Why we should ban the term “heretic”…


by Ken Howard

Lord Sandwich:  

“I have heard frequent use of the words Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: but I confess myself at a loss know precisely what they mean.”

Lord Warburton:  

“It’s very simple old chap. Orthodoxy is my doxy. Heterodoxy is anyone else’s doxy.”

An exchange between John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, and William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, in the House of Lords in the mid-18th century debates on the “Test Laws.”

I am writing today’s post to explain my thoughts to a long time friend and associate. Brad and I go way back. We share great respect and affection for one another despite the fact that sometimes it seems we agree on little beyond the acknowledgement that we are brothers in Christ.  I am writing to explain why I believe that the way many of my brothers and sisters in Christ are using the term “heretic” is not only wrong, but very injurious to the body of Christ.  I am not writing as a conservative Christian or a liberal Christian.  I reject those terms as a false dichotomy. For me, following Jesus Christ is enough.  And so in this post I do not speak for or against either “side,” but as one Christ-follower to another, and to any who want to listen in (and even comment) as fellow Christ-follower. I speak only for myself, and only to explain humbly what is at the heart of the matter for me, as my understanding of Scripture, the love of Christ, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the grace of God have led me thus far.

I should say at the outset that is topic of heresy is personal to me.  As a Jewish-Christian, I have had a great interest and have done a great deal of research on Jewish Christianity in the early Church, including an extensive research thesis on the topic during seminary. What I discovered in my research has shaped my thinking on orthodoxy and heresy ever since. From at least the 4th Century on, my Jewish Christian forebears have borne the brunt of the organized Church’s misuse of the terms. Some, like the Nazarene Jewish Christians, were declared heretical at Nicaea and excommunicated as a group not long thereafter on the virulent anti-Jewish insistence of Emperor Constantine. During the Spanish Inquisition, hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish Christian “Conversos” were labeled as heretics, interrogated/tortured, and executed because the Church didn’t trust their conversions. Even in my seminary days, a respected professor of liturgics argued that combining Jewish and Christian worship elements was “heterodox.” To which I replied, “Christ our Passover?”

So what follows, is my argument against the use of the term, “heretic.”

It Is Un-Biblical
The word “heretic” is nowhere to be found in Scripture (neither are “heresy,” “orthodox,” or “heterodox”). Nor does it seem to have been in use by the primitive Church.

Its Interpretation Has Been Shifted from its Original Usage
The term “orthodoxy” literally meant “fitting praise” (hardly a legalistic term). But by the time of Constantine, many in the leadership of the now imperial Church began to use it to describe “correct doctrine” or “correct practice,” and some began to use that understanding to declare some beliefs and practices as “heterodox” (hetero meaning “other”) or “heresy.”

It Has Been Applied Incorrectly and/or Maliciously
In addition to the aforementioned examples, there is also the later example of excommunication of the Eastern Churches and their excommunication of the Western Church in response.

It Means Different Things to Different People and Churches
As the above quotation from Bishop William Warburton’s only partially tongue-in-cheek response to Lord Sandwich indicates, there is huge variation in how orthodoxy and heresy are defined, both between the various Christian traditions (e.g., between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism) and within them (e.g., among between the various Protestant tradition and among Baptist congregations).

Authority. In broadly congregationalist denominations the bounds of orthodoxy are established by majority vote of the individual congregation. In narrowly hierarchical denominations they are established by a magisterium-like body within the Church. Other denominations lay somewhere in between.

Dogma, Doctrine, or Teachings. For example, among those that understand orthodoxy and heresy to be defined by the affirmation of some beliefs and the renunciation of others, some limit the bounds of orthodoxy to the two central dogmas of the Church: the Trinitarian nature of God and the human-divine nature of Jesus Christ. Others base them on assent to a broader array of doctrines specified in either a communally creedal statement (e.g., the Nicene Creed) or on assent to an individual confessional statement (e.g., the Augsburg Confession). Others extend the boundaries of orthodoxy to include all official teachings of the denomination or congregation.

Scriptural Basis.  For those who extend the bounds of orthodoxy to include doctrine and teaching, and to base this determination on Scripture, what Scripture do you use?  Do you base it on the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, or New Testament only?  If you are using the Hebrew Scriptures, do you limit it to the Ten Commandments or extend it to the “Purity Laws?” If you extend it to the Purity Laws, do you limit it to those laws that apply to all people or include those that apply only to the priests? If you include those that apply to the priests, do you apply all the priestly purity laws (e.g., no skin rashes) or just those that apply to sexual purity? If you are basing the bounds of orthodoxy solely on the New Testament, do you apply everything that looks like a rule there, just those mentioned in the Gospels, or only those affirmed by Christ?

The Cherry-Picking of Heresies
I understand the desire and the need to have a basis on which to whether doctrinal and ethical positions and moral behaviors appear to be consistent with the Gospel, the words of Christ, and the doctrines, traditions, and teachings of the Church and which do not. But what I really can’t understand and what really disturbs me is how often they tend to be used selectively and inconsistency, insisting that obscure and ambiguous passages be enforced with great rigor while the clear commands of Christ are overlooked.  For example, I would have a lot more respect for (though not agreement with) a devoutly held position against same-sex relations (which Jesus never mentioned), if those who held that position were willing to enforce Jesus’ clear prohibition of violence and killing in any form, which was near-universally observed by Christian’s through at least the 3rd Century. That happens to be my understanding of Christ’s teaching. But if I were in charge of the Church and insisted on affirmation of that teaching as the price of membership in the Church, it would be a pretty lonely place.

Another disturbing aspect of the use of the term heresy is how many people who use it to “other” the people with whom they disagree.  All too often I observe people treating Christian brothers and sisters they have decided to label with the term “heretic” with much less respect and love than they would treat a non-believer.  C.S. Lewis once observed that Church might be the only “army” in the world that shoots its own wounded.  Yet it would seem to me (to paraphrase Church of England founder Richard Hooker), if we believe someone to be a heretic then we must regard them not as an unbeliever, but as a wounded Christian, a person in need of our prayers, not our condemnation.

In summary, my brothers and sisters in Christ, my fond hope and deep prayer is that we would give the term “heretic” a rest, as I believe it does far more damage than good. Not only does it rend the body of Christ, but the more we employ it to control and exclude each other, the more we teach those outside the Church how little we trust the grace of God, the love of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform ALL of us into the image of God.

Oddly enough, people who get to know me are often surprized how “orthodox” I am at the core. All those things the Nicene Creed affirms? I believe ’em. The Trinitarian Nature of God? Absolutely! The Human/Divine Nature of Jesus Christ! Totally! Still, I am aware that even those two core dogmas do not define the full reality of God, but rather illustrate the paradox that is God. Ultimately, I am a Christ follower not because of truths about Christ (doctrine), nor because of the ethics of Christ (praxis) — not that there’s anything wrong with either — but be in relationship with the Truth that is Christ.

It’s just that I don’t think that heresy hunting is productive or healthy or what Jesus would have us do. Last Sunday, Jesus said, “Don’t pull those weeds out!  You can’t tell the difference.  You’ll only end up pulling out the wheat with ’em. Focus on growing your own fruit, and let God worry about the weeds.” (cf. Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43)