On the Prosecution of Heretics

I am part of a group called the Christian Apologetics Alliance (CAA). It should be noted here that this post and what is presented is my position and mine alone. It does not necessarily reflect the position of the CAA or its moderators (Although, I think and hope that at least a few will agree). There has been a common theme that has occurred recently that I think merits some commentary.

The Context

The CAA is a transdenominational alliance of Christians who seek to spread the love of God through the exercise of our intellect and to equip believers to defend the faith. In the May of 2013, I approached the leadership of the CAA and proposed an update to the Statement of Faith. Although I cannot say that it was directly because of my suggestion, action was taken which was in accord with my proposal approximately a month after it was made.

The Statement of Faith was, prior to my proposal, essentially an affirmation of the Apostle’s Creed (which, I didn’t think was sufficient). I proposed that the group adopt the Nicene Creed as its minimum doctrinal stance, which it ultimately did (albeit a modified form).

From that point forward, members were required to affirm at a minimum, the Nicene Creed (along with some additional clauses regarding the nature and content of Scripture, a statement on the sanctity of human life, and opposition to universalism proper).

However, the group is large and the on boarding process for new members relies on the honor system when it comes to this affirmation. Generally, a moderator will message a new member and ask if they affirm the Statement of Faith, at which point if they agree they will be added to the group.

As one might expect, occasionally people who don’t actually affirm the Statement of Faith slip by, and generally a scene obtains. Because the bar for entrance is the Nicene Creed, and the Nicene Creed is the minimum standard for what one must affirm in order to properly be called a Christian, when someone does not affirm the Statement of Faith, they are not a Christian. When they claim to be a Christian… well, that is what we call a heretic.

Now, most people are familiar with two sub-Christian sects which deny some aspect of the Nicene Creed. These two are the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and the Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW). The former essentially denies Trinitarian Monotheism by claiming that there are multiple Gods, and the latter denies Trinitarian Monotheism by claiming that there is a single unitarian God (with Christ being a created entity and the Holy Spirit being an impersonal force or extension of the Father). A lesser known sect is known by various names. Most prominently it is called Oneness Pentecostalism (OP). Oneness Pentecostalism denies Trinitarian Monotheism by denying that the three divine persons are distinct persons. It is essentially a modern version of Modalism/Sabellianism which argues that the Father, Son, and Spirit are a single person who simply fills different roles. This is by far the most common heresy to present itself in the CAA and, in my experience, in evangelicalism as a whole.

On Prosecution

Now, for a variety of reasons, when these individuals show up in the CAA, what tends to happen is a thread regarding a Trinitarian question pops up and they chime in with what they believe to be a clarifying statement regarding the Trinity. Someone notices that their statement seems to entail a denial of Trinitarian Monotheism and asks a follow-up question. Once that person clarifies, someone will comment that their view is not an orthodox understanding of the Trinity, and from there it becomes a battle. A handful of individuals with particular training in Trinitarian theology will usually step in at that point and begin what might be described as a prosecution activity. For better or worse, I am often one of those individuals.

Now, when I say prosecution, that comes with it a whole host of baggage. Allow me to clarify briefly what I mean:

By prosecution, I simply mean a series of cross-examination style questions intended to either reveal their guilt (heretical position) or innocence (non-heretical position) in regard to the doctrine at hand.

Once it becomes clear that the position a person holds is heretical, generally the question is asked if a person is aware of the fact that by accepting membership in the group they made claims to certain doctrinal positions they do not hold, and they are encouraged to voluntarily leave the group. If they do not (and they rarely do) a group moderator is usually notified, and they continue the discussion privately and ultimately remove the person if they do indeed hold a position that is not in accord with the Statement of Faith.

I cannot speak for the other individuals who have participated in this unofficial role, but I know that I am always hoping that the person in question will end up simply being confused or will become convinced of their error and reconsider. Unfortunately this is rarely the case. Most often the person becomes obstinate, refuses to answer direct questions, makes claims of persecution, accuses the prosecutor of witch hunting, and makes comments about being burnt at the stake. It is not pretty, and honestly… it breaks my heart every single time.

In Defense of Prosecution

More often than not, even by orthodox members of the group but especially by the person under prosecution, the person is accused of acting in an unloving way. This, I contend, could not be further from the truth. In fact, I would argue that when confronted with a heretic… the most loving thing a person could do is to prosecute the heretic.

The Greatest Commandment

Ultimately, heresy is destructive because it presents a false image of who the Persons of the Trinity are, how they related to each other, and how we ought to relate to them. If we are to rightly love the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it is not right to ignore a gross misrepresentation of their fundamental nature and relationships. Allow me to provide a more concrete example.

