Am I “Satanic” or Just “Unbiblical”? A Guide for My Christian Critics

Dear Christian critic,

I occasionally say things that you find disconcerting, even disturbing. Sometimes you accuse me of being “unbiblical,” or of “not preaching the gospel,” or of “heresy,” even of being “antichrist” or (my personal favourite) “satanic.”

Those are strong words. However, you do not seem to be using them correctly. So, I’ve put together this helpful guide for you to use those terms more accurately in the future.

Rest assured, I will continue to say disconcerting things.

Respectfully,
Michael

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“Unbiblical.”

This means “not biblical.” (We’re off to a good start here.)

Now, I certainly say and do plenty of things that are “not biblical.” Just the other day I texted my wife (texting is not in the Bible) and let her know that we already had two big bottles of ketchup in the fridge, both half full (ketchup is also not in the Bible, and hoarding resources is not an acceptable biblical practice).

More to the point, like most people I do occasionally lie, I sometimes have anger issues, and I participate in an economic system that exploits poor labourers to enrich the wealthy. These things and more are profoundly “unbiblical.” I’m trying to become “more biblical” in both my personal morals and my social ethics.

But I suspect this is still not what you mean by “unbiblical.” I suspect what you really mean when you call something I say “unbiblical” is “Michael’s teaching is not according to my interpretation of the Bible and what I have prioritized as most important in the Bible.”

After all, I read and study my Bible every day. In fact, I’ve spent nearly my entire adult life studying the Bible in order to help other people understand the Bible better. I preach on biblical passages every time I preach. I teach Bible studies, and topical studies on the Bible and about the Bible. So, when you say I’m saying or doing something “unbiblical” you can’t mean “Michael doesn’t take the Bible seriously.”

I can only conclude, then, that by “unbiblical” you mean, “not according to my interpretation of the Bible and what I have prioritized as most important in the Bible.” It might be more helpful, then, if you said that. Then we could have a conversation about how we interpret the Bible differently and why we prioritize various biblical teachings differently.

“Not preaching the gospel.”

Now this strikes near to my heart.

You see, I’ve not only spent the last 30 years studying and teaching the Bible, I’ve also become convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ is what the Bible points us toward. The gospel of Jesus Christ is “the power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16). It is the truth we are to live out in our individual lives and as churches, and it is the truth we are to teach within our churches and proclaim to the world. It is the truth the world desperately needs.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the story of Jesus, from his baptism to his resurrection, including all his words and works and ways (Mark 1:1). It is the good news that God has arrived in Jesus of Nazareth: Jesus is the anticipated “Messiah” of Israel who brings about the “kingdom of God,” God’s vision for justice and peace and life for the world (Mark 1:14-15). It is the good news that Jesus has done this—that he has brought near God’s reign—through his life, his teachings, his execution on a Roman cross, and his resurrection from the dead by God (Acts 10:36-43; 1 Cor 15:3-5). It is the good news that this risen and exalted Jesus is now “Lord” over all powers of this age, including all evil powers (Rom 1:1-6; 10:9-10).

This good news calls forth a response of “repentance”: turning from our collusion with the evil powers of this age, even actively resisting these powers, including both our own personal sins and the wider injustices of our world. This good news calls forth a response of “faith”: committing ourselves to the loving and faithful God who calls us to walk in Jesus’ way of suffering love in solidarity with the vulnerable and the oppressed, in the presence and power of God’s Spirit. When we do these things, we will experience the reign of the God who is love: forgiveness and joy, true justice and lasting peace, flourishing life for ourselves and for the world—God’s “salvation,” in other words.

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ according to his Apostles, and this is the gospel I preach. So, when you say I am “not preaching the gospel,” what you must mean is, “Michael is not preaching the ‘gospel’ I’ve been taught to believe.” If the gospel you believe lines up with the gospel I preach, hey, we good! If not, let’s get together and explore what the New Testament says about “the gospel.”

(Though if you publicly preach or disseminate a gospel reduced to a private transaction offering fire insurance and a ticket to heaven, or a gospel that is not actually “good news for the poor,” I’m likely to call you out on it. Fair warning.)

