There are boot brushes at the trailheads to several of our favorite places to hike, with signs instructing hikers to clean their boots. Most people want to clean their boots after hiking, not before. But these trailheads lead into nature preserves. The people that manage the preserves are hoping to prevent invasive species of weeds from finding their way into the preserve, then spreading and squeezing out the plants that are native to the area.
Maybe churches should have symbolic boot brushes outside their doors, with signs instructing worshipers to examine their beliefs before entering, lest they carry invasive doctrines into the church, where they might spread and squeeze out truths that are native to the faith.
According to a recent article in Christianity Today, invasive beliefs have entered and are continuing to enter the church. In “Which False Teachings Are Evangelical Christians Most Tempted to Believe In?” Cherith Fee Nording finds the ancient heresy Docetism – the belief that Jesus was not really human – still causing trouble in the modern church.
Nording notes that Evangelical Christians have, in response to modern challenges to the deity of Jesus, minimized the humanity of Jesus. She writes, “Too often he is the divine Son who borrowed a human body in order to teach, heal, and perform the miracles that proved his divine authority and his power to save us from sin.”
The early Church labeled this teaching a heresy and condemned it. When we forget that Jesus was and is fully human, we draw the erroneous conclusion that “because he is God, Jesus had power to be sinless and to do cool stuff. We’re not, so we don’t.”
And: “If Jesus isn’t really like us, then we are excused from being like him.” Yet this, the Apostle John writes, is the Christian’s goal and transforming hope: “…we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.”
Another contemporary heresy also has ancient roots, this time in the early second century teacher Marcion. Marcion rejected the authority of the Old Testament, and even went so far as to say the God of the Old Testament was not the God and Father of Jesus Christ. (I once heard a teacher espouse exactly this view to a group of high school students, oblivious to the fact he was spreading heresy.) Marcion’s anti-Old Testament views found a niche among anti-Semites and spread widely among early Gentile churches.
A successor to Marcion’s views is still present today, though less by intention than by attention deficit. In many churches, the story of Jesus has been completely removed from its Old Testament roots. His messiahship has been ignored, and his role has been restricted to that of personal savior, not Israel’s messiah and Lord of all the earth.
This has resulted in a highly individualistic expression of Christianity. It’s all about me –not a big surprise in contemporary western culture – getting into heaven when I die. The gospel becomes a sales pitch to prospective subscribers rather than an announcement of what God has done to redeem his fallen creatures and restore his damaged creation.
Worshipers often carry another invasive belief into the church: the belief that grace is opposed to works. This error probably has its roots in a fifth century controversy over the roles that God and humans play in salvation. When Pelagius, an influential teacher living in Rome, overstated the human role in salvation, Augustine, the famous bishop from North Africa, argued vigorously for the necessity of God’s unmerited and gracious action on human’s behalf.
But people have drawn the wrong conclusion from their debate. They have assumed that grace – God’s action on our behalf – is in conflict with human efforts. But grace is opposed to merit, not effort. Grace is, in fact, the trailhead of a path filled with good works for us to walk.
These doctrinal weeds are hard to eradicate. We should examine our beliefs from time to time, brush them off, and make sure we aren’t carrying any invasive species into the church.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, April 25, 2015