I love my wife. I love my wife more than everything that is created. The only thing that could even come close would be the day in which we are blessed with children. If someone were to describe me as a person who does not love my wife, my friends would (I hope) stand against that false statement out of their love for me. They would desire to correct the false understanding of who I am on a fundamental level as to allow someone to think something so grossly false about me is in many ways an accessory to saying the false thing itself. To not work against a lie when one is able is in many ways to perpetuate the lie.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. (Matthew 22:37–38, ESV)

How can we properly say that we love God with all our hearts, soul, and mind… if we willfully ignore someone saying something grossly false about Him, His Son, or His Spirit? Just as I would correct a slanderous statement made against my wife because I love her… I must also correct a slanderous statement about God because I love Him.

The Second is Like It

It is not only loving toward the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to correct a heretic… but it is loving toward the heretic. In addition, it is loving toward those Christians who might be reading the heretical statements and be confused or led astray.

And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:39, ESV)

The Heretic

Now, I know that heretic is a strong word, and there are probably some people who are frustrated with this post because I’m using the word. However, I want to make one thing clear. I am using this word in its technical sense. Often heretic or heresy is simply used to describe someone who is wrong. The word is much narrower, and stronger, than that. Properly speaking, a heretic is someone who obstinately refuses correction by the Church on an issue of soteriological importance. That is to say, a person must acknowledge that they depart from the established position of the Church, and in doing so they are in danger of separation from Christ. Now, the cause of this separation from Christ is not because they depart from the established position of the Church, rather it is because they hold a position in which they have either begun to worship a false Christ (as in JW or LDS doctrine) or in which their position makes salvation as the Bible describes impossible and thus they cannot trust in Christ for salvation (as in OP doctrine). Most often, both of these things are in effect (ie worship of a false Christ and a logical destruction of biblical salvation).

Now, most people in apologetics circles would recognize that confronting someone’s sin, faulty worldview, or whatever else might be preventing them from coming to salvation by penitent trust in Jesus Christ is an inherently loving thing to do. To fail to do so is not only not loving, but it is actually hateful. When we fail to do so out of regard for our reputation or to preserve earthly relationships… we are essentially saying that whatever we are trying to preserve is more important than that person’s salvation. Not loving.

The same can be said of the heretic. When confronted by a OP believer… to fail to confront their theology is to abandon them to their damnation. The logical implications of their theology is that the Son was not truly incarnate, did not truly die, and was not truly raised. Nor is the Son currently making intercession to the Father on behalf of His people. None of the things that are essential soteriologically, work in an OP framework. Beyond that, they believe that the God they know is only revealed according to the various roles he plays… essentially meaning that they do not know anything true about God in se.

To abandon them to this is fundamentally unloving, and thus we must confront them. Although in most cases this results in the expulsion of the heretic from the group, this is always done with the hope that they will be brought to penitent faith in Jesus Christ, and this would come about in accord with a correction of their theology. (See Matthew 18:15–17) I know of at least one case in which I served in this role in the CAA where exactly that hope came to fruition.

The Onlooker

A common maxim in apologetic debates (whether online or in person) is that we present our case not so much in an attempt to convince our opponent, but in order to convince those who may be observing. Although it would be nice if we could convince the atheists we debate with that God is real, that doesn’t usually happen. Most of the time the participants of the debate walk away feeling as though they have won, and being as convinced of their position as when they started. However, those who are observing are often presented with arguments they have not encountered.

The same thing happens in the CAA (or any context where heresy must be confronted). The simple fact is that heresy is destructive to the Church because it can lead astray those who are not well catechized in the faith. This is especially true in the area of Trinitarianism, for many reasons. Primarily because the average Christian really does not know much about the Trinity.

When someone presents a statement like “the persons of the Trinity are just offices that God fills in different contexts” it sounds very reasonable. The analogy of H2O being a solid, gas, and liquid also sounds very reasonable.  The problem? Both are heretical. However, to someone who is not well trained in Triadology, it is difficult to explain why, and they may become convinced that this is in fact how the Trinity functions. If we do not confront heresy when we are capable, we are not properly loving our neighbor by defending them against something they are not capable of defending themselves of. If I was walking down the street and saw one middle schooler attacking another middle schooler… I have an obligation to stop that fight. Whether that means I call the police and wait until they come, or it means that I intervene myself… I have an obligation to defend someone who cannot defend themselves. Now, it may not be popular to say this… but many Christians simply cannot defend themselves against the theological attacks of Modalism. Most apologetics minded folks have rehearsed how to respond to the Arianism of the Watchtower Society, or the Polytheism of the Latter Day Saints… however not many recognize, let alone know how to respond to, the Modalism of the Oneness Pentecostals.

In Conclusion

Ultimately, we are obligated to stand for truth no matter where we are. Sometimes this takes the form of prosecutorial action. In these instances, I believe I have demonstrated that although it is not pleasant or enjoyable for anyone involved (at least… it probably shouldn’t be), it is a loving action in many ways to do so. In fact, it is eminently hateful to simply ignore an error which places someone in jeopardy of damnation.