While in seminary I took a course simply entitled “Heresy." No, it wasn’t a how-to course on being better than just a half-baked heretic.
First, let’s clarify “heresy." It is an opinion, belief, or doctrine that stands in variance with the orthodox position of a religion. Which requires that there be an orthodox position. The first centuries of Christianity were fragmented with a number of evolving and competing groups. These sects had different understandings of the divinity of Christ, the nature of the Trinity, and what constituted “scripture."
It wasn’t until Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the religion of the empire in 318 that various beliefs began to coalesce and become formulated into an orthodoxy. In the Chalcedonian Conference of 451 orthodoxy really took shape. From this conference came the Chalcedoian Definition declaring Christ’s dual nature of fully divine and fully human, that he was of the same substance as God, and that Christ’s Two Natures existed in him “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.”
This spelled real trouble for some sects, including Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Docetism, which held beliefs counter with the emerging orthodoxy. Quickly these were declared heretical.
During Medieval times a significant number of sects or movements were declared heretical. Some actually held non-orthodox beliefs. Others were perceived as a threat the the central church’s power and put down by being labeled heretic. In the 12th century the Inquisition was formed as an official body given the charter to suppress heresies, taking the responsibility from bishops - who hadn’t used it that often.
The Catholic Priest, Martin Luther began questioning practices of the church in 1517, nailing his 95 Thesis (questions) to the church door. In January of of 1521 Luther was excommunicated. After refusing to recant his writings at the Diet of Worms three months later he was declared a heretic. As the Reformation roles forward, Luther himself (along with others like John Wesley) declared “antinomianism” - the belief that Christians are free of the moral law in the ten Commandments - as heretical.
Charging people or groups as heretical has really dropped off in modern centuries.
Heresies aren’t always a defined group. Heresies can be beliefs held by people who may in fact belong to non-heretical denominations and congregations. We have a recent example of such.
As more photos and videos of the almost exclusively white mob that descended upon the Congress Building on January 6th have been releases, I was shocked to see the number of people carrying crosses, flags with “Jesus 2020” on them, clothing displaying Christian symbols and messages, people bearing shields with crosses, and groups chanting “Jesus saves, stop the steal,” among the throng. These are Christian Nationalist. American Christian Nationalism is a thing, it just isn’t Christianity, it is a heresy.
As Christians our faith teaches that everyone is created in God’s image and commands us to love one another. As Americans we value our system of government and what can be accomplished through democracy, our constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Unfortunately American Christian Nationalism conflates these two, liberally mixing biblical teaching with the principles of constitutional democracy until the line between them is blurred or even erased altogether. We are Christians first and foremost, members of a nation a distant second. Matthew McCullough suggests a sign of American Christian Nationalism is “Has the story of the American nation taken a central place in our understanding of redemptive history?” Albert Einstein stated that "Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”
The rise of Christian Nationalism in America began with the Cold War. Thomas Kidd states, “White evangelical leaders … framed the Cold War as a conflict between Christian values of America and the atheism of the Soviets. … This spiritual framing led them to see almost everything about Cold War politics through spiritual lenses. Thus, whoever was toughest on communism (e.g., Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, or Ronald Reagan) got transformed into Christian warriors who had God on their side. The details of a politician’s personal faith didn’t matter.”
The urge to transform politicians or other defenders of the American nation into virtuous believers or Christlike figures more than suggests that we have confused nationalism with biblical Christianity.
When extremists/heretics of other religions have caused destruction and death there has been a cry (likely even from us) for members of that religion to quell that heretical branch. Today, that shoe is on the other foot, as people from around the world equally shocked by the rioting on Jan. 6, call on Christians in America to temper these heretics.
American Christian Nationalists are confronting a growing number of critics from an unanticipated source: American Christians. This criticism, however, must take the form of speaking truth to the Christian Nationalists in love. In love we can invite the those swayed by heresy back into the truth of God. The truth we speak may not be readily accepted by them, but we must keep speaking it to these who are children of God just like us. Keep speaking the truth. In love.
The Rev. Scott Wipperman is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Helena. He enjoys nature, is a fixer-of-many-things and is truly enamored with Helena.