“Heresy.”

Ah, yes. The favourite power-play of self-styled theologians.

I say that because, for most trained theologians, “heresy” has a fairly well-defined meaning. It is the opposite of “orthodoxy,” which also has a fairly well-defined meaning.

“Orthodoxy” in this broad sense (not referring to “Eastern Orthodox churches”) means adhering to the universal creeds: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and often also the Athanasian Creed. It means confessing such historic Christian doctrines as the Trinity, God as Creator of all things, the incarnation, the true humanity and true deity of Christ, Jesus’ virginal conception, Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus’ exaltation to God, Jesus as judge of humanity, the person and activity of the Holy Spirit, the universal Church, the forgiveness of sins, a future bodily resurrection, and life in the age to come.

“Heresy,” then, is denying these things.

Since I believe these things, and have never denied them, when you accuse me of “heresy” you must mean, “Michael is teaching things which I think are wrong.” Sorry, but you don’t get to decide what “heresy” is, and neither do I.

(Which is why I won’t call you a heretic, even though I probably think you’re wrong. Unless you really are a heretic, in which case I might use that term. But don’t worry: as an Anabaptist “heretic” just doesn’t carry the same weight for me as it does for others. Too many Anabaptists were drowned or burned for so-called “heresy,” I suppose, and there’s not enough interest among us in authoritative creeds beyond the life and teaching of Jesus.)

“Antichrist.”

I do admire this one—it’s got a certain panache.

Allow me a little deep-dive into 1 and 2 John, though, the only places in the Bible where “antichrist” is used.

These letters were written for a specific situation. Some people were teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was not really the “Christ.” They apparently taught that the “Christ” was a spirit which came upon Jesus and then left Jesus before he died. These teachers made a sharp distinction between the “spiritual,” which we are to embrace, and the “physical” or “material,” which we are to cast aside. These theological acrobatics allowed them to treat actual flesh-and-blood people in uncompassionate, even cruel ways—not providing food for the hungry, for example.

This is what the author of 1 and 2 John calls “antichrist” and “the spirit of antichrist” (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7). You could summarize “antichrist” this way: “denying that Jesus is who the gospel proclaims he is, both fully human and fully God; denying that salvation is what the gospel says it is, the full redemption of creation and humanity in both body and spirit; and denying that the gospel calls us to love one another in very direct and practical ways.”

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always love others in the way of Jesus. But I strive to, and I certainly affirm all these things. Sorry to burst your bubble, then, but I’m no antichrist, and neither is my gospel or my teaching “of the spirit of antichrist.”

“Satanic.”

This is my favourite. (Narrator: “That is a lie. Michael does not like being called ‘satanic.’”)

This is getting long, so quick summary. “Satan” (or really “the satan”) in the Bible simply means “the adversary.” It often means “the adversary of God” or “the adversary of God’s people.”

So, I get it. If you think I’m teaching or acting against God’s ways, then I might well seem “satanic” to you.

But it’s worth thinking about the way the Gospels describe what is truly “satanic.” Jesus is tempted by “the devil” in the wilderness, tempted to use his power selfishly, tempted to bring about God’s kingdom on earth through worldly power. “Away with you, Satan!” Jesus cries (Matt 4:10). Later, Peter tries to deter Jesus from going through the suffering of the cross; it’s another call for Jesus to instead bring about God’s kingdom on earth through worldly power. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus again cries (Matt 16:23).

The way of “the satan” is the way of worldly power—gaining power and privilege, even through accumulating wealth and the use of violence, and using these means to achieve our own ends, even potentially good ends. But this is not the way of God. This is not the way of Jesus. And, although I’m as prone to love power as the next person, it’s not the way I’m striving to live.

Sorry, I’m really not satanic. I’m pretty boring, really.

Here’s the bottom line in all this: you think I’m wrong about something. Fine. I probably think you’re wrong about a few things, too. I might even think you’re actually the heretic or the one not preaching the true gospel.

