Christians tend to have two extremes when thinking about heresy.
Some see heresy everywhere.
If heresy simply means “whatever contradicts scripture”, we’ll see heresy in any biblical interpretation or doctrinal belief that disagrees with our own. We’ll see heresy in our friends, in our pastors, and—of course—anywhere in social media. (Conveniently enough, we’ll rarely see it in ourselves.)
The other extreme toward heresy is to not really give it much thought.
After all, if Christianity is all about our relationship with God and with other people, what does it matter if we don’t believe the “right thing”? Does believing something that’s technically heretical really matter, as long as we’re living out the right principles and maintaining a strong connection to God?
In this extreme, it’s really talking about heresy (not heresy itself) that becomes the enemy of the faith. From this perspective, talking about heresy reduces God to intellectual terms and distracts from our love and witness to other people.
Both of these extremes are wrong, of course. But each extreme, in a sort of snowball effect, tends to make the other side more confident that they’re right.
But heresy is more than simply whatever contradicts scripture; it’s specifically the rejection of truth central to being a Christian. And it’s serious enough that we should pay attention to it. We should want to believe the right things, because our beliefs shape both our actions towards others and our relationship with God Himself.
Our faith is valuable enough to defend. It’s worth correcting each other’s errors in order to defend the faith against falsehood, and it’s worth accepting each other’s differences in order to defend the faith against division.
Our faith is so valuable, in fact, that God intentionally allows heresy to assault it and shake it to its core.
That sounds a bit backwards.
What I mean is that our Lord, in His infinite love and wisdom, knows that heresy is good for His church.
He knows that we need heresy.
Here are three reasons why:
1. HERESY SHARPENS US
I’ve become a much better programmer by breaking code than I have from making it.
There never fails to be some error message that forces me to completely re-evaluate my software (and maybe even my career choice), leading me down a long trail of research and debugging. In the end, I (usually) find the cause of the error, and I come out of it knowing more about how the technology works and how to write better code in the future.
The error ends up making me a better developer. It sharpens me.
I’ve found that the same principle holds true in Christianity.
The Lord has often sharpened His people through heresy. Not even two centuries after Christ’s ascension, Marcion began to teach that the God of the Old Testament was evil and a completely different god than the God of the New Testament. He compiled a list of writings he considered “Scripture”, but removed the Old Testament and any Christian writings that seemed to promote that kind of God.
This was bad, obviously.
But in some way, it forced the church (which up to this point hadn’t officially stated which writings were “Scripture”) to begin more seriously determining the biblical canon. It didn’t take too long for the church to agree on the Muratorian Canon (not very different from our current Bible), and eventually it arrived at the Bible we know today.
“Once again the church owes a great debt to a heretic,” concludes professor Roger E. Olson in The Story of Christian Theology. This certainly isn’t the only time God has used heresy to spur the church forward.
If we look at our own personal lives, we can see a similar effect.
Heresy—or, really, any perspective that isn’t our own—challenges us. Other perspectives poke holes in our thinking. They push us to find reasons for what we believe, and they reveal to us ideas we haven’t considered or values we’ve neglected. Sometimes they might even change our minds.
Having our opinions challenged is incredibly valuable. But we don’t usually like it.
As a result, we tend to prefer people who share our perspectives. We follow pages on social media that reinforce our ways of thinking, and we unfollow pages that challenge them. We get our news from sources that align with our ideals, and we avoid the others.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s important to be grounded in truth, especially the truth of Scripture.
But it’s vital that we not distance ourselves from opinions that challenge us, even if we think (or know!) those opinions are wrong.
It’s 2020. There’s no shortage of polarizing topics and difficult conversations, and we Christian young people have the opportunity to engage in them.
But to really engage in these issues, we need to hear out perspectives we disagree with—even heretical ones—from the actual people who hold them. Not just from the sources that take our side.
The issues facing us today have the capability to make us more compassionate, more balanced, more informed, and more Christlike.
Heretical or not, listening to other people’s viewpoints can sharpen us.
2. HERESY TAKES US OUT OF OURSELVES
No heretic ever thought they were a heretic.
Heretics throughout the ages have generally thought they were doing something commendable—and to some extent, many of them were. Many heresies begin with a good intention, such as defending the humanity of Jesus or encouraging faithful obedience, but take that good intention too far or in the wrong direction.
