Q & R: Heresy

Here’s the Q:

From a leadership perspective, What boundaries do you think Christians should have on ‘heresy’?
If you have time, here’s a (very) partial answer I’ve been pondering ….
I’ve been extremely resistant to the idea of heresy, because I’ve found that it’s usually on matters of opinion that the heresy card gets thrown around. Specifically, I find that the false doctrine or ‘false teacher’ card gets played any time where it looks like having mercy and grace toward others is going to win out over keeping theological traditions.
Yet wonder if there are times when it’s appropriate to call someone out on their beliefs or practises. Perhaps when people start arguing and dividing and calling each other names (or burning one another at the stake) is the time to point out that heresy only really happens when an idea leads to people being dehumanized.
Well, I think there’s also when core confessions of the faith are torn down. I.e no compromise from me on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, although I do appreciate the sociological commentary of the Jesus seminar – even though I think they got the ‘main’ detail wrong.
My context is that I am responsible for and to people who are very black and white when it comes to their reasoning skills, and thus very black and white when it comes to their bibles. Ironically, thesis thinkers are on both the liberal and conservative theological spectrum. That fascinates me endlessly. So I want to be sensitive to the fact that a poor logical premise accepted by these good folks will quickly turn into a disaster. But I also get frustrated because I see things differently – or perhaps I am learning to see behind certain things.
I am concerned because I’ve seen people take what is otherwise fine doctrine, and twist it around so that it is not fine in practise. I’ve also seen people take what I consider terrible theology, and do unbelievably gracious and wise things with it. Of course, I’ve also seen questionable theology (most notably, where opinions are stated as unquestionable facts) create messes, and I’ve seen well reasoned, gently communicated theology empower whole communities.

Here’s the R:
Great question – one I can’t do justice to in a short blog post, but here are a few responses.
1. The Greek word for heresy (hairesis) means choice. The idea is that an individual or group makes a choice to differ from the norm.
2. Ideas/doctrines are usually classified as heretical, but I think attitudes may be even more problematic. In Generous Orthodoxy, I offered a telling of early church heresies where the key attitude of heretics was elitist, exclusionary superiority: we are legit, everyone else isn’t. Orthodoxy, then, was the broader term, more accepting and “catholic,” and heresies were more elitist and exclusionary.
3. In Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road, I took orthodox doctrines that have been applied with exclusive, hostile attitudes, and tried to reframe them in more “catholic” ways. In your words, I tried to take those “otherwise fine doctrines” that have been “twisted it around so that they are not fine in practice” and untwist them so they can have better out workings in praxis.
4. In We Make the Road by Walking, I explore an idea that G. K. Chesterton introduced at the end of his book Orthodoxy:

“It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”

What I love about this quote is that it pictures orthodoxy as a dynamic process, not simply a guard standing in one place, but rather a charioteer swerving, reeling, and racing in a “swirling adventure.” My metaphor of walking a road – and extending it “off the map” – is tame by comparison, but I hope conveys the same idea. It implies a deeper and more dynamic understanding of both orthodoxy and heresy, I think. Orthodoxy is not a paved parking lot with its straight yellow lines, and heresy is not people choosing to park on the grass at all kinds of skewed angles. Rather, orthodoxy is the path that begins in the past and we must now extend into the future – with faith, fear, trembling, joy, and courage. And heresy is all those paths that divert people from the road and lead them into swamps, dead ends, and parking lots.
5. The problem, of course, is that in the present, it’s not always clear who is making the right choice … to take this way or that. That’s why I have no problem with various denominations or associations existing to make their own decisions of what they consider on the road and what they consider diversionary. Just as different populations of biological species mutate in different ways, some of which lead to extinction and others to evolution, I imagine that the choices made by different denominations and movements will ensure that the species over time both survives and evolves.
6. This approach reaches the same conclusion that you reach. It’s irresponsible to say, “It doesn’t matter what choices you make about doctrines, etc.” But it’s also terribly unwise to take the role of violent, angry, fearful inquisitors. But I wouldn’t stop there.
7. I think one more question needs to be asked: Isn’t it tragic that the Christian church was so focused on orthodoxy of doctrine that it didn’t pay much attention to racism, sexism, colonialism, anti-Semitism, slavery, genocide, scapegoating, and the like for its first two thousand years?
I can imagine Jesus, James, Paul, or John saying, “You say, “Lord! Lord!” correctly, but you don’t do the things I say,” or “What shall it profit a person to have correct opinions but fail to love his neighbor?” Is a racist orthodoxy superior to a loving heresy? Thank God we don’t have to choose between those two!
That’s why some of our forbears had the courage to differ – to choose a different path – from their forbears who defended anti-Semitism, suppression of women, colonialism, segregation/apartheid, slavery, etc. They challenged the prevailing orthodoxy of their day that defended these practices with all kinds of doctrinal arguments. Sometimes the choice to differ was the orthodox choice.
Similarly today, to be faithful pilgrims on the road of truth and saving love, sometimes we need to differ – faithfully, humbly, and graciously – from our forbears and some of our peers as we move forward. Attitude is essential. And orthodoxy must no longer be separted from orthopraxy, ortho-affinity, and orthopathy. That’s why I am such a fan of documents like the Accra Confession and Belhar Confession … and it’s why I wrote my new book, We Make the Road by Walking.