His hands trembled, but he refused to look down. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. Not now. Not ever.
He wasn’t surprised—anyone paying attention for the last several days could see it coming. But it still hurt to hear the judgment of his peers, that awful act of condemnation contained in one fearful, hate-filled word, the word that sealed his fate.
It wouldn’t be official until they all signed the declaration, but he knew it was over. They had made their decision.
His hands trembled again, but now from a bone-deep weariness, an almost debilitating sadness that they couldn’t see any truth beyond the narrow confines of their accepted dogmas. Yes, he saw things differently. But was that so bad? Given the infinite mysteries of the divine being, could there not be room for more than one view?
But no, though he’d hoped in the beginning that it might be so, now he knew better. They would never allow it. They couldn’t see it. Theirs was the only way; all others must be wrong.
So he would be ostracized for being different, thinking differently.
He still refused to look down. He had nothing to be ashamed of. Maybe if he embraced his fate, meeting their condemnation with determination, others would see the truth: not that he was right, but that there can be many truths, or at least many perspectives on the truth. No one should have the power to force God’s people into a single mold. He is too big, too diverse, too creative for that.
If a heretic is someone who thinks differently, creatively, even courageously, then a heretic is what he will be. Proudly.
Heresy in the Modern World
Talking with people today about heresy, you’ll hear many of the themes and ideas expressed in the short sketch above. Conjuring images of the Spanish Inquisition, torture chambers, self-righteous judges, thought police, and innocent suffering, heresy harkens back to an age of darkness and fear, not to be used in this world of enlightened thought and free expression.
Along with those historical connotations, people typically associate heresy with self-righteous and abusive judgmentalism. Any attempt to label another view as heretical necessarily involves pride, power, and proscription: the pride of believing that you alone hold the key to truth, the act of proscribing the belief and the people who teach it, and the power to enforce the proscription. For many today, that combination of hubris and judgmental authority is precisely what is wrong with most forms of organized religion, making heresy itself a case study in why they’ve chosen to be “spiritual but not religious.”
And, in addition to castigating those who would declare something heretical, the modern view of heresy also tends to idealize the heretics themselves. The heretics are the free-thinkers, those who reject oppressive authority and explore new and creative possibilities, the underdogs willing to stand up for what they believe against the stale structures of institutionalized religion. Indeed, this is precisely how Pelagius, one of the more famous ancient heretics, was portrayed in the 2004 version of King Arthur: independent, creative, compassionate, and free. Who wouldn’t want to be like that?
That combination of ideas makes it very difficult to take a clear stance against heresy today. Who wants to be one of the self-righteous judges crushing the free-spirited innovators who are just humbly exploring new ideas? Not me.
How Should We Define Heresy?
One of the things making it so difficult to talk about heresy today is a confused notion of what constitutes heresy. Some present heresy as any belief that goes against the established norm, suggesting that the church would view any new idea as heretical. And, to be fair, the church has sometimes reacted to new ideas as though novelty alone constituted heresy. The essence of heresy, though, runs much deeper.
Others suggest that anything short of absolute, perfect truth should be called heresy. And, since we are finite and flawed beings who can never attain such lofty heights, some degree of heresy resides in each of us. But the church has always recognized the difference between the flaws that necessarily characterize even the best-intentioned theology and those beliefs that step beyond into the realm of importantly false beliefs about the nature and character of God.
Finally, the challenge of defining heresy sometimes comes from those who actually like the term. Indeed, they like it so much that they seem to apply it to almost any belief that they do not agree with. But heresy is a powerful term, one that the church has historically reserved for those beliefs that undermined the gospel itself. Although many of the ancient heresies revolved around a particular view of the Trinity or the person of Christ, it was the fact that these disparate views had implications for how we understood our own salvation that caused the early church to respond with such concern.
So it might be best to understand heresy as any form of Christianity (in belief of practice) that undermines the gospel (explicity or implicitly) and is determined to be such by God’s people. That still leaves plenty of room for debate on what qualifies as heresy, but it least it orients the discussion around the right issue: the gospel itself. (For more on how to define heresy, check out this series on What Is Heresy and Who Is a Heretic?)
6 Tips for Handling Heresy
With that understanding of heresy in place, how should we respond to heretical ideas in a world where any attempt to declare something heretical will be viewed with extreme prejudice? Here are just a few suggestions.
1. Be careful with the heresy bucket.
Imagine that you’re cleaning a really messy bathroom, putting all the nasty stuff you find into a bucket on the floor next to you. You want to be very careful with that bucket. Try to pack too much stuff in there, and your bucket will overflow, messing the bathroom all over again. The same is true with heresy. When we label too many things as heresy, the label loses its meaning, causing people to ignore the idea of heresy altogether. Once that happens, everything in the heresy bucket comes pouring out again, including the ones that belonged there in the first place.
2. Beware the heresy hunter.
Some people seem to pride themselves on their ability to identify heresy, potential heresy, and even the precursors of potential heresy in another person’s theology. And it’s that kind of theological pride that causes so much suspicion toward heresy today. We do need to be mindful of beliefs that undermine the gospel, but there is a difference between respectful watchfulness and suspicious spying. The attitude makes all the difference.
3. Emphasize humility.
One lesson we must learn from the modern view of heresy is the need for theological humility. We have been wrong in the past, we will be wrong in the future, we might be wrong in the present. Now, if we’re not careful, that kind of humility can lead to theological paralysis, preventing us from ever saying anything with conviction. And that would be tragic. Humility causes us to think twice before we speak; it shouldn’t prevent us from speaking.
4. Leave room for the prophetic voice.
If history has taught us anything it’s that the church in every age needs correction. Every generation has its blind spots and shortcomings. And, in his grace, God consistently provides prophetic voices to call his people back to faithfulness. Unfortunately, his people often respond to those voices quickly and judgmentally. One thing we must always be on guard against is our own tendency to label the prophetic as heretical. True theological discernment allows for the possibility that a new voice is a needed voice.
5. Handle heresy historically.
God’s people have always had to deal with the question of heresy, even before they began using that particular label to describe the challenge. That’s a lot of accumulated wisdom. We would be well advised to hear what they have to say, understanding why they thought a particular idea undermined the gospel, and thinking twice, even thrice, before applying the label to anything they did not see as heresy.
6. Speak boldly when necessary.
In today’s world, where silence in the face of heresy in almost a virtue, we must affirm the need to speak. If, after respectfully hearing another voice and humbly assessing our own position, we see something that rejects, negates, or undermines the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must not remain silent.
[This post is a slightly expanded version of an article I wrote for the most recent edition of Western Seminary’s online magazine, which focused on “Contending for the Faith without Being Contentious.” Check out the whole magazine for articles on “Building Relationships with Those Who Disagree,” “The Need for Doctrine,” and “Building the Foundation,” along with some other good resources.]