Why I Think the Word “Heretic” Should Take an Extended Vacation

by Ken Howard



Lord Sandwich: 

“I have heard frequent use of the words Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: but I confess myself at a loss know precisely what they mean.”

Lord Warburton: 

“It’s very simple old chap. Orthodoxy is my doxy. Heterodoxy is anyone else’s doxy.”


An exchange between John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, and William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, in the House of Lords in the mid-18th century debates on the “Test Laws.”


I am writing today’s post to explain my thoughts to a long time friend and associate. Brad and I go way back. We share great respect and affection for one another despite the fact that sometimes it seems we agree on little beyond the acknowledgement that we are brothers in Christ.  I am writing to explain why I believe that the way many of my brothers and sisters in Christ are using the term “heretic” is not only wrong, but very injurious to the body of Christ.  I am not writing as a conservative Christian or a liberal Christian.  I reject those terms as a false dichotomy. For me, following Jesus Christ is enough.  And so in this post I do not speak for or against either “side,” but as one Christ-follower to another, and to any who want to listen in (and even comment) as fellow Christ-follower. I speak only for myself, and only to explain humbly what is at the heart of the matter for me, as my understanding of Scripture, the love of Christ, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the grace of God have led me thus far.

I should say at the outset that is topic of heresy is personal to me.  As a Jewish-Christian, I have had a great interest and have done a great deal of research on Jewish Christianity in the early Church, including an extensive research thesis on the topic during seminary. What I discovered in my research has shaped my thinking on orthodoxy and heresy ever since. From at least the 4th Century on, my Jewish Christian forebears have borne the brunt of the organized Church’s misuse of the terms. Some, like the Nazarene Jewish Christians, were declared heretical at Nicaea and excommunicated as a group not long thereafter on the virulent anti-Jewish insistence of Emperor Constantine. During the Spanish Inquisition, hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish Christian “Conversos” were labeled as heretics, interrogated/tortured, and executed because the Church didn’t trust their conversions. Even in my seminary days, a respected professor of liturgics argued that combining Jewish and Christian worship elements was “heterodox.” To which I replied, “Christ our Passover?”

So what follows, is my argument against the use of the term, “heretic.”

It Is Un-Biblical
The word “heretic” is nowhere to be found in Scripture (neither are “heresy,” “orthodox,” or “heterodox”). Nor does it seem to have been in use by the primitive Church.

Its Interpretation Has Been Shifted from its Original Usage
The term “orthodoxy” literally meant “fitting praise” (hardly a legalistic term). But by the time of Constantine, many in the leadership of the now imperial Church began to use it to describe “correct doctrine” or “correct practice,” and some began to use that understanding to declare some beliefs and practices as “heterodox” (hetero meaning “other”) or “heresy.”

It Has Been Applied Incorrectly and/or Maliciously
In addition to the aforementioned examples, there is also the later example of excommunication of the Eastern Churches and their excommunication of the Western Church in response.

It Means Different Things to Different People and Churches
As the above quotation from Bishop William Warburton’s only partially tongue-in-cheek response to Lord Sandwich indicates, there is huge variation in how orthodoxy and heresy are defined, both between the various Christian traditions (e.g., between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism) and within them (e.g., among between the various Protestant tradition and among Baptist congregations).

Authority. In broadly congregationalist denominations the bounds of orthodoxy are established by majority vote of the individual congregation. In narrowly hierarchical denominations they are established by a magisterium-like body within the Church. Other denominations lay somewhere in between.

Dogma, Doctrine, or Teachings. For example, among those that understand orthodoxy and heresy to be defined by the affirmation of some beliefs and the renunciation of others, some limit the bounds of orthodoxy to the two central dogmas of the Church: the Trinitarian nature of God and the human-divine nature of Jesus Christ. Others base them on assent to a broader array of doctrines specified in either a communally creedal statement (e.g., the Nicene Creed) or on assent to an individual confessional statement (e.g., the Augsburg Confession). Others extend the boundaries of orthodoxy to include all official teachings of the denomination or congregation.

Scriptural Basis.  For those who extend the bounds of orthodoxy to include doctrine and teaching, and to base this determination on Scripture, what Scripture do you use?  Do you base it on the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, or New Testament only?  If you are using the Hebrew Scriptures, do you limit it to the Ten Commandments or extend it to the “Purity Laws?” If you extend it to the Purity Laws, do you limit it to those laws that apply to all people or include those that apply only to the priests? If you include those that apply to the priests, do you apply all the priestly purity laws (e.g., no skin rashes) or just those that apply to sexual purity? If you are basing the bounds of orthodoxy solely on the New Testament, do you apply everything that looks like a rule there, just those mentioned in the Gospels, or only those affirmed by Christ?

