I’m a bathroom reader. My own bathroom is well-stocked with reading materials, and I’m always pleased when I use a host’s bathroom and find it replete with “stuff” to read. I’m not fussy – give me a Reader’s Digest, a Guideposts – heck, I’d probably read a Watchtower if it were there. I’ve even been known to read the ingredients on the bathroom deodorizer can if nothing else is available, but I will admit to that as my last resort. These days I can just pull out my iPhone and read whatever I want, but that was not an option circa 1995, when the title event occurred.
Imagine my consternation when I picked up a monthly periodical in a friend’s bathroom, only to find that the teachings of my denomination (and many others like it) were heresy, and that by holding to and teaching these beliefs (which I was at the time), I was, in fact, a heretic, according to the writer of this periodical. I was (understandably, I think) taken aback and a bit offended to have such charges leveled at me, as I take my faith very seriously and have always sought to have well-developed Biblical support for what I believe. It turns out, however, that my denomination and many others (according to this author), whose theology and orthodoxy are built upon the teachings of Arminius and Wesley, are following a heretical (and damnable) doctrine of “Free Will”, as opposed to the Reformed teachings of Calvin which teach a predestinarian doctrine in which humans are “elected” for salvation by God completely apart from their own will, a free gift of grace by God, imparted by faith, through no measure of effort or worthiness of their own. This was a teaching I was, of course, familiar with, not only because I was well acquainted with Calvinist thought, but because my own heretical tradition TAUGHT VIRTUALLY THE SAME THING. Honestly, I thought Calvinist/Arminian thought were two sides of the same coin, where most of our differences were largely attributable to semantics and the “timetable” of salvation.
What I thought were benign differences of the “how” and “when” of salvation were apparently a VERY BIG DEAL to at least THESE Calvinists, and I left that bathroom quite disturbed. I don’t like leaving a bathroom disturbed. I’m sure you can relate.
Not one to just shrug off a damnable offense, I decided to do some homework.
First, let’s talk heresy. This is a pretty serious word to be throwing around about an awful lot of Christians (12 million in just the United Methodist Church alone):
Heresy is a teaching or practice which denies one or more essentials of the Christian faith, divides Christians, and deserves condemnation. The term is derived from the Greek word hairesis, literally meaning a choice, but referring more specifically to a sect, party or disunion.
I find some fun irony in the word “heresy” being derived from the word “choice”, because on this particular issue of doctrine, the “essential” being debated is about choice. To put it VERY simply (too simply, as I came to find out), Wesleyan-Arminians believe that humans can “choose” to accept God, and the Reformed/Calvinists believe that God “chooses” us. Over the course of 500 years or so, so much has been written to support or disprove one side or the other that I won’t spend too many more keystrokes adding to the argument one way or the other. I will say this, and as I often have to do, I give at least partial credit to my brother, Dr. Jonathan Kohns (check out his thinking at doctorkohns.wordpress.com): Yes, God chooses us, and yes, we choose God. Yes, God is sovereign, and yes, we have personal responsibility. I’ve read countless books, articles, systematic theologies, the entire works of John Wesley as well as Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, seeking some sort of resolution to the seeming incompatibilities that scripture contains. My experience has been that both “sides” have had to perform an incredible amount of mental/spiritual gymnastics and devise clever scriptural interpretation to make their “system” work “better” than the other, and I had always found myself comfortable in a faith tradition whose mental gymnastics and scriptural interpretation were less irksome to me. I think that is probably true for many of us.
But back to heresy: At no point in my investigations of either Christian faith tradition did I consider that believing one or the other would mean I had to label those believing the other as “heretics”. Call me soft, but I’m one of those “big tent” Christians (more on that in a future post, I’m sure). God is pretty complex. The world and its workings are pretty complex. In fact, God tells us as much in the scriptures. You know, the “my ways are higher than your ways, my thoughts are higher than your thoughts” sort of stuff. Where do ANY of us get off thinking we have cornered the market on how God “works”? I have come to a point of peace in my life in saying that there is an awful lot about God and God’s ways that I just plain don’t comprehend. I call it “Bowing to Mystery”. And the more I’ve rested in that idea, the more suspicious I am of those who have everything figured out. Those who hold their brightly burnished systematic theologies for all to see have no attraction for me, because often the next move is to take that same theology and beat other Christians in the head with it. I no longer have time, interest nor energy for that kind of Christianity.
Jesus made Christianity pretty simple:
Mark 12:28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
and anyone who builds upon that builds it at his or her own peril:
1 Corinthians 3:11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.
For a very long time, I was very concerned about building upon that foundation. I built carefully, thoughtfully, prayerfully, and with a great deal of questioning and counsel. I am thankful that I did not have to wait for “the Day” to disclose whether I’d built anything of value to the Kingdom. I’ve been blessed, through a serious of personal failings and the people who walked with me through those failures, to find God’s grace in its simplistic purity. I no longer worry about how that grace came to be afforded to me. God loves me and the world, and because God loves me and the world, I love God and neighbor, daily seeking to reconcile this world to God and God’s Kingdom. If at times I complicate it more than that, it’s more an exercise of spiritual development than it is the development of a spiritual exercise.
And for me, that has made all the difference.