A Brief Letter from a Friend: Everday Heresies

A Brief Letter from a Friend: Everday Heresies February 25, 2009

Great question I’ve been asked:

Scot, what are the “everyday heresies” the church embraces and/or
espouses? Any insight? Wondering if complacency, consumerism, and the
outsourcing of parental responsibility are more harmful than doctrinal
irregularities or inconsistencies.

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  • clint patronella

    While the doctrinal statement of a church may profess a distinctively Christian concept of God, in that God eternally exists with equality, distinction, and unity as three persons, namely the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and each is fully God and at the same time there is only one God, often it is the case that evangelicals in their concept and communication of the Godhead are functionally closer to heretical doctrines, e.g. modalism, subordinationism, and tritheism. “Functional heresy” has become common place in the 21st century American Evangelical context, as the doctrine of the Trinity has become a peripheral doctrine, and not the forefront of the evangelical concept of who God is, namely one essence in three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Functional heresy is the reality that many evangelicals today are orthodox in theory, but not in practice. I hold to the Anselmian idea that theology is faith seeking understanding. Because of the limitations of language in trying to bring definition to a God who is invisible, eternal, and perfect many people have offered definitions of God that are lacking. In addition, understanding the errors (who God is not) helps to understand who God is. These errors in defining God have been discussed throughout church history, and while church history and tradition are not infallible, they do provide helpful guides in interpreting Scriptures and in pondering the Trinitarian God. The important thing to remember in a Trinitarian understanding of God is that neither side – God’s oneness nor his threeness – can be stressed to the denigration of the other. God must always be understood as one being – three persons, three persons – one being. The legacy of Nicaea and the work of the early church fathers in bringing definition to God have seen a steady decline in the majority of churches in America today. The current trend in the transition from modernism to post-modernism is that clarity of definition is no longer important.

  • Dana Ames

    Clint, I very much agree with your thoughts on the Trinity.
    ISTM that in the transition from modernism to postmodernism, clarity of definition is still important; what has changed is that we may not be working with the same definitions.
    The problems the questioner referenced are, to me, symptoms of lack of mature, self-giving love in humility, which lack truly is harmful. Love can certainly be enhanced by good doctrine, but some people are simply not capable of understanding doctrine. Everyone understands love. Jesus says it is by our expressions of love that we will be judged- Matt 25.

  • Simon Fowler

    “God promises not to me experience anything beyond what I can bear”. A spiritually and emotionally damaging misreading of 1 Cor 10v13, Jer. 29v11, and the rest of Scripture. I’ve rarely heard it preached, but hundreds of times from the mouths of individuals.

  • T

    I’m with Dana here. Similar to Willard, the separation of “salvation” (which is often too narrowly defined) from actual and increasingly functional apprenticeship to Jesus seems to tear apart what God joined together. I don’t think our idea of “faith in Jesus” is the same as the NT’s, especially in the doing what he says and models dept. As an example, the primary concern in the NT about money seems to be addiction to it. We tend to emphasize stewardship. Most addicts are happy to steward the object of their affection.

  • Tom

    I’m so glad Scot’s providing a forum for this conversation. While I give mental assent to Clint’s well-articulated position, I find myself much more in sync with Dana’s emphasis on love. It sounds very similar to what Pete Rollins says in one of his books: “The only religious knowledge worth anything is love.”
    And though I’m not looking for an argument, I do wonder whether the missional trajectory of the church is more severely inhibited by functional or everyday heresies taking root in our faith communities than it is by irregularities in our theology. Theological precision seems of lesser importance than, say, loving my neighbor in Jesus’ name. It seems far more difficult, at least in my experience, to pray for and bless my enemies than it does to have a modicum of theological clarity on a particular issue. Please don’t get me wrong either. I’m all for theological clarity, as long as it gives rise to love.

  • Simon Fowler

    Correction, “God promises not to let me experience …”

  • Scot McKnight

    One “everyday heresy” I see more than any other today is the idolatry of busyness, the choice to let our schedules, our lives, and our finances to get out of control so we can stay on the treadmill of keeping up.