Most of us are likely not heretics.
(I’ll pause for a collective sigh of relief.)
Most of us certainly don’t claim to be infallible either.
Yet, even if we don’t claim to be infallible with our words, we sometimes do with our actions.
We act infallible when we ignore opinions that disagree with our own. When we feel content with finding the one article, video, or verse that agrees with us but ignore the ones that don’t, we’re acting infallible. And when we judge others for their views without listening to why they have them, we’re again acting infallible.
Heresy makes it abundantly clear that we’re not infallible.
To understand why, I need to take back that collective sigh of relief I offered you a few paragraphs ago.
I said earlier that most of us are not heretics. But it’s this very premise that can lead us to act like we’re infallible. When heresy is just something “other people” believe and nothing we could ever fall for, we’re once again assuring ourselves that we’re infallible and the “other people” are the fallible ones.
Heresy comes after us all. Not just the “weak” believers. Not just the [insert opposite political party] believers. We set ourselves up for heresy the moment we stop looking for it in ourselves.
The heart, after all, is “deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). “Our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isaiah 64:6).
As the late theologian RC Sproul put it in a Q&A session:
“As long as sin still clings to us and to our minds, we will misinterpret scripture, we will distort the scriptures, we will bring our biases to scripture, and come to incorrect conclusions. So the Holy Spirit does not in regeneration or in illumination make the Christian an infallible interpreter of Holy writ.”
We will never be right about everything. In fact, we’ll be quite awfully—even sinfully—wrong about a lot of things. Sometimes it takes a position so opposite our own to make us realize how wrong we are.
This is why we have the “living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23) and a “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19).
God, not us, must be the source of truth. A proper view of heresy takes us out of ourselves and leads us humbly to the Word of Life, acknowledging that without God’s truth, we will fall for any lie. It leads us to really study – to put in the work to understand the meaning of Scripture rather than using it to reinforce our own opinions.
The presence of heresy in our world is a constant reminder of our need for a Redeemer who meets us in our brokenness and gives us life.
3. HERESY GIVES US HOPE
We live in a confusing time—for the world, for the church, and for you and me individually.
Disasters continue to occur all over the earth. Fear and hate threaten to divide communities. It seems like heresy is just one in a long list of overwhelming issues plaguing our world.
Yet in all of this—even in heresy itself—we can find hope.
Paul describes a world—much like our own—that longs for something more: “the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:20-21, NASB).
Creation was subjected by God in the hope that it will be set free by God. He allows such difficulty and suffering (and yes, even heresy) to point us to the glory that will come—a glory with which, in Paul’s own words, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing” (Romans 8:18).
This is why heresy gives us hope: Heresy reminds us that it won’t last forever.
One day all wrongs will be made right, all tears will be wiped away, and all heresies will cease. We will all know God as He is, without needing to question whether we’ve gotten it right.
But that’s not the way it is now.
Right now, we have heresies and disagreements and misunderstandings—because we need them. The Lord knows that we need to work through difficulties in order to sharpen us and to take us out of ourselves.
The hope that heresy gives us isn’t just that it will one day go away. It also gives us hope in the work we have right here and right now.
As much as it may be nice if Christians got a break every now and then, the reality is that we’ll always need tough conversations. We’ll always need to defend the church from heresy. But we’ll also always need to lay our opinions at the feet of Jesus and pursue truth with a humble heart and a listening ear.
Sometimes we’ll get it wrong. But Christ continues to guard and intercede for His people. He is our ultimate hope, and He will never disappoint.
IT’S GOOD THAT HERESY EXISTS
Heresy is not good by any means. Every generation of Christians has the responsibility to identify and correct heresy, to study and apply the Word carefully in order to protect ourselves and the generations of Christians to come.
But while heresy isn’t good, it’s good that there is heresy. To quote RC Sproul again, “It is good that there is evil, else evil could not exist.” Heresy—and evil itself—exists today only because it serves a greater good. It exists because our Lord knows we need it.
In God’s incredible plan for this universe and for His church, He has chosen to use heresy to sharpen us, to take us out of ourselves, and to give us hope.
This wonderful plan culminates in a day when heresy will no longer be needed, but for now it presents us with a rich opportunity to grow in our love for God and our love for one another.