On Heresy

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the theological ghettoes of social media, you’ll have certainly come across threads in which “Heresy!” or “Heretic!” is bandied about with a frequency far disproportionate to its normal, everyday use. For various reasons, the term’s usually wielded by more conservative theologues; simply, the “conservation” impulse inherent in conservative streams of thought spends more energy manning the fences of orthodoxy than similar impulses in liberal streams. Nevertheless, “Heretic!”, especially in the digital context, functions primarily as an opprobrium, a “caveat lector.” I think this represents a departure, ironically enough, from the traditional modes in which accusations of heresy were used.

To justify that position, however, requires that we take a step back and look beyond the scope of our current moment. First, I’ll characterize this moment of the church–a church simultaneously present and absent, physical and digital. Then, I’ll offer two understandings of heresy: one prior to today and the one in use at the moment. Finally, I’ll close with a couple of correlative thoughts on the matter.

We are fortunate to live in the time of mass media. The benefits to the world from easy global communication are immeasurable, and we each have access to a world of knowledge at the tips of our fingers. For the church, this digital proximity has engendered a sense of the global, transcultural body of Christ. For that, we ought to be thankful. Modes of Christianity–theological paradigms, church structures, social witnesses–which would have remained invisible within our local context, are now immediately available thanks to the advent of social media. Questions we would have never thought to ask, ways of being in the world that would have never occurred to us–these are now shifting our perceptions and our expectations of Christian life.

All of which can remain largely abstract, as far as it goes. For the most part, such questions remain ethereal but for the genuinely interested. Nevertheless, this perpetual presence affects those of us whose minds have been shaped by the cell phones in our pockets. Now, we exist simultaneously in two worlds:  our local, embodied environment and our digital sphere. The phone constantly pulls us from one environ to the other. It disrupts our physical bonds, distracting us from the person in our midst. The immediacy of the flesh-and-blood relationship we have with those with whom we worship on a weekly basis competes with the pseudo-intimacy of our social media relationships, those cultivated strictly through–or mediated through–an online forum, in which one can carefully and artificially manicure their being in a categorically different manner than one’s embodied presentation to us.

An artificial intimacy crafted online has the capacity to assume duties that, properly exercised, belong to the person near you. The local church, as the local gathering of people belonging to Christ, promotes a type of personal co-involvement only achievable by means of extensive communion, of being-near and living-near. When we speak with another person, when we communicate with them and read their body language as we hear their voice, we “comprehend” them in a manner impossible merely through artificial channels. Worshipping alongside, serving alongside, living alongside–the people with whom we share our lives from week to week to month to year become more real to us than an avatar ever could. The difficulties of real life relationships, the frustrations, the complexities–in other words, the very things that can be filtered out, muted, and otherwise ignored online–must be worked through, or the relationship fails. The temptation to replace the embodied relationships of your local context with the digital mutual following of the internet weighs heavily. Whereas the person in your midst has an obligation, simply by virtue of their shared involvement in the world with you (among other reasons), to love you, to help you, to counsel you–your online community is under no such obligation, although such an obligation may be felt by virtue of pseudo-intimacy.

In terms of the church, your local collection of believers–the ones with whom you’ve bound yourself to the apostles’ teaching and to each other (cf. Ac. 2.42ff)–has obligations that reach merely as far as that body extends. In other words, the life and worship of a certain church are coextensive with, in this case, its discipline. Mutual submission is the fundamental political character of the church. Members of the local spiritual body are obligated to each other by Christ, and so, when a member of this body transgresses the limits appertaining to this body, the body (through whatever mechanisms it chooses for itself, such as an elder board, diaconate, or whatever) is obligated to treat the matter.

How, then, do these ecclesial obligations change or appear to change in our new context? For one, felt obligations are augmented by the entrenchment of social media in everyday life, precisely because of the pseudo-intimacy that grows from our second, digital lives.

