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The Evolution of Heresy in the American Church or How to Kill a Denomination in 5 Easy Steps

The Evolution of Heresy in the American Church or How to Kill a Denomination in 5 Easy Steps

By Rev. CJ Conner
March 11, 2015

Christian theology in the American Church has seen no greater evolution than in the last 10 years. In fact, what the American Church has faced, particularly the Mainline Church, has probably been best described as a devolution or deconstruction of the "faith once received." Another first, the culture has followed the American Mainline, particularly the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Episcopal Church (TEC) in redefining human relationship, sexuality, and marriage.

Dr. Del Jacobson, retired professor from Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN long ago outlined what the evolution of ideas or movements look like in Church and State. The following is what the timeline of change, or if you will the timeline of heresy, looks like.

1. Rejection

When a small minority of people in a denomination beginning introducing innovations to Christian teachings and practice, the faithful majority reject them out of hand. They are able to point to the Bible, to the statement of faith of the denomination, and the constitution to kindly point out the errors of an innovation. In the case of the ELCA, 1997 began a long battle over whether or not non-celibate gays should be pastors. The responses of creative innovators varies widely. In the face of opposition, the LGBT lobby knew that several other foundational changes would need to happen first before they could force a change. They moved on with a multi-pronged approach that included vesting Bishops with un-checked power over congregations and church policy, connecting the ordination of non-celibate gays to the role of women in the church as well as the black civil rights movement, and creating a "theological" framework that would show that the change they demand is also demanded by God.

2. Resistance

Average members of a church may not know that there is a problem on the horizon, but clergy and church workers most certainly do. Even among the clergy, though, you'll find a division between those who see the serious threat to Christianity the proposed innovation poses. One group is composed of those who can't possibly imagine it would ever happen in "this church" who are viewed as "undecided". Then there are the two main factions of those who support the changes and those who do not. As positions are staked out throughout the denomination, polarization begins to occur. Both sides of the issue begin to engage the task of convincing the "undecided" or the clergy sitting on the sidelines to pick a side. This is typically a period of time where the resistance flourishes. No changes are being made, but it takes a tremendous amount of effort for those that hold to a historical and biblical view to hold the line. Typically, for example, gay clergy don't really have jobs or pulpits in the church and have much more time to organize their agenda than the clergy who are working 50 hours a week to shepherd a church. Every theological becomes a flashpoint and opportunity for pushing forward the LGBT agenda. Even discussions that have nothing to with it are framed and used to give support to biblical innovation. The resistance typically represents the vast majority of the denomination, but because their task to educate the undecided clergy of all the issues is so large, they begin to become the loudest voice, especially to people who have no idea anything is going on that warrants concern.

3. Tolerance

As the discussion about the proposed heresy drags on, everybody gets weary. Depending on the allies the innovators have gathered, they are able to legitimize their claims by leaning on a tearful cry for "social justice" and "tolerance." To the extent that they can argue from an emotional position of an oppressed minority, they are able to frame the resistance as the real trouble makers. People who are undecided begin to pick sides, and usually the growth of the so-called "intolerant" resistance begins to slow as people begin looking for a way to end the conflict with a "why can't we all get along" mentality. The growth in supporters of the innovation begins to quickly grow in favor of "unity" and "harmony." Some clergy, in particular those who see the denomination as the "family business" and want to ensure their pensions and "make a name" for themselves will oppose the resistance in the name of "unity" and cast themselves as "diplomatic churchmen," putting their self-interests above the Gospel. In the case of the ELCA, Bishop Mark Hanson called for a national study and conversation about homosexual behavior. This in effect gave the time needed to create an environment of acceptance for the false teaching.

4. Acceptance

The resistance begins to accept what becomes the inevitable in theological drift and re-cast their mission and discussions in the hopes of recovering the credibility that was lost in being smeared as "the trouble makers." They make the shift from "watchmen on the walls" to a church renewal vision, realizing that the denomination is in trouble because the average pastor and pew-sitter doesn't know the Bible. Having functionally capitulated, they hold out hope that through renewal they could someday "reclaim" the historic Christian faith for their denomination. Pastors and congregations that haven't already left the denomination begin to head for the doors in defeat. The clergy who sat on the sidelines begin to rationalize that the changes won't really affect them or their congregations. The innovators begin to signal their all but certain victory by casting themselves as leaders of reconciliation and good will, though they've played dirty from the start. In the case of the ELCA, a decision to accept non-celibate gay clergy was accepted at their 2009 church-wide assembly with a 66.6% vote. At the very moment the vote was being taken a tornado tore the steeple off of Central Lutheran Church, which is often described as the Cathedral of the ELCA.

5. Promotion

Promotion of a heresy doesn't begin right away. Denominations discover that innovations cause bitter division. People vote with their wallets and with their feet. Hundreds of congregations begin to leave the denomination and these are usually the healthiest and largest congregations of the denomination. Budgetary issues assail the denomination. For example, the ELCA's budget when it was established in the early 1980's was 70 million dollars. By 2010 the general funds had dropped to 45 million. Many of the gay pastors realized that they pushed out the most talented and brightest pastors, as well as their most generous givers. The people they depended on to do the heavy work of the denomination, and to do the best preaching and teaching, begin to disengage. As this storm gathers and swirls, the theological innovators bear the brunt of the blame and those who sat on the sidelines finally realize that it does have a major impact on the church. All of these people keep their heads down and keep quiet. If it were any other "dialogue" they would have moved quickly to the next cause celebre', but now realize that the majority of the church that is left- even their supporters- blame them for the devastation that is left behind. This quiet eventually gives way to picking up the pieces as best they can, but the disaster isn't over. The denomination now has to "live into" their decisions. Some leaders emerge who will press to implement the changes in every way they can and every place they can out of the deep desire to justify the change and to show that it is a good thing. They have to put lipstick on a pig, and hope against reality that the promised benefits of the change will come to fruition. The most common promise is that the change will grow the church, bringing droves of new people to hear the gospel. This is never true, but the denomination promotes the changes as the best thing since sliced bread, in effect bringing attention to the fact that the bishops and their pastors have no clothes. A protracted period of decline begins as non-celibate gay clergy take on pulpits across the country and displace church members who one time thought it would never happen in "their" congregation. The change is celebrated and promoted as a new movement of the Holy Spirit in the church, and severe decline is ensured.


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