We’re All Heretics Now

Forty years ago, in his work “The Dynamics of Spiritual Life”, Richard Lovelace contended (rightly, I believe) that interdenominational unity is vital if renewal and revival in the church is to occur. To facilitate this kind of unity, Lovelace mentioned that there must be dialogue between those who hold differing viewpoints, both within and across specific denominations.

He defines dialogue as “two sides [sitting] down with mutual respect and with some degree of that love which hopes and believes all things concerning one another. In this setting both sides seek to break through semantic and cultural barriers to achieve communication, not to lay manifestos upon one another, but to listen for whatever is of Christ in the concerns of the opposing voices.”

He puts forward three requirements for helpful dialogue:

1) “The negotiating leaders must be more theologically literate and less culturally/politically/economically motivated and polarized.”

2) “The participants in dialogue must accept their responsibility to love, respect, and empathize with one another, and not draw back from this as if it were a dangerous heresy. All parties must be ready, at least provisionally, to learn something from Christ through one another and recognize something of Christ in one another.”

3) “They should recognize that in seeking to reform and renew the church we are not fighting against flesh and blood; we are wrestling against principalities and powers. We are hampered by our own residual fallen nature as well as by that of our opponents. But beyond this we are facing a spiritual adversary whose interest is either to divide true Christians from one another or to unite them in professing falsehood.”

I find these requirements useful and think that they indirectly highlight a trend that is of increasing concern amongst evangelicals, especially those in my own tribe, the SBC. That trend is that we tend to associate bad doctrine with bad motives. It seems to be that we tend to lump together those who we consider to be teaching error into the group of “wolves” and “false teachers” and “heretics” without considering that they may just be in error. If there is anything that social media has taught me, it’s that we’ve entered an era of such high suspicion and polarization that we do not seek “to learn something from Christ through one another and recognize something of Christ in one another.” Instead, we consider the other as just that, the “other”, and we assume the worst about their motives and consider that there is nothing that we can learn from them. It’s they that need to learn something from us. I don’t believe that this should be the case.

The example of Apollos is a good one to illustrate this point:

Apollos “was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” – Acts 18:24-26

Priscilla and Aquila did not immediately assume that Apollos was a heretic, although it appears that he was not preaching the Gospel properly. They did not fire off accusations of false teaching or question his motives. Instead, they invited him into their home, an intimate place, and reasoned with him, explaining to him how he was missing some crucial components of The Way. They did not ostracize him, label him a heretic, and launch a smear campaign against him. They assumed the best of him and sought to help him.

I think this is a far cry from how we treat those in error today. We immediately assume that their error is intentional and stems from bad motives. But from many of the conversations that I’ve had with others across denominational, doctrinal, political, and ideological lines, that is hardly ever the case. Honestly, I have never had a conversation with someone who differed with me on primary, secondary, or tertiary doctrinal issues, political ideology, or worldview matters and left that conversation thinking that they were intentionally trying to cause harm. They have all been sincere in their beliefs that they consider them to be best for society and humanity.

When it comes to religion, especially Christianity, there is a helpful distinction that I’ve found within much Roman Catholic though that hasn’t quite made it’s way as prominently into Protestant thought, but is nevertheless a very helpful distinction to make. It’s the difference between “functional heresy” and “material heresy.” Functional heresy is heresy that one holds to ignorantly–they aren’t aware that it is heresy. This happens a lot with people’s conceptions of the Trinity. There are many people that hold to a functional form of modalism or some other trinitarian heresy without realizing it. As long as the ignorance remains as to the fact that it is heresy, it remains “functional” but not intentional. It is currently a functioning heresy, but is not espoused as truth despite being shown otherwise.

Material heresy is heresy that is held to despite being shown the scriptural, historical, and philosophical reasoning explaining why a certain belief is heretical. This is when a person’s functional heresy is pointed out to them, but they dig their heels in, and then that heresy “materializes” in their teaching as intentional. It’s this kind of heresy that needs to be strongly denounced and marked out publicly.

But the fact of the matter is, all of us either are or have been functional heretics at some point in our walks with the Lord. Sanctification includes not just a increasing Christlikeness in our behavior over time, but also a more refined and clarified understanding of vital doctrines on the nature of God, Christ, and the Bible. In some way, we’re all heretics. And instead of being so quick to attach that label to people, perhaps our first response should be to sympathize with them and realize that they may be in unintentional error, something that we all fall into from time to time. How much could we learn from others of different persuasions, denominations, and ideologies if we invited them into our homes to reason together about our differences, following the rules that Lovelace set out above, understanding that love places on us an obligation to not jump to conclusions about the others motives and also requires a humility on our part to be willing to be convinced that we may be in the wrong.

Lovelace put these ideas forward as helpful requirements to facilitate dialogue between interdenominational leaders in order to foster a greater unity and mutually charitable collaboration with one another for the sake of the Gospel. There is much that we can learn about Life from others. But unless we can become more charitable in our estimations of “the others”, then I’m afraid we won’t be able to reach the point where we can achieve the kind of unity and love that fosters an environment that invites the Spirit to move rather than grieve Him and quench His activity among us.

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” – Psalm 133:1

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash