We often see on social media how Christians accuse fellow-Christians as being heretics, and many of us have even been victims thereof. Calling other Christians as such is often unfair, unloving, and not Christlike at all. There is a huge difference between exposing a false teacher and calling a truthful fellow-Christian names, purely because he or she differ from our own opinions and interpretations. Especially when the other person’s views are also based on Scripture and he or she does not wilfully ignore, add to or take away from the Word of God.
So, what does the word “heretic” actually refer to?
DEFINITION OF A HERETIC
The KJV Dictionary describes heresy as a fundamental error in religion, or an error of opinion respecting some fundamental doctrine of religion. But in countries where there is an established church, an opinion is deemed heresy, when it differs from that of the church. The Scriptures being the standard of faith, any opinion that is repugnant to its doctrines, is heresy; but as men differ in the interpretation of Scripture, an opinion deemed heretical by one body of Christians, may be deemed orthodox by another. In Scripture and primitive usage, heresy meant merely sect, party, or the doctrines of a sect, as we now use denomination or persuasion, implying no reproach.
But there are various reasons why Christians call others heretics, like Marc Cortez from Christianity.com explains, “Defining exactly what constitutes a heresy is harder than it seems. Some think a heresy is just whatever has been condemned at an ecumenical council. Others see any attempt to call something heresy as a pure power play, a way of protecting church authority, or an attempt to create an “other” against which the community can define itself. Still others see heresy as anything that corrupts the essential purity of the church.
There are reasons for each of these approaches. At the end of the day, though, the church has always been hesitant to call something heresy unless it has been determined by some authoritative body that the belief in question explicitly undermines the gospel itself.”
It’s not a heresy just because it’s wrong. I can be wrong about lots of things without undermining the gospel itself. If that wasn’t the case, I’d be undermining the gospel with almost every thought. (I make a lot of mistakes.)
It’s not (even) a heresy just because it might undermine the gospel. There’s a difference between things that clearly undermine the biblical gospel (e.g. denying the deity of Christ) and things that could possibly undermine the gospel depending on how exactly you understand them (e.g. the working of faith).
KNOWLEDGE VERSUS TRANSFORMATION?
Although sound theology is of utmost importance, Keith Giles wrote the following in his article “How To Respond When They Call You A Heretic” on the Patheos.com website, that is worth keeping in mind;
“Everyone is someone’s heretic. At least, that’s my opinion these days. Whenever someone calls you a false teacher or a heretic, what they really mean to say is: “Your theology isn’t the same as mine. I can’t be wrong about anything, therefore you must be a heretic.” What these people don’t realize is that, to someone else, they are the heretic.
See, Christians disagree on all sorts of things. This is why there are thousands of different denominations around the globe, and across the nation. Yes, we all use the same Holy Bible. Yes, we all believe that our interpretation of those scriptures is the correct one. Yes, we typically consider those with different theology to be “abhorrent” or “heretical.”
This is precisely why our house church family decided 11 years ago not to adopt any official statement of faith. Because we knew that, historically, every single time Christians attempted to bring unity by establishing doctrine what they actually did was create more division.
So, we have a disagreement on theology. That’s ok with me, honestly. I don’t personally believe that Christians need to have agreement on (all) doctrines in order to have unity.
Not only have I experienced this reality for the last 11 years in our house church – where people who disagreed on all sorts of theologies sat side-by-side every week and never argued or divided over doctrines – but I’m convinced that this is what Paul was referring to when he said that our unity was “in Christ” and not in our agreement on (all) theology, or anything else.
For reference: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:26-28)
… sadly for many, many other Christians, the Gospel has become more about having the right information about God. So, if your information about God is different from mine then you are a heretic, and you are also not actually a Christian because you got some of the answers wrong on the theology test I just gave you.
But, the Gospel is NOT about having the right information about God. The Gospel is not about information – it’s about Transformation.
Transformation isn’t dependent upon information. Transformation is what happens when we abide in Christ and Christ abides in us. This can take place independent of the quality or accuracy of the information about God we may have in our brains.
I don’t know about you, but my opinions and doctrines and beliefs about God and other theological ideas have changed over the years. There are things I believe today that I did not believe 5 or 10 years ago. So, whereas my beliefs may fluctuate, my connection to God through Christ never does. It remains constant regardless of my ideas and opinions about theology.”
3 REASONS TO BE CAREFUL WITH THE HERESY LABEL
Marc Cortez from Christianity.com mentions 3 reasons why we should be careful when calling fellow-Christians heretics;
- It Waters Down the Word
If anything theologically mistaken qualifies as heresy, then most of my beliefs are heretical. After all, does anyone really want to claim that they understand any theological truth perfectly? Don’t we all mix some fallibility into even our best beliefs? If so, then aren’t all my beliefs heretical?
That’s actually one of the answers I was given when I asked why some people self-identify as a “heretic.” For them, the label is a form of theological humility, a way of acknowledging our limited grasp of God’s perfect truth.
Once we’ve equated heresy with error in this way, though, heresy loses any real meaning. And it blurs the line between minor struggles toward theological clarity and major errors that undermine the gospel.
- It Contributes to Suspicions of Authority
Many are inherently suspicious of any attempt to label something as a “heresy” because it feels like a pure power play. Instead of identifying a belief that legitimately undermines the gospel, they think institutional authorities use “heresy” as a label for identifying any belief that they dislike, distrust, or that undermines their authority.
This is particularly important because people know that “heresy” is more than just “wrong.” I could be wrong about whether baptism should be by immersion or by sprinkling, but few will question my eternal salvation over that point. If I’m a heretic, though, that’s something else entirely. Slap that label on me and people begin wondering whether I’m even a part of God’s people.
Thus, using “heresy” loosely just feeds suspicions that it’s a power play where authorities use labels to exclude people they don’t like, creating an us/them mentality that is more about maintaining power than pursuing truth. Unless we have clear reasons for saying that something explicitly undermines the gospel and can point to the careful process that legitimate authorities went through to make this decision, people will see this as confirmation that “heresy” is just a cover for preserving the status quo.
- It Makes Salvation about Theological Precision
Finally, when we broaden the category of heresy to include all kinds of mistaken beliefs, we unintentionally introduce the idea that being truly saved is about theological precision. If being mistaken about something like how to interpret biblical prophecies is a heresy, then lots of apparently well-meaning Christians have actually been heretics and should immediately start examining themselves to see whether they are really Christians. (The church has always made a distinction, though, between people who hold a heretical belief without knowing that it is heretical, and people who willfully and intentionally continue to affirm something even after they’ve been instructed on why it is heretical.) Forget grace and faith, eternal destinies are secured by theological precision.
I teach theology for a living, so it should come as no surprise that I think theology and theological precision are both rather important. But I certainly wouldn’t want my eternal destiny to be established on the basis of how perfectly I have understood Christian theology. Perfect knowledge is no better than perfect works as a ground for salvation.
All of this suggests that we need to be more careful with the heresy label. But none of it suggests that we should stop using it entirely. Sometimes a heresy is a heresy… (and) we should not shy away for calling them what they are. To do less isn’t humble, it’s irresponsible.
The problem isn’t with the concept of heresy but with the ways that we have misused and abused the concept. While trying to search out error in the church, we haven’t been as mindful of the fact that the way we use the heresy label can create its own errors, some equally as dangerous as the ones we had in mind to begin with.
We all should stop calling people heretics…unless they are.
Marc Cortez is a theology professor at Wheaton College. Visit him at marccortez.com.