By Lowell Bliss
It was meant to be a triumphant week for Franklin Graham and his 250 other Christians-who-are-leaders following their Call to Prayer for the President on June 2. Perhaps, according to the American Family Association’s “spiritual warfare perspective,” something did happen in the heavenlies against Trump’s enemies, but objective data suggests that it was a rough week for MAGA Evangelicalism, and particularly for signers Graham, Kenneth Copeland, and Jerry Falwell, Jr.
The Inside Edition video of Kenneth Copeland’s interview with a female reporter—whom he insisted on calling “baby” and “sweetheart” while complimenting her eyes—went viral. He came across as, in a word: creepy. Jerry Falwell Jr. sent what has been called a “crude” tweet when he told Pastor David Platt to “grow a pair” and not apologize for being caught off guard by a surprise visit from the president on Sunday. In the tweeting that followed, Falwell revealed how he wanted to be known: “You’re putting your ignorance on display. I have never been a minister. UVA-trained lawyer and commercial real estate developer for 20 yrs. Univ president for last 12 years-student body tripled to 100000+/endowment from 0 to $2 billion and $1.6B new construction in those 12 years.” He was intent on clarifying his role as chancellor at Liberty University: “While I am proud to be a conservative Christian, my job is to keep LU successful academically, financially and in athletics.” Nonetheless, I suspect this will not prevent Falwell from speaking out on behalf of evangelicals, or on behalf of Jesus, the next time CNN wants an interview. He has however, it seems to me, revealed the cards in his hand from the values deck.
Franklin Graham’s insistence that he be recognized as a “Christian leader” was called into question most forcibly by an OpEd in the Washington Post written by Michael Gerson:
Does he think that his servile devotion to Trump will clarify the Christian gospel in many minds, or obscure it? Does he think that more people, or fewer, will be open to following Christ after a day of partisan prayer? This is the greatest danger of a politicized faith on right or left: that it artificially narrows the offer of grace. For a minister of the gospel, making Christ secondary to anything is the dereliction of a sacred duty. Making the gospel secondary to the political fortunes of Donald Trump is betrayal compounded with farce.
Gerson writes: “In their day of prayer, Graham and other Trump evangelicals have used a sacred spiritual practice for profane purposes. They have subordinated religion to politics. They have elevated Trump as a symbol of divine purposes. And they are using Christian theology as a cover for their partisanship.” But then he adds, “So: This is blasphemy, in service to ideology, leading to idolatry, justified by heresy. All in a Sunday’s work.”
Heresy? Hmm. I know that the “prosperity gospel,” such as propounded by Copeland in defense of his three private jets, has long been under scrutiny: is the unashamed prosperity gospel, heresy? Even apart from that, Facebook commentators seemed quick to pull out the H-Word about Sunday’s prayers for Trump. Something didn’t seem exactly right to me. Once when my kids were young, we were in Al-Ain, UAE, where our local friends had taken us to an air show. Outside in the parking lot, the Government’s Tourist Office had set up a series of exhibits, including one tent which replicated the lives of wealthy nomad herders. My friend could verify that the Arabic on the sign correctly identified the “Educational Heritage Village”, but the English translation was laughably and unfortunately miswritten: “Educational Heretic Village.” Yikes! Would my kids see severed heads and handless limbs? Heresy is a big deal, not unakin to Trump, Huckabee-Sanders, and various GOP Congressmen accusing Comey, Pelosi, and others of “treason.”
Surely there’s an official definition of heresy, I thought. I ended up on Scot McKnight’s webpage. Here were my suspicions going in:
· Graham, Falwell, and Copeland don’t qualify as “heretics,” as Christianity has historically understood “heresy;”
· Accusations of heresy are not profitably going to participate in the transformation of the audience we are trying to convince. Listeners aren’t going to believe us in the first place, but more importantly, there is no purchase there for their own examen because. . .
· … accusations of heresy provide us no good soil for our own growth. At the best, we can claim ourselves to be right and MAGA Evangelicals to be wrong. If the Gospel is true, then give me something that I can implicate myself in too so I can get busy moving toward Christlikeness.
