Well, it has happened again. Somebody said something, tweeted something, wrote a cartoon, produced a piece of art, or otherwise presented an opinion. Then their world exploded. It's an all too common story these days and a recent personal experience gave me a new perspective on the issue.
I was recently involved in a discussion which, while it remained civil, didn't seem to produce much fruit at the end of the day. The specific topic doesn't matter so much because I think we've all had similar experiences. Out of the whole experience, the phrase that stuck out to me the most was this one: "Your intent doesn't matter nearly as much as the impact it has on [others]."
This phrase crystallized a thought I had been having for a while but couldn't quite put my finger on. I had, like many of you, been frustrated by the new cultural reality that "No matter what you say, SOMEBODY is going to be offended." This competition between a speaker's intent and the impact of their words helped me to understand something profound about our culture.
We have become truly intellectually lazy.
We are confronted with so much information and data these days, that it is much easier to simply be offended by something that we disagree with or that challenges our worldview. It's simpler to be blindly offended than to try and dig into what was said, interpret it correctly, and gain an understanding of the other person and their thoughts. We still might be offended, but at least it will be offence at what the author meant to say.
When I was a young boy my mother used to tell me not to "judge someone else until I've walked a mile in their moccasins." These days she'd be accused of cultural appropriation. Her intent however, wasn't to appropriate native culture, but rather to teach me the importance of understanding the other side of an issue before coming to a conclusion myself. In my experience, this is something that vast swathes of people are no longer interested in doing.
Words have power. Nobody who is being honest denies that. Words also, however, have many meanings, and their meanings become even broader when we see the context in which they are written. Additionally, we communicate more and more in text form, even though we know that most of our communication and meaning comes from non-verbal cues and body language. It's much easier to read words on a page and decide what they mean to us rather than spending the time and effort to figure out what the writer meant to say.
The power of words is almost immeasurable. A misinterpreted statement can lead to someone's entire life being ruined. Remember Justine Sacco? How about the meme one dumb tweet spawned #hasjustinelanded? For the unfamiliar, Sacco was a PR rep who tweeted a really poorly thought-out joke that went super-viral while she was on a plane. Jon Ronson wrote a great piece on the whole affair. Ronson raises a few great points about public shaming, its history, and punishments fitting their crimes. I really encourage you to read it.
We ought to take the time and care to read things well, to suss out the meaning that the writers intend, to make sure we get the intended meaning right before we get offended and call down the wrath of the internet on people. Am I defending the Sacco tweet? Of course not, it was (and still remains) a stupid joke that went beyond its intended audience. Someone in PR really ought to have known better, but should she really have had to lose her job over it? Does that punishment fit that crime?
The impact that our words have matters, it matters a great deal. But does it matter more than the intent? Allow me to submit that it does not. Intent matters more. Intent ought to matter much more! If we get the intent wrong, the impact we feel, especially when we are wronged or offended, is manufactured by us. It isn't real. It's "fake offense."
There is a lot to be offended by in the world today. We have much more power to effect change through the Internet today than ever. Let's not misuse that power. Let's make sure we get offended for the right reasons, and let's seek justice for the truly wronged.
As a Biblical conservative, a cultural Liberal, a husband, a dad, and a pastor, I want to see the church act differently in the world. My big passion in ministry is to see how believers can bring the Gospel into the world around them while pursuing the lost art of winsomeness. It is what fuels me and drives me to write. Engaging culture with the truth of the Gospel in a way that is winsome, wise, and as Colossians 4:6 directs us: “seasoned with salt.” It’s my hope that what I say here helps you not only in your own faith, but helps you share it more effectively and fruitfully.
Religion is Absurd
Have you ever considered how utterly ridiculous faith traditions are? Faith is an irrational experience and no believer is immune, we just think we are because It’s easy for us to see the silliness of other religions while holding fast to the objective truth of our own. To us, our faith is normal while others appear strange, but the truth is that ours is no less weird.
