When I read Dale Ahlquist’s book on Chesterton (G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, Ignatius 2003), especially the chapter devoted to Heretics, I saw many similarities between Chesterton’s description of heretics and my understanding of the concept “Cafeteria Christians.” Cafeteria Christians are people who pick and choose the parts of the Bible they want to believe and ignore the rest. They do not see the Bible as a complete document and that has parts that integrate with each other. Cafeteria Christians also pick and choose the traditions they want to follow. Still others pick and choose from Christian history – from the time of Jesus to the present day – the parts of history they prefer and ignore all the rest.
The issues I notice most frequently are: 1) the day set aside for weekly worship, 2) the Eucharist as “the real presence,” 3) the doctrine of “works” as the way of getting into heaven, 4) the doctrine of forgiveness versus “an eye for an eye,” 5) confession of sins, and 6) calling priests father. Each of these concepts has conflicting points of view. People choose the one they like the best.
Some Christians insist on holding their worship services on Saturday rather than Sunday. They say it is “Biblical” meaning it’s in the Bible. The concept of Sabbath is based upon Chapter one of Genesis, which says that God created the earth and everything in it in six days and He rested on the seventh day. But how long is one of God’s days? It could be millennia. Also, God did not create the twenty-four-hour day until the third day. So, should we humans count days from the third day rather than the first? The Jews, according to their traditional calendar, decided that the seventh day was Saturday and called it Sabbath. It was, for them, a day of complete rest according to God’s command and example. The first day of the week is an arbitrary one. It could be Sunday or Monday, depending upon the culture in which Christians live. A Christian group insisting that their day of worship should be Saturday, rather than Sunday, is basing their belief on Jewish tradition. Most Christians commemorate Christ’s resurrection (which occurred on a Sunday), as their day of worship and rest. This too is Biblically based. It is a Christian tradition begun very early in Christian history.
Another example of picking and choosing is belief in the Eucharist. Some Christians ignore the Gospel of John, Chapter 6, where Jesus tells His disciples that “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood . . .“ Most of his disciples left him saying that cannibalism was not for them. Jesus did not call after them and say, “I was just speaking metaphorically.” Instead He turned back to the twelve and asked if they too would leave Him. Then at the last supper, Jesus demonstrated what He meant by ‘eating His flesh and drinking His blood,’ when He broke bread and blessed wine saying “This is my body, this is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.” This teaching is central to Catholic and the Orthodox theology.
Protestant denominations vary on this teaching. Some denominations pass around soda crackers and grape juice for their Eucharistic celebration, saying that Jesus did not drink real alcoholic wine. Jesus, however, was not drinking grape juice at the Last Supper and He did not turn water into grape juice at the wedding at Cana. Also, why would Jesus remark that the Scribes and Pharisees were calling Him a drunkard if He only drank grape juice? (Mat 16-19)
Others see the Eucharist as simply a metaphor, completely ignoring the reverence for the Eucharist which began soon after the death of Jesus. When Christians ignore early Church history, they miss the early teachings of Christianity.
Another example is the notion of “works.” Some Christians believe that their stated faith in Jesus, their accepting Jesus as their personal Lord and savior, is all they need to do to get into heaven. They believe they have been “saved;” that Jesus has “done all the work by dying on the cross for our sins.” They believe in “faith alone.”
They ignore the Following passage from Matthew 25:
“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
There are innumerable passages where Jesus gives clear directions on how His followers are to treat their neighbors and what will happen to them if they don’t. Instead, some Christians cite passages from the Apostle Paul who says their faith is all they need; while ignoring passages from the other apostles like James who say clearly, “Faith without works is dead.”
A corollary is the denial of hell. So many Christians today do not believe in hell. How could God be so unmerciful, they ask? Hell is a choice – a deliberate choice. It is the place for people who turn away from God and do whatever pleases them. They make no attempt to live up to the teachings of God. The Old Testament story of Lazarus and the rich man is meant to be a lesson. 1) that hell exists and 2) making a deliberate choice on how to live here on earth.
