—noun, plural -sies
- opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, especially of a church or religious system.
- the maintaining of such an opinion or doctrine.
- in the Roman Catholic Church, the willful and persistent rejection of any article of faith by a baptized member of the church.
- any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established belief, customs, etc.*
Most people don’t remember the heresies or the heretics in our history. But they remember the heretic hunters. How about you? Do you remember the heresies of the dark ages? Do you remember that there were Christians who got the Trinity wrong? Do you remember that there were theologians who taught distortions concerning the nature of Christ? Probably not. Unless you took classes in the history of Christianity, these events have probably escaped your notice. But do you remember hearing about the inquisitions? Do you remember hearing that heretics were tortured and burned alive for their false teaching? Oh yeah. We all heard about that.
In the seventeenth century Anabaptists were considered heretics. Their crime? They did not believe in infant baptism. When people came to faith in Christ, they baptized them as believers whether they had been baptized as infants or not (hence the name “Anabaptists” or re-baptizers). They went so far as to refuse to baptize infants since they believed that the sacrament of baptism was a statement of faith for an individual believer to make, not for that person’s parents to make.**
They were persecuted. They were even put to death. Be-heading was the punishment of choice when the Protestants were doing the killing. Catholics preferred burning at the stake.** Of course this brings up a simple question—so basic that we forget to ask it. What is the greater heresy? Disagreeing with the established churches about baptism, or torturing and killing Christians who disagree? Is heresy only about belief? Or is there such a thing as heretical action?
Who are the heretics of today? That’s hard to say. It depends who you’re talking to. But the heretic hunters are fairly easy to identify. They usually identify themselves on their web sites, their radio broadcasts, their YouTube videos and in their books. Some use the term in their titles. Most use some phrase like, “contending for the faith” or “discernment ministries.” But whatever title they use, you’ll find that the words “heresy,” “heretic” and “heretical” are being thrown around a lot. In fact, it is astounding how easily and frequently they use those terms.
If we confined ourselves to the strict definition of “heresy” it might make sense. There are many opinions “at variance” with long-established beliefs. But we all know that “heresy” and “heretic” are loaded words. They point to much more than varieties and differences of opinion. They speak to motive as well. The Apostle Peter spoke about “false prophets” and “false teachers” who would “secretly introduce destructive heresies” and out of greed would “exploit you with stories they have made up” (2 Peter 2:1-3). There is a definite reference to motive here. Peter wasn’t simply talking about people with theological misunderstandings or differences of opinion. He was speaking about people who were destructive and manipulative, intentionally distorting the truth for their own purposes.
That is why I’m so troubled by the tone of so much of the theological discussion that is taking place today. It is good and healthy for Christians to engage in spirited theological discussion and debate. But when you refer to a sister or brother as a heretic, the discussion is over. You’ve now placed that person in a moral category that designates him or her as an enemy of God. And when you state that those who disagree with you are trying to destroy the faith—when you make judgment calls on their motives—you’ve also re-written 1 Samuel 16:7 to read, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord and I look at the heart.”
I’m sure that the overwhelming majority of today’s heresy hunters are well-meaning people who have a passion to stand for truth. But when the goal is to expose those with whom you disagree as being enemies of the gospel, you run into some real problems. Here are some of my concerns with the heretic hunters. (Now I realize that I’m painting in broad strokes here. That is why I do not mention any names. I’m simply sharing my perceptions of the dangers of the heresy hunting I see taking place in American Christianity today.)
1. Heretic hunters tend to confine their concerns to issues of doctrine and belief, while excusing practices that are clearly damaging to the Body of Christ. No, they’re no longer be-heading people, but there is a fair amount of character assassination taking place. I’ve heard sermons on the internet and read blogs about people that I know personally. It has been staggering to hear godly people characterized as tools of Satan and enemies of God. Heresy hunters can easily fall into the trap of demonizing godly people. I recently listened to a sermon online by a man who was of the opinion that the King James Version of the Bible was the only true Bible. Specifically, he was taking the New International Version to task. He, of course, is entitled to that opinion. But what he did was demonize the translators of the NIV. The personal attacks on people he had never met were jaw-dropping. He didn’t simply disagree with their translations, he preached that they were doing the work of the devil and doing it by design. What made me sad was my memory of three men. Three professors of mine—all of whom have now gone on before us—were translators on the team of NIV scholars. Truth be told, they were three of the most amazing, brilliant and godly men you would ever meet. I was saddened that someone could see those men not as brothers with whom he disagreed, but as vile people intent on destroying the word of God.
No matter how passionately you feel about your understanding of theology, nothing justifies assigning motives to people when you really cannot know their motives. The name-calling—often dripping with sarcasm—has no place in the church of Jesus Christ. The heresy hunt itself becomes heretical if it demeans the Bride of Christ. Demeaning members of Christ’s body…well, that is unthinkable, because to despise the Body is to despise the head—which is Christ.