The Cherry-Picking of Heresies
I understand the desire and the need to have a basis on which to whether doctrinal and ethical positions and moral behaviors appear to be consistent with the Gospel, the words of Christ, and the doctrines, traditions, and teachings of the Church and which do not. But what I really can’t understand and what really disturbs me is how often they tend to be used selectively and inconsistency, insisting that obscure and ambiguous passages be enforced with great rigor while the clear commands of Christ are overlooked.  For example, I would have a lot more respect for (though not agreement with) a devoutly held position against same-sex relations (which Jesus never mentioned), if those who held that position were willing to enforce Jesus’ clear prohibition of violence and killing in any form, which was near-universally observed by Christian’s through at least the 3rd Century. That happens to be my understanding of Christ’s teaching. But if I were in charge of the Church and insisted on affirmation of that teaching as the price of membership in the Church, it would be a pretty lonely place.

Another disturbing aspect of the use of the term heresy is how many people who use it to “other” the people with whom they disagree.  All too often I observe people treating Christian brothers and sisters they have decided to label with the term “heretic” with much less respect and love than they would treat a non-believer.  C.S. Lewis once observed that Church might be the only “army” in the world that shoots its own wounded.  Yet it would seem to me (to paraphrase Church of England founder Richard Hooker), if we believe someone to be a heretic then we must regard them not as an unbeliever, but as a wounded Christian, a person in need of our prayers, not our condemnation.

In summary, my brothers and sisters in Christ, my fond hope and deep prayer is that we would give the term “heretic” a rest, as I believe it does far more damage than good. Not only does it rend the body of Christ, but the more we employ it to control and exclude each other, the more we teach those outside the Church how little we trust the grace of God, the love of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform ALL of us into the image of God.

Oddly enough, people who get to know me are often surprized how “orthodox” I am at the core. All those things the Nicene Creed affirms? I believe ’em. The Trinitarian Nature of God? Absolutely! The Human/Divine Nature of Jesus Christ! Totally! Still, I am aware that even those two core dogmas do not define the full reality of God, but rather illustrate the paradox that is God. Ultimately, I am a Christ follower not because of truths about Christ (doctrine), nor because of the ethics of Christ (praxis) — not that there’s anything wrong with either — but be in relationship with the Truth that is Christ.

It’s just that I don’t think that heresy hunting is productive or healthy or what Jesus would have us do. Last Sunday, Jesus said, “Don’t pull those weeds out!  You can’t tell the difference.  You’ll only end up pulling out the wheat with ’em. Focus on growing your own fruit, and let God worry about the weeds.” (cf. Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43)


11 thoughts on “Why I Think the Word “Heretic” Should Take an Extended Vacation

  1. Thanks for this–it should be an interesting discussion. Glad you have a good relationship with the scholar you mentioned with whom you disagree on many points ( except that you are brothers in Christ). Scholarly discussions of the faith can be so informative and interesting, especially where history is brought in (with as much accuracy as the scholars can agree upon). As far as “doxy/praise” goes, I do think that “correct praise” of Christ acknowledges scriptural support for His divinity and humanity (which entails recognition that the canon we use is reliable–that is, that the early church made the correct decisions about which books to include, and that although the texts are copies of copies of copies, they are still the best written reflection we have of the mind of Christ and his earliest followers). And for the Trinity. But beyond that, I think there is usually room for respectful and informed disagreement.

    When scholars and church leaders disagree so strongly that they can’t stay in the same church (what happens today) or in former times, when political leaders were also involved, that denunciations and accusations and excommunications, war, imprisonment, and torture were almost the norm, then there is tragedy

    I would like to know more about early relationships among Jews who became Christians at the time of Christ, Jews who became Christians after the apostolic age, Jews who did not become Christians before modern times, and the effect of political leaders (like Constantine) on those relationships.

  2. Ken,
    You certainly put a lot of thought on this and it is much appreciated. I respect your positions, most of which I agree for there is no room for mean spirited attacks on your brothers and sisters in Christ.. And as well as I know my friend Sarah, she is a loving, devout well versed Christian who would never use that term in a personal sense. With that said and understood, I believe there is a flaw in your response for you took her comment personally. A true dialogue, discussion or conversation should never be taken personally if we are to have open, honest conversation.

    I experienced this with you many years ago when conservatives were told we could not bring biblical material into a dialogue over sexuality because it might hurt the feelings of the gay participants. That’s liberal trickery to redirect the conversation to be a personal attack on those on the other side of the issue.

    Secondly, I know you never use the terms homophobic, fundamentalist gay-bashing bigots, but those terms are tossed around with much greater frequency by the dissenters (smile) to mainstream Christianity.

    • Dear Brad,

      Thank you for reading and responding so quickly. I very much appreciate your time and attention.

      I hear what you are saying about not taking things personally, and generally agree with and try to follow that advice in my dialogues with people with whom I disagree, whether they be on the “left” or the “right” side of the theopolitical spectrum (and believe me, I have had plenty with both “sides”). Generally, what I try to do is take a deep breath, acknowledge to myself where things might be hitting close to home and thus lead me to want to strike back rather than listen and try to understand before responding). It’s not always easy, but usually I manage it. That is why, for example, in the opening paragraphs of this post, I thought it best to be open about what feels personal to me about any discussion of heresy, so people could know where any strong feelings the sense might come from.