Religious practice is a profoundly complex phenomenon and will always appear bizarre outside of its immediate context. Whether it is a monotheism or pantheism, most cultures have developed intricate ideas about a higher power because people are simply trying to make sense of existence with incomplete information. It's not surprising that we develop unusual ceremonies in an effort to worship God better.
If we’re not careful we can develop a tendency to look upon other religious traditions with apathy, pity, or even contempt because it doesn't fit nicely within our theology. We don’t understand the significance that the specific practice holds, or the meaning that these rituals have for their adherents. We are too caught up in our own weird beliefs to be concerned with understanding the beauty and truth that other faith traditions may offer.
At this point I would like to offer a caveat: embracing the potential goodness of other religions also includes accepting that sometimes they may be wrong as well. Finding the beauty in faith traditions does not mean we need to be blind to evil. As always, please use discernment when evaluating faith claims.
Religion is Complicated
On an excursion in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico my wife and I endured a time-share presentation to get tickets to a city tour. We visited downtown Vallarta and saw the arches on the Malecon, we toured a local Tequila distillery and had lunch at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by forest and a beautiful creek with large rock bluffs. It was a very serene environment, but there was more to it than meets the eye.
Exiting the bus, we were first greeted by some sales kiosks selling obsidian knives and dream-catchers (because even remote Mexican villages aren't immune to capitalism). As we walked past, our guide informed us that the shaman would “cleanse our spirit” so that we could enter what I assume is a sacred spot. We walked past as the shaman chanted, shook some beads and engulfed us with incense.
We were then instructed to pick up a stick adorned with strings and feathers that would “give us a dream”, then we were to walk along the creek and stick it into the mud where the shaman was spreading the incense and chanting again. From what I understood, putting the stick into the mud was supposed to take away the dream that we had been given. At this point we were free to enter.
I determined that the whole ordeal was absurd. Was there anything about this ritual that actually affected the physical world? Did this experience change anything for non-Huichol people? Maybe it's just my skepticism but I don't see how it would.
It wasn't long before I remembered that we aren't immune from the absurdity of ritual either. Most Christians practice the sacrament of Holy Communion (Eucharist, Lord's Suppers, Mass, etc) but, when viewed from the outside, it is just as ludicrous as any Huichol dreamcatcher ritual. The body and blood of Christ, are you serious? I'm not even going to mention belief in the virgin birth, resurrection of Jesus, or baptism and miracles; Non Christians don't have a monopoly on peculiar religious belief and practice.
The true meaning of the Eucharist has been fought over for many years without ever achieving a consensus. Massive groups of Christians still can't agree on the objective meaning of it and it is one of the sacraments of the Christian Church! Regardless of orthodoxy, it still holds a profound significance for those that practice it and has the power to be internally transformative. Outsiders may not even be aware that different interpretations of our rituals exist and that we think the others way of practicing it is strange, too. But, strange as it is, it is still meaningful to us.
Just as ancient Jews misunderstood the significance of the Lord’s Supper to Christians, maybe we misunderstand the significance of a Native American sweat lodge or a Sikh Kurpan. We aren't even aware of that which we don’t know; it is possible that we misunderstand more than we actually know about other traditions. As western Christians we generally don’t even take the time to comprehend religious events of other types of Christians—like Meskel which is performed by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians—nevermind understanding liturgies performed by adherents to other religions. We disregard them because they seem peculiar and unnecessary, but we haven't taken the time to try to understand their beauty and significance. Maybe we should take the time.
Religion is Beautiful
It is my suggestion that religious rituals are meant to produce something within us, rather than affecting the world around us. In that way the presence of God can be found even in the practice of non-Christian rituals (yes, evil can be found within other faiths, just as it can within ours). I’m sure that makes many Christians uncomfortable as I can't say that I am entirely comfortable with the statement either but please bear with me. God is everywhere, if non-Christian rituals produce fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control then they are doing God's work. It is my view that requiring an exclusive reference to Jesus (as the literal man that walked this planet), could limit the work of God if He is truly omnipresent. Maybe understanding Jesus in a more cosmic way would be healthier and maybe it will let us truly see the God that works everything out for good.
