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 against heresy trials find it convenient to ignore one small fact. That is, that apart from Jesus, no one has ever been exempt from mixed motives and unsavory methods. We are involved in a church in which "the wheat grows up with the tares," and the dividing line between the two does not run between people, but through each human heart.

This means that the process of defining orthodox belief has always been mediated, as historian R. Scott Appleby puts it, by "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 much 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 an act of 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 that occupy the pews, and affirm that the church is still, somehow, the "body of Christ."

Coming back to history, the point is this: 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 guy 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 convening of 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 its condemnation of 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.

The consistent advocacy of heretics over against supposedly prideful, power-hungry ecclesiastical hierarchies is like the consistent advocacy of pacifism. It is founded on an admirable ideal, but it is one-sided—and thus fatally flawed.

The sad fact is this: consistent defense of heretics leads to the same result as consistent pacifism—the slaughter and enslavement of innocents. Unsuspecting people enter the churches or denominations of leaders committed to a theological openness that leads them to teach things we used to call "heresies." Those people—to use Jesus' language, those sheep—find there just what the guardians of the apostolic faith have always said they would find: wolves in shepherds' clothing, whose teachings turn them away from, rather than towards, salvation.

And this is the nub. As another 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, that person must be disciplined and their harmful teaching rendered null within the church.

It is easy for a comfortable and presumptively (but often emptily) "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. Can we imagine a graffitist even bothering to get out his spray can to write, not "Jesus Saves," but "Jesus, by his example, draws from us the emergent good our bad habits have suppressed within us"? Or a person holding up a sign at a sports event reading "For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son that he might be for them one example—among many—of what really, really good people can do, given the right moral teaching"?

Such teachings 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."

* Appleby's article is "Helpful heresies; how we came to dance the Athanasian shuffle," in U. S. Catholic, August 1992.

Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.