Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Back to the task!

Heresy is a bit more difficult to define. Take a look at the early Ecumenical Councils and you will see what I mean. The Monophysites and Nestorians both believed Jesus was divine and human, but their ways of explaining his divinity and humanity were messed up. Basically they either said Jesus’ divinity and humanity were mixed up together or they were so separate as to make Jesus two different persons. Both of these heresies are complicated and I am not going to go into them.

Let’s consider some modern day heresies. Some say Jesus is not the only way to salvation, that is Jesus is not the only way to be forgiven of one’s sins. The person who says this may believe that Jesus is fully human and fully God and that Jesus died for his/her sins, but that Jesus didn’t die for everyone’s sins and one can receive freedom from sin and death without believing in Jesus and becoming a Christian. Others say that the Bible is a book of nice stories but not revelation from God. Still, we can learn from those stories. This person, again, may believe that Jesus is her/his Lord and Savior, and even that he literally died and rose from the dead. She/he doesn’t believe that the Bible is God’s revelation for the salvation of humanity. They are heretics.

My personal favorite modern heresy is the attempt to name the persons of the Trinity in new and different ways. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe God is either male or female. God is spiritual and not physical and therefore does not have gender. And I’m all for women’s rights, including the call of God to women to be leaders in the Church. The problem with changing the names of the person’s of the Trinity is that doing so tends to mess up how we think about the Trinity.

An example. Some try to get around the masculine language by substituting the words, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer for Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There are two problems with this language. First, God is personal. God cannot be defined by job descriptions because God is more than tasks. Second, one cannot so easily divide the work of God into tasks of the Father, tasks of the Son, and tasks of the Spirit. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all involved in creation, redemption and in sustaining the faith of the Church.

Another example. Some simply exchange the feminine “Mother” for the masculine “Father.” Again, there are at least two problems with this exchange. First, Jesus told us to call the Father, “Father.” One of the basics of being a Christian is doing what Jesus says, even if it is politically incorrect. Second, the word “Mother: may suggest or bring up images about God that are untrue. If Mother simply means one who loves and nurtures like a parent, that’s one thing. But mothers also have wombs, and some outside of the Church today, and some, yes, heretics within the Church say that God creates like a mother, that the universe was created in the womb of God. This suggests that God did not create the universe out of nothing but rather that the universe is in some way an extension of God. One more problem: with the rise of Pagan groups such as Wiccans who worship the earth mother, we Christians need to be careful with our language so as not to be heard as agreeing with those who are outside the faith and, to be blunt, wrong about who God is.

What should the Church do about heretics? Certainly we should not ordain them as Ministers of Word and Sacrament! We want people who preach and teach in our congregations to be orthodox! Imagine if someone got up in the pulpit and said that Jesus was not fully human but that his soul was divine, the rest of him was human. Such teaching would have grave effects on the belief that Jesus, the fully divine and fully human person died for our sins. Are sins only done by bodies or are they also done by minds and souls?

Just as important, we need to make sure that those who teach in our seminaries and those who teach religion in our colleges and universities, are orthodox. Do we want those who teach the future pastors of the Church to be heretics and teach heresy to them? I hope not!

It was the practice of the early Church to excommunicate heretics. I am afraid that if we did so we would have almost no church members! Try to find people who know that believing that Jesus is fully divine and fully human is important! We need to do a much better job of educating the average church member. In the 19th Century the average Presbyterian Church member could debate the doctrine of predestination with their neighbors. Of course, in the 19th Century the average Presbyterian Church member had to memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Today our standards are much lower. We need to raise our standards by educating our members.

As to church leaders, particularly Ministers of Word and Sacrament, we need to do a much better job of examining them as to their fitness for office. And we need to be willing to hold all of us to account and discipline (disciple) those who stray. The Church would be the stronger if we insisted on orthodox pastors.

Serious Error

Is there a difference between heresy and serious error? I think so. Let me explain.

Some of my closest friends believe that the Bible does not teach that homosexual sexual behavior is wrong. For that matter, I know some people that believe that a man and a woman who live together and have sex outside the bonds of marriage are not wrong. And just so that you all don’t think I’m fixated on sex, there are those who claim to be Christian and think that whites are better than those of other races. And I could go on to economic theories that clearly violate the doctrine of the sovereignty of God . . .

What is the Church to do with those who are in a state of serious error? The PC (USA) makes it clear that we will not ordain someone who believes that God makes a person whose skin is one color somehow better or more equal than a person whose skin is another color and acts upon that belief by refusing church membership or leadership to those of another skin color. We have, in fact, moved this belief into the area of heresy, as well we should. To say that all humans are not equal before God because of the color of their skin or their ethnic heritage is to deny the doctrine that says all humans are created in the image of God. Should we believe that white folk are created more in the image of God than those with darker skin? Or that those from Northern Europe are created more in the image of God than those from South Asia? This is heresy.

Of course, we white Christians may not believe this heresy but it still resides down in our bones. It is one of the Great American Sins.

The great debate in the PC (USA) today, however, is over questions of sexuality. Personally I would prefer to have a debate about the uniqueness of the person and work Christ. There are far too many out there in the denomination who believe people get into heaven because they are generally good people, not like those evil sinners over there. But of course people mouth the right words, no matter what they really believe.

Anyway, about sexuality, as that is the great debate. I know, we Presbyterians do not all agree about this, but I believe that the Scriptures teach that God created humans male and female for each other. Part of this for each otherness is that men in general exhibit certain traits, at least partially genetic and partially learned, and women in general exhibit certain other traits, also partially genetic and partially learned. This is one of the reasons we need Ministers of the Word and Sacrament who are men and others who are women. In general we have different styles. And that is a good thing.

