In my experience as a pastor, I’ve witnessed many of the different ways that people choose to leave a church. Sometimes it happens with an honest conversation and a blessing on each other as the ways part, and sometimes it happens in what I can only call a ‘spectacular’ fashion. Usually these are ways of leaving a church that include some type of a parting shot that is lobbed at the church and its leadership. Most of the time these parting shots are fired with an intention to cause wounds, but there are times when it simply comes from being unaware of the effect their actions will have on the church they are leaving.
Although the variety of creative ways people "spectacularly" leave a church still surprises me, I've noticed that there are often very similar underlying archetypes. One of these types I’ve informally named the “You’re a bunch of heretics!” option. This particular exit strategy is characterized by focusing on a particular theological item and declaring that the church, its elders, and the pastor have got their theology all wrong and need to be included in Jesus’ warning that “It would be better [for you] to be thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around your neck than to cause one of these little ones to fall into sin” (Luke 17:2 NLT).
Essentially the “You’re a bunch of heretics” way of leaving a church is designed as the nuclear option. It’s meant to cause maximum damage, end conversation attempts, and leave the person walking away firmly planted on the moral high ground.
Why is throwing the heretic label around such an effective way of damaging a church while you’re already on your way out? I think this comes down to all the baggage and junk that comes with the label of heretic. When we think of the term heretic—or people who are acting in divisive ways—we often think of Paul’s instruction to Titus to give two warnings to a divisive person and after that have nothing to do with them (Titus 3:10), or we go to Proverbs 6:19 where “a person who sows discord in a family” is included in the list of seven things that God hates. On top of that there’s also the fact that in times when the church has had enough political power it often took the approach of exiling and executing people deemed to be heretics. When scripture gives such strong rebukes of heretical behaviour and we have the historical baggage that goes with the word, there’s no wonder that none of us want that label thrown at us
But this leads us to another question: what actually qualifies a teaching as heresy or a person as a heretic? Is it just something we disagree with? Is it anything we find uncomfortable or too hard to follow?
It’s obvious that if we put any two followers of Christ in a room, we’re going to find some places where they disagree on how we interpret and apply the teachings of scripture to our lives, but those differences do not mean that one of the two people has to be a heretic. In light of this, I think we need a better way of defining what actually is heresy and what is not.
Here’s what I would like to propose: I think that when the early church councils got together to try and make collective decisions about what would define Christianity, there were a few things that they got exceptionally right. One of these being the Apostle’s Creed. Sure there were people who disagreed with some of the wording and what was included or not, but overall it’s the best and simplest description of the core beliefs and theology surrounding who God is, what he has done, and what we believe at the foundational level. In this way I would call the Apostle’s Creed the defining list of what is “small o” orthodox, or in common words, what is the foundation of ‘right belief’ about our faith. (Note: I use the words “small o,” because the use of “big O” Orthodox is typically reserved for speaking of the actual faith traditions that use Orthodox in their names.)
What is beautiful about the Apostle’s Creed, is that it is foundational enough that it can be the defining list of what is true belief in God as revealed by Scripture, but at the same time it is general enough that we can accept that different faith traditions can practice these articles in different ways. For example, we can accept that different expressions and practices of our faith have different understandings and ways of practicing the communion of the saints, but we all believe it is important and foundational. At the same time, the first line “I believe in God, the Father almighty” is declarative enough that we cannot pervert its meaning into something that it is not.
If we want to call something heresy—or call someone a heretic—then a quick first step is to run it past the Apostle’s Creed. If it is in outright and undeniable contradiction with the actual lines of the creed, then by all means, label it heresy. This works as a test because of how well the Apostle’s Creed summarizes God’s word as revealed by the Holy Scriptures. But if you cannot say it is an outright contradiction with the Creed, then you need to do a lot more careful study of scripture, and time in discernment and prayer before pulling out the red inked heresy stamp.
This is the step where things start to get more complicated, so I hope you can venture into this with me. I do believe that there are teachings about God that often are repeated, shared, and lived out in the church that do not meet the criteria of heresy, but they definitely fit the category of being dangerous theology. What I mean by dangerous theology is that these are teachings and ideas that do not outright contradict the items of the Apostle’s Creed, but when these teachings are lived out and applied they can cause spiritual damage and abuse to people. These dangerous theologies take people further away from God and even into places of sin.
