“You’re a heretic.”
That’s a powerful claim, one with the ability to destroy. And like all weapons of mass destruction, it should be used with extreme caution.
A recent blog post highlighted 7 Heresies Inside the Church. As I read through the post, I noticed two things. Yes, the author correctly identified seven dangerous ideas that the church needs to watch closely today. But there isn’t a single heresy among them.
I think that’s a problem. Calling something a heresy when it isn’t contributes to other serious problems for the church today. To see why, let’s first take a look at what a “heresy” is. Then we can consider some reasons why it’s dangerous to label something as a heresy when it’s not.
What Is a Heresy?
Defining exactly what constitutes a heresy is harder than it seems. Some think a heresy is just whatever has been condemned at an ecumenical council. Others see any attempt to call something heresy as a pure power play, a way of protecting church authority, or an attempt to create an “other” against which the community can define itself. Still others see heresy as anything that corrupts the essential purity of the church.
There are reasons for each of these approaches. At the end of the day, though, the church has always been hesitant to call something heresy unless it has been determined by some authoritative body that the belief in question explicitly undermines the gospel itself.
Some clarifications are important here:
1. It’s not a heresy just because it’s wrong. I can be wrong about lots of things without undermining the gospel itself. If that wasn’t the case, I’d be undermining the gospel with almost every thought. (I make a lot of mistakes.)
2. It’s not a heresy just because it might undermine the gospel. There’s a difference between things that clearly undermine the biblical gospel (e.g. denying the deity of Christ) and things that could possibly undermine the gospel depending on how exactly you understand them (e.g. the relationship of faith and works). The church has generally been rather careful about using the label heresy, restricting it to beliefs in the first category, not the second.
3. It’s not a heresy just because one person says so. People who connect heresy to power and authority are correct to do so. It’s not a heresy just because I say it is, but because recognized authorities in the church have determined it to be so. That of course leaves open the question of who qualifies as a “recognized authority” in the church. And this is why many Christians rely on the authority of the ecumenical councils, which have a unique status in being accepted by most Christian churches, and whose decisions have stood the test of time.
Traditionally, then, a heresy is any belief or practice that explicitly undermines the gospel and has been determined to be such by recognized ecclesial authorities, most importantly the decisions of the ecumenical councils.