Many people throughout church history have been put to death because of heresy. But, just what is heresy? That is what this post will be about. Many church leaders have charged others with heresy many times in its history. The most recognizable instances are the inquisitions, post-Constantine period, the Crusades, and of course Galileo and Joan of Arc. Of this list I am the most familiar with the post-Constantine period. It is estimated that about 25,000 Christians were put to death for heresy during the two centuries after the Roman King Constantine made Christianity a State religion. That number far surpasses those put to death by the Romans in the Coliseum.
Let’s look at the definition of heresy:
1. opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, especially of a church or religious system.
2. the maintaining of such an opinion or doctrine.
3. Roman Catholic Church . the willful and persistent rejection of any article of faith by a baptized member of the church.
4. any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs, customs, etc.
Harvey Cox in his book The Future of Faith tells us that heresy is a man-made invention that came about many years after the first Christians.
In the last few decades, however, all these assumptions have proven erroneous. The following are now evident. First, there never was a single “early Christianity” there were many, and the idea of “heresy” was unknown. Second, it was not the apostles themselves, but subsequent generations who invented “apostolic authority,” and both creeds and hierarchies emerged much later than had been thought. Third, an essential key to comprehending the earliest Christians, including those who wrote the New Testament, is to see their movement as a self-conscious alternative to the empire that tyrannized them. And the best way to understand the succeeding generation of Christian leaders is to notice how they reversed course and gradually came to admire and emulate that empire.
It turns out that heresy is almost exclusively about beliefs and has nothing to do with “being” a Christian. Why does this problem between beliefs vs being crop up so frequently in the church? I think much of it has to do with the power structures built up by the church and of course the egos that go along with that power. No, the church is not exempt from the old saying that Power corrupts and absolute power absolutely corrupts. Throughout its history the Christian church has had a very vertical hierarchy. As a result almost all change comes from the top down. Grass roots change is very rare among any Christian church structure both before and after the Reformation.
Since God is obviously not in the refereeing business, or he would have taken care of this long ago, he leaves it up to us to work out. Obviously we are not good at it at all! Too many egos in play. It just seems difficult for Christians to allow diversity of beliefs to exist in Jesus’ church
More about that in the next post.