Don't panic! These words are controversial enough to require more clarification: I am not attempting to speak about salvation here, only praxis. But, since we are on the subject it is my belief that attributing the saving power of Christ to an acknowledgement of a very limited understanding of an omnipresent God is a weak presentation of the gospel. If Jesus is the best representation of God and God is good then Jesus, and His Kingdom impact, can be found anywhere there is good.
So, religious practice doesn't actually accomplish anything. Religious practice becomes something that is meaningful to the practitioner and no one else. It becomes a way to commune with God in a way that isn't defined by the world. It's meaning is only derived by the change affected in the heart of the worshipper. It becomes a way for communities to bond over common beliefs. So, maybe I’m wrong, religious practice does accomplish something, it changes us so that we change the world. Maybe it isn't absurd after all.
I write about my story. The story about how I became a pro-life (womb to grave) liberal, confident arminian, reluctant charismatic, cautious progressive creationist, tentative conditionalist, utterly wretched without Christ, corporate complementarian (individually egalitarian), clueless pre-millenialist, and most importantly, a follower of Christ. I am a blue collar tradesman. I am a victim of post-modern society probably due to my secular upbringing.
I serve on the editorial team of boldcupofcoffee.com, I am married to a wonderful woman and have two sons. They are the very best of me.
In my experience as a pastor, I’ve witnessed many of the different ways that people choose to leave a church. Sometimes it happens with an honest conversation and a blessing on each other as the ways part, and sometimes it happens in what I can only call a ‘spectacular’ fashion. Usually these are ways of leaving a church that include some type of a parting shot that is lobbed at the church and its leadership. Most of the time these parting shots are fired with an intention to cause wounds, but there are times when it simply comes from being unaware of the effect their actions will have on the church they are leaving.
Although the variety of creative ways people "spectacularly" leave a church still surprises me, I've noticed that there are often very similar underlying archetypes. One of these types I’ve informally named the “You’re a bunch of heretics!” option. This particular exit strategy is characterized by focusing on a particular theological item and declaring that the church, its elders, and the pastor have got their theology all wrong and need to be included in Jesus’ warning that “It would be better [for you] to be thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around your neck than to cause one of these little ones to fall into sin” (Luke 17:2 NLT).
Essentially the “You’re a bunch of heretics” way of leaving a church is designed as the nuclear option. It’s meant to cause maximum damage, end conversation attempts, and leave the person walking away firmly planted on the moral high ground.
Why is throwing the heretic label around such an effective way of damaging a church while you’re already on your way out? I think this comes down to all the baggage and junk that comes with the label of heretic. When we think of the term heretic—or people who are acting in divisive ways—we often think of Paul’s instruction to Titus to give two warnings to a divisive person and after that have nothing to do with them (Titus 3:10), or we go to Proverbs 6:19 where “a person who sows discord in a family” is included in the list of seven things that God hates. On top of that there’s also the fact that in times when the church has had enough political power it often took the approach of exiling and executing people deemed to be heretics. When scripture gives such strong rebukes of heretical behaviour and we have the historical baggage that goes with the word, there’s no wonder that none of us want that label thrown at us
But this leads us to another question: what actually qualifies a teaching as heresy or a person as a heretic? Is it just something we disagree with? Is it anything we find uncomfortable or too hard to follow?
It’s obvious that if we put any two followers of Christ in a room, we’re going to find some places where they disagree on how we interpret and apply the teachings of scripture to our lives, but those differences do not mean that one of the two people has to be a heretic. In light of this, I think we need a better way of defining what actually is heresy and what is not.
Here’s what I would like to propose: I think that when the early church councils got together to try and make collective decisions about what would define Christianity, there were a few things that they got exceptionally right. One of these being the Apostle’s Creed. Sure there were people who disagreed with some of the wording and what was included or not, but overall it’s the best and simplest description of the core beliefs and theology surrounding who God is, what he has done, and what we believe at the foundational level. In this way I would call the Apostle’s Creed the defining list of what is “small o” orthodox, or in common words, what is the foundation of ‘right belief’ about our faith. (Note: I use the words “small o,” because the use of “big O” Orthodox is typically reserved for speaking of the actual faith traditions that use Orthodox in their names.)