  • RJS

    Scot, I wish you’d stop bringing this “heresy” up at every opportunity. It gets uncomfortable on occasion.
    SO I will quickly deflect in a different direction: Another “everyday heresy” is the idea that it is possible to be an effective Christian outside of intentional involvement in and commitment to the ecclesial community of the body of Christ (the church).

  • the other Tom

    Respectfully, many of us contend that theological imprecision results in disdain for neighbor, cursing enemies, etc. Heresy isn’t the politically correct terminology of today, so we don’t use it as often cause it doesn’t bear good fruit. Like you imply, many follow the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of the law, which is fruitless indeed.

  • Terry

    RJS, spot on! You beat me to the punch and that’s probably a good thing, as you speak gooder than I do. Excellent.

  • Justin Carroll

    Bored pastors and deacons who are overly concerned with debating among themselves and their “industry” – it leads to an array of disadvantages for the very people God has given them authority over.

  • Must we redefine “heresy” away from serious doctrinal error?
    As someone mentioned above, “functional tritheism” might be called an everyday heresy; RJS’s comment might be too. Consumerism (aka greed, covetousness) is simply sin.
    Now, asking what sins the American church winks at, that is a good question.
    Look at the number of Lexuses (Lexi?) in your church parking lot and ask that question.

  • Scot McKnight

    Thanks for that. I don’t like to use the word “heresy” for anything other than serious defection from orthodoxy. In this case, it’s worth exploring as serious defection from Christian praxis because we are so unaware of its debilitating impacts.

  • T

    Chris B,
    I think because the question asked for ‘everyday heresies’ that the church espouses or embraces, that the responses included what sins we wink at. I think we’ve embraced (wink at) the heresy that one can actually love (and order our lives around, as Scot mentioned) both God and the things of this life, even if we don’t verbally espouse the concept, and I think we’ve missed the NT priority of unattachment vs. stewardship re: money in general.
    And I might steal the term “Lexi.”

  • austin

    Perhaps something is to be said for both Clint’s post (or perhaps a short, theological treatise) and the several posts on Christian love: that love is derived from our understanding of God, and more importantly how God understands are relates to Himself in within the Trinity.
    We understand and practice our love for humanity based upon Christ’s commands in the NT and Christ’s demonstration of love on the cross. This act of love and model for love has become our “sound-byte” for what is appropriate about Christianity, meaning we fall back on “love” as a catch-all to the Christian life and theology. I’m not arguing that this is at all “bad,” but it could be fleshed out more or it’s in need of articulation.
    However love should be an integral part to our Theology Proper, and to draw upon Jonathan Edwards, it was God’s self-love (an honest estimation of His existence and worth) that produced Creation (one professor is noted as saying that he and his spouse had “practiced” their love so much that they decided to have kids to have someone share in their love for one another). The intra-trinitrian love for each member of the Trinity was perfect, this I do not think we would deny. Then it could be said that God sought to share the perfection of His love with something…nay, someone(s).

  • While i am agreement with most of the commentators on this particular entry, I think a few comments are in order. It seems as if there is a disconnect today between orthodoxy and orthopraxy or to say another way, a disconnect between doctrine and practice. Why have we decided that to follow Jesus we must choose one to the denigration of the other? I am worn out by those who study doctrine to the point in which they would not know grace or love from a chair. But I am equally put off by those who would say all that matters is love. Did not our Savior call us to love God with heart and mind? In fact, I think he called us to love Him with all our being, including our intellect, emotions, physical bodies, etc.
    One commentator suggested that some people do not have the capacity to understand. I am troubled by the statement. We have watered down or shrunken our beliefs to the point that all a person needs to know is one small thing so that the natural man can understand. We not giving grace and understanding their just due. Salvation is a supernatural act whereby God initiates a grace work in us to arose our affections toward him in such a way that we come to see him more beautiful than anythingn else. This begins a process where God continues to inject grace into us so that we desire to continue in this love as we grow in knowledge and love. Should we downsize what a person should know who believes? I understand that a person doesnt have to have a conversant knowledge of Systematic theology or have the NT memorized, but at the same time shouldnt we communicate a full gospel, a gospel that not only speaks of the love of God and of Christ’s death, but also of the resurrection and of the new life we are to live and the cost of dicipleship and of the judgment that is to come? Why should we only give them part of the good news. Good news is no longer good if it is neutered of its full message.
    Maybe I should have said that our “everyday” heresy is one of apathy.

