Tangling with wolves: why we still need heresy trials

I suspect this post will make some readers mad. Good! Respond to the post, and let’s talk about it! My own parents disagree with it too. But today’s world of gentle, neighborly, non-doctrinal churchmanship (sorry, churchpersonship), in which you can believe almost anything and still be considered a member in good standing of most churches, has missed a very important point:

In matters of belief, souls are at stake.

If we don’t believe that, then we may as well pack it in. Because as Paul said, if the resurrection (to take one important example) hasn’t happened, then we Christians are of all people most to be pitied. We’re just fooling ourselves. There’s no logical reason we shouldn’t stay home every Sunday, crack open a cold one (or a case of cold ones) and enjoy ourselves in front of the TV set:

Tangling with Wolves
Why we still need heresy trials
Chris Armstrong

Originally published in Christianity Today, summer 2003.

United methodist bishop Joseph Sprague publicly denies that Jesus rose bodily, that he is eternally divine, and that he is the only way to salvation. He has been charged four times with teaching heresies, and four times denominational representatives have acquitted him.

This is not a lone incident. For decades before his retirement, Episcopal bishop Jack Spong publicly repudiated nearly every line in the Nicene Creed and yet was never disciplined by his denomination. Examples could be pulled from Congregational, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches. Mainline leaders seem to perceive heresy as somehow an outmoded concept. Or, at least, they see the heresy trial as an inappropriate venue for addressing such teachings.

Whatever their reasons, we are mistaken if we think modern objections to the prosecution of heretics come from sloppy thinking. To put the best face on it, such extreme leniency arises, rather, because many people are repulsed by the ways orthodox Christian belief has been defended—in particular, how heretics have been prosecuted and punished.

Much more has been at work in historical heresy trials, George H. Shriver insists in his Dictionary of Heresy Trials in American Christianity, than a simple desire to protect the faithful from bad doctrine. “Politics, jealousies, power struggles, anti-intellectualism, miscommunication, limits of knowing, grudges, personal animosities, confusion of ethics with doctrine” have all entered into the picture, coloring not only the motivations of would-be defenders of the faith, but their actions as well.

Indeed. One need only think of the closed, secret trials and torture implements of the Inquisition. Shriver’s conclusion: “The heresy hunters have…often allowed themselves to pervert Christian ethics in their pursuit of their goal of discrediting persons they have labeled ‘heretics.’ ”

The truth of this objection to “heresy hunting” is only too clear from church history. But those who would use this historical evidence to attack all forms of heresy prosecution find it convenient to ignore one small fact: Apart from Jesus, no one has ever been exempt from mixed motives and unsavory methods.

This means that the process of defining orthodox belief has always been mediated by, as historian R. Scott Appleby puts it in a U.S. Catholic article, “human agents who have a tendency to let their own passions, misunderstandings, and political rivalries intervene.”


So, read the Old Testament. Or review the squabble between Peter and Paul over circumcision. The Holy Spirit has always found it necessary to work with the human materials at hand. And those materials have always been the same—not pretty. There was metaphorical (and sometimes real) blood on the floor of every one of the early church councils at which orthodox Christian doctrine was defined and embodied in creeds.

Yes, it does take faith to believe that the decisions of these councils actually reflect belief as God would have it. It is the same act of faith that allows the Christian to look around a church, see the assortment of annoying and downright unsavory characters occupying the pews, and affirm that the church is still, somehow, the “body of Christ.”

Romancing the Heretic

The popular image presents the heretic as a courageous, powerless loner, exploring what fellow Christians refuse to explore and paying the price at the hands of unprincipled church leaders motivated by entrenched prejudice. This holds no more water than the picture of the heretic as a black-hearted subversive and orthodox leaders as saints riding in on white horses.

To take just one example, think of Arius. This was the man whose teaching that Jesus Christ is less than fully divine (for a modern version, talk to a Jehovah’s Witness) rocked the early church and led to the first ecumenical council. He and his followers were far from a weak, oppressed minority beset by power-hungry orthodox leaders. As Tom Oden puts it in his Rebirth of Orthodoxy, they “lived by collusion with political oppressors. They had plenty of intellectuals and power manipulators on their side, while orthodoxy had to be defended largely by nonscholars and laypeople, by modest men and women of no means, by lowly persons who had no training or special expertise but understood their lives in Christ.”

On the other hand, Arius’s opponent Athanasius, the bold Christian thinker whose leadership helped move the Council of Nicea to condemn Arius, was no triumphant political manipulator. He was “exiled a half-dozen times and chased all over the Mediterranean world during the Arian times.” The example can be multiplied on both sides.