When it comes to dangerous theologies, I often see them as very similar to how scripture presents idols. Idols are good things that have been elevated to the status of becoming ultimate things that replace God in our lives. The most classic example of this is Aaron creating the golden calf for the Israelites while Moses is up on the mountain. Calves were common idols of their time period, because they represented the birth of new livestock. In an era where most people’s sustenance relied on their livestock reproducing and crops growing, a newborn calf was a symbol of prosperity. When Moses was up on the mountain, the people assumed Moses and God had abandoned them and turned to what they knew of their culture. They took a desire for prosperity and elevated it to the place of becoming their god. This is idolatry in its simplest form; a thing that is good elevated to become an ultimate thing.
Idol worship connects to dangerous theologies because these are beliefs and practices that are almost always based on something good in scripture. Then these good things from scripture are elevated and enlarged until it becomes the ultimate belief that reframes a person’s entire way of understanding who God is, and it distorts the truth of what God has done, and what he is doing.
One example of this that I’ve encountered several times has to do with spiritual gifts. I’ve had people tell me that if every follower of Christ is a “true believer” they will have this one specific spiritual gift (and before you jump to conclusions, no, it was not the gift of speaking in tongues). Now spiritual gifts are a good thing. Paul says that “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other” (1 Cor 12:7). It is true that exercising our spiritual gifts is a great thing and how God designed us to live in relationships with each other that build us up and help us get closer to God.
But when we take one of God’s promises and elevate it to become an ultimate thing, we’ve now crossed a line by taking a promise of God and weaponized it by turning it into an idol. For the previous example of a certain spiritual gift, this is dangerous because it says that anyone who does not have that spiritual gift is not a true believer. Usually this gets accompanied by some type of admonishment that the person in question needs to do something more in order to receive the specific gift and prove that they are faithful to God.
Let me summarize it this way: Heresy is something that directly contradicts who God is, whereas dangerous theologies are good teachings and beliefs that have been elevated to the place of becoming ultimate teachings that skew how we see God.
Now that you know this difference, you might have the urge to ink up that red heresy stamp and start labeling some people or teachings, but just hold on a second before you do that.
Every one of us has the ability to travel into a place of being a heretic without realizing it. That’s why Paul told Titus to give a divisive person two chances to try and restore them back into harmony with the teachings of Jesus. In addition when it comes to some of our doctrine, we need to recognize that every one of us is a little bit of a heretic by default. Take the Trinity for example: we believe that God exists as three-in-one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Exactly how this works out is impossible for us to know with our finite human minds, so every attempt to explain the Trinity, will contain a small amount of heresy in it. Does that mean we need to stop talking about the Trinity entirely? Absolutely not. It just means we need to be humble enough to recognize that we many not have it all right.
That’s why I called this article “Heresy and Me,” because we need to recognize our own tendencies to venture into heresy without knowing it. When we forget how to be humble we can reach for that rubber heresy stamp, or maybe we’ve even played the “You’re a bunch of heretics” card ourselves at one point. It is a sad truth that the evil one is searching for any opportunity to cause harm to the church and distract us from our true mission, and getting us wrapped up in fights around heresy and dangerous theologies is highly effective at this. No one ever wants to admit that we’ve been used by the deceiver to distract the church, but it certainly happens more than we recognize.
The truth is that a lot of heresy and dangerous theologies appear to be very comfortable at first encounter. It is attractive to see a version of God and faith that has all the messy bits worked out into a neat package. We want everything to line up in pretty rows that can be easily understood, but that’s not how God works. God wants to meet us in the searching, to love us in the mess, and yes, even in our confusion, God is still there.
God still loves the heretic, and I for one am deeply grateful for that.
Brian's whole understanding of faith and Christianity changed when he started to encounter what it means to live life with God instead of for God. One thing that Brian is passionate about is walking with people as they explore their faith in Christ and learning how to honestly seek God in the midst of our doubts and fears. Brian is the Pastor of Grand Valley Community Church in Brandon Manitoba. He is married to Nikki and they have one daughter named Olivia. When Brian isn't working on a sermon at a Starbucks or at home with his family, you can usually find him fly fishing or building model air planes. To read more of Brian's articles, click here.
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