      With Sarah, it wasn’t so much that thought she was attacking me personally. Rather, I think it was that the personal discouragement I felt came more from the sense I had that we were talking past each other. And in some ways, I think we were: I wanted dialogue and she wanted to debate. As you know from our human sexuality dialogues years ago, dialogue attempts to start by defining what we hold in common before we examine our differences, while debate is focused first and foremost on defining the “sides” of the difference, and looks for one side to prevail over the other. Not that there’s anything wrong with debate, per se. Just that the groundrules are different. When one person is trying to engage in dialogue and the other debate, it’s easy for the former to feel steamrolled by the latter. Which was what I was feeling at the end of my conversation with Sarah (who I have no doubt wins the vast majority of her debates)…that and the fact she reminded me of my brother, who was a similarly aggressive (no disrespect intended) debater…

      Which brings me to you comment about that same dialogue on human sexuality, and my intervention regarding the handout material, as it gives me a chance to set the record straight about that intervention. As you may recall, I had agreed to be the coordinator for the dialogue day, and not take part in any of the dialogues myself, but make sure that we followed the rules of dialogue. One of those groundrules were that people would engage in dialogue not as representives of a group but as individuals. What I objected to was not people brining in Biblical material (poeple were welcome bring Bibles and their own notes, and many on both “sides” did), but to “position papers” handed out on the day of the dialogue by one “side.” Just to be clear, I would have objected to either “side” or both “sides” bringing position papers, since it would have turned it from a dialogue into more of a debate. From my perspective, it had nothing to do with any fear of peoples feelings being hurt or with redirecting the conversation. And at the end of the day, I made an announcement that the handouts you all brought were available for all who wanted one, and handed them out by the door, where many (from both “sides”) took them.

      I still remember that dialogue day with fondness, especially an exchange that occured betwen two dialogue participants during the “report-outs” at the end of the day, which went something like this:

      James: “I used to think that people who believed that homosexual behavior was not a sin didn’t care about what the Bible said or tradition held, but having spent the day in dialogue with ‘John’ [his liberal dialogue partner], I can no longer say that.”

      John: “I used to think that all people who believed that same sex relations were a sin were heartless legalists, but having spent the day in dialogue with ‘James’ [his conservative dialogue partner], I can no longer say that.”

      That one exchange made the whole day worth it for me.

      Thanks again for your time, your attention, your thoughtfulness, and your challenge…

      Your brother in Christ,

  3. Thanks, Ken, for the link to your book, which I now have on my kindle and have started reading. –About the terms Brad mentions above, which Ken did not use and Brad is not accusing him of using, and the unfairness years ago of those who said Biblical quotations should not be used in the dialogues going on about human sexuality–and I agree that was unfair–would it be appropriate for the rest of us reading this blog to know what was said in Ken’s response to Sarah (I’m assuming some time in the past) that blocked continued dialogue? I can’t find it anywhere above. –However, if it would not be appropriate to re-hash that exchange, I understand.

  4. I guess Ken was writing his response to Brad as I was asking my question. Now I can’t figure out how to delete my question! Anyway, I think I understand now what the issue was, or almost understand.

  5. @Celinda – It was part of a complex discussion about the current conflicts, legal and otherwise, between the Episcopal Church and those who wish to secede from it. The point of disagreement between Sarah and I which led to today’s post was whether it was right or helpful to label the Episcopal Church as heretical and it’s leaders heretics. As I observed above, a large part of my discouragement came from the feeling we were talking past each other, rather than listening from the heart with at least some openness to transformation. Difficult enough to observe the rules of dialogue when you are trying to observe them (Lord knows I fail often enough). Even harder when your trying to debate.

    Other than that, as a Mississippi friend of mine used to say, “I think I’ll leave it where Jesus flung it…”

  6. Well, I see you’re on vacation yourself (talking about “vacations”). Have a good one. Just wanted to say that I used to enjoy blogs which explored theological issues in the church, but with the split and its aftermath, it was hard to talk to some conservatives who had left because of the intensity of the anger of some of them against the church (“heretic” does seem like an angry word when it is directed to oneself, or to the church to which one belongs) and I stopped contributing because it felt as though stones were being thrown. Very hard not to take those stones personally. –About dialogue and debate: the idea of continuous dialogue seemed to some of those who left as a copout. They did not like the continued “tension” of opposing ideas, leaving time for more data to come in, “listening with the head and the heart” as you say above, as opposed to a quick and clear resolution one way or another. They were/are more like Descartes than Pascal in their way of thinking. Some “liberals” are like that too.

    • Indeed, Celinda. Both liberal Christians and conservative Christians have ways of ways not having “ears to hear.” As I often say, liberal Christians change the subject, conservative Christians change the venue.

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