Every Christian is another Christian’s heretic.
A heretic is ‘a person holding an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted’. Ever since the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches mutually excommunicated one another in 1054, and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century, the major sections of the global church have been ‘at odds’ with one another. We’re all heretics to someone else.
I open like this because it’s so easy, as Christians, to claim that our particular version of the Christian faith is the right one, and that everyone else is wrong. Even if we don’t say it in such stark terms, the attitude is implicit in our reactions to other ways of practising, as we look down our noses at those that are different from us.
But why do we have this attitude, when the writers of the New Testament made it so clear that we should be a unified and loving body of Christ?
I’m no psychologist, but if I was to have a guess, I would say that the structure of churches and denominations that dominates much of Christianity in the Western world leads to a group tribal mentality. This is pretty basic psychology, and can be seen in all areas of society. Humans are made for community, and want to be part of the ‘in group’. One of the easiest ways to consolidate your group is to highlight the differences between your group and others. It is much easier to feel a part of a group and take ownership of your place within it if you define where your group ends and another begins.
I’ve heard the metaphor of tribe used to describe churches and denominations before, and it really bugs me. If we need a metaphor along those lines, I prefer extended family metaphors (which I’ve also heard), or perhaps even something like ‘branches off the same tree’ that encompass the whole of Christianity. These metaphors do not ignore the real differences between churches and denominations, but they also acknowledge the connectedness of the different traditions that runs deeper than the differences.
Still, using a metaphor that encompasses the whole of Christianity requires some definition of what Christianity is, and that definition will change from group to group. I admit that this is one of the most challenging points for me in this argument, and the thing that makes me most pessimistic about a vision like this becoming reality. If one group defines Christianity as their particular version of it, and refuses to listen to anything else, then there’s not a lot that can be done.
For many Christians, there is often a distinction between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ beliefs, with primary beliefs being the ones that have a direct bearing on salvation. I personally consider a very small number of beliefs primary, but I’m not even sure if this is the best approach at all.
A comment from author Rachel Held Evans that I heard on the Liturgists podcast a while back helped me to think about these issues from another angle. Rachel suggested that, instead of spending all your time trying to work out who is and isn’t ‘in the club’ based on what they say they believe, look at the fruit of that belief instead. Are they loving people? Are they carrying on the work of reconciliation that Jesus started? Those are the questions that I now think are more important to ask.
I also have my own experiences to draw on. Many people from Protestant backgrounds are pretty sceptical when it comes to Catholicism, a scepticism that, as far as I can tell, has endured since the Reformation. My views changed a few years ago, when I visited a monastery with my Grandad near my home in the South East.
The monks there were welcoming from the start, as one brother gave us a tour of the buildings. We then had the privilege of sitting in on Vespers, as they sang hymns and prayed. It was a profoundly spiritual experience for me, as affecting as any number of experiences I’ve had in my regular churches. I left with the sense that I had encountered God, and the humility that comes from knowing that you were wrong about something.
I think the thread that ties all of these thoughts together is a commitment to humility and unity. When you realise that, to many Christians around the world, your version of the faith is the strange one, it’s harder to look down your nose at them.
When thinking about this issue, it’s not only worth considering other historical denominations, but also those more public Christian figures who, from time to time, deviate from your orthodoxy. The figure that springs to mind is Rob Bell, the controversial American pastor who rose to popularity through his Nooma videos, and then became infamous among many Western Christians for a version of universalism that he espoused in his book Love Wins.
I’ve read Love Wins, and heard the odd thing from Rob from time to time, and I don’t often agree with him. But does that mean I should demonise him?
The argument that I can imagine rising against me here is one centring on false teaching. Throughout the New Testament, there are warnings to watch out for false teachers among you. I think there are two sides to this. In some cases, the false teaching being addressed was a very specific issue for the church that it was affecting. More generally, however, the message from the New Testament seems to be one of discernment. Mature Christians have to be able to discern between what is from God and what is not. When there’s so many different versions of the truth, this is really hard.
And now we return to the question of what fruit is displayed. I may not agree with Rob Bell on a lot of things, but I have heard the testimony of Mike McHargue (aka Science Mike), a Southern Baptist turned atheist turned Christian again, a man in whose story Rob played a big part. Now, Mike isn’t exactly what you’d call orthodox, but after hearing him speak about themes from the Trinity right through to social justice, I dare anyone to say that the love of Jesus isn’t in him.
There are a lot of people that would call Rob and Mike heretics. But there are also a lot of people who would call you a heretic. We’re all somebody else’s heretic (a phrase that I got from Mike McHargue, by the way), so now we get to choose whether we let that divide us, or whether we push past it and start to look a little more like the body Christ saved us to be.