Has anyone ever called you a heretic? You might be in good company, depending on your perspective.
While I don't know if the first Christians were called heretics, I do know that they were called atheists. Christians fell outside the bounds of the received orthodoxy in the Roman Empire. What I mean by this is that the Roman system considered the first Christians’ views of Jesus suspect because they did not worship the pantheon of the gods. For the first Christians, Jesus alone is Lord. As a result of this conviction, the Romans labeled the early Christians “atheists,” and so persecuted them. The early church's exclusive belief and allegiance to Jesus as Lord was more than a theological position; it served as a dangerous, political challenge to those who wielded power on behalf of the Pax Romana with the presumed blessing of the “gods” (that is, those believed to be the reigning deities who administered divine blessings and curses).
As in the case of the term “atheist” as applied to the first Christians, the term “heretic” has often served as the label the ruling power in a particular time has given to those who have not recognized the reigning spirit of the age and with it their basis for control; those failing to go with the program fall outside the boundaries of political-religious legitimacy, and have usually been oppressed as “the other.” Of course, there have been exceptions. For example, when the church came to be viewed as orthodox, it was not always viewed in favorable terms. Sometimes the lack of favor stemmed from the ruling elite and/or general populace not taking seriously enough that the God who is wholly other became “the other” as Jesus Christ. There is nothing more politically incorrect than this claim, as will be developed later.
Building on the point about exceptions in the last paragraph, the idea that the received orthodoxy was the beneficiary of a long, uninterrupted history of good will at the hands of the political powers after Constantine is inaccurate. Those hailed as saints today by the received orthodoxy—including the saintly historical figures of Maximus the Confessor, John Chrysostom and even Athanasius—at times experienced the wrath of their political rulers for their theological and ethical positions rather than their blessing. These saints were not alone. Just think of the modern saintly martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He died at the hands of the Aryan or German Christians (not to be confused with the Arians discussed later in this piece) for his orthodox convictions involving the claim that Jesus alone is Lord. These convictions led him to take up his cross and die daily to the Hitler system.
There’s so much talk today that the received Nicene orthodoxy (i.e., Jesus is fully God) in the Christian era originated with the favor granted to those who championed "Nicene" Christology by Caesar’s successor, Constantine. Such orthodoxy is going out of favor today in our post-Christendom setting, as the established orthodox churches are losing influence in various sectors. Who knows? Maybe Nicea will come to be viewed as heretical before too long. But even in Constantine’s time, and in Constantine’s own life, the verdict on orthodoxy was far from clear. It was not clear that Constantine steered the Council of Nicea’s vote in favor of what has come down to us as the Nicene Creed; and later, Constantine may have come personally to embrace the opposing stance exemplified by Nicea’s leading detractor, Arius. Interesting fact: Constantine was baptized by his friend Eusebius of Nicomedia, one of the most influential Arians, shortly before Constantine’s death.
Even if it were to be shown that the received orthodoxy achieved its place of prominence because of the support of the rulers and masses at various times and places, it does not mean the received orthodoxy was/is not orthodox. Moreover, even if what some of us take to be orthodoxy were to have lost out then as heretical but will win out tomorrow as true, it does not mean that the received orthodoxy was/is heretical. Such labels are often relative terms, depending on our perspective and political angle.
Going further with this line of reflection, even if the received orthodoxy was and is orthodox, it does not mean that those hailed as orthodox operated according to canons of orthopraxy. I resonate with Calvin’s theology, but not with his handling of Servetus. I love Luther’s view of justification by faith in Christ, but cannot tolerate his condemnation of the Jews for rejecting it. If Luther had lived during the WWII era, he would have been condemned at the Nuremberg Trials with the Nazis, who championed his horrific declarations on what to do with the Jews. As far as I am concerned, the sooner that the corpus Christianum (the equivalent of the Bible Belt allegiance of church and state/empire) deteriorates in North America, the better off we orthodox Christians will be. But what will take its place, if orthodoxy loses its throne tomorrow? If those who have often been deemed heretical by the church take up the repositioned orthodox mantle, will they wield oppressive political power, as they claim we have often done? And what happens if in time the power shifts back and we regain the throne? What will bring closure to the seemingly unending cycle of subtle and overt ideological oppression?
Surely, power in itself is not the problem. Rather, the problem here is the misuse of power with the assistance of religious ideology that always gives itself to excluding “the other,” whoever it may be. The victim in one dehumanizing system readily becomes the oppressor in another system, as its ideology becomes the religious legitimization of the presiding ruling class over whoever is deemed to be “the other.” Orthodoxy, not unlike beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder, or better, in the grasp of the group who wields power over others. But there is nothing beautiful about being scorned or condemned by the opposition. I have seen people on the left and right and in the middle of a given position experience so much pain at the hands of the intellectually and morally self-righteous. I have been the presiding subject and object of such scorn. It isn’t pretty.
The best way to handle orthodoxy, however one views it, is not to impose it on others or beat people with it, but to suffer for it, and to be long-suffering and patient toward those who reject it—just like the “orthodox” Jesus, who died as a rebel and a blasphemer at the hands of his enemies for those the system labeled “other.” But Jesus did not even treat the ruling class of enemies as “other.” By his own standard of love and truth, it would have made him heretical and politically correct.
But since when is the real Jesus really viewed as politically correct? His love goes against the grain of what we uniformly take for love. His love is never politically correct, for it involves sacrificial concern for those who believe and act differently than us (whoever we may be); but unlike Jesus, we excuse ourselves from loving “them”; we assume that we’re allowed to reject and hate, for we are right and they are wrong, for they are not us. We can even excuse ourselves and hate Jesus if he gets in the way of our objectifying others. No wonder he was deemed heretical and immoral. No wonder he died on a cross. In fact, we hang him on a cross or burn him at a stake in every age. He died for each and every one of us, as he stood in the way of our killing each other.
I am so often like the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. I would easily give Jesus over for power, and would rule with the love of power over the objectified masses, rather than long for their freedom through the power of love. In my case, it is only Jesus’ silent kiss of unsuspected and undeserved forgiveness that has the power to free me to pursue truth, not for the sake of power, but for the freedom that is found in truth in service to love.
So, let me suffer for truth—the truth of God’s love—by repenting of my love of power to wield truth as a weapon. May I oppose everything within me that would stand in the way of this same Jesus who loves so unreservedly, as he frees those the thought police in my head imprison.
I am not alone. We are all so prone to be locked in the prison of our own power brokering, as we often think we are the ones who have got it all together. But we don't get it. Theological conservativism doesn't get it. How often do we give lip service to our orthodox claims of this Christ, when we fail to risk and love the other, even while acknowledging that Jesus does? Theological liberalism doesn’t get that it is only this Jesus—the uncommon God who becomes the other in place of each of us—who leads us into true freedom. And theological moderatism fails to enter into Jesus’ extreme love in the margins, when it wants to find a happy medium, hiding behind neutrality. None of these "isms" are truly centered in Christ. All we get are our "isms" until he comes and gets us.
We are all imprisoned, and Jesus longs to free us. We all need Jesus to free us, for we are “the other” in need. Will we go in hot pursuit of embracing this orthodox heresy centered and embodied in him, or will we fear the risk and remain politically correct?
Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths. This volume and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.