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Called to be Cultural Heretics

Could Christianity be a heresy?

Heresy is that which deviates from established beliefs. Christianity itself is therefore a heresy. Christianity challenges established beliefs in our culture. It is hard for a heresy to get a hearing because it seems foreign. 

Student Heresies

I completed a strange semester with students at the University of Iowa as a campus pastor this year, while also teaching at a private college with a Reformed heritage. All my students have some church background, but their foreground is more Western culture.

John Stackhouse, a professor at Crandall University, wrote on faithtoday.ca, an article entitled “The actual *gospel* of Canadians.” His observation of student views is that Jesus is seen as a good moral example who teaches us how to live well to get to heaven. Christian Smith, a Notre Dame sociologist, wrote that most American Christian young people are moral therapeutic Deists, viewing Christianity as moral living that will make your life better. God exists, but he is no longer active. Stackhouse adds that God is now seen as a patron who can be prayed to and will unpredictably supernaturally intervene to help.

Works Heresy

The long-standing motto of this faith is “God helps those who help themselves.” A friend texted me asking where this phrase was in Scripture. I said it is not in the Bible and is contrary to the main teachings of Scripture. This is “works righteousness,” but it is the most common theme I read in student essays. 

The idea of the motto goes back at least to Greek writings in the 5th century BC. “For the worker God himself lends aid,” Hippolytus, 428 BC. It occurs so often that it might have been proverbial even then. A couple of Aesop’s Fables illustrate it, and an English political theorist, Algernon Sidney, put it into our motto form in 1698. Then Benjamin Franklin brought it into American cultural theology in Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1736. This is long-standing North American theology. In 2001 Christian pollster, George Barna, found that 75 percent of Americans and 81 percent of Christians agreed that this motto is Biblical.  

The real Christian heresy is that God helps those who cannot help themselves.

Heaven Heresy

Students often indicate that the goal of the Christian life is getting to heaven. This is sung frequently in churches. How is this wrong? Is Christianity the life insurance policy that only takes effect after you die?

From the beginning, our human purpose is focused on this earth, “to till and keep the garden.” Jesus directed his disciples to go to all nations making disciples and teaching how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven that has been inaugurated on earth in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Revelation closes with God and the new Jerusalem coming to renew this earth. (To explore this more, read Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright.)

The real Christian heresy is that our goal is earthly. “We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

Individualistic Heresy

Stackhouse mentions that students seldom refer to the cross, resurrection, ascension, or Spirit. Talking with five Christian students this week, I found that only one had ever heard of the Ascension. Our culture is no longer part of a grand theological story. It is “I” or my group now. “Jesus did not do anything to change the world. It may be that his teachings can change me. I am not part of God’s mission in the world. I have my personal mission, although no one sent me, and I am not sure where I am going or why.”

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet. 2:9, NIV). 

The real Christian heresy is community mission. “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins.” 

Be a modern cultural heretic by the gracious power of God here and now together.


  • Dr. Thomas Wolthuis is a CRC pastor serving as the English pastor of the Chinese Church of Iowa City. He has been a campus minister, institute president, professor, pastor, and church planter. His Biblical Studies podcasts are at www.geneva-ui.org.

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