Heresy and how to recognise it Colossians 1:15-20 by Revd. Alex Pease

I did not enjoy my primary school very much.  It was the 1960s, my mother had just got divorced, for the first time.  I was an only child and I was dumped down in this small, almost Edwardian, boarding school near Windsor aged 8, separated from home for three months at a time.  It was my first encounter with boys of my own age; at their most unpleasant.  It was a bit of a nightmare.

But the one place I found security and even joy was the school chapel.   Great hymns like: Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.  We were required to learn all the liturgy by heart on Sundays:  Matins and Evensong every day – the Nunc Dimitis – wonderful.  I had a profound sense of God’s presence.  And I learned who he was and what he was like from our Scripture lessons.  And He was real for me, when I needed him.  Which was a lot.

Now of course others of us may have found God, as a child, in other ways – through Sunday School; saying prayers with parents before going to sleep – not in the brutal environment that I first encountered Him.

But then, of course, so many of us shake off our childhood faith with approaching adolescence and adulthood.  A time when we arrogantly think we can stand on our own two feet and don’t need God.

When; (if); we come back to Christianity in early middle age, everything seems to have changed.  We don’t recognise the hymns (people call them worship songs) and the clergy seem determined to get rid of pews and are using words like ‘mission’ which we have never heard before.  It’s confusing and irritating.

What we were taught as a child seems to have been turned on its head.  There can easily be a sense of having lost something; a yearning to recover something important.

But change is inevitable.  New ideas will come.  Everything moves on.  Not necessarily for the better, but things move on.

When I went back to that primary school one or two years ago it was unrecognisable in every possible way – everyone is in constant touch with their parents on their mobile phones.  The curriculum was totally different.

It is bound to be the same with the church, when we return.  The church has to change and adapt – to tell the gospel anew in each generation – to people who are not just the middle aged returners, like me (the ‘de-churched’), but to those who have never had any engagement with Christianity in the first place.  And this new generation (the ‘unchurched’) think that we, who carry the imprint of Edwardian England on our souls, are Martians.  As fewer and fewer people have had any encounter with Christianity in their childhood, as the unchurched grow as a proportion of society, the need for the church to turn towards them (and be focused on what they need, what will appeal to them) grows.

But in all this change, how can we still find that place of dependence; that certainty with which we found God as a child?  That child-like and genuine encounter with the Eternal when we felt knew him as we are known?

How can we evaluate whether what the modern church says about God in its teaching and its worship is true or is some terrible false alley?

How can we get to the essence of who we encountered as a child?  Do we have to replicate the services so that they are just the same as they were then; with the same hymns; the same liturgy? Can we distinguish between the God we were communicating with when we were children and the cultural wrapping in which we received him then?

How can we discern whether the modern church (aimed at the unchurched) is throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

In short, how can we tell if what we are being taught now about God (or what we were taught when we were a child about God for that matter) is legitimate, is truth or is heresy?

Now I recognise that ‘heresy’ is not a popular word.  Unless, of course you are a fan of the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which is on at the moment.  Or perhaps the word brings “I didn’t expect a Spanish Inquisition”  to mind: “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” – if you don’t remember immediately the Spanish Inquisition sketch from Monty Python – please disregard this little comedic foray…

But actually the idea of a difference between heresy and orthodoxy is quite helpful to enable us to try and evaluate what we are being taught by the church or, for that matter, by society, by the media.

‘Heresy’ is really is best defined as an ‘Inadequate version of Christianity which preserves the appearance of Christianity, but contradicts its essence’.

I recognise that some of us in this Post Modern world will struggle with the idea of heresy because the whole idea that there is any such thing as ‘truth’ is offensive; many think today that we all have our truths and some things are true for me, but the opposite might be true for you.  Incidentally, I tried this line of argument with my bank manager once, he says I have an overdraft, but I when I say – that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me; for some reason, he is not convinced!

In principle, it seems to me that there is no reason why questions of truth or falsity should be different in the spiritual arena, than they are in the financial arena.  Facts about God are either true or they are false; just as facts about my bank balance.  They cannot be both true and false depending upon who is stating them.

There are bound to be different views on what is actually true and what is false about God; about what is orthodox and what is heretical.  I may passionately believe that something is true about God and you may passionately disagree with me.  But we don’t need to be sixteenth century about these disputes.  As Bishop Tim is inclined to say when someone disagrees with him:  “We disagree.  That’s OK isn’t it?”

No-one has to be burnt at the stake as in Henry VIII’s England or, Lord preserve us, in 21st century Iraq or Syria.  No-one has to be turned out of the Church – particularly in the family of the Church of England, where we tolerate a huge range of different opinions as to what is true and what is false, what is orthodox and what is heretical.

Surely self-sacrificial love, loving our neighbours, must partly be about allowing them to disagree with us without calling them ‘heretics’ or ‘bigots’ – that being a word which has tended to occupy the space of the word ‘heretic’ in our modern lexicon.  We need to get better, I would argue, at disagreeing with each other.  We need to be able to disagree in love.

