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It has been brought to my attention more than once that my teachings border on what is regarded as heresy; that my beliefs are in direct opposition to God and I am most certainly destined for hell as a result. Obviously I don’t see it quite that way and have done my utmost to explain this to my detractors … without much success. Sooner or later that word comes out and is thrown at me with all the force the critic can muster. “You are a HERETIC! Unless you repent of your ways, God will send you to hell!”
Variations on this admonition have also demanded that I cease such teaching and stop infecting others with my errors. To this, I am not only irritated, but bemused. It seems as though I am having a “debate” with people who truly have not bothered to ever read a thing I’ve written. Worse still, they seem to have absolutely no idea what the word “heresy” means. Therefore, when the intended pejorative is hurled at me with the intent to cause me harm, it instead falls flat.
What is heresy? Why is it regarded as death to anyone within the church to be labeled a heretic? Truly to answer this question, one must know the meaning of the word. From there one must explore how this word has taken on the connotation it has and why it is used to club anyone who dares stray off the orthodox path.
This from Wikipedia:
Heresy is any provocative belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs. A heretic is a proponent of such claims or beliefs. Heresy is distinct from both apostasy, which is the explicit renunciation of one's religion, principles or cause, and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion.
The term is usually used to refer to violations of religious or traditional laws or legal codes, although it is used by some political extremists to refer to their opponents. It carries the connotation of behaviors or beliefs likely to undermine accepted morality and cause tangible evils, damnation, or other punishment.
This is the textbook definition of heresy which is used today. However the etymology of the word would leave one with a far different understanding. As I am well familiar with the origin of this word and its usage, I have been left feeling somewhat confused by those who use the term as though it is something to be seen as bad.
The term “heresy” is from the Greek αἵρεσις and originally meant “choice” or “thing chosen.” In Christianity, heresy became a means by which to control and keep people in line. This wasn’t the original intent nor usage of the word; an early church father named Irenaeus, Bishop of Lugdunum (modern-day Lyons, France) popularized the term in his tract, Contra Haereses (Against Heresies) written in approximately 180 AD. The primary reason for this work is that Irenaeus was concerned about the Gnostic movement which was threatening the purity of the Gospel of Christ. Gnostics were producing works masquerading as original writings of the Apostles which gave an erroneous view of Christ, His life and mission while here on earth. It also set about to rewrite salvation and the nature of God.
Against Heresies was a five-volume work which Irenaeus felt was necessary to sort out the truth from the mounting lies of Gnosticism. Many of these Gnostic works have resurfaced today and are looked upon by some in theological circles as having merit. Such books as The Gospel of Judas, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of the Lord and the Gospel of Truth had sprung up and were vying for the hearts and minds of the early church. Irenaeus did what he could to point out the errors in these works and how they deviated from the truth of the Gospels and the Apostle’s writings. In short, he pointed out how these works took away from Christ rather than add to his Deity.
The Gospel of Thomas is an explicit example of the type of deception employed by the Gnostics, making the boy Christ out to be a moody bully with special powers. To believe that Christ could be anything like the figure described in the Gospel of Thomas is to simply not understand who Christ is at all. While I understand that many Doctorates in Theology tend to lean more on the academic, if one claims to be a Christian and has spent many, many years in study and still cannot discern the character of Christ, one might be in need of serious prayerful contemplation as to whether they’ve wasted their time and money.
Many who bandy about the term “heretic” so freely believe they are given such license based upon Paul’s letter to Titus. A reading in context would tend to show just the exact opposite of what Paul was trying to convey however,
“But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and argument and quarrels about the Law, because they are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” - Titus 3:9-10
Paul also speaks of those teaching false doctrine in the early church.
“As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”
- 1st Timothy 1:3-4
Characteristic of these early churches were those who saw an opportunity to rise above the common man into a position of leadership if they could come to the people with something akin to what the Apostles brought. In much the same way the Gnostics would later promulgate their errors, these various individuals all about the Empire saw an opportunity too good to pass up. Paul knew of these types as he was well familiar with the personality make-up; Paul was trained as a Pharisee. Shining more brightly than any other was what being a Pharisee was all about. Paul makes note of this on several occasions, once describing himself as, “A Pharisee among Pharisees.” (Acts 23:6) Likewise Christ had critical words for the Pharisees and their self indulgence and pomp.
