As Christians we love our traditions.
It doesn’t matter if the tradition is sacred, like celebrating the Eucharist, or something more earthbound, like the annual 4th of July picnic. Whatever the tradition is that we embrace, we do it with gusto.
One such tradition that we seem to especially enjoy is the tradition of calling each other names.
When we were on the playground, calling each other names was anything but sacred and we had to be careful that our teachers didn’t overhear us, lest we be put in timeout. However, as adults, we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that our childhood shenanigans are in fact a divine calling.
Unlike our childhood, our name calling has become significantly less creative. In fact, we really just call each other the same thing over and over again.
Never mind the fact that heresy requires one, set agreed upon list of beliefs, which is difficult to come by when there are more than 10,000 different denominations. If somebody disagrees with us, then in our book, they’re a heretic.
But there’s a great irony in our name calling.
The truth of the matter is….we’re all heretics.
All of us.
A heretic is “a dissenter from established religious dogma” or “one who dissents from an accepted belief or doctrine.” Not quite as scary of a definition as you might have thought. There’s no mention of “a wolf among the sheep” or “the instrument of Satan.” However, if Webster’s dictionary is right, then all of us heretics.
The reason we have thousands of denominations today is simple. People don’t always agree, even good Christian people. When you couple that disagreement with an understanding of freedom that equates that ideal with “I have the right to do whatever I please”, then those “dissenters” will inevitably break away from the “established religion” or church or denomination or whatever to go off and start their own thing.
This breaking away is, of course, seen most clearly in the Reformation. Regardless of what you think of Martin Luther, John Calvin, or any of the other reformers, the Protestant Reformation was, by definition, an act of heresy in that men and women dissented from the established religious dogma and then broke away from Rome. Therefore, all of us who followed in their path by choosing Protestantism over Catholicism or Orthodoxy are heretics.
But, our Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters shouldn’t get too comfortable. They’re heretics too.
In 1054, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church became 2 holy, catholic, and apostolic churches when the Eastern church broke away from the Western Church (Rome) over several issues, most prominently the inclusion of the “filioque” to the Nicene Creed. While our Orthodox brothers and sisters would probably argue (and perhaps rightfully so) that Rome broke away from them by adding something to the faith, since the issue of papal authority was also one of their sticking points, and for the sake of argument, we’ll say that the East broke away from the West. In that case, our Orthodox brothers and sisters are, by definition, heretics.
But again, our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters aren’t out of the heretical woods either.
Sure, they can trace their history all the way back to Peter who was, depending on your theological perspective/particular Biblical interpretation, chosen by Jesus to lead the Church. However, and this may come as a shock to your system if you’re Roman Catholic, that doesn’t excuse Rome from heresy.
You see, when the Christian faith began it wasn’t a separate faith from Judaism. For the first followers of Jesus, and no doubt for Jesus himself, Christianity (or more precisely “the Way”) was the fulfillment of God’s promises to the people of Israel. Jesus was a Jew. His disciples were (mostly) Jews. Christianity, in its infancy, was simply a branch of Judaism which believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
Of course, we all know from history that this marriage didn’t last long. After the first Christians had been expelled from their synagogues one too many times for being “dissenters of the established (Jewish) religious dogma,” they eventually broke away to form what we now call the Church.
Which means, therefore, that every single person who has every worn the mantle of “Christian” is, by definition, a heretic.
So what does all of this mean?
For starters, it means that if someone ever calls you a heretic, you can look them in the eye with confidence and say, “You’re right, I am a heretic. And so are you.”
More importantly, this brief history lesson should remind us that in our zeal to “defend the faith” we should remember that the faith is not always as black and white as we may have come to believe. Furthermore, we should remember that the Christian faith is full of disagreement. It’s full of people who were at first labeled heretics, but who, over time, came to be regarded as great heroes of the faith.
Without the great “heretic” Martin Luther, your Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, or in my case Nazarene church wouldn’t exist. Even for Roman Catholics, Martin Luther ultimately played a positive role. He spurred the church in Rome to undergo much needed reforms.
Granted, not all heretics turn out to be heroes and not all reformations are necessary. But when people come along preaching or teaching things we may happen to disagree with, we should think long and hard before we start name calling. They could very well be leading the church away, but like so many before them, they could be reminding us all what it really means to be the people of God.
So, the next time you get ready to label somebody a heretic, remember: you’re a heretic too.
Grace and peace,