Heretics and Heresy: On the Intellectual Pursuit of a Christian

Historically, one of the greatest sins in the Christian church has been that of heresy. The theologian Origen was excommunicated when his teachings on the nature of man and God were condemned by the Church. The entire Protestant movement was based in the fact that Martin Luther viewed the Roman Catholic church as heretical, and vice versa. The subsequent divisions within the Church have also been a reflection of this—although some are obviously more apparent and necessary than others.

I once heard a pastor tell how he had been dismissed from his previous church because he was no longer convinced of a pre-tribulation Rapture. To make that clear, this pastor was told he could no longer help shepherd the flock of a body of Christians because he disagreed on a very debatable point in what is the most cryptic and incomprehensible book in all of Scripture.

And so, heresy is one of the greatest sins a believer can commit, but it is also one of the gravest impediments to the Christian journey, both in terms of a personal and intellectual relationship with Christ, as well as in evangelization. So often, we are so concerned about proper theology that we forget that we have tiny little minds. Our relationship with the Son of God is replaced with cute dogmas that we repeat over and over—sometimes from birth, if the situation allows—and we never question them. We attach our ideas to God like a label on a bottle of cheap wine: “Grown in the fertile valley of Old Earth Creationism, this God has already mapped out your days, and will indisputably return to carry his Church to Heaven while he leaves the heretic and the sinner to burn in the fires of tribulation and damnation. Enjoy without questioning.”

And while there is certainly room for dissension and disagreement within the Church, to say that our label of God is impeccably correct is to say that our wine is the only wine. And this is where the cry of “Heretic!” can often become heresy.

As Galileo said, the same God that endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect did not intend that we forgo their use. Jesus Christ did not die on the Cross so that we can go to the grave believing—knowing—that Adam and Eve were literal people, and yet folks like Ken Ham and Kent Hovind make a living attacking Christians who would believe otherwise. We line up across the field from each other, load our muskets, and commence to tear and rip at each other like jackals—all in the name of Love.

Can we see the dichotomy here?

To believe in Jesus Christ is to believe in Jesus Christ: I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is not to set up impediments for others; we can be firm in our convictions while allowing the difference of belief. Just because one prefers the solemnity and depth of old hymns doesn’t give them allowance to judge another for engaging in contemporary worship. Just because a board of elders believes that Christ will return to rapture his people into Heaven before the Tribulation happens doesn’t mean they have to banish one who may feel otherwise.

The danger of this is that it turns the Church—which should be a community of vibrant, thinking individuals—into what effectively amounts to a cult. Even God the Father, the most severe member of the Trinity, allows Job and his friends to spend 30-some chapters questioning His nature. And when He finally shows up on the scene? The only thing He says is “You can’t understand Me. Ask your questions, but stop expecting answers.” The issue isn’t that Job is trying to understand God, it’s that he assumes himself capable of understanding God.

From the beginning, God has rewarded those who seek. If God cannot guide our intellectual pursuit, wherever that may take us, he would not have given us such a vast scope of reason and imagination. And if that seeking starts carrying one toward the mire of true heresy, it is the duty of the Church to help correct the mistake, bearing in mind that the Church is not your local pastor, priest, or two-bit theologian. It is not the Pope, a Patriarch, or yourself. The Church is the cumulation of human history, subject to God the Father and manifested in a traveling rabbi named Jesus Christ, who, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, founded a demographically and intellectually diverse community he calls his Church. This is the standard to judge by; not the opinion of a man who has nothing more than a seminary degree, a couple years behind the pulpit, and the notion that he has come to grasp Yahweh in all His magnitude and mystery. The intellectual pursuit of a Christian should not be defined by a fear of the Church, but by a love of Christ.

Not that there’s anything fatal about being mistaken; even Peter was an unintentional heretic. But the measure you use to judge will be measured to you, and if you’re prepared to anathematize a fellow follower of Christ over petty doctrine, you had better hope that you have a perfect bead on the infinite God of the Ages. Because if you don’t, you are setting up some unnecessary roadblocks to Heaven. If we judge others based on our personal theology, it’s a safe bet to assume that God will judge us on ours.

Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Power’s Chronic Struggle

Power is said to corrupt and absolute power corrupt absolutely. It implies that if a person doesn’t have power, she won’t be corrupt. But power does not cause corruption; it strips away the social structures that often motivate a person to do good. Power doles out responsibility, but takes away some of the authorities that hold the a person accountable to her responsibilities. The powerful person is free to manifest themselves more as they wish, and less as expected.

The freedom that comes with power is a terrible freedom. A leader is a human being with personal human desires, but she has to constantly balance those with her dutiful responsibilities, be it to students, disciples, citizens, etc. For example, in political power, a leader may face the decision to either act to benefit her nation or to satisfy her personal desires.

Shakespeare portrays this burden well in his play Henry V. At two key points, King Henry V of England must, against his personal wishes, put people to death. In the second act, three nobles (Cambridge, Grey, and Scoop), previously King Henry’s friends, are revealed as traitors. After they beg for mercy, Henry regretfully condemns them while personally forgiving them:

Touching out person seek we no revenge,
But we our kingdom’s safety must so tender,
Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws
We do deliver you…

Act III repeats the scenario: Henry orders that Bardolph, a former friend from his days of youthful roguery (seen in Henry IV), be executed for petty theft. Notably, although Henry voices no laments, he responds to the execution by immediately asserting it as a ‘moral example’:

We would have all such offenders so cut off…that in our marches through the country there be…nothing taken but paid for.

Like a parent, spanking her child in order to establish healthy discipline, Henry, the nation’s guardian, also lays aside sentiment for duty.

It gets worse.

Aside from legal punishments, leaders also have the burden of sacrificing individuals for the nation’s general good and being responsible for those decisions. Shakespeare nearly drops this weight upon his viewer in King Henry’s pre-battle soliloquy about the burdens of power and, in particular, sending his soldiers to potential death:

Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition…
What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages [i.e. sleeps].

Trying times offer a leader no escape. Three options are possible: relinquish the power, renounce it by failing to do one’s duties, or live with emotional strain. Present day leaders provide examples similar to Shakespeare’s King Henry. President Obama has written personal letters to every family who lost a son or daughter in the Middle East since his inauguration. Last year, President Obama wrote something quite different: an order to send over 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. The dichotomous psyche of a leader must balance both things—they must walk the narrow line between ‘leader’ and ‘individual’.

Simba, in the Disney classic The Lion King, famously sings, “Oh, I just can’t wait to be king!” If he had understood what he was saying, he would have sung differently. Leadership is glamorous, but it is also treacherous…and hard. Abraham Lincoln said of power, “…if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Lincoln’s word can be taken in two ways, both of which are true. In the most obvious sense, leadership tries a person’s character because they can do evil things without fear of punishment. In a second understanding, leadership tries a person’s stamina and fortitude: it is exhausting to exist in two worlds simultaneously, especially when neither is an apparent ‘wrong’.

Once, in elementary school, my mom was substitute teacher in my class. Being a saintly child (ha!), I didn’t get in trouble that day, but if I had, she would have faced a decision: show personally instinctive grace, or punish me in order to maintain order. The position is wearying.

Nearly everyone has some sort of leadership role, be it familial, professional or relational. Most of us aren’t a monarch like Henry V or President Obama. Still, our choices affect those around us, and we should remain conscious of those effects. To make wise decisions as a leader is difficult, but errors of judgment are better than dissolving or defaulting on responsibilities. And power can find a peace in that. ‘