Last semester I had the opportunity to take a class in the theology of the early church. I loved finally having the chance to read through and discuss what the early church fathers actually said, rather than what other people centuries later said they said.
One thing that really stood out to me was the teachings of those early Christians who were declared “anathema,” or heretics.
Today, a name like Arius has become synonymous with heresy, false teaching, and the attempt to lead the people of God astray. But as I read the actual writings of people like Arius, rather than just the words of their accusers, a new portrait of “heretics” began to be painted in my imagination.
I don’t mean that I was swayed by Arius’ ideas. I wasn’t. I still think his theology was way off base.
But I don’t think most people like Arius were evil. Nor do I think he was trying to lead the people of God astray. In fact, in reading the works of some of the early “heretics” I began to see people who were just as in love with Jesus as their adversaries, just as committed to serving their neighbors, just as passionate about understanding the mysteries of faith as those who sentenced them to hell.
Was their theology wrong?
But does a difference in opinion about abstract theological concepts damn a person to hell for all eternity?
I’m not quite convinced that it does.
At least not if we agree that Jesus was serious about his description of judgment day in Matthew 25.
We may have abandoned the word anathema in the modern church, but declaring people false teachers and heretics is as en vogue today as it’s ever been. Just google “false teacher” and you’ll find over 100 million results from a whole host of self-appointed “discernment ministries” who believe it their mission to name and shame anyone and everyone who doesn’t perfectly align with their, usually fundamentalist, beliefs.
These digital hate mongers are a great example of how the internet brings us together in unprecedented ways, but yet still fails to bridge the gulf that has always existed between words and ideas and the very real people behind them. Unfortunately, these unprecedented connections often create a toxic culture of constantly reinforced bigotry and hate.
The seemingly limitless diversity of the internet allows us to find support for any idea we may have, no matter how crazy, absurd, or downright hateful those ideas might be. While these connections are often mundane, even if a bit eccentric, the communities they engender can create a pathological obsession with condemning others in which all that matters is being right and destroying the enemy at all costs. These insulated self-affirming communities allow us to reduce people to mere labels and demonize them as if they are part of a theological Legion of Doom, gathering together in their secret hideout to plot the overthrow of the church and the damnation of the faithful.
Even if we don’t belong to one of these online communities, far too many of us seem to either believe that those we disagree with are actively trying to lead people astray as part of some intentional maniacal plot, or that even if they are unintentionally doing so it is because they are not as enlightened as we are, or worse that they are in fact agents of Satan unaware of their true identity.
But who set us up as theological judge, jury, and executioner?
We may claim we’re simply holding them to a plain reading of the Bible, but that may be the biggest lie of all. The mere fact that there are 40,000+ denominations on planet earth demonstrates that there’s no such thing as a plain reading of the Bible. Which means if we are going to continue to hold that our own theology is simply a plain reading of the Bible, then we have to admit that we think we’re the only ones that have anything figured out and those other 39,999 traditions are all wrong or just plain stupid.
Yes, there are creeds and councils to guide us, but too often we pick and choose those confession or renarrate them altogether to suit our own agenda. For example, when’s the last time you heard a Protestant get upset at another Protestant for not revering Mary as the theotokos, the one who gives birth God? Despite that fact that it is a doctrine affirmed by one of the earliest church councils, most Protestants get upset not when it is rejected, but when it is affirmed.
Now, I am by no means saying we should abandon orthodoxy.
Our theology matters.
Even if we want to try to play it cool and act as if it doesn’t, as if all that matters is loving Jesus and loving people, that in and of itself is still a theological claim.
We simply cannot escape theology.
Even the complex theological ideas that seem irrelevant to everyday life can actually have profound practical implications. Take, for example, the metaphysics of the Trinity. On the surface the ousia and hypostasis of the triune life of god may seem like an irrlevant theological jigsaw puzzle, but in fact it’s a doctrine that has profound practical implications for our everyday lives. If we claim that God is not united, that God is three separate beings, or even that God is simply one and not triune, then we open the gate to a life of isolation from others, justified by the life of a God who does not need the other.
This is why the Church is so insistent on affirming the Trinity. We affirm this fundamental doctrine because we believe we are creatures made in the image of God and how that God exists determines how we should exist. If God is a being in a united communion of love, then we must live our lives in the same manner.
Theology does matters.
But we have to be careful about condemning people to hell when they declare “you have heard it said….but I say…” in contradiction with what we believe. After all, Jesus experienced these very same sort of attacks. He was constantly denounced by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the Law for proclaiming things that were contrary to the orthodoxy of his day.
Yes, Paul talked about being wary of and avoiding false teachers, but the vast majority of his theological competition involved the worship of entirely other gods, not other Christians passionately devoted to Christ who simply had a different theological take on atonement theory or the metaphysics of the Trinity.
The truth of the matter is many of the people we declare “false teachers” are in fact head over heels in love with Jesus, they devote their lives to others, and they are just trying to figure out this faith thing like we are.
I know because I know some of them personally. I know their hearts. I know how they live their lives. I know that they are just as dedicated to loving and serving God and neighbor as their attackers are dedicated to mercilessly tearing them apart.
Branding someone a false teacher is easy and it’s often just a lazy attempt to disguise our own arrogance and insecurity. But taking the time to listen to what they actually have to say rather that what people said they said is a lot harder. And it’s also a lot more dangerous because it may turn out they are in fact a prophetic voice through whom the Spirit of God is trying to speak to us.
So we need to be extremely careful about damning people to hell simply because their theology looks a little unorthodox to us.
We need to be careful because it may just turn out that they’re not false teachers after all.
We’re just Pharisees.
Grace and peace,