There’s a question floating around on the blogosphere, and it emerges on occasion. Here it is: “We know it is heretical to deny the precious orthodox doctrines such as rejecting the virgin birth, denying the Trinity, denying the divinity of Christ — that is false teaching, period. But does a false ethical claim, like celebrating homosexual practice, also qualify as heresy?”
Well, let’s use your definition of heresy, at least what I hear you suggesting and ask the question that way. Heresy is a teaching or a conviction that contradicts something so central and precious to the Christian faith that it disqualifies a person from belonging to the church and thus disqualifies the person from being viewed as a person in Christ and in salvation. That is the definition I am going to work with.
The reason I say “disqualifies him from being viewed” is because we humans don’t make the final decision on who is saved and who is not. God does. But we are called upon to protect the church and pursue the purity of the church by making judgments about whether a person’s views disqualify him from being assumed to be a Christian. And the church always makes those judgments in the hope that the person will repent and be restored to the church.
So here is the biblical illustration of this understanding of heresy: Galatians 1:8–9 says, “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” So it seems there are distortions of the gospel that are so serious, they are worthy of cursing rather than blessing, which would mean that those who spread them are spreading a curse, not a blessing. And so the naming and the exclusion of such views is an act of protection and love for the flock of God, protecting the church from being cursed.
Now your question is, “Since there is clearly such a thing as heretical departures from Christian doctrine or teaching, is there also such a thing as heretical departures from Christian practice or ethics?” Or, to be more precise, are teachings that endorse or celebrate or encourage behaviors which are evil enough or destructive enough that these teachings should be called heresies? And based on the definition we are working with, my answer is surely yes. The definition says that a teaching which contradicts something so important that it brings a curse rather than a blessing would be heresy. In other words, heresies bring destruction, not salvation. And the apostle Paul is clear that there are sins, behaviors, attitudes, which, if they are endorsed, embraced, and followed, will bring a curse, and if they are repented of and fought against in the power of the Spirit through faith in Christ, will lead to life.
So 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 is the example that everybody would, I presume, think of. And it is not the only one. Galatians 5:19–21 says the same thing. But 1 Corinthians 6 says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” In other words, there are behaviors that lead to a curse. “Do not be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral or idolaters or adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves nor greedy nor drunkards nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Since all these sins lead to the curse of exclusion from the kingdom, the teachings that endorse them or celebrate them are heretical teachings. That is, they are teachings that bring a curse rather than a blessing. So if you teach that a life of greed is good, you are a heretic. If you teach that a life of adultery is good, you are a heretic. And so on. The embrace of sin destroys and the teaching that encourages that embrace destroys. It is heresy.
If we had time we could do what J. I. Packer did in 2003 when he left his denomination in Vancouver over the expectation that he would participate in the blessing of homosexual ordination. You can read this article in Christianity Today online. It is called, Why I Walked. He goes behind the warning of destruction for the celebration of sinful behavior and shows how the teachings that approve homosexual behavior actually distort the doctrines of creation, the doctrine of sin, the doctrine of regeneration, and the doctrine of sanctification.
So here is the point of drawing that in: Heretical doctrines and heretical ethics are all cut from one fabric. They are not separate. And for those who even as we speak, Tony, are contemplating the acceptance and the normalization of homosexual practice, they would do well to consider with J. I. Packer both the doctrinal and the ethical dimensions of this endorsement and this sin. It is a kind of double heresy leading to a curse for what is done and for the doctrinal falsehoods behind it.