Heresy exists. You don’t have to look hard to find it: the ex-evangelical who argues that Jesus is not God, the teacher who deals with some of the tensions in the Hebrew Scriptures by arguing that the God of the Old Testament is not the God of the New Testament, the theologian who argues that Jesus is of a lower order than the Father, or the so-called “Christian” self-help book that tells you that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with you that believing in yourself won’t fix.
Heresy is common. Alistair McGrath defines it as “a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of Christian faith.” Heresies typically attempt to resolve some of the tensions of the Christian faith by making them more compatible with ideas in wide circulation.
Scripture is clear about some of the boundaries of belief and the importance of sound doctrine. One of our most urgent tasks of the church these days is to help people learn truth and counter error, especially the particular errors in wide circulation today.
We can’t afford to lose the category of heresy. Ironically, that means being careful not to call something a heresy when it’s not, or calling someone a heretic who’s wrong on a secondary or tertiary issue.
A Lesson from a Church Historian
When I was in seminary, we loved to debate theology. It wasn’t uncommon for theological arguments to break out or for accusations of heresy to be pronounced.
One day, our church history professor, Dr. Michael Haykin, stopped us and reminded us of the seriousness of the charge we were leveling. To call someone a heretic isn’t the same as arguing that they are wrong. Calling someone a heretic means that they have departed from orthodox Christianity so far that they are undermining the faith and can no longer be considered a brother or sister in Christ.
“A person who embraces heresy is not a Christian according to Christian tradition,” writes Haykin. “If a person knowingly teaches heresy and as such is a heretic, then, by the way Christianity has defined ‘heresy,’ this person cannot be a Christian.”
If the label is to mean something, we must be careful when calling someone a heretic.
Needed: Theological Humility
Christians can and do disagree on many issues. Many of them are important. Current examples include the mode and meaning of baptism, the role of women in the church, and theonomy and two-kingdoms theology. All of these issues matter. In each of these issues, one side is right and the other side is wrong. Each set of issues carries significant implications for how we live and function as the church.
But believers can disagree on these issues without departing from the faith. All of these issues matter. But when disagreeing on these and other issues, it’s unwise to level the charge of heresy.
We need bold humility: boldness to purse and defend truth, and humility in how we respond to those who disagree. We can believe that truth matters and aim for precision, while at the same time recognizing that we have blind spots and need to engage well with those who disagree.
Augustine explained what doing theology in the way of Christ means. “This way is first humility, second humility, third humility, and however often you should ask me I would say the same, not because there are no other precepts to be explained, but if humility does not precede and accompany and follow every good work we do, and if it is not set before us to look upon, and beside us to lean upon, and behind us to fence us in, pride will wrest from our hand any good deed we do while we are in the very act of taking pleasure in it.”
Heresy exists, and we must identify it and teach against it. But not every disagreement rises to the level of heresy. To preserve the notion of heresy, and for the sake of our own integrity, be careful before you call someone who disagrees with you a heretic.