The Ecstatic Heresy

The conflict in the mainline churches is ostensibly about sexuality—specifically, homosexuality. But more than sexuality is at stake. The faith itself, the Christian faith, is being invaded by false teaching. Theologically, this heresy is rarely articulated. Rather, it works by feeling, an ecstatic sense that transcends petty verbal differences. Consider these three quotations:

The Dammann case does reveal continuing differences in the United Methodist Church concerning the issue of homosexuality. The Council of Bishops is painfully aware of this disagreement. In such moments as this, we remember that our unity in Christ does not depend on unanimity of opinion. Rather, in Jesus Christ we are bound together by love that transcends our differences and calls us to stay at the table with one another.

When they finished, all of us stood up and applauded, with a lump in our throats and a tear in our eyes, as we watched them embrace one another. Convictions were not reconciled that day, but two people who held different convictions were reconciled in Christ.

How we all fit together, how our singularities are made sense of, how our divergent views and different understandings of God’s intent are reconciled, passes all understanding. All that we can do is to travel on in faith and trust, knowing that all contradictions and paradoxes and seemingly irreconcilable truths—which seem both consistent and inconsistent with Scripture—are brought together in the larger and all- embracing truth of Christ, which, by Christ’s own words, has yet to be fully drawn forth and known.

The first quotation is from a March 25, 2004, statement by the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church in response to the trial of a lesbian Methodist minister. This trial reflected the deep divisions within that church. The bishops are “painfully aware” of these disagreements. Nevertheless, they feel that these differences are a matter of “opinion.” These opinions, however, cannot negate our “unity in Christ” because “in Jesus Christ we are bound together by love that transcends our differences and calls us to stay at the table with one another.” In other words, we can be in verbal disagreement, yet be unified at a higher level in Christ.

The second quotation is from an address by Douglas W. Oldenburg, moderator of the 1998 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly. In the climax of his speech, he portrayed two men who also addressed the assembly. The first was a homosexual Presbyterian pastor who passionately affirmed his sexuality, his call to ministry, and his understanding of Scripture. His speech was followed by an equally passionate address by a man who held utterly contrary views. Once these two speeches had been delivered, the two men embraced each other. At that point, the assembly applauded with tears in their eyes and lumps in their throats. Although these two men held different convictions, convictions resulting in starkly different behaviors, they “were reconciled in Christ.”

The third quotation is from Frank Griswold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. Like the others, he believes that verbal disagreements, different conceptions of truth—even truths inconsistent with Scripture—are unified in the “larger and all-embracing truth of Christ.”

These men do not speak in a vacuum. They are influenced by a tradition, a powerful theological perspective that resonates in our culture and is taught in our universities, graduate schools of religion, and seminaries. I call this the “ecstatic” perspective, a term taken from theologian Paul Tillich. Essentially, this perspective claims that God can only be known in feeling, in ways that transcend the language of God or about God.

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