Q&A: What’s a Heresy? Bradley Jersak


I just finished reading a book titled Finding God in the Waves by Mike McHargue. Have you heard of it? It’s about a guy who was raised in the church but became an atheist for two years. I thought it would inspire my faith, but it brought up so many questions. The faith Mike returned to theologically was really unique. I don’t think he believes Jesus is God but still considers himself a Christian. Not that I’m trying to be a gatekeeper for Christianity… But at what point is the label Christian a forced fit? What is heresy? (I suppose that’s probably subjective).


     I hadn’t previously heard of Mike or seen his book. My bad… mostly I read books by people who’ve already departed this life. And unlike some of my beloved critics, I won’t offer a review or critique without reading him.
     But I do have some thoughts about your questions. You mentioned:
“I don’t think he believes Jesus is God but still considers himself a Christian.” 
     Well, we know this: historic Christianity came to the conclusion that Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is fully divine and fully human. But it is not (and probably never was) the consensus of those who use the “Christian” label. 
     Early Christianity spent centuries debating whether Jesus was fully God OR fully man OR just seemed to be one or the other. Those discussions were the source of all the classic ‘heresies’ come in — Arianism, Nestorianism, Docetism, and so on. The seven major church councils (before the Great Schism) carefully and patiently adjudicated and (sort of) resolved these questions against their opponents’ objections.
     But what made the losers of these debates ‘heretics’ in the end was not just that they lost the debate or even that they were in error (though I think they were). The orthodox and heterodox Christians debated them in-house as Christians for a long time before parting company.
     The BIG problem was actually when folks saw an impasse and either (1) kicked the other side out of the conversation, or more commonly (2) stomped out of the conversation to start their own movement. So then from both the orthodox [those who held to the creeds] and heterodox [those who did not] point of view, their side comprised the faithful, while the despised other were deemed heretics.
     Sadly, this impulse to exclude and to split has become so virulent that on average, two new “Christian” denominations have formed PER WEEK since Martin Luther was excluded/stomped out in the early 1500s. By some reckonings, today, over 33,000 denominations or sects, who hold radically opposing views, call themselves “Christian.” 
     This situation stands in direct defiance to the express will of Jesus in John 17:21: “That they all shall be one, just as you, my Father, are in me, and I am in you, so that they also shall be one in us.” And in our dismay at this dark dilemma, what do we do? Too many cry “hypocrisy,” then stomp away to create a own personal Christianity (repeating the age-old errors but less thoughtfully). 
     So, what’s a person to do? Quoting you:    
“Not that I’m trying to be a gatekeeper for Christianity…”
     Exactly right! Not that! 
But at what point is the label Christian a forced fit? 
     Right! Not that either. 
     A few first principles perhaps:
     First, let’s carefully remember what Jesus prioritizes:  
  • “Love each other as I have loved you.”
  • “Follow me.” As in, practice the Jesus Way of others-centred love, radical forgiveness, and compassion.
  • “Trust me: Papa loves you” (faith is trust in a person, not assent to my idea about the person).
  • And on doctrine, while I am part of a tradition that does confess that Jesus Christ is fully God, the central affirmations of the apostolic gospel were actually (a) “Christ is risen,” and (b) “Jesus is Lord.”

In my case, to be Christian is to embrace these convictions and, as it happens, like St. Thomas, they lead me to worship Jesus Christ as God Almighty … for others, I guess not.

     Oddly, as a faithful Muslim, my friend Safi affirms that Jesus is alive and he follows him (but as a Muslim, does not and cannot affirm his deity).
     Meanwhile, MANY ‘Christians’ today seem ambivalent about Jesus’s resurrection. The first question I would ask them is not, “Is Jesus God?” but rather, “Is he risen?” Not “What is the nature of his resurrection,” but more directly, “Is Jesus alive or not? Do you trust him? Do you follow him?” It’s strange that Safi would say a three-fold yes but many Christians won’t.
     In that case, the label “Christian” means little to me anyway, especially given centuries of its misuse by ‘Christian’ nationalists and other such heresies.
     So regardless of our claims and branding, which are generally vacuous, I have to ask myself what it is to BE Christian. For my part, I’ve largely let go of the “Christian” label and reframed my faith as “following Jesus, crucified and risen, as the revelation of divine love.” I’d rather become a Sermon on the Mount Jesus-follower-worshipper-lover. The struggle is real. And for ‘Christians’ who don’t share my perspective, it’s not for me to serve as a bouncer for the Bridegroom who welcomes everyone. My instinct is to walk with the Jesus-followers (‘Christian’ or not). And instead of self-identifying, that’s for my neighbors to assess, not for me to claim.
     Could I say something like this? I don’t know that I can identify with what Christianity has become. I even cringe at being identified with that label. But I know Jesus. And I know he is [not just has] risen. And I want to continue following and trusting him. I also know there are theological mysteries too wonderful for me, so I won’t demand or impose my false-certitude on others.
     This, then, helps with my orientation toward those who I still think are making mistakes. I.e., you said,
“What is heresy? (I suppose that’s probably subjective).”
     So the word ‘heresy’ seems to have thickened through the years into a fairly sloppy and uncharitable name for what used to mean, “I think you’ve made a mistake there.” What if we let it mean only that? Or dropped the term and just said it that way, adding an intro and outro, like so: “I really could be wrong, it’s not unusual. And I’m really open to learning … but I think you may have made a mistake there. But before we ‘go there,’ know that disagreeing doesn’t alter this truth at all: I love you.”
     Hope that helps.
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Brad Jersak

Bradley Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More