For another, and I believe these two causes are connected and feed into each other, the conception of the ‘body of Christ’ as a ‘spiritual body’ gives credence to the idea that we are equally-bound to discipline and exhort the avatar brother as we are the enfleshed brother. I would suggest that such considerations are prompted by a naive, or perhaps sentimental, perspective of Christian brotherhood. Exercising spiritual authority–for the act of discipline in local context functions as an act of authority–in a digital context relies on a view of the spiritual body that effectively disembodies it. The structures of the local church do not bear, because this kind of conversation takes place outside of the bounds of the local church; it transcends both bodies.

Which is precisely the problem. Divorcing spiritual authority from authority structures is fertile ground for authoritative abuses. One may, and frequently will, retort that such spiritual authority derives from Scripture. In application, however, a functionally anonymous figure appears from the digital landscape to mandate that another person submit–not merely to Scripture (if their interpretation is correct) but to the authority of this anonymous individual rather than to the spiritual authority vested in Figure X by the church body to which our example belongs. In other words, the Scripturally-mandated means of authority are subverted, replaced by a disembodied voice.

I’ve focused so closely on church discipline because the act of declaring something heretical or somebody a heretic is an act of church discipline. That is, historically speaking, to be named a heretic was coterminous with excommunication; somebody declared outside the bounds of orthodoxy was ipso facto declared outside the bounds of the church body. Functionally, to call somebody a heretic was to censure, as it were, with the effect of removing them from the worshipping body, from receiving the elements of communion, etc.

It was never simply a statement of disapprobation (“You shouldn’t believe that”) nor, in its proper use, the voice of a single individual (“I don’t think you should believe that”). More, at least as far as its etymology was concerned, it was not limited merely to “wrong belief,” as it has traditionally been taken. αἱρετικός, at least as late as the apostle Paul, meant “one who causes divisions” in Titus 3.10, which suggests the emphasis being not so much the false doctrine itself but the political effect within the body of Christ, subverting the unity essential to its proper function. To call one a “heretic,” therefore, was not to say, “You hold wrong doctrine,” full stop, but to say, “Your profession of this doctrine undermines the credibility of the church; therefore, you’re removed until you repent.” In other words, “Heretic!” was a far more serious charge than we experience today, one in which the offender was barred from the life of the church.

In the digital discourse, “Heretic!” means not “This person is now being placed under church discipline” but, typically, “I strongly disagree with this person’s theology”. Among more grounded theologues, particularly those who have spent a fair amount of time in pre-Reformation theology, to call somebody a heretic may retain its original force, such that it says you believe they should come under church discipline. But the structures of evangelicalism especially do not lend themselves to censures of any effect–any effect, that is, other than the autonomous exclamations of “Heresy!” that attend to any theology thread worth its perusal. In the absence of strict structures of authority, at the very least those of the local church (not to mention those that transcend single congregations–i.e., a regional presbytery), the only recourse for those for whom the digital competes with the physical is the “caveat lector” mentioned above. That is to say, informal mechanisms of opprobrium, obloquy, and stigmatization are the means whereby a contemporary church stripped of its governing authority (by competition with the digital space) can enforce the boundaries of proper church life.

By warning all within earshot that a particular author or individual is heretical, the hope would be that others would avoid falling into the same trap (per 1 Cor. 5), but it fails insofar as the purpose of church disciple–formally exercised–is primarily the restoration of the offender, not the protection of others. Such digital excommunication fails to achieve the intended effect precisely because its pseudo-intimacy fostered in social media has not, before things became difficult, engendered the kind of hands-on, risky love necessary for reconciliation. Abiding through difficulty in addition to living-near and being-near, which are both essential to a healthy church, are precisely those features inherently missing in digital intimacy, such that discipline carried out over the internet lacks the purposeful, aiming-for-which necessarily undertaken in a (healthily) structured church’s discipline. Digital discipline serves merely as “Caveat lector” rather than “Oramus pro tibi, amamus te.” And that loving consternation properly issues forth from a heart shaped by physical proximity in worship, in service, in life.


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