I might be imagining this (for reasons that I shall make plain in a moment or two), but does it strike you that some people today are quite quick to label another person a heretic? To be more specific, it appears to me that the more conservative people are as Christians, the more they believe it’s their God-ordained duty to guard God’s Truth by exposing and verbally eviscerating any person or group that isn’t perfectly aligned with their particular doctrinal paradigm or views. I’m sure that those who don’t give a fig about that religion (or any religion) don’t even raise an eyelash when this occurs. If they do happen to notice, they probably shrug their shoulders and simply declare “a pox on both your houses.” The heresy wars are typically internecine ‘family’ affairs.
I’ve gone to a Christian church my entire life and have publicly and gladly identified myself as a Christ-follower for nearly all of those years. I passed my American Baptist ordination exam with flying colors back the ’80s and I continue to affirm the official Statements of Faith of all the evangelical Christian institutions I’ve served as a board member, guest preacher, and now, as Executive Director of a new seminary initiative at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA). In other words, I’m not just a card-carrying Christian; I’ve had my card stamped ‘legit’ by reputable, recognized Christian organizations for years.
So why on earth are some Christians who happen to be more conservative than I am now wondering or concluding that I’m a heretic?
To be fair, they’re reacting to my definitely public efforts to figure out how more evangelical churches (like the one where I’m the senior pastor) can be more loving and inclusive of openly LGBTQ Christians without celebrating any and all choices that LGBTQ believers might want to make. I get it. That’s an ultra-controversial topic that already has been publicly framed in extremely polarizing and contentious ways. Knowing this, I started this journey back in 2007 with a generous amount of fear and trembling. I knew that I would eventually find myself in the gunsights of those who are convinced that they’ve been divinely deputized to expose those who’ve strayed from The Truth. I carried and used that same badge for probably the first 25+ years of being a Christian. The fact that I eventually stopped wearing it so prominently is a key indicator of how my ongoing journey to be a more obvious follower of Jesus has been going. In other words, sort of like a certain famous self-righteous, convinced-he-was-right First Century Pharisee, the alive-again Jesus confronted me with my arrogance and misguided authority. He began to convince and convict me that me minuscule, misguided, feeble mind couldn’t possibly contain or fathom all the Truth that is God. Which meant (shudder) that there were more authentic Christ-followers then would fit neatly into my own personal orthodox cubby hole. Like Catholics. And Seventh-Dayers. And tongue-speakers. And (gulp) liberal Methodists and chain-smoking Presbyterians. It honestly wasn’t any kind of overnight transformation. But the ongoing outcome has been an ever-deepening humility and a growing ability to see previously unimaginable connections with folks that I still don’t see eye-t0-eye with on numerous things.
Here’s the dictionary definition for heretic:
1) a dissenter from established religious dogma; especially : a baptized member of the Roman Catholic Church who disavows a revealed truth
2) one who dissents from an accepted belief or doctrine : nonconformist
I was surprised that these definitions (including the synonyms) didn’t sound nearly as condemning as how I think I used this caustic adjective in the past and how some are using on me and others today. I’m not Catholic and, as I said at the outset, I still affirm the essential pillars of the Christian faith, so the first definition doesn’t describe me. The second one, though, there’s parts of that one that seem to stick. For many fellow Christians, a long accepted belief has been that being gay is a result of making a sinful, willful choice. “No one is born gay, for why would a holy God create a gay person?” I grew up with that belief and anyone who said anything different than that was a heretic. But with the public apology and disbanding of what was then the world’s leading “ex-gay” ministry earlier this year and my recent friendships with sincere gay Christians whose prayers for God to make them straight have still not been answered, what was once a widely accepted belief by many evangelical Christians is now not so widely accepted. Granted, there are probably more who are struggling than who have come to accept that, most gays didn’t choose this. And much of this shift has come from more straight evangelicals finding out that they already know and love gay people, many of whom are definitely fellow Christ-followers trying their best to lead God-honoring lives with the ‘cards’ they’ve been dealt.
If in the past, being a heretic meant that you were not conforming to a widely-held belief by your group or tribe, it seems like evangelicals like me are suspected of being heretics for the OPPOSITE reason, i.e., that we’re conforming to a shift in beliefs about what it means to be gay that is clearly occurring in the public arena as well as in growing pockets of evangelical Christianity.
The traditional definition of a heretic is quite damning. In ages past, those tried and convicted of heresy were typically tortured and executed in horrific ways. I seriously doubt that any of my current accusers would press for that outcome. So maybe they’re using the wrong label for me. I’m not a heretic. I’m just not as conservative as they are.