What is beautiful about the Apostle’s Creed, is that it is foundational enough that it can be the defining list of what is true belief in God as revealed by Scripture, but at the same time it is general enough that we can accept that different faith traditions can practice these articles in different ways. For example, we can accept that different expressions and practices of our faith have different understandings and ways of practicing the communion of the saints, but we all believe it is important and foundational. At the same time, the first line “I believe in God, the Father almighty” is declarative enough that we cannot pervert its meaning into something that it is not.
If we want to call something heresy—or call someone a heretic—then a quick first step is to run it past the Apostle’s Creed. If it is in outright and undeniable contradiction with the actual lines of the creed, then by all means, label it heresy. This works as a test because of how well the Apostle’s Creed summarizes God’s word as revealed by the Holy Scriptures. But if you cannot say it is an outright contradiction with the Creed, then you need to do a lot more careful study of scripture, and time in discernment and prayer before pulling out the red inked heresy stamp.
This is the step where things start to get more complicated, so I hope you can venture into this with me. I do believe that there are teachings about God that often are repeated, shared, and lived out in the church that do not meet the criteria of heresy, but they definitely fit the category of being dangerous theology. What I mean by dangerous theology is that these are teachings and ideas that do not outright contradict the items of the Apostle’s Creed, but when these teachings are lived out and applied they can cause spiritual damage and abuse to people. These dangerous theologies take people further away from God and even into places of sin.
When it comes to dangerous theologies, I often see them as very similar to how scripture presents idols. Idols are good things that have been elevated to the status of becoming ultimate things that replace God in our lives. The most classic example of this is Aaron creating the golden calf for the Israelites while Moses is up on the mountain. Calves were common idols of their time period, because they represented the birth of new livestock. In an era where most people’s sustenance relied on their livestock reproducing and crops growing, a newborn calf was a symbol of prosperity. When Moses was up on the mountain, the people assumed Moses and God had abandoned them and turned to what they knew of their culture. They took a desire for prosperity and elevated it to the place of becoming their god. This is idolatry in its simplest form; a thing that is good elevated to become an ultimate thing.
Idol worship connects to dangerous theologies because these are beliefs and practices that are almost always based on something good in scripture. Then these good things from scripture are elevated and enlarged until it becomes the ultimate belief that reframes a person’s entire way of understanding who God is, and it distorts the truth of what God has done, and what he is doing.
One example of this that I’ve encountered several times has to do with spiritual gifts. I’ve had people tell me that if every follower of Christ is a “true believer” they will have this one specific spiritual gift (and before you jump to conclusions, no, it was not the gift of speaking in tongues). Now spiritual gifts are a good thing. Paul says that “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other” (1 Cor 12:7). It is true that exercising our spiritual gifts is a great thing and how God designed us to live in relationships with each other that build us up and help us get closer to God.
But when we take one of God’s promises and elevate it to become an ultimate thing, we’ve now crossed a line by taking a promise of God and weaponized it by turning it into an idol. For the previous example of a certain spiritual gift, this is dangerous because it says that anyone who does not have that spiritual gift is not a true believer. Usually this gets accompanied by some type of admonishment that the person in question needs to do something more in order to receive the specific gift and prove that they are faithful to God.
Let me summarize it this way: Heresy is something that directly contradicts who God is, whereas dangerous theologies are good teachings and beliefs that have been elevated to the place of becoming ultimate teachings that skew how we see God.
Now that you know this difference, you might have the urge to ink up that red heresy stamp and start labeling some people or teachings, but just hold on a second before you do that.
