On heresy – taking it more, and less, seriously

hereticMany of us are too serious about “heresy.” Others are too lax. That’s often because we misunderstand what heresy is.

When we’re too serious about “heresy”

I sometimes hear preachers fret that they may accidentally preach heresy. They worry even more that someone else may preach or teach it in their congregation.

A proper definition might calm some nerves. Heresy is about obstinacy. Heresy happens when someone spurns the church’s historic faith. There is no accidental heresy.1

Now you may say something that’s theologically debatable, different from what your tradition teaches, or even flat-out incorrect. At some point, you will. It’s inevitable. But you haven’t committed heresy. Not unless you know that your teaching is a contradiction of the apostolic faith and you keep teaching it anyway.

We need to take that kind of “heresy” a bit less seriously. For one, it’s not heresy.2 For two, we’re going too far when we get ourselves that worked up about theological misspeak. (See “A note on bad theology.”)3

When we’re too lax on heresy

Then there’s the real kind of heresy. The kind that spurns the historic Christian faith while masquerading as “Christianity.” The person who teaches that Jesus didn’t physically rise from the dead—that person doesn’t have “different opinions,” he’s a classic heretic.

Because some people have over-reacted to any theological differences, others have over-reacted in the opposite direction. They want to minimize classic heresy and just call it a different opinion. Their mantra: “Let’s all just get along! If they love Jesus and you love Jesus, that’s enough.”

I accept and affirm that for true theological differences. One person believes in infant baptism, another in belivers’ baptism? One is a Calvinist, another an Arminian? Protestant and Roman Catholic? We can live with all of these differences.

But we can’t live with legitimate heresy. When someone spurns the core beliefs of the historic Christian faith, and when they do it in the name of Christianity, we can’t turn a blind eye or shrug it off. The early Church got it right to respond with rebuke and excommunication.

Does one of these describe you more than the other? The person who gets too worked up about theological misspeak risks legalism—truth takes precedence over grace. The one who shrugs off legitimate heresy risks relativism—grace takes precedence over truth. Any time grace and truth go out of balance, we’re misrepresenting the Christian faith.

Let’s loosen up about that which is not real heresy. And let’s treat real heresy with the severity it merits.

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I think of this especially as articles about Rob Bell are swirling. Some people want to claim he’s a heretic deserving excommunication—“Farewell, Rob Bell.” Others don’t understand why people get so worked up—“So he has different opinions. He’s still a Christian…”

The issue with Bell is a bit complicated. For as much as Bell influenced me (and I’m not ashamed to say it), I wouldn’t call him a representative of the Christian faith anymore. The things he’s saying, and not saying, go past “different opinions” within Christianity. For all I can tell, he’s a preacher of New Age religion who uses the Bible for source material. I’m not quite sure I’d call him a heretic, but I can no longer call him a Christian preacher. I’ll explain that in more detail later.

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  1. The word comes from a Greek word for choice—making the choice to prefer your own interpretation of Scripture over the church’s historical consensus. This, by the way, may put Evangelicals at greatest risk of heresy. We’re the ones most likely to preference our own interpretations over the historical consensus.
  2. You can actually teach something that’s “heretical” (e.g. Jesus was a human who later became divine) without committing heresy. The same as you can say something false without lying. Intent makes a big difference. We’ve all misspoken at times, but if we thought we were telling the truth, it was an error not a lie. Same for heresy.
  3. In the case of both heresy and lying, we should aim to speak truthfully, but not be so paralyzed by fear of misspeaking that we say nothing.

Let’s have more “boring” testimonies

testimonyA friend just told me he has one of those “boring” testimonies. I told him that’s something to celebrate.

As a father, I’ll be thrilled if the story my kids have to tell about me in 20 years is “boring” in the same way. I would like nothing more than for them to say, “I’ve always known my dad loves me. I’ve never doubted that. Never rebelled against it. I just keep seeing his love for me in new ways and enjoying it. And I love him a lot…” (To be clear—I’m not suggesting there are no bumps along the way, just no dramatic rebellions.)

As a husband, my goal is for my wife to have a similar “boring” story about me when we’re old. No questions, no doubt, no extended periods of hostility. No breaches of faith.

In fact, those aren’t “boring” stories, are they? They can be beautiful stories of love and faithfulness, vitality and growth. These are stories about life change—not because of a drastic course correction, but because of steady, enlivening faithfulness.

Sometimes we downplay these stories because they don’t take a dramatic turn. They don’t excite us like a broken relationship repaired, a corrupt person redeemed. But they’re good stories.

What’s my greatest hope and prayer for my kids, and for all of the kids in our church? That they’ll have “boring” testimonies about their faith when they grow up. I’d love to proudly put one of them in front of the congregation each week to tell a “boring” story about faithfulness.

About how that congregation made a covenant to them 20-some years ago and kept it—a covenant to surround them with a community of love and forgiveness and pray for them, that they would become true disciples of Christ.

About how they had always known God’s love. Never doubted it. Never rebelled against it. Just kept growing in it.

Now I know I can’t control this. Not as a father, not as a husband, not as a pastor. I can influence these things (see especially “Finding a church for my kids”), but not control them. The enemy still leads people into rebellion, even from the best of circumstances.

And when that rebellion happens, we’ll seek out any lost sons or daughters and throw lavish parties for any who return. We’ll put them in front of the congregation to share their “less-boring” testimonies, and the extra drama of those stories may result in more tears and cheers than normal. We’ll probably rejoice more over that one lost sheep that returned than over the 99 who never strayed. And that makes sense.

But for me, I’d love to have more “boring” testimonies. I don’t think they’re really all that boring after all.

A note on bad theology—hand-washing or germaphobia?

sheldon germsGood theology is important. Saying true and good things—important. Doing things the right way—important. What we say and do should be thought out and thoughtful.

But if our greatest fear is that someone may say or do something theologically incorrect, we’ve gone too far. Such extreme fear creates a spirit of timidity—don’t do anything until you’re sure you’re doing the right thing. It enforces a sort of clericalism—only those with the most theological training should dare speak or act.

Do you think the disciples were fully equipped when Jesus sent them out in Matthew 10?

Now we should be prudent, not careless. This isn’t license to say and do whatever we please.

How do we know what’s prudent and what’s too much? Let’s compare avoiding bad theology to avoiding illness. Are we like the wise person who washes her hands at appropriate times, or like the germaphobe who won’t leave her home for fear of germs?

Some signs you may be a theology germaphobe:

  • You’re so concerned to speak with precision that non-scholars have a hard time understanding you.
  • You get anxiety about breaking free from a manuscript for fear of misspeaking. (Don’t confuse this with a general statement against manuscripts.)
  • You’re scared to let others lead unless you’re absolutely certain you can trust them.

Germaphobia seeks to avoid something bad, but in its hyper-vigilance, it does more harm than good.

So a word to any pastors or churches on the edge of germaphobia: loosen up. Things will be okay! Be prudent about what you say and do, but not paralyzed. And trust that God can (and has) overcome many errors.