False doctrine would have been easy to see to the experienced eye as it would stand in opposition to the teachings of Christ. This is important to remember because as we will see, the term “Heretic” as applied to certain people later on in history wasn’t applied to beliefs which stood in opposition to Christ, but rather beliefs which stood in opposition to tradition. The Gnostics were called out by those in their day who were as aware of the errors as Paul was aware of the usurpers amongst the infant churches.
As time went on, ferreting out the error became more and more difficult. By the time of Constantine the Great, the infant church had grown, but was under constant persecution; it was an outlaw faith. The Emperor Diocletian was particularly brutal in his persecutions, slaughtering many Christians in horrific ways. Men, women and children were all tortured and killed simply because the professed a faith in Christ. In this formative period, few of these martyrs had ever seen a word of the Gospel even if they were able to read. They relied upon what they had been told by various church leaders and by creeds which they had learned. The “doctrine” they were aware of was minuscule. They knew only of Christ resurrected.
Constantine changed all of that when he gathered together the leaders of the churches over the breadth of the Empire to put together the official rules for the now “legitimized” church. Of the eighteen hundred church leaders Constantine invited to the first council (approximately one thousand from the East and eight hundred from the West), only between two hundred fifty and three hundred eighteen showed. Most assumed it to be a trap and stayed away. The largest numbers of attendees were from the West.
A part of what was decided at this council was the Holy Trinity. Prior to this time, there was no official definition of the Trinity; the concept was largely unknown to most of the early church. There was also the issue of deciding what would be regarded as legitimate scripture and what was to be excised. The official day of worship (the Sabbath) was moved from Saturday to Sunday. There was the introduction of the Winter Solstice celebration to the Christians by making it Christ’s birthday even though it had been largely understood that Christ was most likely born in early Autumn. This same usurping was done to mask over Passover and the celebration of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. The new name given to this celebration was the “Feast of Ishtar” or Easter.
The above noted and more were all introduced into Christian worship and none was called out as heretical. As a point of fact, many of these practices are still celebrated in the church today and to NOT observe them as outlined by Constantine’s council is regarded as heresy.
In our 21st Century world, we sometimes take for granted all that has transpired in the two thousand years since Christ walked the earth in the flesh. We take for granted that our system of governance in the United States, Of the People, By the People and For the People is an historical anomaly. The empires which have risen and fallen since the inception of man have all been based around a king or monarch who ruled unilaterally and autonomously. If such a ruler could also convince his subjects God was standing with him, than that was all the better. Constantine the Great was well aware of this and used the young Christian Church to help knit his fractured Empire back together. However utilizing the Christians for his purposes did not equate to actually being a Christian; Constantine had no intention of relinquishing control. The Council of Nicaea established the new rules irrespective of Christ’s teachings.
Over the next one thousand years, these rules were used as a vicious club against any and all who dared speak out against the obvious errors. People were burned at the stake alive, they were beheaded, they were torn apart, they were drowned, stoned, crushed, etc. These rules were not to be abridged under any circumstances and to do so meant a certain, gruesome death to the offender.
Regardless, many brave people did step forward and endured the slings and arrows of their church leaders, rulers and fellow man to disseminate the truth. While they may not have gotten all of the details correct, they felt a calling from the Spirit and were compelled to speak about what they knew in their heart was truth. From the Disciple Stephen stoned to death for believing in the risen Christ to those today who are being killed in Muslim countries for the exact same reason, the establishment has hated the truth.
John Wycliffe (1320 – 1384) was an English philosopher, theologian and lay preacher and translator. He was famous for his criticism of the Papacy and the doctrines of the Catholic Church and spent his life battling against them. Ten years after his death from a stroke, Wycliffe was declared a heretic by the Council of Constance in 1415. He was defrocked, his writings burned and his body disinterred. In 1428, Pope Martin commanded a posthumous execution of Wycliffe and had his corpse burned and his ashes cast into the River Swift.
Jan Hus (1369 – 1415) was a Czech priest, philosopher and reformer. He was burned at the stake for challenging the Catholic Church on matters of the Eucharist and other theological topics.