It would be terribly bad manners and rather un-British, I would suggest, to shout out ‘You heretic!’ to a visiting preacher while he is giving his sermon.  (It’s OK for you to shout periodically, as you do in the Valley, ‘you have got the hymn wrong, Alex!’) We are all heretics of one kind or another – all of us – as we shall find out in a minute……

But how can we work out what is legitimate and what is not?

It takes generations for the church to work out definitively what is heretical and what is orthodox – and a lot of these issues have been discussed by theologians for literally hundreds of years.  These discussions take place in the context of prayer and worship and we can hope that they are guided by the Holy Spirit and that God’s will is ultimately revealed.  Eventually, the church settles down into an orthodoxy on a particular point and, on the whole, heresies tend to wither on the vine – sometimes but not always.

The reading today from Colossians tells us how Paul suggests we distinguish between the legitimate and the false; between the orthodox and the heretical.  Indeed this is what the whole letter to the Colossians is about.

But he does it in a way that we might not expect. Paul is writing to this church which he established to warn them not to be led astray but new teachers who have come in and are presenting new ideas to them.  But instead of rubbishing those new ideas and correcting them, he simply gives a five verse description of who Jesus Christ is.

He states (in the words of one commentator) Christ’s supremacy and his sufficiency.

Once the implications of these two concepts are grasped many heresies just fall away.

The key to this is Jesus’ supremacy: verse 16 – everything in the spiritual and natural universe (or in heaven and earth to use Biblical language) – was created in him and he was before all those things.  He was thus before the whole of creation and so cannot be a creature.

He is the first in the church – so way beyond, in a wholly different category to, any other patriarch, prophet, angel or spiritual leader of the past, present or the future.   He is, verse 15, ‘the image of the invisible God…and [verse 19] in him is the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…”

And verse 18 Jesus Christ is the first of the new creation, the new heaven and earth which will be the end of all things decided by God.

But because of his supremacy, he is also sufficient.  No other spiritual power is necessary to bring us humans to salvation.  No magic powers, crystals, spells, relics, incantations, pilgrimages, special burials, no circumcision, special foods or fasts and no priests or saints or church buildings or cathedrals, no choirs or worship music, and no good works or charity that we do.  None of these things are necessary for our salvation – for our eternal future in the new heaven and new earth at the end of all things.

Just being in Jesus Christ.

Verse 19 ‘through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross”.

How can we be ‘in Christ’? Paul tells us  in Romans 10.8(b) “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”– all that is necessary has already been achieved.

So in summary.  Paul is saying ‘don’t fall for a belief system which adds more onto Christianity than just Jesus Christ – a Christ Plus religion.

And don’t fall for a belief system which subtracts anything from Jesus Christ – a Christ Minus or Christ lite religion.

It is being in Him, and in Him alone, that we find that resting place that we remember from before and we can encounter again – that place of certainty which will carry us through to our final place in his presence….

So what heresies are we falling for?

This heresy quiz is written by Revd. Dr Graham Tomlin the Principal of St Mellitus College St Mellitus College and is used with his permission.

To learn more about heresies and why they don’t work please can I recommend that you listen to the God Pod series on heresies and why they don’t work: or through I-Tunes store.

The Heresy Test

Heretical answer in bold and the name of the heresy is in italics – and remember that expression ‘the hypostatic union’….

About Jesus

  1. Is the Word created or unoriginate? Arianism  “there was a time when he was not”
  2. Is Jesus God’s son by nature or by adoptionAdoptionism
  3. Did Jesus Christ have two separate divine and human naturesNestorianism.  The Council of Chalcedon established that “what is not assumed is not healed” and thus determined that Nestorianism was outside orthodoxy
  4. Does Jesus have one single divine-human natureMonophysitism 
  5. Is God one person who appears in three forms? Modalism and Sabellism
  6. Did Jesus have a purely divine mind and soulApollinarianism
  7. Was Jesus omniscient? Docestism
  8. Is the God depicted in the Old Testament the same as the one depicted in the New Testament? Yes No Marcionism

About Christianity generally

  1. Does the Spirit proceed from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son?  Orthodoxy – this is the famous ‘filioque dispute between the Catholic and Orthodox church’
  2. When we take Communion do we (a) remember the death of Christ? (b) feed on Christ in the Spirit? Or (c) eat and drink Christ’s body and blood physically? (a) Zwingli (b)Calvin (c) Luther – Within the Anglican Church this rather depends on your perspective…
  3. Does the Father suffer? Patripassionism
  4. Are good and evil both eternal? Manichaeism
  5. Does a priest need to be holy for his/her sacraments to ‘work’? Yes No Donatism
  6. Can you only be baptised once you have openly confessed faith? Baptist
  7. Do we receive the totality of the Holy Spirit as a second stage of Christian life? Pentecostal
  8. Do we sin purely because we choose to? Pelagianism
  9. The holiness of the church depends on the holiness of is members. Do you agree? Yes Donatism

We are all some kind of heretic! The question remains what sort of heretic am I – how did you answer these questions – how would you fill in the following sentence?

I am a ______________Anglican

Further Discussion:

Revd Alex Pease  01962 793063

Follow me on Twitter @AlexMPease

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