But God also created males and females for the purpose of forming lifelong relationships called marriage. Yes, part of that lifelong relationship is having children. Now I know, some people when they get married are too old to have children and some are physically unable to have children. But on a practical level if the human race is to continue we have to have children! And the best environment to raise children is in a home with two parents. And yes, (I am now about to enrage the political gay and lesbian community), all other things being equal, children are best raised in a home with a mother and a father. I believe children of both sexes need a female and a male role model. I don’t mean this in a sexist way. Fathers should wash the floors and mothers should cut the grass! I do mean, however, that a boy needs a male role model and a girl needs a positive male figure in her life. A girl needs a female role model and a boy needs a positive female figure in his life. At the very least, teens need to see how their opposite sex parent treats his/her same sex parent, (preferably in a positive way), so that he/she will know what to look for in a mate.

Will all heterosexuals get married? No, they won’t. Some have the calling described by Paul as celibacy. Others, alas, never find mates or their mates die or divorce them. It is God’s intention that sex be a part of marriage because the sexual act binds people together not just in a physical way but also in a psychological and a spiritual way. At least that is what God intends. I don’t understand how people can go out and “hook up” and not feel that something is missing. Maybe something is missing in them.

I know, some will say that as a married man I have no right to speak about the issues of the single people. Every once in a while I imagine what life would be like without my wife and I am devastated by the thought. Being single must take great courage. Just having a spouse to talk with at the end of the day is a blessed gift from God.

I do not believe that God intends for people to live together and have sex together and not be married. Here I define marriage as a lifelong commitment that has been proclaimed in some way to the community. I don’t think that all the modern trappings of marriage are necessary. In fact I find the expense of most modern American marriages obscene. I think it would be sufficient if a Christian couple, after appropriate counseling with their pastor, stood up in Sunday worship and declared that they believed God called them to be husband and wife and to promise each other to love and support one another for the rest of their lives.

As a pastor I find myself continually picking up the pieces after a couple who lived together breaks up. I know, I do the same thing after divorce and the emotional process is very similar. But at least in America today there are some legal protections for those who are married and getting divorced! And further, the commitment of living together just does not rise to the standard God sets before us of lifelong commitment. Living together may be trial marriage or just, “we get along, so let’s share the same apartment and have sex!” God does not intend this for our bodies or our souls. God loves us way too much.

Unfortunately I have to come around to the issue before the denomination: homosexual sexual behavior. I wrote all that stuff above about living together outside the bonds of marriage because that sin is much more common. The truth of the matter, however, is that I cannot believe a presbytery would ordain someone who was involved in a heterosexual sexual relationship outside the bonds of marriage. And frankly I would refuse to ordain someone as elder or deacon who had such a living arraignment.

To put it simply, the debate in the church today, when separated from the political question of ordination, is whether God creates some people with homosexual desires and blesses those desires and invites those with such desires to find mates of the same sex. Let’s assume that we are talking about a couple of men or a couple of women who deeply love each other, who will not have sex with anyone besides their partner, and who, according to the American Psychological Association are in good mental health. Is sexual behavior between two men or two women, who are lifetime, exclusive sexual partners, blessed by God or not?

I know what I am about to say will cause an outcry, but as I read the Bible, the text says that God does not bless such behavior. Besides the passages that talk specifically about homosexual sexual behavior, there is a heterosexual theme in the Bible, from the first chapters of Genesis through the final chapters of Revelation. God creates man and woman for each other. Prophets and apostles and poets write about the relationship between God and Israel and God and the Church in analogy to marriage between one man and one woman. The Bible even has a rather racy book about heterosexual love in it! No where is there any blessing of homosexual sexual relationships.

Some might think that I should have included this in the section under sin. I include it in the category of serious error because, if a leader in the Church tells someone that their sin is not sin, that leader endangers the eternal life of that person. We have to remember that Paul does say that several categories of people, “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” (I Cor. 6:9b-10, NRSV) If the translators of the NRSV have translated this passage correctly, (and frankly I think they mistranslated “male prostitutes: it should read the soft man, referring to the one who is penetrated in a homosexual sexual act) then several categories of people are in danger of not inheriting the kingdom of God. (And yes, I wish we were talking about the greedy! Why do we Americans worry so much about sex and not about our consumerist addictions?) The pastor who preaches or teaches or counsels that one can ignore a strong warning against certain sinful behavior in Scripture commits a serious error.

How shall the Church deal with leaders who commit serious errors? Well, we have a process. If I “borrow” my sermons off the internet and my behavior is discovered, I am sure that the Committee on Ministry in my presbytery would at the very least warn me not to do it again or else! And if I continued in such behavior I suspect that I would be disciplined by the presbytery.

We have had this debate for the whole of my career as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. For all those years the PC (USA) has said that conducting a wedding service for two people of the same sex is not allowed, that ordaining someone who is involved in a homosexual sexual relationship is not allowed, and that God does not intend for humans, no matter what their desires may be, to participate in homosexual sexual behavior. During this time the rules of the denomination have been ignored regularly with little or no discipline for those who break the rules. It seems to me that we could at the very least begin to discipline those who break the rules, who do not keep the promise they made at ordination: “Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?” (The expected answer is, “I will.” If you don’t say “I will,” you don’t get ordained or installed!)

And yes, I will go out on the limb. The time has also come to say that teaching and preaching that homosexual sexual behavior is a gift from God and not a sin is a serious error and must be disciplined.

If anyone is reading this, let the flaming begin!

More on sin and adiaphora later.