Saturday, July 20, 2019

Teaching Heresy

{Note from the author:  this piece should in no way be understood as my take on the worth of anyone within the LGBTQ spectrum or even an understanding about ministry to and with people along the spectrum.  I have written about that previously and would be glad to share if you're interested.  This is a piece that strongly critiques the progressive teaching taking place in the church today.  It is meant to inform those who are unacquainted with these ideas and to provoke further action and dialogue among those who are already thoroughly informed.}

            I recently encountered a perspective which I have considered for some time.  While watching David Watson’s speech to orthodox evangelicals in the Virginia Annual Conference he boldly proclaimed that “expressive individualism” has “run amuck in the United Methodist Church.”  Prior to listening to Dr. Watson I had many thoughts about why I was concerned and opposed to progressive teachings in the United Methodist Church.  His message helped to crystallize for me why we orthodox Methodists are so concerned and why we need to be bolder in our denunciation of progressive teachings.  The general tenor of the message Dr. Watson shared in Virginia pointed to the reality that this “expressive individualism” has supplanted ecclesiological authority in the message and actions of many United Methodist leaders.  He even mentioned his experience with one United Methodist pastor who refuted the incarnation of Christ by quoting Marcus Borg saying, “a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.”  The pastor was saying Jesus was not the very Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, but just a man pointing people to God. 
            This is not the Christian faith.  Progressive teaching is a modern blending of some of the heresies which have plagued the church in one form or another throughout much of our 2000 year existence.  Antinomianism, Arianism, and Pelagianism are just some of the old heresies raising their respective heads in the progressive teaching within the United Methodist Church and other denominations.   First, let me say I know many United Methodists, even traditional United Methodists, who have a hard time thinking of Pelagius as a heretic.  There are many reasons for this, but one of their main issues is the concept of “perfection,” which Pelagius seems to share with John Wesley.  I believe there are major differences between Pelagius and Wesley regarding their understandings of perfection.  Wesley’s concept of perfection is rooted in grace, whereas I think Pelagius’ ideas were more rooted in human determination and will.  Some disagree and are likely to tell you differently, so I don’t want to belabor the point by making too much out of the person of Pelagius.  The point is that whether Pelagius was a heretic or not the teaching known as Pelagianism, as it was understood by the church, was heretical.  It taught moral perfection, as a result of human determination and will, was possible.  Grace was not needed in order to achieve salvation.[i]  Pelagianism was and is an attack on the doctrine of Original Sin, the teaching that humans are born with the infection of sin through our first parents, Adam and Eve.  Interestingly, progressive teaching turns this on its head when it tells us people are born oriented toward homosexual behavior.  It fails to acknowledge Original Sin as the most biblical and theological answer for the nature of such an orientation.  Such teaching expects believers to accept that one’s homosexual, bisexual or transexual orientation at birth, and anytime thereafter really, is a good gift of God.  This doesn't agree with the Bible which plainly states that certain sexual desires can be and in many instances are "an exchange of the truth of God for a lie.”[ii]  It is a complete denial that sin as an infection is part of the human condition we all have to deal with, and the reason we stand in need of salvation through Christ.
Arianism, was an attack on the nature of Christ as the second person of the Trinity, the unique son of God.  Arius taught that Christ was created and therefore not eternal thus not God in the flesh.  He was merely someone, created prior to the rest of us, who pointed us to God.[iii]  We see this in the statements of people like the pastor Dr. Watson encountered who equated Christ to “a finger pointing at the moon.”  According to much of progressive teaching we are supposed to believe the faith Christ taught was not a faith that looked for salvation in his life, death and resurrection, but only in the teachings and lifestyle he espoused.  His death was only an example, and his resurrection only a spiritual reality not rooted in historical fact.  This was the heretical position of former Bishop Joe Sprague of the Norther Illinois Conference in the 1990s and early 2000s, for which he was charged but acquitted. 
When this false teaching about Christ’s nature is fleshed out we begin to see how neatly this fits with the revival of Pelagianism and its refutation of Original Sin.   If there is no original sin then there is no need of salvation in the historical death and resurrection of Jesus.  People are essentially good without the infection of sin and have no need for a cure.  This fits fairly well with a neo-Arianism which doesn’t provide one.  There is only an example to follow, which encourages emotional spiritual expression and work for societal acceptance, but little personal behavioral transformation and in the end no real social transformation.
This all of course has given birth to Antinomianism, which primarily views grace as a license to sin as it discards any concern about the use of the moral law of Scripture.[iv]  John Wesley attacked the antinomianism which was so prevalent in the various teachings of the church in 18th century England.  Whether it was among some of the Moravians who dispensed with all the means of grace until the Spirit moved them, or among the Calvinists whom he thought encouraged it, Wesley countered antinomian teaching by demanding that Methodists seek personal, behavioral and social transformation through participating in all the means of grace, and looking to the Spirit to grant them power to fulfill the moral law.[v]  When entire Annual Conferences pass resolutions to resist orthodox Christian teaching and affirm all expressions of sexuality across the LGBTQ spectrum there is little doubt antinomianism is alive and well in United Methodism and we are out of step with our historical fathers of the faith.
This is not the historic Christian teaching which says the power and presence of the Holy Spirit are given to generate new birth and new energy for holy living.  It is heretical and regressive, not progressive and new.  It is time orthodox Christians come together and condemn this heresy which plagues the church.  Separation is desirable and necessary at this point in the church’s life, but on what basis can we call for separation unless we’re willing to say this non-orthodox teaching is heretical?  If it is just a difference of opinion, as one leading seminary professor has suggested, we have no basis to call for separation, and I’m afraid won’t get much of a hearing from the average person in the pew.  But if we explain it and call it what it is then we have a solid foundation on which to stand and I believe faithful United Methodists will rally to us.
It goes without saying that condemning people is never our prerogative, but condemning false teaching is the responsibility of faithful Christian leaders.  Did not Paul condemn any gospel that refuted his own even if it should be taught by an angel from heaven?[vi]  He urged Timothy to “command certain men not to teach false doctrines,”[vii] and to “correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.”[viii]  Even Jesus instructed his followers to "beware of false prophets" and find ways to provide correction to one another.[ix]  It is our duty not only to treat everyone with dignity and respect but most certainly to condemn such teaching as heresy and to inform faithful United Methodists about what exactly is at stake.

[i] B. L. Shelley, “Pelagius, Pelagianism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic, 2001), 897.
[ii] Romans 1:25
[iii] V. L. Walter, “Arius, Arianism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic, 2001), 95.
[iv] R. D. Linder, “Antinomianism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic, 2001), 70-71.
[v] Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) 106-107.
[vi] Galatians 1:8
[vii] 1 Timothy 1:3
[viii] 2 Timothy 4:2
[ix] Matthew 7:15; 18:15-17

No comments:

Post a Comment