2. Because heresy is understood as distorting orthodoxy, the heretic hunters must define orthodoxy. But often their definition of the pure gospel is anything but pure. They, like all of us, bring their prejudices and distortions with them. They tend to narrowly define the gospel and believe that heresy is anything outside of their own narrow definition. My own denomination is seeing this phenomenon. There are those who have labeled some of our denominational leaders and our educational institutions as heretical, saying they have strayed from our theological roots. But on many issues they are simply wrong. The stances they want us to “return to” are stances we’ve never held. They have misread what orthodoxy is for our denomination and are calling us “back” to positions we have never embraced. That would not be a problem if they were simply asking us to consider other perspectives. But what we are hearing are words like “heretic” and “apostate” as they describe people they feel have left orthodoxy behind. And, again, evil motives are assigned to people with whom they disagree.
Christianity has had many expressions over the past two millennia. All of us choose the expression that we feel most faithfully reflects the gospel. But it is important to humbly appreciate Christians who express their allegiance to Christ differently than we do.
Before I go on, let me digress for a moment at the risk of offending my more conservative brothers and sisters. My perception is that the Fundamentalist branch of Evangelicalism—more so than other expressions of Christianity—tends to produce those who most frequently de-Christianize other Christ followers. I never hear my more liberal Christian friends say that Fundamentalists aren’t Christians. I sometimes hear their frustrations with Fundamentalism. And I’ve heard liberal Christians talk in condescending ways about Fundamentalists. That’s wrong. But I don’t hear them proclaim that conservatives are not true believers. (Perhaps it happens, I just haven’t witnessed it.) But I regularly hear people who describe themselves as Fundamentalists say that “so and so” isn’t really a Christian because he doesn’t believe __________.
What we have to understand is that this is intrinsic to Fundamentalism. This form of Christianity is about a century old. In the early 1900s a set of pamphlets was produced entitled, “The Fundamentals.” The intent was to describe what one must believe in order to be a Christian. Of course, the implication is that if you don’t believe in these “fundamentals” you’re not a Christian. Over the years other issues have been informally added or raised to prominence. If you consider yourself a Fundamentalist, I’m not trying to challenge your beliefs. But I would challenge you to fight the urge to draw the borders. You are called to proclaim truth as you understand it. You are not called to judge which Christians are true followers of Christ. That’s His call.
Christianity is deep, multi-cultural, diverse and woven together with rich tapestries and expressions of faith. It was not made in America. It did not originate in the twentieth century. It transcends the limited perspective of any single Christian or any single denomination. And to me, that is beautiful. But it can get ugly when you insist that your tribe is the only legitimate form of Christianity.
3. It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. I recently read an ad for a book on a theological issue that is very specific and important to my denomination. Some would see this as a major issue, others would not. But it certainly is not in the category of the major tenets of Christianity. It is not an issue that impacts the basic articles of the Christian faith. Yet, this ad referred to the “heretical” position with which it took issue. This issue was a tree. It was not the forest. It was not an issue that would destroy the witness or effectiveness of the Body of Christ. And yet, we still had to see the H-word used as if to state that if you disagree with the author, you’re destroying the faith.
I’ll give you another example. A friend of mine wrote a great book on how to approach the New Testament book of Revelation. Now we have to remember that the last book of the canon is the most controversial book of the Bible and has been throughout the entire history of Christianity. Therefore we have to approach it with humility and with the knowledge that many of our brothers and sisters will hold to different approaches. Online I saw where someone read my friend’s book and decided to pray that he would come back to faith in Jesus. Seriously? We’re supposed to doubt someone’s walk with Christ because he interprets the book of Revelation differently? My friend is an amazing and godly man. I was sickened that someone would judge him in that manner. This was a splinter of a tree branch in the beautiful forest of our faith.
4. Heresy hunters tend to be suspicious of an emphasis on love. At times they think that love is an excuse for bad doctrine—or at least an excuse to de-emphasize theology. At other times they’ll contend that to love someone is to point out that person’s error. Fair enough. Love has to speak the truth. But when your own “truth” trumps the call to love—which includes showing dignity to all people, even those you disagree with—then your priorities are skewed and you are in danger of the very blindness that you so passionately oppose. As my theological forebear, John Wesley, said, “I believe the merciful God regards the lives and tempers of men more than their ideas. I believe he respects the goodness of the heart, rather than the clearness of the head.”
Jesus was clear when asked what was most important…
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)
I’m of the opinion that if love takes a back seat to doctrine one can fall into a strange form of idolatry. We can worship our beliefs rather than worshipping the One we believe.
No one enjoys a theological discussion more than me. And as my close friends will tell you, I get pretty passionate over specific issues that I feel are of utmost importance. I have to constantly be on guard that I do not arrogantly place my wisdom above that of everyone else and come off like no one “gets it” but Phil. I wish I could tell you that I’m always successful at keeping perspective. So let me suggest a way in which all of us in the Body of Christ can more effectively discuss our theological differences.
How about making the words “heretic” and “apostate” rare—very rare? Instead of saying…
“That heretic, Rob Bell, says…”
“On this point I disagree with my brother-in-Christ, Rob Bell.”
There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing. But it is wrong to call a sister or brother an enemy of the faith. We must honor Christ by honoring His Body.
**See The Naked Anabaptist by Stuart Murray (Herald Press)