To be sure, the inquisitorial practices of some past heresy hunts have left a permanent stain on the church—although the scale of what we might dub “heresy abuse” is often overblown. (Contrary to popular fiction, being charged before one of the Spanish Inquisitions was not a guarantee of an auto-da-fé. Statistical studies show that fewer than 2 percent of those charged were condemned to death.) Still, we must not deny or defend travesties that did occur. At the same time, we must recognize the depth of the problem heresy trials have attempted to address. In most cases, not political but pastoral concerns have driven the church to prosecute teachers of aberrant doctrines.

Potent Misdirection

The problem is that the preached word has power—one way or the other. Every Sunday, unsuspecting people enter churches shepherded by those whose theological openness leads them to teach things we used to call heresies. What they hear in such teachings is not just divergent opinion. It is potent misdirection, capable of turning the sheep away from salvation.

And this is the nub. As a teacher of mine once put it, if Jack the Ripper is abroad in your town, killing people and mutilating their bodies, the city’s leaders must track him down and render him unable to inflict further harm. And if, as the historic church has always—until today—agreed, a person insists on teaching beliefs that threaten the eternal lives of all who hear them, that person must be disciplined and his harmful teaching rendered null within the church.

It is easy for a comfortable “Christian” society to demonize the mechanisms the historic church has developed to deal with heresy. But to wink at heresy is to suck the life from faith.

Heresies are worth fighting against, through the same kinds of mechanisms that the church has always used. Yes, these mechanisms are tainted by politics and pride. But somehow still, we must believe, they have been used and will continue to be used by the Holy Spirit for the health of his church. In Appleby’s words, “What we hold devoutly to be true, what we identify as the very core of our Christian identity, has come to us through the imperfect channel of human history.”

Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.

Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.

7 responses to “Tangling with wolves: why we still need heresy trials

  1. From my friend and student Ed Kopietz (posted initially on my facebook):

    Oh I agree, at some point a body needs to have boundaries and those cannot abide them, sometimes need to be sent somewhere else, nothing personal. The Episcopal Church in its failure to deal with people like Spong and Pike did serious damage to itself. It really irks me that someone like Spong who longer believes the teachings of the church and in fact despises them, stays on and collects a pay check, and the institution is so impotent and dysfunctional it pays for the privilege of its own destruction. The church should have a way of helping those who don’t have the integrity to resign in such cases, find a new line of work.

  2. From my friend and former teacher Kurt Richardson (posted initially to my facebook):

    Chris, nice challenge but some things to consider. Wherever you have separation of state and religion, heresy trials are missing their legal, canonical foundation. The Vatican is capable of conducting them and does of course. One was attempted at Westminster Seminary last year. But the conclusion of the tribunal, i.e., the holders of the doctrinal offices, was rejected by the board in favor of obeying the external conservative sensibilities of some of the constituency. In order to have a trial, you must have a fully functioning body of law and the institutions to go with it. I’m afraid very few understand what is a ‘religious crime’ any longer.

  3. Chris, you said, “He (Sprague) has been charged four times with teaching heresies, and four times denominational representatives have acquitted him. This is not a lone incident.”

    This is the unfortunate tragedy of our times… even when those who are teaching heresy from the pulpit are questioned there is no backbone left in the “Church at Large” for discipline. (Perhaps Sprague is being tried by those whom he has taught and who therefore have come to believe his heresies themselves.)

    The above statement does lead to another important question however; is there still a “Church at Large” which is able to provide corrective discipline? I am not a Catholic or Orthodox Christian and so perhaps feel the frustration/futility of Church discipline even more acutely. How do we bring the kaleidoscope of Protestant believers together in a powerful enough way for them to speak against the debilitating heresies of our time?

    So, I commend you, Chris, for speaking of this need within the Church… heresies must be revealed for what they are. Yes, it is true that this is always difficult and can become abusive, but the truth must still be defended against Satan’s lies, however complicated that might be to accomplish. However, the biggest challenge to actually accomplishing this, that I see, is the lack of a unified authority that is empowered to speak to these issues. (many, perhaps most, will quail at the thought of giving anyone this kind of power.) Truly the Church has lost much through its division! (And yes, I do realize that it has gained some things, but at a tremendous cost.)

  4. Well, I agree about the maneuvering and politics. Any heresy-addressing process is very abusable. But never mind liberal/conservative, what about the Trinity, the resurrection, the divinity of Christ? Without those, do we really have Christianity? Not for the first millennium and a half (at least) of history. Why do we assume it’s possible now?

  5. I don’t know if I want to see heresy trials, but heresy hearings might be appropriate. And maybe bishops and governing bodies should pay a little more attention to what is being preached from the pulpits they support. I find that the ordained are very reluctant to come forward and say, `My brother (or sister) is in error.` However, it was my experience that there is always a certain amount of secret maneuvering going on with whispers of heresy – a political move to get rid of those who arent conservativeéliberal enough.

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