“Let me suggest,” McKnight says, “that the term ‘heretic’ is used in three ways, only one of which (I believe) is justifiable.” “First, there is the slipshod use: a ‘heretic’ is used here for anyone who doesn’t believe something we might think important. As when someone uses this term for someone who is amillennial or a preterist or a partial inerrantist or paedobaptistic or trans-substantialist … or a host of other things.” The second, and other unjustified, usage he calls extended use: “for anyone whom someone else thinks is skirting [sic. “flirting”?] with danger on a central theological concept.” Finally, for the “proper use”, McKnight turns to Harold O.J. Brown’s book, Heresy.
Most importantly, heresy pertains only to the central doctrines of God and Christ. Heresy is established by orthodoxy and orthodoxy was established by the classical creeds (Nicea, Chalcedon, etc). Brown once told me a heretic is someone who denies something in the classic forms of Christian orthodoxy, such that orthodoxy and heresy are mirror terms. That is, one is a heretic if one teaches what has already been judged to be heretical — say, Docetism or Arianism.
McKnight also throws in a church history and polity lesson from Kallistos Ware:
No one can be called a heretic until they have been informed by a proper authority of a theological error, until that person has understood what she or he is teaching, and only if the person then continues to teach such an idea. So the proper ingredients of the heresy accusation is: 1. An authority, 2. Explanation and confrontation of the error, and 3. Refusal to change one’s teaching. What is often the case today is that #1 is seized beyond one’s recognized status; in other words, one usurps the position of authority and then pontificates from that usurpation.
No one is going to believe that the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is in violation of the ancient creeds. Calling for a Day of Prayer for the current President of the United States may indeed be, in Gerson words, “in service to ideology” and “leading to idolatry,” but is it, also in Gerson words, really “blasphemy,” or “justified by heresy”? I for one don’t want to, in McKnight’s words this time, “usurp the position of authority and then pontificate from that usurpation.”
Besides, I found something way more useful in McKnight’s comments. It’s in a throw-away paragraph at the beginning, but it’s important to McKnight to say it and I find it important to me to act on it:
Before I get there, though, let me add another point: it is too bad we don’t have such an evocative term for praxis. Jesus’ focus was on “hypocrisy” more than “heresy,” and it might just be an indication of how far we’ve strayed for us to give so much attention to “heresy” and not enough to failure in praxis. As far as we can see, failure in practice is just as bad as failure in theology. But this is not what this post is about. We are concerned here with the term “heretic.”
“Jesus’ focus was on ‘hypocrisy’ more than ‘heresy.’” Ha! Hypocrisy: now, that’s a sin I’m guilty of on a regular basis. That’s a path of confession, repentance, forgiveness and reformation that I can walk more deeply into the embrace of my Saviour. And that’s the temptation that I see so wildly afoot among my people group. We are so damn right about our beliefs that we (and Tony Perkins) are so damnably quick to give ourselves, each other, and President Trump a “mulligan” for immoral behavior. We are so sure about our speaking the truth that we think we are exempt from the full command, namely that we always “speak the truth in love.” It seems to me hypocritical to pray about Bill Clinton one way, and pray for Donald Trump another. It seems to me hypocritical to treat Merrick Garland one way, and Brett Kavanaugh another. It seems to me hypocritical to treat a baby one way one week before birth and another way one week afterwards. It is--it seems to me and I may be wrong--hypocritical to send Christmas Child packages to a kid in Honduras, but pen him or her up the moment they cross our border seeking sanctuary. For those who know me well, I likely did not escape hypocrisy in writing up this last paragraph. Hypocrisy is a much more useful critique of MAGA Evangelicalism than is heresy, primarily because it is the wood that forms the beams and motes in all our eyes.
My prayer is that David Platt’s generous prayer for President Trump will be fully answered in the wideness of God’s mercy, but that it will be interpreted--by Trump, by everyone, and by God himself--prophetically not generically. (Ed Stetzer speak to this and repeats Platt’s prayer here.) My prayer also is that this is the week that Graham, Falwell, and Copeland are marginalized among us. Are they Christian? (They’re not heretics.) Are they leaders? (Not mine.) Are they “Christian leaders”? (I’d rather you just call them university leaders, or non-profit leaders, or Republican voting bloc leaders, but I have no control over such things.) I also pray that MAGA Evangelicalism will be short-lived; it has proven to be too fertile a breeding ground for hypocrisy.