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We often don’t recognize truth from falsehood, especially if its poison has already infiltrated the stream of our thinking slowly over time. Heresy is the Christian word that describes false beliefs that strikes at the heart of the Good News so as to undermine it. So a Medieval Christian could be wrong about medical condition (thinking someone’s humors are out of balance) but not be a heretic. A heresy is a heresy when an essential tenet of Christian truth is weakened or rejected. For the next three posts, I plan on talking about three contemporary heresies in the water of American Christianity – Moral Therapeutic Deism, Christian Nationalism, the Prosperity Gospel, and Christian Wokeism. In particular I want to describe what each heresy is, what its attraction is, and why its problematic. The solution to each of these is of course immersing oneself in biblical truth upheld throughout the ages and rooting out patterns of thought that are inspired by the faulty tenets of these heresies.
Today we start with Moral Therapeutic Deism. There is a strain of belief in many churches that goes unchallenged. It holds that God (with no reference to the Trinity) is primarily looking to make us upright people while fixing our various afflictions. At first blush, this could be seen as generally true. Surely God wants us to live moral lives and to experience some sense of well-being in this life, not just the next. And the average Christian is hard-pressed to say, “Yes, but…” because there are plenty of biblical references that can be marshaled to advocate leading holy lives and that God has an eternal plan that seeks our welfare.
Like we often do with Old Testament passages, we might think its possible baptize this belief by adding a more rigorous infrastructure of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Practically, however, these attempts amount to little more than mentioning Jesus (without actually talking about who he is or what he’s done) a couple times in a praise song or a sermon. So the Deistic view of God remains strong in the face of such lackluster defenses.
The moral portion, likewise, falls short of the biblical reality. Sin is demoted to merely what we do as opposed to being an inherent malfunction in us and force outside us. We preach strong morals and ethics but never tell people that they will invariably fail without a change of heart initiated by the Holy Spirit. In the Bible, sin is just not merely not trying hard enough, it’s a defect of character which we are helpless to change no matter our best efforts. And we face broken systems and malevolent forces that appeal to our inherently broken affections and desires to tempt us. The Good News is that Jesus has defeated these forces and has begun a way to change us from the inside out through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. We are given God’s own presence to empower us to live aright, and granted forgiveness for each time we fail, since we are all works in progress.
Finally, we have to address the “therapeutic” part of this heresy. Yes,there is a sense in which God has good things in store in this life for those who trust him. But Christians in our consumeristic culture have a tendency to overstate this. We expect certain ends as divine “promises” but we are unaware how those promises were covenantally-limited to Israel’s past or are foretastes of a permanent reality in eternity that are not guaranteed for everyone every time…yet. It also diminishes the fact that Jesus sancitified things like poverty and suffering during his earthly ministry. So being poor or having a chronic illness are hardly indicative of lacking God’s favor or one’s personal morality being faulty. In fact, there may be a way in which the Holy Spirit is working through such suffering as means of grace to the one suffering and/or to others whom God is nudging to alleviate their suffering. That is not to say God wants us to be sick, poor, and miserable. But he permits these imperfect states in his mercy to allow for the greatest number of people possible to willingly follow Jesus.
So insidious is MTD that I had an experience visiting a church recently that I saw what happens when it becomes the de facto spirituality of a congregation. The order of service was the concert/TED talk model in many evangelical megachurches that has supplanted participatory worship with responsive readings or prayers in which lay people offer their input (whether spontaneously or in corporate unison responses). The music lacked any direct address to God until a short chorus at the end of the opening set. There was a perfunctory, undefined mention of Jesus in one of the songs, but most of the songs were about how feeling good because of what God did for “me” (again undefined, very much in therapeutic, non-theological language). I took it as a plus that they actually read the Bible passage being preached about out loud. The pastor offered a decent explication of the passage, but as it was from the OT, I was waiting to see how he tied Jesus to it. He did not. He went from exegesis into application with no discernible Gospel lens. As he was preaching from Ezra and Nehemiah, he pulled some practical leadership stuff and talk about “trusting God”. A devout Jew or Muslim could have found his message enlightening, since he never made the connection to Jesus. Nothing about the service was particularly “Christian.” It was very focused on what we should do in terms of moral duty. And it was very focused on how God inexplicably makes one feel better, encouraged, inspired, etc.
Christians need to be very vocal about the Trinity, or at the very least about Jesus’ life, death, and rising again to defeat sin and death when they gather to worship. They need to balance the moral duty of the Law with the wonderful news of grace in the Gospel. And they need to recognize that Christian faith cannot co-opt time-bound elements of the Old Testament or demand uniform realization of future realities of perfection and blessing in this present age without doing damage to their witness. If you’ve been exposed to MTD, be aware of any sneaky ways it has permeated your life. Do you relate to God as a monolithic oneness (or mere force without personality) and not a dynamic, personal Trinity? Do you think faith is about what you should do more than what Jesus has already done for you and is doing in you by the Spirit? Do you expect God to address every little defect of this life with a magical fix instead of recognizing the processes and imperfections God has in place that spur us to grow and others to come to faith despite our discomfort? If so, you may be affected by the appeal of MTD. Ground yourself in solid teaching about the Trinity, about grace, about the process of sanctification. And don’t be shy in addressing a contrary view when it creeps up in Bible studies, discussions with others, or after church with a pastor who may have gone off track that week. MTD is a heresy that needs to be nipped in the bud or else it will lead to people who ignore Jesus, be burdened with despair as they fail to live up to God’s commands, and expect magical fixes for the most minor of problems instead of developing a faith that can weather difficulties or real persecutions.