Some believe you can’t buy your way into heaven by doing good works. Jesus is very clear that you won’t get into heaven without doing good works. (Luke 6:22-37, Mat 7:21-23, Mat 25:34-46) People who prefer Paul’s teaching to Jesus’ teachings are ‘picking and choosing’ the messages they want to hear, not the message Jesus gave His disciples. A former Protestant clergyman, who firmly believed in salvation by grace alone, explains the difference between the Protestant and Catholic traditions on this issue far better than I can. In fact, he devoted an entire book to just this question. (Stephen Wood, Grace & Justification: An Evangelical’s Guide to Catholic Beliefs. Family Life Center Publications. 2017)
There are those who cite the Old Testament passage of “an eye for an eye” as permission to hold on to their grudges and resentments by retaliating against those who have hurt them. (Feuds and Vendettas between Christian groups are based upon this concept.) They do not care that this phrase is taken out of context. They do not know that God was trying to teach the Israelites not to accelerate retaliation for an injury by killing an entire family because the other person had killed a member of theirs. Jesus is very clear that the duty of His followers is to forgive everyone who has injured them. (Mat 5:38-41) Jesus is very strict about forgiveness. When Peter asked Him how many times we were to forgive, Jesus replied, “Seven times seventy times.” In other words, over and over again. It is also part of the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus exemplified His teaching on forgiveness during His passion. He never retaliated against those who were torturing Him. Instead He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
“Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven. Whose sins you shall retain, they are retained,” Jesus told His Apostles. (John 20:23) How were the Apostles to know which sins were to be forgiven and which not forgiven unless they heard them? In the early church, sinners stood in front of the entire congregation to confess their sins and receive their penance. The early church discovered that not all Christians were willing to get up in front of the congregation and confess their sins, so private confession was instituted, then privacy was ensured by “the seal of the confessional” or the Priest’s vow to never reveal what had been heard in confession. Without that seal, few would honestly reveal all their sins. (The Church is in the business of saving souls, not catching criminals.)
Jesus conferred the power to forgive sins on His Apostles. They passed on the power to their disciples through the laying on of hands. But Cafeteria Christians ignore this mandate, saying “Christ died for our sins. He did all the work. We are forgiven.” So, they see no need to confess their sins, repent, and change their behavior and they would never consider confessing their sins to an ordained Priest. Once again, a command of Jesus is ignored.
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded on the principles of “The Oxford Group,” a Christian movement popular in the 1930’s. The fourth step in AA is to make an examination of past life to re-visit all the harm done to others whether intended or not. The following step is to confess these “sins” to another human being with no holding back. Members of AA say this was a very difficult step but very freeing.
Protestant Christians will ask Catholic Christians why they call the priest, “Father” when Jesus explicitly says to call no man father except God. (Mat 23:9) Yet the very next line says to call no one teacher or instructor. Protestants do not argue about this quote, it goes unnoticed. Every school, college and university have “instructors” and “teachers” and no one questions it. There are many examples of this. Many cite John 3:16 and do not read the rest of the paragraph.
These are examples of “Cafeteria Christians.” They pick and choose what parts of the Bible they will believe and what parts of the Bible they will ignore. They are what G. K. Chesterton calls “Heretics.”
For Chesterton, a heresy is a partial truth or fragment of truth that has been exaggerated out of all proportion. “Heresy is an incomplete doctrine. It has rejected part of the truth and is representing what is left over as the whole truth.” (Ahlquist pg.35)
For Chesterton, truth is holistic, it is complete, it is consistent, it never varies, and it is good. (Chesterton read the entire Bible in the original Greek and found many discrepancies in some of the English translations. Which ones, he does not say.) For Chesterton, the teachings of the Bible form a whole picture, a complete message. Where there are seeming discrepancies, there needs to be an explanation. Parts of the Bible are not to be discounted in favor of other parts, all the parts must be accounted for. For this reason, any student of the Bible, needs to understand how and when each book was created and how it fits into God’s message to humans. The connections between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible must be understood. Ignoring parts of God’s word because they are uncomfortable or don’t fit our world view, is disrespectful to God.
There are many books that try to explain the discrepancies in the Bible which have led to different denominations. Each of these books, however, take only one part of the Bible for clarification. The only book I know of that pulls all the discrepant parts together and explains why they seem discrepant is the “Catechism of the Catholic Church.” It is a reference book, a compendium; but it helps Christians see how one quote taken out of context distorts the truth of the teaching. Christians honestly seeking truth and understanding should own and use this book.