Culture At Large

Is Heresy Essential for the Growth of the Church?

Paul Vander Klay

I have many times wondered why God created a world in which we could stray so horribly. If you live long enough you will undoubtedly see many people fall away from the faith sometimes to their misery and disaster. You will see others challenge orthodoxy and set themselves against it in the name of preserving or purifying the church. Some who do so will foment from within its circle, others will break away to start their own thing that over time diminishes and is forgotten.

I recently bought a Kindle and on an impulse purchase picked up Alister McGrath's 2009 book entitled "Heresy". I was curious about the title, stared reading the introduction and haven't been able to leave the book alone.

I'm most familiar with the word "heretic" or "heresy" either as a verbal hand grenade thrown to discredit someone or a self-selected label by someone who wants to appear edgy and rebellious against uncaring or smothering institutional religion. The word actually comes from the Greek and it simply means "to choose". McGrath works through a number of ancient heresies and although I'm not finished with the book it has very much shaped how I view heretics and how their "choosing" has blessed the church through out the centuries.

Many of the church history's heretics were attempting to be missional reformers of the church. They asked hard questions about how the church presented Jesus Christ to a diversity of times and places. Many of these heretics promoted a faith that was austere and morally demanding, hardly the libertines that often claim the badge. Prior to Constantine many were not put out of the church as we imagine but rather left it themselves in order to establish a more pure, more relevant church. Many chose their positions based on important and legitimate concerns that the church recognized and needed to address. Some of the issues these ancient heretics espoused are still with us today in different forms and groups. How then did these groups become "heretics" and why did they lose their fights?

McGrath's definition of a heresy is clever and in fact a bit Darwinian. "Heresy is best seen as a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of the Christian faith."

The process by which heresy is eventually identified is often one of conflict over time but this process not only leads to resolution of what is heresy but it also leads to resolution over what is orthodoxy. The church in fact isn't always self-conscious about what is orthodoxy until it discovers what is heresy. Heretics, or choosers, offer up themselves unwittingly and in some senses sacrificially for the long term health of the church. Their choosing and eventual losing helps the church that remains to live knowingly. Heretics in fact enable the church to do the choosing and adapting that it must do in order to migrate and mutate and thrive in the huge diversity of contexts all over the world and throughout the centuries ever since it broke out of Jerusalem in that first round of persecution. Christianity can't likely become authentically indigenous in any particular culture without the process of heresy and the willing sacrifice of the heretics.

What does this mean for us today? I think about the story of Odysseus and the Sirens. Many approach it like the crew, ears plugged with beeswax they are safe from the Siren's call that would lure them to their death. Odysseus however opts to hear their songs yet stay lashed to the mast.

At the outset and in the midst of a conflict it may seem uncertain to the honest seeker which is heresy and which is orthodoxy, although of course many in the fight on both sides are sure of the rightness of their position. What we see is that over time and on a stage larger than ourselves or even our segmented denominations, the truth with eventually emerge. Heresy will be seen as a dead end path and the true path of orthodoxy will be recognized even if for many only in hindsight. This world is too deep and too rich and cultures and experiences too diverse for we who are small to pick winners and losers prior the questions being fully engaged by the church. Ultimately it is the Spirit of Christ that preserves the church through storms and trials we cannot imagine and it is our part in this adventure to pursue the process.

Have you thanked your favorite heretic today for playing their part in the communal discovery of orthodoxy? Are you a heretic sacrificially laying down your future for a cause destined to be known only to historians? Do you prefer the beeswax approach or the Odysseus approach? Does your faith rest in your willingness to desert a community over heresy or in the one who tests and purifies the church in ways its leaders never asked for?

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Books, Theology & The Church, Faith