William Tyndale (1494 – 1536) was an English scholar and a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation. He is well known for his translation of the Bible into English. In 1536, Tyndale was convicted of Heresy and executed by strangulation. His body was then burned at the stake.
Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was a German monk and a leader of the Protestant Reformation. He is most famous for nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel in1517 incurring the wrath of Pope Leo X. While he was not executed for his crime of Heresy, he was excommunicated by the Pope (which still stands to this day).
The list goes on and on, but all these men had the courage to stand up against the most powerful leaders of their day, endure the scorn of their fellow citizens because they had arrived at conclusions counter to what had been set down by orthodoxy. The passing of years has shown that most of what these men believed is in fact closer to what Christ taught and what He had passed onto the Apostles and Disciples.
While organized religion has stepped in and Balkanized the works of Christ on the Cross, there are still many good people amongst us who fight on, pointing out error when it threatens to blot out the truth. These people may not have the degrees or letters given to those who have chosen symbolism over substance, but they clearly have the Spirit. Their beliefs as measured against the teachings of Christ, not of man, stand firm. These were men—and women—who have given (and will give) their lives so that the truth will always shine most brightly amidst the crushing darkness of orthodoxy.
Am I too critical of organized religion and those who have chosen a career in theology? Not necessarily. Where I am critical is when one has decided to conform to the orthodox teaching rather than challenge their instructors for fear of being rejected. Despite my personal theological views and beliefs, I am quite confident I possess sufficient theological knowledge to enter any seminary and write a doctrinal thesis which would allow me to place a ThD at the end of my name. This isn’t a pointless boast, it is merely a fact. However to do such, I would have to compromise my beliefs. What seminaries expect and what I would present are two different things. Regardless the notations, citations and logical conclusions, I would be branded a heretic and expelled. I know this and thus find the pursuit (at least for now) to be pointless.
Christ came as a man to this earth to redeem humanity. One can only redeem what one once possessed or is rightfully owned. The essence of what we as beings are, our spirits—our essential construct came from God Almighty. Absent our fleshly bodies, we are eternal spirits and Christ explained that we would have eternal life with Him (Matthew 25:46, Romans 6:23). When we get bound up in doctrines such were conceived to water down the Christ; when we will happily condemn our fellow man for daring to challenge orthodox positions we have never bothered to examine ourselves, who are we trying to impress? God?
“If I speak in tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” – 1st Corinthians 13:1
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” – 1st Corinthians 13:4-8
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
– Galatians 5:22
If one does not see their God manifest in the above verses via the teachings they’ve learned, one is being called by the Spirit to dig deeper, to fall to their knees and ask God for clarity and for truth—no matter the personal cost. I came to this point in my walk many years ago and this was what I asked of Him. For good or for ill, I believe He has answered my plea. It has not been an easy road; walking against the tide never is. However I am well aware that I am in excellent company. Trails were never blazed by those who chose to walk a path first cleared by others.
Stepping into the unknown is scary and I will not minimize that here. I have certainly had my sleepless nights over what I believe, but until I am shown quite definitively that I am in error, I intend to continue my studies and teachings as I have come to understand them. It is what I have been called to do and regardless the position of the modern-day Constantine’s, I will push forward. Despite the screams of “Heretic!” screamed at me by the Inquisitors and their demand that I recant, I must be true to what it is that Christ has called me to do. Today this is a relatively benign task; there’s little my critics can do beyond hurl invective. Tomorrow it may be a different story.
History has always shown that the most virulent critics of the truth masquerade as those who claim to be the true keepers of the truth. Thus Constantine and his successors killed scores of people of all ages and stations over the centuries for daring to cross him; thus the modern church has excommunicated and shunned those who dared to ask questions which left them mute with rage. Is God really visible in the faces of these Christians? Would an unbeliever see God when looking at these children of His?
That question can really only be answered by either God Himself, or those who have found their hearts being pricked by my words. Such people know who they are and so does God. One can attempt fool his fellow man, but there is nothing at all hidden from God’s sight. Pride, ego … and fear are all laid bare before Him.
Heretic or Disciple? It isn’t merely a matter of perspective if one is seeking to do the will of God Almighty and follow His admonitions. As Christ said,
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first”. –John 15:18