The H Word: The Overuse and Abuse of the Word “Heresy”

Recently, I was reading a book on faith and theology from the local public library. I’ve been able to get back to reading about faith and theology as a hobby rather than academic “work”, and I’ve been loving it. With this particular book, I was deeply engaged in it and its call to reexamine common Christian words, beliefs, and traditions in the light of Scripture and the time of the New Testament rather than taking them for granted. I was eating it up…and then it happened. I happened upon several claims this author made, and unfortunately, it was straight-up heresy.
To be clear, the heretical claims of this particular author, to name a few, included denial of the divinity of Jesus Christ, denial of the physical resurrection of Christ, and denial of the eventual second coming of Christ. To be even clearer, when I say heresy, I mean the propagation of teaching contrary to accepted authoritative tenets of Christian belief, or dogma, which include the elements this particular author denied.

 

So, with it being confirmed that this author had gone directly into Heresyville, I obviously did the right thing and threw away or burned this book, right? Nope, I finished it. Why? Well, first, it’s a library book, meaning public property, so I’m not going to tempt vandalism charges or a ton of late fees. Secondly, I wanted to see if, despite the heresies stated, if there were still good things to glean from this author; and as it turns out, there were. So yeah, this guy did dabble in what was technically heresy, but it didn’t erase the good in his book.

 

Christians, millennial Christians in particular, should always be working to be further educated in the Christian walk we are on. In that sense, we should also be vigilant to look for teachings that don’t match up with truth. That is part of how we train ourselves in discernment.

 

Unfortunately, American Christianity, particularly the Evangelical side of it, has become a hotbed of censorship; an ongoing tirade of what we can and can’t read, should or shouldn’t study, because it’s against what God apparently says. Many Christian bookstores even refuse to carry certain books from certain authors because they adopt a viewpoint that is deemed heresy. While these businesses have the right to carry or not carry what they wish, the question still remains of whether the said deviation is heresy or not. On top of that, even it if may be heretical, shouldn’t we read it in order to see it for ourselves and exercise our God-given discernment? How can we grow in our ability to recognize heresy if we’re expected to just take someone’s word for it and that be the end of the story.

 

This kind of control is one of many things that has left more and more millennials disenchanted with church and the faith and sent several running. Alongside that problem is another that is just as serious:

 

The word “heresy” is dangerously overused and abused.

 

Heresy gets said A LOT in Christian culture nowadays, especially on social media. Just poke around the comments section of a Christian group on Facebook and you’ll see it come up sometime. It almost flies around to a level where it’s fashionable to call someone a heretic (and for some, it is).

 

But it’s also used outside of what it actually means. It’s often used to denounce and discourage anyone holding to beliefs and doctrines different than their own. Not dogmas, doctrines. Here’s the difference. Dogma refers to the established authoritative beliefs that Christians adhere to, while doctrine refers to the way we approach and understand them.

 

So you may have two people: one person who sees something they both accept from one position, and the other sees it from another. But both are affirming that position, so neither are actually heretics. Now, if another player were to come in and deny said dogma, then you have heresy. Yet the term is often used now to describe anyone who dares have a different doctrinal understanding.

 

“Heretic” is a label often applied simply because of disagreement.

 

To call someone a heretic means to say they are telling lies about God. It is a serious accusation, even more so in centuries past when the charge of heresy could result in execution, if not simply excommunication. Yet nowadays, the word merely seems to mean “how dare you disagree with me.” If we’re being honest, sometimes such a label is applied because we care more about our own egos than we do about biblical truth. It has to be accepted that we’re going to disagree with one another at some points, and we must be able to push through those disagreements in the spirit of peace and love, and sometimes be content to agree to disagree.

 

Many churchgoers, especially millennials, have been driven away from churches because taking a different doctrinal approach was seen as an unforgivable offense. Sometimes, looking at dogmas from a different doctrinal angle can help us grow. However, when people are demonized for challenging status quo to better understand the nature of and life with God, it makes the church seem to be less of a community and more of an exclusive (and at times elitist) social club.

 

Also, if we’re being honest, often when the h-word gets thrown around, it’s not even because of differences of opinion in spiritual matters, but of political ones. The idea is often touted that if one does not vote for a particular candidate, support or oppose certain platforms, or align with a particular party; then that person is not a true Christian and therefore a heretic.

 

It is at this point that something should be considered. When we condemn people for exploring or supporting a different doctrine than ours, or when we condemn them for embracing different politics than ours, then we have made our doctrines and our politics into our own gods, and that in itself is a heresy.

 

Many people, millennials included, are looking for a diverse community of faith, where those of different political and doctrinal understandings can come together, discuss their beliefs, pick one another’s brains, and dig deeper into the understanding of dogmas. However, the obsession with being right over being righteous poisons that and turns our churches into social clubs for some and war zones for others. Churches are to be where be build members of the body up, not tear them to pieces because we disagree on one tiny thing.

 

So perhaps it’s time we let go of our chronic overuse of the h-word. Let’s focus on discussing things calmly and rationally together, in the spirit of love and peace. Let’s explore one another’s positions and beliefs, and see how they look at our dogmas and traditions. Let’s also put less of a stranglehold on what people may read or study. Let them explore for themselves and exercise their own discernment. In doing so, we can be better equipped to make the church a welcoming and edifying community, to strengthen the understanding of our brothers and sisters in Christ. And when true heresy does show itself, we can deal with it in the Spirit our Lord has given us; not a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and a sound mind.

 

One thought on “The H Word: The Overuse and Abuse of the Word “Heresy”

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  1. Christianity should be about Who we belong to instead of what our doctrinal statement says. Considering that we are 2000 years removed from the cross we seem to believe we know more about God than the apostles. I have always been amused that the Reformation gives us the idea that God was somehow powerless to build His Church between the years 300 to 1500 and then Luther, Calvin & a few others showed Him how. Now look at the Church! The mustard tree sure has a lot of birds nesting in it. I expect to see guys like Servetus in the Kingdom even though he was burned for a heretical view. Our God of grace may be the only One who understands that mere human beings cannot totally find out God. As for books & books and books on the subject: there is one Book just an inch thick that will dispose of them all. On the final Day only one source of truth will decide the outcome of what humanity has done with God’s great salvation.

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