The ancient heretic Marcion was rejected by the church for rejecting the Old Testament. Stripping the Gospel from its valorous Old Testament context is just as heretical.
As the early church shared the teachings of Jesus and the writings of Peter and Paul, they also battled insidious heresies. Heresies have a tendency of rearing their ugly heads again, however. One such heresy, Marcionism, lingers to this day and has become popular with passive modern Christians. Marcionism appears in skeletal form, mainly among anti-intellectual Christians who believe that making strongly-worded statements or responses will hurt their evangelism. Like Marcion before them, many modern Christians wrongly believe—explicitly or implicitly—that the God of the Old Testament was "too mean and cruel." As a result, they become overly passive and ignore important parts of God's character, such as his wrath, anger, and demand for justice.
The Early Church Refuted Marcion's Socially Convenient and Heretical Beliefs
Marcionism was, among other things, the belief that the God of the Old Testament—whom Marcion called a “demiurge”—and the God of the New Testament were not the same. Like progressive Christians today, Marcion asked how the God of love, grace, and mercy as seen through the life of Jesus possibly be the same God of anger, wrath, and brutality as seen in the Old Testament.
While Marcion did not deny the existence of an angry Old Testament god, he believed that the Old Testament demiurge was created by a higher God—the Absolute One—and the demiurge was the reason matter, and evil, were created. Marcion believed Jesus was sent to teach the truth of spiritual existence—to lead people out of the world of the demiurge—and to live a life in pursuit of spiritual, as opposed to bodily or interpersonal, truth. In other words, he tried to sever the teaching and principles of the Old Testament from Christianity because they were unpalatable and unpopular among the eminent philosophers of his day. To Marcion, the Old Testament was an inferior book. He even went as far as trying to purge the New Testament of references to the Old Testament. Sound familiar?
In no uncertain terms, Tertullian handily refuted all of Marcion's heretical teachings. In observing that Marcion had a difficult time reconciling the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament, Tertullian says, “Accordingly, finding in Christ a different disposition, as it were—one of a simple and pure benevolence—differing from the Creator, [Marcion] readily argued that in his Christ had been revealed a new and strange divinity.”
Marcion used Greek philosophy to essentially create another divinity in addition to the Trinity. In refuting Marcion, Tertullian rightly argued that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth and that He created all things good. Tertullian pointed out that the problem of evil is not in physical matter but in the human heart. Moreover, Tertullian would use Marcion’s own Greek philosophy against him, revealing the shortcomings of his thought. Tertullian, as well as Fathers Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ultimately pronounced Marcion to be a heretic. He was excommunicated from the church of Rome around 144.
So, the Marcion question was put to rest in 144, and the Christian world never heard from him or his heresies ever again, right? I wish this were true. Heresies have a way of coming back. In 2018, a form of Marcionism most infamously reappeared in a sermon from Andy Stanley, a popular evangelical pastor. Marcionism is insidious, in part, because it is not always clear cut. I contend that it appears in our day-to-day lives, our theologies, and our worldviews. There is a sense that some Christians rely heavily on the teachings of Jesus, stripped not only from their New Testament context but also from their overall biblical context.
The Marcion Heresy Feeds Christian Passivity
A good example of how Marcionism has crept into Christianity is evident in the unbiblical passivity of progressive Christians. I am not referring to pacifism, the belief that violence is never justified. Instead, I am referring to the implicit passivity of many Christians who would rather keep quiet than stand up for their Christian belief. If Christians keep silent, the world will never know what Christians really believe.
Matthew 5:38-39 may well be the creed of such passive Christians: “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” If we take these words in a certain narrow sense, Christ’s cleansing of the temple and His strong words for the Sadducees and Pharisees make little sense.
Of course, a pacifist may contend that, since these were religious matters, Jesus could say whatever He wanted to make His point. Are Christians allowed to do this? The answer is yes. Yet some Christians wrongfully allow non-Christian or progressive Christians to walk all over their faith. These passive Christians hope that by rolling over, they will appear as loving and humble. They say to themselves, “Won't my response offend them and drive them from Jesus? Surely my passiveness will be seen as loving!”
This method may be well-intended, but how are people supposed to learn about Jesus if you don’t tell them anything about Him, or at least make a reasonable case for your belief? Peter says, “give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” Christians should always stand up for what they believe in, so long as it is done with gentleness and respect.
Christians Worship the God of the Whole Bible and Should Not Remain Passively Silent
Like Marcion before them, passive Christians seem to think that the new covenant completely replaces the old one. However, Christians have always believed that the trinitarian God is eternally existent, and the God of the New Testament is the same God of the Old Testament. Some progressive Christians contend that God is more loving in the new covenant than the old. Many who make this argument seem to be trying to justify a lifestyle decision, for “God’s love is all that really matters. I can live whatever lifestyle I want because of love.”
Some passive Christians contend that the old is done away with and that none of what the Old Testament books say is relevant to modern Christians. The problem with believing that the old covenant is simply “done away with” is that it leaves the door open for the belief that God’s primary attribute is love. Pietists ignore God's other attributes, such as anger, judgment, and wrath toward sin, in part, because they are too hard to preach on during our current "you do you" moment. Considering that society can and will influence Christians, many Christians would define love in a way that is so so broad it becomes meaningless.
What can Christians learn from the likes of Samuel, David, or Daniel, who lived under the unrelenting anger and abusive judgment of God in the Old Testament? Daniel and his friends stood up for the God of Israel, resisting Nebuchadnezzar and his idol. Christians today are figuratively, and sometimes literally, lowering their knees to worship the liberal gods of political correctness, critical race theory, LGBTQ+ and Black Lives Matter political agenda and identity politics. While Christians should always love our homosexual, transgender, and friends of different races, supporting fundamentally non-Christian ideas and organizations is neither Christlike nor loving.
Make no mistake: many of these issues can be dealt with and discussed in biblical ways. Christians need not cave and become amorphous blobs of sentimental "tolerance" as to not offend. On the contrary, we should be very clear about where they stand on such issues.
Love your neighbor as yourself. Turn the other cheek. These are things Christians always need to practice. But Christians cannot fool themselves into thinking that silence, in social and interpersonal spheres, is always right. Like Daniel, we should stand up for our beliefs, loving your neighbors all the while, and preach the truth in love. We cannot understand the full extent of Christ's redeeming love without first understanding the depth of God's wrath and our inability to keep His laws. Telling someone that their sin separates them from God, but that Christ came to die for them is the most loving thing we can do.
Steven Wierenga is currently a Th.M. student at Denver Theological Seminary. He also holds an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Moody Theological Seminary. Originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Steven now resides with his wife, Rachel, in Littleton, Colorado, where they take every opportunity we can to hike, climb, and enjoy the outdoors.