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.
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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