Being labelled a heretic recently by a few well-meaning but rather hasty self-appointed judges has had me mulling over this whole business of heresy. Again. Really, I’m not upset at being summarily labelled with the h-word – I just think it shouldn’t be handed out so quickly. It should be more like a lifetime achievement award. I mean, what is there to aspire to now? Once you have the h-word applied to your forehead by someone’s middle finger, what else is there?
I guess I can at least hold out for apostate. Or maybe infidel. Perhaps pagan.
And it used to be that to be in the running for the heretic award you had to do something really big like denying Jesus, denying the deity of Jesus, denying the humanity of Christ, denying the virgin birth, or even, with some die-hard religious types, insisting on immersion of believing adults as legitimate baptism. That’s been enough historically to be tossed in the river wearing a cement choir robe.
I got it (this time) for using the f-word (“friend” “friendship”) which is a totally biblical word to describe both our relationship with God (“Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness, and he was called the friend of God”) and our relationship with each other in the very non-perky but pivotal fellowship of believers we often call “church” (“The friends greet you; greet the friends by name”). Friendship. You know, that relational space created by the Gospel where we actually practice the 42 very non-optional “one anothers” of the New Testament. And I got it for insisting that Christianity is not about the correct grasping of theological explanations and abstractions about how salvation has taken place in Christ (theories of atonement, free-will, predestination, hell, et al), but the practical impact of the reality of Jesus’ work on humanity, which impact is, in a word, love (in both Hebrew and Greek “friend” = lover). The Hebrew word mishpat (“justice”) works equally well. Or as Paul puts it, “If I understand all mysteries and all knowledge and have not love, it profits me nothing.”
Heresy indeed. It’s no doubt why they stoned him. And all I got was a lousy video. On second thought, thank you that all I got was a lousy video.
As often as we throw the h-word around in religious circles, you would think that the word “heretic” is liberally peppered throughout the Bible. How disappointing to realize it only occurs once:
But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain. A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.
That’s Titus 3:9-11. It’s actually helpful to read all the “pastoral epistles” (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) to form the complete picture of the heretick (I actually like it spelled with a “k”), along with Jude’s short letter and Peter’s second very similar but somewhat longer letter.
From these sources we can gather the following about the one who truly deserves the h-word label:
He uses scripture. A LOT.
He can sound quite calm and smooth in his speech and reasoning.
He is always in the center of controversy and debate by choice. It’s not that he’s hounded and dragged into the spotlight before the eyes of an eager audience. He seeks it out. Think Adolfo Pirelli in Sweeney Todd.
When it comes right down to it, he’s a grumper. That’s got to be my favorite biblical term for a heretick (from Jude, verse 16). The Greek word is γογγυστής (gong-goose-tace). Grumbler, complainer. You know the type – the one who lives to give you an earful of how lost and wrong and messed up everyone else is, every other church is, every other religion is, every other _____________ is. He lives to slam the popular books that everyone else writes, the big churches that everyone else attends, the shows that everyone else watches. He’s not surprised that everyone else is going to hell in a handbasket. If only they all had the sense to listen to him and his inner circle of oh so theologically enlightened ones.
“Grumpers” usually make it big in talk radio, too.
He is a fault-finder. He doesn’t listen to learn but to find an angle, to either find or make a crack that can be used as personal leverage for the positioning and status and advancement of himself and his party. A pulpit built by pious nit-picking. Parochial. Partisan. Petty.
What’s interesting about the bona-fide heretick is that for the most part we know precious little, biblically, of the specific content of his spiel. Mostly it’s his manner and movement – or as Jesus calls it, his fruit. It’s not so much what he’s saying – his elixir may indeed be a concoction of piss and ink – pay attention to his style, to the way he polarizes his audience as he pushes his party (the basic meaning of “heretick” is one who is divisive, who starts arguments thereby advancing his own unique or correct group or party or faction, condemning all others who “don’t hold to the Word” like they do; you could say he’s very anti-catholic [the small “c” is important here]). What the heretick is saying could be dead right, but it’s how and why he’s saying it that reveals his colors.
Truth be told, I was closest to this before I woke up to the kingdom and grace and mercy and justice of God back in the mid-nineties. I longed then to be the Bible answer man, to be esteemed as the exposer of falsehood, the clubber of wolves in sheep’s clothing, the upender of every religious rock so as to point out the vermin crawling in the slime.
But the Lord had a more excellent way that mercifully engulfed me like the surge waters of a hurricane.
The great irony is to have that Way now labelled by some as heresy. And actually, in this overall context and connection, I’ll happily wear the label. It all depends on who is slapping it on you, doesn’t it?
But it still shouldn’t have been so easy…or perhaps I should be asking, why did it take so long?