  • Dana Ames

    when I said some do not have the capacity to understand, I was thinking of those with actual inability to comprehend abstract thought, such as people with developmental disabilities. With such folks, it’s even more important to show love, because they can certainly understand that.
    I do agree that there should not be a disconnect between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and that good doctrine should be held to and explained, and that we should love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Love of God is not opposed to love of neighbor, and all love is shown through our embodied selves as we cooperate with God’s grace, since we’re not puppets. It truly is all of a piece.
    I keep coming back to 1Jn5.20: “We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding *so that* we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God *and* eternal life.” Understanding is supposed to take us somewhere, and when we *know* Jesus as eternal life in this way we will surely want to pursue the fullness of the meaning of the good news, and forsake apathy.
    We keep falling and rising, falling and rising…

  • Tom

    So if heresy is serious defection from orthodoxy (which I agree with), do you think that the following beliefs are heretical?
    “It’s the paid staff’s job to do all the work. We pay your salary, we receive your services.”
    “The primary job of the church is to teach my children.”
    I ask this question because these are just two of the answers I received when I posed the question, “What are the greatest heresies the church knowingly or unknowingly embraces or espouses?”, to a group of my pastor friends (most under 40 years old) who I converse with regularly on Twitter. In fact, most of the answers given by my peers involved what I would describe as “everyday heresies.”
    Are we naive? Are we confronting an overly institutionalized view of church (not heresy)? Or are the beliefs mentioned above heretical in that they are a serious defection from orthodoxy?

  • An everyday heresy is replacing a relationship with the Holy Spirit with a relationship to a book–the Bible.

  • Mike M

    Coming from a “heretic” by the above definitions, I think THIS is truly heresy (and very dangerous): “once saved, always saved.” While not couched in theological terms like previous entries, it is a common attitude.

  • Heresy is usually about the absence of some truth in relationship to other truths. There is personal salvation but our redemption is also a call into discipleship and into mission. Jesus has largely become our personal therapist and discipleship and mission are out of the picture.
    Another heresy I see is the sacred/secular split and the idea that our daily work is purely instrumental to other ends. According to Genesis 1 and 2 we were made for relationship with God and with each other but it is relationship in mission. There is the mission of co-creative dominion in the pre-fall narrative. Yet all we hear about is restored relationship in the New Creation but not the redemption of the original mission of co-creative dominion over a created order. It leads to everything from animus to the marketplace because it is understood to be counter to relationship, to unquestioning embrace of the marketplace because, while irrelevant to eternal matters, it is pragmatically useful for other ends.
    Yet another heresy we see frequently at Jesus Creed is the belief that one can be a Cubs fan and enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But that could be its own thread. 🙂

  • TBDickerson

    The concept of heresy is uncomfortable indeed, and yet it would be at the very least imprudent to pretend that heresy is a thing of the past and is not a threat to the continued flourishing of the Church universal.
    One that is still prevalent, pervasive, and poisonous is:
    The claim to “special knowledge” regarding matters of doctrine and/or faith (as the Marconians asserted); which takes different forms now, but is usually always linked to a certain type of smug (albeit subtle) arrogance.
    To high-jack some of “the other Tom’s” terminology- this heresy is particularly prone to cultivating “distain for neighbor,” and this is why it’s so corrosive.
    Elitism is an equal opportunity foible, anyone can get caught up in it: liberal, conservative, moderate, and especially anyone who fancies themselves to be “enlightened”.
    Spiritual/theological elitism always introduces the dangerous assumption that if others do not understand the complexities of Christian doctrine as we do, then they are not fully Christian. You can interchange the words “knowledge,” and doctrine” and you get the same scenario: the drawing of lines around who is “in” and who is “out”.
    I’m not suggesting that doctrine isn’t important, however, if you say a person is or is not a Christian based on whether or not they affirm a particular doctrine, this tends toward a Gnostic approach to the faith. Absolutely, there are certain affirmations of the Christian faith that are “deal breakers,” if they are not affirmed- but it’s important to never substitute knowledge for faith.
    An elitist attitude with regard to spiritual knowledge is not conducive toward moving others toward eventual incorporation into the body.
    I agree with Tom (#5) in that it is much easier to have a superior intellectual understanding of a doctrinal issue than it is to exhibit love in humility.
    Another way to put it is: What does “getting it right” mean?
    To paraphrase St. Paul (I Corinthians 13:2) If I possess “awe-inspiring-orthodoxy” without displaying “love-mediated-orthopraxy”- I am nothing.