But maybe we could get together and talk about these things, you know, with a little gentleness and respect (2 Tim 2:24-26; 1 Pet 3:15-16). I’ll try and cut the sarcasm if you try and cut the name-calling. Deal?

Christians Need to Be More Conservative, Not Less

It’s happened again.

The other day someone casually referred to me as “liberal” (don’t worry, Peter, I don’t hold it against you). Every time that happens I kind of smile to myself—if it’s said innocently—or else I cringe inwardly—if it’s said pejoratively.

It’s not that I particularly mind being called “liberal.” In some circles that’s the worst thing anyone can be. But the word can be a wonderful compliment: think of a doctor who is “liberal” with their time, or a wealthy person who is “liberal” with their charitable giving. (Or maybe a Christian who is “liberal” with their love, “liberal” in the grace and mercy they show to others…?)

It’s more that the word doesn’t really fit me in the way people seem to think.

Most often people seem to think I am theologically “liberal.” That’s very strange.

They might mean (though I doubt it) that I hold to classic liberal theology, that I’m a disciple of Friedrich Schleiermacher or Adolf von Harnack. But I don’t, and I’m not.

Or they might mean (more likely) that I don’t believe in the classic doctrines of Christianity, that I am not theologically “orthodox.” But I do, and I am.

I believe in the Trinity, one God in three persons. I believe that Jesus is truly God and truly man. I hold fast to the good news of salvation through Jesus, Messiah and Lord and Son of God, who died for our sins and was bodily resurrected. I look to the Scriptures as divinely inspired and authoritative for Christian belief and practice. I can recite the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds without batting an eye or crossing my fingers behind my back—pretty much the definition of being “theologically orthodox.”

In other words, I’m actually quite conservative, theologically speaking. Within the whole spectrum of Christian beliefs through history and around the globe, I’m pretty securely on the conservative side of things.

Here’s the real issue, it seems to me: I don’t fit a lot of people’s culturally conditioned notions of how “conservative Christians” act, or what else they believe.

Beliefs like biblical inerrancy or young earth creationism or penal substitutionary atonement or the rapture have crept into Christian thinking over the past few centuries, and have become part of the package of “conservative Christianity”—but they are actually recent theological innovations, not historical Christian orthodoxy.

Likewise, things like upholding “family values” or “traditional marriage,” or being a “Christian nation,” or supporting war efforts or gun rights or free-market capitalism, or abstaining from alcohol, have become part and parcel of “conservative Christianity”—but they have actually grown out of our particular Western culture, with nothing timeless or universal about them.

Some of these sorts of things I may agree with in one sense or to a certain degree, but I hold them loosely. Other things, well beyond these examples, I have questioned and continue to wonder about. Many of these sorts of things I simply don’t believe in or agree with. Some I’m even convinced are actually harmful distortions of genuine Christian faith.

But in many “conservative Christian” circles, these kinds of beliefs and ideas and behaviours tend to get all lumped together with genuine Christian orthodoxy: believing in biblical inerrancy is on par with believing in the Trinity, upholding heterosexual marriage is on the same level as upholding the gospel, and so on.

liberalYou’ll have noticed the quotation marks around “conservative Christians” through all this. That’s not because I don’t think these folks are truly Christian. It’s partly because that’s just the common phrase used to describe Christians who hold to these kinds of views. But it’s also because I’m not convinced they really are all that conservative.

Yes, you’ve heard it here first: “conservative Christians” are not conservative enough. They need to be more conservative, not less.

They need to go back to genuine, generous, historic Christian orthodoxy—and hold fast to it, being wary of all those trendy theological innovations like biblical inerrancy or young-earth creationism.

They need to go back to the original, apostolic, gospel story of Jesus—and hold fast to it, being cautious of all those recent cultural accretions like “family values” or teetotalism.

They need to go back to our sacred Scriptures, that diverse collection of ancient human writings inspired by God—and hold fast to it, being suspicious of all those simplistic assertions of right and wrong.

We Christians—all of us—need to be more conservative, not less.

And if we do so, we might actually find ourselves becoming truly liberal—in the best senses of the word.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.