A United Methodist Bishop, Joseph Sprague, has been charged four times with teaching heresies, and denominational representatives have now acquitted him all four times.

Sprague clearly has taught against  Jesus' bodily resurrection, eternal divinity, and exclusivity as the only way to salvation. So what gives? United Methodist leaders must view heresy as somehow an outmoded concept. Or, at least, they must see the heresy trial as an inappropriate venue for addressing such teachings as Sprague's.

We are mistaken if we think modern objections to the prosecution of heretics come from sloppy thinking by those who don't know better. To put the best face on it, such extreme leniency seems to come, rather, from a principled revulsion to the ways orthodox Christian belief has in the past been defined and defended—and heretics prosecuted and punished.

In his compendium of Christians tried for heresy in this country, scholar George H. Shriver states eloquently a number of these objections. Central among these are two:

Those church leaders who have prosecuted heretics have often been motivated politically. "Politics, jealousies, power struggles, anti-intellectualism, miscommunication, limits of knowing, grudges, personal animosities, confusion of ethics with doctrine" have all entered into the motivations of those who sought to defend the faith against heresy.

Not just motivations but actions have been perverted in the cause of orthodoxy: "The heresy hunters have … often allowed themselves to pervert Christian ethics in their pursuit of their goal of discrediting persons they have labeled 'heretics.'"

First, we must admit that these two claims are well attested in church history.

However, those who would use this historical evidence to argue ...

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