Is God angry with me? Did I sin? Am I not truly saved?
Its time to own up to the deadliness of this heresy, and to repent of it. Its time to look to Jesus, God dying on a cross, as our example of faithfulness, rather than to our false notions of success.
It should be obvious that Christians do not believe that our system of politics can save the world. After all, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And his greatest victory was to allow himself to be crucified by the political and social powers of his day.
And we know that the poor, powerless virgin Mary is one of the most influential people in the history of the world, simply by saying “yes” to God and being a mother.
And we know that the Apostolic church turned the world upside down, despite the fact that all of the Apostles themselves were killed (or exiled) and that the church was politically powerless and had no influence whatsoever over laws and courts.
Yet we do forget that because when we use the power of the Holy Spirit rather than the sword of power, nothing apparently happens.
I mean things happen, but we can’t really see them. They are dim to our eyes most of the time. And its always possible to interpret the Spirit’s work as “nothing happening.” Eyes are not always open to see it, nor ears to hear it. Mustard seeds take years to turn into giant mustard trees. Patience, faith, and trust are not top political values.
When we love, and give, and forgive, and serve we are serving in Christ’s kingdom. Yet it doesn’t often make any headlines.
Passing legislation feels good. Overturning rulings is historic. Gathering a crowd, mobilizing voters, and winning an election is dramatic. And these are normal and important ways we can participate in politics. They can do much good and many of us are called to lead social change.
But America – and any nation – is not the Kingdom of God. America is not a covenant nation, set up by God as a way that he can oversee or rule the world. The kingdom of God does not rise and fall with the fortunes of the American (or any other) rise and fall. These things pass away but God’s kingdom lasts forever.
Conservative Christians tend to mix this up. We tend to think that politics is where things really get done, and that worship, evangelism, and ministry are kind and good things, but not radical things to do. At our worst, we see the church and our faith something we do in order to be good citizens of our nation.
But the Gospel is radical. It challenges our nationalism with a new vision. A vision in which we forgive and pray for our enemies. A vision in which we believe that prayer is powerful, worship is reality, and Eucharist is a subversive act. And when we are involved in the political sphere, we see ourselves as working for the common good, rather than working to win coercive power.
And once again, this heresy is closely related to the progressive heresies. Both groups believe that if they can just win enough political power to remake the laws, that then, and only then, will heaven on earth be achieved (or something like it).
But this also creates more sickness and does not cure. How many disappointments will it take for us – here in America – to really see that while we must remain engaged with politics, they won’t save us?
And when that times comes for us, will we take up the cross, and follow Jesus? Probably not. The disciples all fled instead of taking up crosses when Jesus was crucified. But he will find us, like he found Peter on the beach, feed us, and send us out again to save people instead of using people to gain power.
These heresies do not save people. In fact, they often push people away from salvation. If we want to be faithful to the Gospel, to Jesus, and to the orthodox Christian tradition that has been passed on to us, we need a radical re-orientation.
We need to see ourselves as individuals who are always in relationship. We are always in community. We matter. Our personal story matters. But we aren’t creating an identity outside of Christ and the Church. This includes the Church on earth now, and the Church with Christ now. Our identity is in him, with him, by him, and for him – and through him it is with each other as One Body.
We need to ask for our eyes to be open to the pain, sorrow, sickness, and poverty that afflicts many people. It afflicts Christians and non-Christians. It affects saints and sinners. The Christian message of salvation is about union with Christ within our lives, not as an escape from life.
And we need to see that the Gospel subverts the power plays of human systems. Real power is in teaching a child the catechism, or taking the eucharist to a sick person, or feeding the hungry in Jesus’ name. That’s a revolution.
What We Have
We have the Bible, the message of the Gospel, and faith in Jesus. We have churches, institutions, and charitable service agencies. We have a lot of powerful ways to serve and love Jesus. If we let these heresies go, we have so many ways we can help bring healing through the power of the Gospel.
So for the love of our communities, lets not stop talking about our heresies, even as we warn people about the heresies of outside groups. Lets admit that we need to repent too. And then rising, let us fear not, and be on our way.
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