Every one of us has the ability to travel into a place of being a heretic without realizing it. That’s why Paul told Titus to give a divisive person two chances to try and restore them back into harmony with the teachings of Jesus. In addition when it comes to some of our doctrine, we need to recognize that every one of us is a little bit of a heretic by default. Take the Trinity for example: we believe that God exists as three-in-one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Exactly how this works out is impossible for us to know with our finite human minds, so every attempt to explain the Trinity, will contain a small amount of heresy in it. Does that mean we need to stop talking about the Trinity entirely? Absolutely not. It just means we need to be humble enough to recognize that we many not have it all right.
That’s why I called this article “Heresy and Me,” because we need to recognize our own tendencies to venture into heresy without knowing it. When we forget how to be humble we can reach for that rubber heresy stamp, or maybe we’ve even played the “You’re a bunch of heretics” card ourselves at one point. It is a sad truth that the evil one is searching for any opportunity to cause harm to the church and distract us from our true mission, and getting us wrapped up in fights around heresy and dangerous theologies is highly effective at this. No one ever wants to admit that we’ve been used by the deceiver to distract the church, but it certainly happens more than we recognize.
The truth is that a lot of heresy and dangerous theologies appear to be very comfortable at first encounter. It is attractive to see a version of God and faith that has all the messy bits worked out into a neat package. We want everything to line up in pretty rows that can be easily understood, but that’s not how God works. God wants to meet us in the searching, to love us in the mess, and yes, even in our confusion, God is still there.
God still loves the heretic, and I for one am deeply grateful for that.
Brian's whole understanding of faith and Christianity changed when he started to encounter what it means to live life with God instead of for God. One thing that Brian is passionate about is walking with people as they explore their faith in Christ and learning how to honestly seek God in the midst of our doubts and fears. Brian is the Pastor of Grand Valley Community Church in Brandon Manitoba. He is married to Nikki and they have one daughter named Olivia. When Brian isn't working on a sermon at a Starbucks or at home with his family, you can usually find him fly fishing or building model air planes. To read more of Brian's articles, click here.
I was praying with someone during the worship service as they felt off spiritually and distant from God. The key word used was cloudy. Like they were in a haze spiritually and couldn't really get into the service. A lot had been going on in their life at that point and they were extremely busy juggling so many things!
As we were praying I saw a picture of hard soil that was dry and tired. When you would pour water on it, it wouldn't soak up into the soil. The conditions of the soil did not allow it to get the nutrients of the water it needed. What he needed in the moment was a monsoon of God's Spirit and presence to soften the hardness he was feeling. Then it hit me, he needed to get in the middle of the worship service, raise his hands, belt out the words (even if he didn't feel like it) and let the work of God start there.
He needed to position himself to receive from God. Because God wasn't withholding but he needed to get in the eye of the storm to have the soil replenished and made soft again. So that is exactly what he did, and what a difference it made. Even though every part of him didn't feel like worshiping in the moment, he positioned himself in a mindset and posture to choose to receive.
It makes me wonder how many of us this is the reality of our spiritual walk with God. We long for His presence and power in our lives, but many times the very thing we need to choose to do is the very thing that will position us to receive what God is wishing to give, do and do through us.
If we wait for when we feel like worshipping, following Jesus or growing it may never happen. But if we choose GET IN THE MIDDLE of the storm of what God’s presence and what He is doing, it is in this place that the work of softening that dry and tired soil can happen and the work of His Spirit can transform our lives, our circumstances and our faith. So my challenge is this: Get in the middle of His love! Get in the middle of His plan! Get in the middle of His work!
Drake currently serves as the Editor-In-Chief of boldcupofcoffee.com and the Executive Pastor at gateway.ac as well as an avid speaker, writer and leadership coach/consultant. Drake is passionate about seeing people thrive and come alive. To BELONG, wrestle with what they BELIEVE and BECOME people FULL OF LOVE, FUELLED BY FAITH, and ADDICTED TO HOPE. Drake is also a life learner and loves being challenged to think deeper and grow further. One of his favorite things to do is spend a good amount of time in a good café or coffee shop with a good book or engaging conversation. To be able to share in someone else's journey and experience is always a pleasure and honor. You can also connect with him at your personal page at drakedelongfarmer.com. To read more articles by Drake, simply click here.
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