Blog Archives

What Is Heresy? The Power Struggle.

From the dawn of time we came; moving silently down through the centuries, living many secret lives, struggling to reach the time of the Gathering; when the few who remain will battle to the last.

That’s a quote from Highlander (1986), a movie about a group of immortals destined (doomed) to fight and kill one another until only one is left. One by one, they all get killed off, many of them by Kurgan, the strongest of them all, who wants to bend the entire world to his evil desires. Eventually, the only two still standing are Kurgan and Connor MacLeod, the charming Scottish hero. And, of course, the movie ends with the titanic clash between them as they struggle to see who will be the One.

Because, in the end, there can be only one.

What does this have to do with heresy, you ask? Good question. There are actually two connections. First, after this movie, they made Highlander II, which was a heresy all by itself. But, second, and more pertinent for our purposes, many people understand the development of heresy in exactly the same way as Highlander.

The story goes like this. In the beginning there were many different kinds of Christianity. They weren’t better or worse, just different. And, in some other world, maybe they could have all gotten along. But not in this one.

In this world, there can be only one.

At least, that’s how one group viewed things. They simply couldn’t accept the fact that Christianity might come in different flavors. It was their way or nothing.

Unfortunately for the others, this group quickly grew in strength, numbers, and organization. They were the Borg of early Christianity, assimilating everything in sight. No one could stand against them. And, eventually, they were the only ones left. The others had fallen. And, they became the One.

But, even this wasn’t enough. They weren’t simply content with being the One. They wanted everyone to believe that they were destined to be the One all along. The others had been wrong even to try to stand against them. So, they re-told the story and re-wrote the books. And, in this new story, they were the Orthodox who held faithfully to the truth handed on from Jesus. All those who differed from or disagreed with them were the Heretics, who tried to dilute or distort the truth.

As they say, it’s the winners who write history. And, the Orthodox won.

This is a common way to view heresy today. Heresy isn’t really a thing-in-itself; it doesn’t have any essential characteristics that can help you identify it when it comes along. Heresy is simply a label that some dominant group applies to those it wants to dominate (or already has dominated). So, the statement, “You’re a heretic!”, isn’t really about things like truth or doctrine. It’s about power. Pure and simple.

Now, the first thing that we need to say about this approach is that there’s a lot of truth in it.

 1. The early church was diverse. Just look at the NT itself. The churches in Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, and Rome were very different. Peter, Paul, and John all spoke about Christianity in diverse ways. And, moving on from the NT, the diversity grows. Alexandria, Edessa, Ctesiphon, all developed ancient forms of Christianity that were noticeably different from what we associate with “orthodox” Christianity. So, however we tell the story, we can’t slip into a simplistic understanding of the early church, which assumes a single Christianity at the beginning, from which all other groups diverged. As with anything that involves humans, the truth is messier than that.

 2. The early church was far from perfect. God’s people are broken. We have been since the Garden. So, we should not be surprised that our story includes things we’d rather not see. And, the early church was no different. A close look shows the church involved in power struggles, personality clashes, manipulation, and maneuvering. In that way, they were just like us. (If you doubt, just think of some of the church business meetings you’ve attended.) So yes, the story of orthodoxy/heresy is also a story of power struggles.

 3. “Heresy” is often a power label. One of the concerns that people have with the label “heresy” today is that it often gets tossed around as a power play. Want to shut someone up? Call them a heretic. And, this is often the case. Labels have power. So, it’s easy to use them when we want to control (or end) a discussion/debate. It happens today, and I’m sure it happened then as well.

 So, there are some good things here we can learn from. But, ultimately I think this approach to defining heresy fails.

1. It sometimes relies on bad history. Most commonly, people associate the power of the orthodox party with the rise of the church in Rome and its consolidation under Constantine. (Thank you Walter Bauer.) The problem with this is that orthodoxy was well-established long before Constantine. Let’s be clear: Constantine did not create orthodoxy. He played an important role in the development of orthodoxy. But, he comes too late in the story to explain orthodoxy’s “victory.” Another common argument claims that in certain areas, “heretical” forms of Christianity developed first. They were the original forms of Christianity in those areas, with orthodoxy coming along later to squash these indigenous movements. Unfortunately for this view, there is relatively little evidence that this is true. With few exceptions, the existing evidence supports the idea that such “heretical” ideas came only after more orthodox approaches had already developed. Of course, people often argue that this is exactly what we should expect given that “the winners write the histories.” But, that’s simply to dismiss the existing evidence in favor of the story that you prefer. When lack of evidence becomes evidence, you’ve got a creative argument. But not a convincing one.

2. It overemphasizes diversity. Although we should embrace the existence of diversity in the early church, we can’t go overboard. Early Christian churches were not isolated communities that developed idiosyncratic forms of Christianity with little or no input from other churches. Instead, they all shared a common identity as “Christians,” and worked together to grow in their understanding of what that meant and how they should go about living as Christians in the world. Recent studies have demonstrated how extensively early Christians communicated, partnered, and networked with one another. That doesn’t eliminate diversity, but it does put it in context. It was diversity within a shared identity. And consequently, it was diversity with limits. Those limits were not well understood at first. But, everyone seemed to agree that you could go too far. And, they communicated constantly as they struggled to understand the implications of that idea.

