Heresy begins not in the head but in the heart. Show me a heretic, and most likely I’ll show you someone in rebellion against God. Naturally, there are some who through ignorance follow false teachers. But usually a turn from correct doctrine is a direct turn from God.
This seems to be Paul’s major point in his letter to the Galatians. Unlike the modern church, St. Paul takes doctrine, or the gospel in the Church, seriously. He takes it so seriously that when he castigates the Galatians, it’s not just because they’ve gotten a few minor points of theology wrong, and it’s not just that they’ve forsaken the gospel as it was first taught to them: it’s that in so doing they have in reality turned away from the Father, which is to turn away from the Son. He says in verse 6 of Chapter 1: “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel.”
St. Paul would be amazed at how easily we modern and now postmodern Christians separate Jesus Christ from the very means by which He comes to us. We like to believe that we can love Jesus, even while rejecting what He taught. More subtly, we like to believe that we can love Jesus while rejecting what He has taught through His appointed means and men. So some, more radically, “accept” the words of Jesus when they are in red letters but not when they are in black letters through the writings of Paul.
But, since the Bible requires interpretation, we believe that we can receive the words of Jesus Christ without receiving the Body of Jesus Christ, the Church, through which Jesus Christ acts and speaks today. Those who have a low view of the Church as the Body of Christ are likely to end up in heresy, sooner or later.
But back to doctrine. Paul has such a high view of the importance of doctrine that he actually curses anyone who preaches a different gospel than the one that Paul gave to the Galatians. Paul doesn’t just say that such false teachers are wrong or simply point the finger: he says, “Let them be accursed!”
Like every period of church history, there are false teachers in the church. Some are very obvious, such as those who deny the divinity of Christ or His Resurrection, or those who deny that the Scriptures are the Word of God. But there are more subtle false teachers as well. There are those who sound more like self-help gurus than proclaimers of the grace of Jesus Christ to sinners.
And then there is you and me. We all have a tendency towards practical heresy, if left unchecked. We are all tempted to reject the teaching of God (doctrine) where it doesn’t suit our purposes. As Christians, we don’t do this because the doctrine doesn’t make sense or we can’t believe it: we do it because we don’t like the way that such doctrine interrupts our selfish lives.
As I reflect on the current crisis in worldwide Anglicanism, I sometimes wonder which came first: the chicken or the egg; the rejection of the Bible as the Word of God in the mind or the rejection of the Word of God in the heart because it interferes with my chosen lifestyle. Actually, I think it’s both, and so we must guard hand and head and heart. This is why the rejection of the clear biblical teaching that homosexuality is a sin is not really about homosexuality at all: it’s about our faith; it’s about our attitude towards God’s Word; and this means it’s about the attitude of our hearts towards God Himself.
“I believe in Jesus Christ, but I also believe that there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality.” I’ve heard this attitude frequently in recent years, among those who call themselves Christians. (And you could easily substitute other words for “homosexuality.”)
To which St. Paul would say: “How can you love Jesus Christ when you have rejected Him?”
“I haven’t rejected Him – only what some have taught about a personal lifestyle choice.”
“The One who has taught this intolerant ruth about this ‘lifestyle choice’ was the Lord Himself, not only through His own mouth but also through the mouths of the ones He has sent – His apostles.”
St. Paul clearly understood this. Here is how he begins his letter: “Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead.”) For St. Paul, which means for Jesus Christ, we cannot separate the Father from Jesus Christ from the Word of God from the ones who teach the Word of God from the Church. The minute you begin to pit one of these against the other, or even one against itself (such as using the Word of God against the Word of God), we aren’t just in danger of becoming heretics and following a different gospel: we’re in danger of following a different Lord.
It’s all too easy, though, to point the finger at the Galatians or the heretics in the church today. As always, the point is for each of us to apply this passage to ourselves. Yes, this means guarding the Scriptures and guarding the Church. But this work of guarding begins by guarding our hands and heads and hearts.
Have you fully accepted the Word of God as The Word of God? Have you accepted God’s Word not only in theory but in practice? Have you accepted not just the authority of St. Paul but the authority of your local church leaders, while holding them accountable to the faith once delivered to the saints? It is so easy to turn the Word of God into the words of men and to turn the Body of Jesus Christ into a human fellowship.
This morning, St. Paul warns us not to do such things, for in rejecting God’s Word, whether in heart or head or hands, and in rejecting God’s leaders, we are rejecting the one “who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen!”
Resolution and Point for Meditation: I resolve to examine myself and see if there are any ways in which I am practically rejecting the authority of God by rejecting the authority of His Word or His appointed teachers.
If I have been rejecting God’s authority in this way, I resolve to turn back to the Lord by turning back to His teaching and teachers.
Prayer: Deliver us, good Lord, from false teachers and false teaching; deliver us from the false inclinations of our hearts and heads and hands. By Your grace, keep us from turning to the left or right, and teach us to hear Your Word as Your Word that we might give ourselves to Him who gave Himself for our sins, and that we might be delivered from this present evil age, according to Your will, our God and Father, to whom, along with the Son and the Holy Spirit, be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Kiss of Judas by Giotto – U.S. Public Domain