Heretic. Blasphemer. Apostate. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ve probably been called at least one of these at some point in your life. But how should we respond to such labels?
For some, being seen as a heretic or blasphemer or apostate is one of the worst fates they could endure; others wear these labels as a badge of honor. Still others don’t know what to make of them.
If we’re going to have any meaningful discussion of theological claims to truth, then, we need to start by defining the terms.
The word heresy is commonly used to describe a belief or idea that’s in conflict with the core teachings of Christianity, and particularly an idea that’s theologically dangerous – one that will lead people who believe it away from God.
But this isn’t what the word originally meant. The Greek hairesis (from which we get our word heresy) simply means a choice – particularly a choice that’s different from what the majority has chosen. In theological terms, a Christian heresy would be a doctrine or belief that’s not accepted by the majority of Christian thinkers in a given time or place.
In other words, heresy isn’t always a bad thing. The majority isn’t always right; and without heretics (those who dare to question a widely held belief or doctrine), the church would never grow. Indeed, even Saint Paul was considered a heretic by many of his fellow Jews (Acts 24:14)!
Blasphemy is another matter altogether. The simplest definition of blasphemy is the misuse or slandering of another’s name.
Theologically, we blaspheme any time we misuse God’s name. The most well-known form of this is using the word “God” or “Jesus” as part of a curse. But there are other, far more insidious ways to blaspheme.
Any time we attribute things to God that are unloving, unholy, or unjust, we are committing blasphemy.
As much as this will anger some, I must mention that some very well-known and beloved beliefs are blasphemous!
Among the doctrines I find blasphemous are the ideas of God inspiring war, that God hates certain people, and that God will punish certain people forever in hell.
All of these portray a God who is less loving than the majority of human beings; and while Scripture can be used to support such ideas, they are completely at odds with the God I have come to know in Jesus.
We also blaspheme when we claim to believe in God, but act in ways that make God look bad.
Saint John the Revelator called a particular Jewish sect “the synagogue of Satan” for this reason (Rev 2:9); and Saint Paul said that “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles” because of first-century Jewish hypocrisy (Rom 2:24).
Blasphemy, then, is a much more serious thing than heresy. It can never be a good thing – but it can be forgiven. And it’s worth noting that the majority of blasphemers don’t really know what they’re doing. People who intentionally misuse the name of God appear to be relatively few in number.
It’s apostasy that I think should cause us the most concern.
The Greek apostasis literally means to “stand away.” Theologically, it means turning away from God and staying fixed in that rejection.
This is described most clearly in the letter to the Hebrews, where we read: “It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt” (Heb 6:4-6).
This isn’t just a casual turning away; nor can someone who doesn’t know God’s love commit apostasy. What’s described here is someone who has come to know God’s love in its fullness, and then made a choice to turn away from this forever.
It’s “impossible” to restore such a person to faith because he or she has already experienced the most convincing display of love and power known to humanity. If a person can walk away from this, there’s nothing more that can be done to change his or her mind!
I find it hard to imagine that someone who has really known God’s love could ever reject it; but it seems that the devil has done this, so it must be at least theoretically possible.
In any case, changing one’s beliefs or church affiliation,or even one’s religion, is not, in and of itself, a sign of apostasy.
The true apostate is one who has known God intimately, and yet come to hate Him. It’s a terrifying, but probably remote, possibility.
How, then, would I respond to these labels? Personally, I don’t take offense when someone calls me a heretic. All they’re really saying is that my theology is different from the majority of other Christians, which I already know.
I would hope, however, that I’m not a blasphemer. If I am, I should repent of such behavior, and try my best to show others a fairer picture of God.
As for apostasy, I know I’m not an apostate because I love God, and have never had another God to walk away from. As to whether anyone else is an apostate, I will leave this in God’s hands. It’s not for me to judge.
(Coming Soon: “Not Everyone Who Says Lord, Lord”: Why Holiness Matters)