3. It overemphasizes power. This probably fits under #1 as well, since it reflects a historical misunderstanding. The idea that any Christian group in the first few centuries had enough authority and power to oppress some other Christian community is anachronistic. That certainly became true later, but not in the beginning. We need to remember that early Christian groups were small, oppressed minorities within a larger Roman power-structure. They simply didn’t have the wherewithal to oppress others overtly.

4. It makes “heretics” the innocent victims. For this argument to work, the heretics have to be the poor victims crushed by the mean orthodox party. So, people often go out of their way to emphasize the good qualities of the heretical groups (i.e. they were egalitarian, open-minded, creative, etc.). But, the sad reality is that the heretics were no better (though probably no worse). They could be just as hierarchical, closed-minded, and oppressive as anyone else. If they eventually “lost,” it wasn’t because they were too nice to win.

So, wherever the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy came from, they aren’t simply labels that we apply to the winners and losers of some ecclesial power struggle. We should recognize the diversity and acknowledge the power struggles. But, there’s more to the story than this.

[This post is part of our series on “What is ‘Heresy’ and Who Is a ‘Heretic’?”]

You might also be interested in:

Why is it popular to be a heretic?

“I’m a heretic and proud of it!”

That’s a popular thought these days. Many are proud to align themselves with ideas and beliefs rejected by the church as heresy. Why is that? What motivates us to self-identify with those once condemned?

I’m sure that everyone has their own complicated reasons for making such a statement, but in Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth Alister McGrath offers several interesting reasons for the ongoing popularity of heresy.

1. Heresy is creative and innovative. McGrath quotes Will Herberg: “Today, people eagerly vaunt themselves as heretics, hoping that they will thereby prove interesting; for what does a heretic mean today but an original mind, a man who thinks for himself and spurns creeds and dogmas.” Heresy is novel. By contrast, orthodoxy seems stale, moribund, even boring.

2. Heresy is the underdog. With our pervasive tendency to suspect that some kind of power play is at work in nearly every situation, it is all too easy to believe the various narratives suggesting that what we call “orthodoxy” is really just the version of Christianity that gained power and succeeded in crushing its competitors. So Walter Bauer, Bart Ehrman, and even Dan Brown come along with their stories of an oppressive orthodoxy, and many are quick to believe, because it fits our own narrative of oppressive power. Consequently, we see the heretic as the oppressed underdog. And, we love the underdog. Just consider all the movies that involves some oppressed individual standing on his/her own against the system. We revel in the uprising of the individual who fights against the odds and overthrows the oppressor. So, placing the heretic in that role, is it any surprise that many relish the thought of being a heretic, the hero in their own movie?

3. Heresy challenges authority. This one is similar to the last. But, here the emphasis isn’t so much on the underdog resisting the oppressor, but just the challenge to any kind of authority. And, as with the previous one, this resonates in a culture that praises those who challenge authority.  We resonate with the image of the heretic who refuses to bow before orthodoxy and instead stands up and shouts even more loudly. Orthodoxy is “the man,” and heresy refuses to give in to the man. We love that.

4. Heresy is free. The term “heresy” itself has strong associations with “choosing” or “choice.” And, as we all know, we like our choices, our freedom. So, the heretic is the one who freely explores all the various options, refusing to be bound by old ideas, and boldly striking out in new directions. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is trapped, locked behind the walls of its own convictions. And, who wants to be stuck in orthodox when you can be the free heretic? That’s not a terribly difficult choice.

So, according to McGrath, heresy’s popularity derives largely from the fact that we picture it in ways that resonate with powerful ideas in contemporary culture. The heretic is the innovative underdog who challenges authority and freely chooses for himself what he will believe. The orthodox person is the oppressor who refuses both to see other possibilities and to allow others to explores those possibilities for themselves. Which would you rather be?

What do you think? Is this an accurate picture of how people view heresy? Do you agree that these are the reasons so many people like the idea of being a “heretic” today? Or, do you have a different explanation for why it seems to be so popular these days to call yourself a “heretic”?

You might also be interested in:

More on diversity in the early church

Following up on my earlier post about Mike Bird’s comments on diversity and unity in the early church, I wanted to point out a couple of other interesting posts. As I mentioned before, James McGrath weighed in with a warning that we need to keep in mind the evidence that does exist for diversity, especially in the NT texts themselves. In keeping with this, Darrell Pursiful has now posted a very helpful diagram (also available as a .pdf) of how he understands diversity during the New Testament period. 

What do you think about the diagram? Is there anything you would present differently?

Also worth looking at is a post by Ari Katz assesseing assessing Walter Bauer’s original thesis. Katz argues that there is insufficient evidence to support Bauer’s idea that the church in Rome had enough influence in the ealiest years of Christianity to enforce its brand of Christianity on the rest of the early Church.