The Most Prevalent American Heresy…The Danger of Confusing Heresy and Sin

False doctrine corrupts the life of the Church at its source, and that is why doctrinal sin is more serious than moral. Those who rob the Church of the gospel deserve the ultimate penalty, whereas those who fail in morality have the gospel to help them.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Roger Olsen, one of the deans of North American theology, recently posted some thoughts on the greatest heresy besetting the American Church. As a self-confessed theological nerd I clicked on the link with great anticipation. I was surprised at what I found.

The heresy is a new one, not ever officially condemned by the Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Confessional Protestant churches. The sin is “repectabilism”.  Olsen defines it as follows:

Can we give the heresy a name? I think so: the desire for respectability and domestication of the gospel and the church. If you need a single word, then I suggest “respectabilism.” We want our churches to be respectable.

What is the sign that you are in a heretical church? Does your pastor not challenge you enough? Do the sermons not convince you that you’re living a godless lifestyle? If you are not afflicted in the sermons as much as you are comforted, you’re in a heretical church. Another sign that your church is beset with heresy is if it has a disproportionate number of businessmen on its board. Does your church rely on staff leadership for key roles in community life. This too is a sign of heresy. Does your pastor have an honorary doctorate, and is he or she called “Dr.” on your church’s signage or in your church’s literature? You’re probably in a heretical church.

Generally in the past “heresy” has been a term reserved for ideas advocated by individuals or communities that so distort the story of the God of Israel revealed in and as Jesus Christ that those professing it can no longer really be seen as brothers and sisters in Christ. Sin doesn’t do this. Sin is us falling short of God’s glorious and lavish grace and love. But sin has been defeated in the cross of Christ. That redemption accomplished 2,000 years ago in the backwaters of the Roman Empire can be applied in the here and now and all things can be made new. Unless of course the good news of that grand old story can’t be told anymore because of doctrines and beliefs that so contradict it at the ideological level that there is no hope. This is why Bonhoeffer said that doctrinal sin is more serious than moral sin. Moral sin can be overcome by the Gospel. You get the doctrines wrong because of heresy, you’ve lost the source of life that can overcome the worst of failures. What Olsen calls heresy strikes me as sin.  Perhaps there is still hope for the American Church.

During a period of severe depression I was watching a fundamentalist mega-church pastor on TV, one with whom I had numerous and deep theological differences. His church no doubt is heretical by Olsen’s standards, and thus no church at all. But I was so moved by his sermon that I called the hotline for prayer. The volunteer talked with me compassionately and patiently, prayed for me, then covenanted to continue praying for me for 40 days. I asked her to personally thank her pastor for me. Despite our deep disagreements, I realized just what a brother at that moment he was, because he graciously pointed me to our mutual heavenly Father.

Tullian Tchividjian, a pastor in Florida, recently wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post concerning the seeming decline of the church in our culture. His diagnosis is markedly different than Olsen’s, and his church’s size and staffing profile might land him in Olsen’s heretical category:

Sadly, the church has not proven immune to performancism. An institution theoretically devoted to providing comfort to those in need is in trouble because it has embraced the same pressure-cooker we find everywhere else.In recent years, a handful of popular books have been published urging a more robust and radical expression of the Christian faith. I heartily amen the desire to take one’s faith seriously and demonstrate before the watching world a willingness to be more than just Sunday churchgoers. The unintended consequence of this push, however, is that we can give people the impression that Christianity is first and foremost about the sacrifices we make rather than the sacrifice Jesus made for us — our performance rather than his performance for us. The hub of Christianity is not “do something for Jesus.” The hub of Christianity is “Jesus has done everything for you.” And my fear is that too many people, both inside and outside the church, have heard our “do more, try harder” sermons and pleas for intensified devotion and concluded that the focus of the Christian faith is the work that we do instead of the work God has done for us in the person of Jesus.

Furthermore, too many churches perpetuate the impression that Christianity is primarily concerned with morality. As my colleague David Zahl has written, “Christianity is not about good people getting better. It is about real people coping with their failure to be good.” The heart of the Christian faith is Good News not good behavior.When Sunday mornings become one more venue for performance evaluation, can you blame a person for wanting to stay at home?

As someone who loves the church, I am saddened by the perception of Christianity as a vehicle of moral control and good behavior, rather than a haven for the discouraged and dying. It is high time for the church to remind our broken and burned out world that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a one-way declaration that because Jesus was strong for you, you’re free to be weak; because Jesus won for you, you’re free to lose; because Jesus succeeded for you, you’re free to fail.

Grace and rest and absolution with no new strings or anxieties attached now that would be a change in substance.

Sin and idolatry will beset the Church until our future hope becomes the presence of one eternal day. Until then heresies threaten to cut us off from the source of living hope, while sin and idolatry provide the occasion to run into His open arms.