  • Mike M

    Michael K (##21 and 22): let’s get our definitions right here. Believing that the Cubs will be in the World Series, let alone win it, is “hope.” Believing in the Cubs in order to get into the Kingdom is “blasphemy.” Believing that the Cubs will get into the World Series without a divine miracle is “heresy.”

  • ChrisB

    Mike M said: “I think THIS is truly heresy:… ‘once saved, always saved.'”
    This is kind of what I was referring to. Heresy is technically deviation from an established teaching of the church universal — usually the creeds.
    This issue isn’t covered in any creed. I’d even say this issue has been debated for most of the history of the church.
    I don’t think “eternal security” is a heresy; I think that’s an honest doctrinal difference. It may not be the way all people have interpreted things, but it is an honest attempt to grapple with what the scriptures teach about grace and adoption.

  • Mike M

    ChrisB: I heartily disagree. Just because something is believed with honesty doesn’t make it non-heretical. First, it is heretical to the Roman Catholic “creed:” http://www.catholic-defense.com/saved.htm
    Secondly, it’s been accused of being a heresy by many others smarter than I: http://theologyonline.com/forums/showthread.php?t=49000
    Thirdly, it’s dangerous: http://www.oncesaved.com/

  • AHH

    “He’s our pastor, so anyone who criticizes or questions him is being used by Satan to divide us.”
    “My country, right or wrong.”
    Unquestioning allegiance to “the American dream”
    The professionals are doing the ministry; the rest of us are not ministers but just consumers of ministry.
    Somebody else already mentioned Bibliolatry, to which I would add “house of cards” approaches to the integrity of Scripture.
    But I agree that “heresy” isn’t quite the right word for most of these common errors in our churches, displeasing to God and harmful though they may be.

  • It’s a fascinating question. For me, the question captured me in thinking about “outsourcing (parental) responsibility”, and considering what other responsibilities I’ve tended to outsource (given that I’m not a parent… yet). In lots of ways, I’ve outsourced any evangelistic responsibility to people who are more gifted, or at least more extroverted. Taking responsibility ourselves for just about anything seems to me to be a real dark area for us as the church, and for me personally.

  • T

    Tom (18),
    I’d agree that these are serious. But how are these beliefs to be shown to be false? I realize they can be spoken against; but how can the church and its leaders demonstrate that they are not true?

  • gnosticism…more specifically, people thinking that what really matter is the “spiritual” over and above the “physical.” i’ve had a lot of folks who functionally act as though sin doesn’t matter as long as they pray or get their hearts “right with God.” i also wonder if the number of people moving toward virtual/video worship, or sitting in front of a computer to get their daily inspiration doesn’t harken back to gnosticism. i think when we forget to incorporate our bodies into our worship, that’s heresy. if we really believed in the bodily resurrection, wouldn’t we treat our bodies better?
    palagianism…does the average church-goer believe in original sin?

  • Mike M

    I am being edited on this blog which is the worst form of mind control I’ve experienced yet.. I posted a blog that never even made it to the website. Even so, I trudge on like Thomas, trying to discern the truth. If people, especially the pastors (priests) who frequent this website, think it is ok to condemn, deny, exclude, judge, and critize, especially before worship and fellowship, we all have a problem with that. Duh: early christianity is middle east, not Greek, not Roman

  • Mike M

    I’ve been censcored on this post so I’m not sure what to say. m pf

  • Mike M


  • I think that what you say Scot, about busy’ness, is indeed a big problem. In fact, at the recent Primates meeting, Archbishop Williams encouraged the Anglican Church to bring back prayer and contemplation as hallmarks of the Church. He even jazzed a bit at a Church who’s announcement board showed them to be “too busy” to hear from the Spirit.

