When people learn about the second and third centuries of church history, they are sometimes troubled by the concept of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” — especially the notion that there are ideas that are SO wrong that people should be excluded from the church for holding them. The phenomenon began with the sense, on the part of those early Christian leaders, that certain beliefs were appropriately Christian, and that others, eventually called “heresies,” did not accurately represent Christian teaching.
So, the reason this is relevant for us is this: how do you deal with people who disagree with you? And are there “levels” of disagreement?
One challenge in our world, given the plurality of religious beliefs and the variety existing within Christianity, is that we have to decide how we are going to treat people who differ from us in their Christian beliefs, not to mention those who are not Christian at all. Just within Christianity, some people who want to keep the language of “orthodox” and “heresy” often use a third category called “heterodoxy” to refer to people who think differently – it’s different from the norm, but it’s not all the way to “wrong.” So, one way to deal with difference is to functionally drop the category of “heresy” and put everything “different” into the box of “heterodoxy,” then you sort of avoid the problem – you say that people have different opinions, and you don’t have to worry about it anymore.
But what if you really think that someone’s beliefs are SO wrong that they approach the level of being harmful? To cite an example from the early church, the early church leaders thought that the Gnostics’ ideas about Jesus were so off that they could harm the faith and even the salvation of those believed them, what do you do then? There are some modern leaders who do not shy away from this language, calling a movie or book or belief or person “heretical.” I hear zealous students use this language as well. In other words, the beliefs aren’t just different – they are wrong to the point of being harmful!
So, some questions:
- If you think someone’s beliefs are heretical, what do you do? Do you confront them? Do you talk about them, perhaps on social media? Or do you keep your beliefs to yourself?
- Does it matter if you are a church leader or just a “regular” church member?
- If you do choose to condemn this person, do you so publicly, privately, or “only” in your heart?
- Do you pray for the person in question?
- Do you take him/her aside, asking about his/her beliefs?
I don’t think there is one right answer, to these questions but I do think that while we can sometimes be a little too accepting of anything out there as just “different,” other times we can be too quick to condemn and reject. I am grateful that I do not live in a time when (most) church leaders have the power to put others to death for their beliefs, as I might have been tempted to exercise that power inappropriately. That is, of course, a reality that one encounters in learning about the Reformation.
I’d like to propose that we find a middle course – somewhere between the phenomena of a) the student who sits in class and wants to agree with everyone, and b) the politicians who cannot find anything to agree on and demonize their opponents. Middle courses are much harder to chart than these extremes, but we need to find them. I don’t know what that middle ground might look like, but surely it exists, right?
(BTW: if you’d like to read an interesting book on this topic, check out Alistair McGrath’s recent Heresy. Very readable and thought-provoking.)
Image source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/51791464435048920/