  • ChrisB

    Mike M,
    I suspected, but thanks for making it clear that you’re Roman Catholic.
    If heresy is defined as deviation from the creeds, you have to ask which creeds/councils. Protestants generally accept only the first 5, give or take. Large chunks of protestant theology are anathemized by the RC church, and that’s fine, but that alone is not going to convince us our beliefs are heretical.
    Regarding “once saved, always saved,” I’ve heard the RC (and protestant) objections before, and I think the truth is that most people who object don’t really understand what we mean when we say it (though it is occasionally abused).

  • Hmmm…where to start…
    1. The ideas that salvation is a matter of “accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Savior,” that it hinges on a discrete moment in time, and that salvation is synonymous with “going to heaven when I die.” I assume I, thinky and verbose Lutheran that I am, don’t have space here to unpack all of that, but…there you go.
    2. As a corrolary to #1, overemphasis on justification and underemphasis on sanctification — as one of my campus pastors put it, “Everyone cares about peole being ‘saved,’ but no one asks the question, ‘Saved for WHAT?'” I’d add, too, that this is as true in my faith tradition as in the Evangelical/”free” traditions.
    3. Neo-Gnosticism — the idea that the spiritual realm is all that matters; that the created world is at worst icky and corrupt, and at best just an intesting backdrop to the human drama or, worse yet, to individuals’ private “salvation stories”; the idea that Real Christianity[tm] is a matter of possessing special knowledge or understanding.
    3. The privitization of the Christian experience, and the idea that it’s not only okay but somehow more noble and meritorious to work out one’s Christian faith outside the context of a faith community; an attitude that my pastor refers to as “Me ‘n’ Jesus under a blanket with a flashlight.”
    4. The related idea that churches as faith communities must be pure and without blemish or else they’re not genuine faith communities — a ridiculous idea, since churches are made up of sinful human beings; as Bonhoeffer noted, this idea of an idealized church where everything and everyone is beautiful all the time is a “wish dream” that is actually destructive to true Christian community.
    5. The idea that the Bible is like a Magic 8-Ball with facile prooftext answers for every question.
    6. The all-or-nothing “applecart” idea that if one element within Scripture isn’t historically or scientifically factual, then “the whole Bible isn’t true.” Ridiculous.
    7. The idea that Christian discipleship is equivalent to following the ideology of a particular political party.
    8. Nationalism “baptized” with Christianity.
    9. Dominionism.
    I probably have 90 more line items here;-), but I’ll quit now.

  • Just one more, please…
    10. The idea that the goal of worship is evangelism instead of…um…worship. That worship is all about “packing ’em in,” and using every gimmicky trick in the book to do that. And that of course ties into an equally wrongheaded idea that worship services exist to entertain us. I think if one looks to history, the old-school method of evangelism was actually living out one’s Christian love and compassion into the lives of people around us, and otherwise deporting ourselves in such a way that persons outside the faith community were intrigued and moved: “Look at how the Christians love one another!” “Why is this person helping me?” “Maybe there’s something to this Christianity thing.” Worship came after the initial attraction to the faith, not before.

  • Tom

    LutheranChik, may I have your permission to cut and paste your list?
    This whole conversation has me thinking about just how subversive heresy can be. It seems to creep in to our faith communities almost imperceptibly, even though so many of the “everyday heresies” or “near-heretical-assumptions” proffered here work to undermine our unity and hinder the missional effectiveness of the church.

  • LutheranChik you put it well. these are the modern forms of the “heresies” and I think that if we still had ecumenical councils today these ideas would be thrown out the door. Its not about being the heresy police. I hold to a generous orthodoxy, but its high time we found a way to be people of devote orthodoxy and orthopraxy, right doctrine and genuine love for God and neighbor.

  • Gee, guys…I am not worthy.;-)
    I don’t think that orthodoxy/orthopraxis is a matter of “policing” our faith communities as much as it is constantly inviting folks into a fuller understanding of our faith. That’s how I understand the historic creeds as well…invitations into a way of thinking about God and about the story of God’s saving action in history that’s stood the test of time.