Heresy at Wheaton

Heresy is a big and dangerous word.  It’s used to define someone within a religious system as having errant beliefs.  A Hindu wouldn’t call a Buddhist a “heretic” they would just say that they have the wrong religion. You call someone inside your own religious identity a heretic when they disagree with what you’re sure is orthodox or normative to that religion.

Heresy is a “big”word because it assumes so much.  It mostly assumes that the one using it “knows” what truth is. For 2000 years Christians have been pretty good at “knowing” when the other is wrong – and that where the “dangerous” part of the word heresy comes in. In the 8th and 9th centuries, one group of Christians were sure that Icons were heresy – which led to the excommunication (and at times killing) of hundreds of thousands of other Christians.

The Spanish Inquisition were Christians expelling, persecuting and sometimes killing both people from other religions – Jews and Muslims in this case – and doing the same to those who had converted to Christianity but didn’t share all of the doctrines the way the Spanish religious Christian leaders thought they should.

John Calvin wouldn’t let certain Christians who “didn’t appear to be among the elect” join their community. In a few cases, those heretics were even burned at the stake.

Alas, we have progressed. Today we don’t typically kill or burn Christian heretics. We may banish them in one form or another, or burn their books – but not them.  And that’s progress.

This week I spoke at Taylor University – where our daughter Anna attends. In two weeks  I’ll be speaking at Trinity Lutheran College and Seattle Pacific University – where our other daughter, Marie, attends.  Two days before speaking at Taylor I spoke at Wheaton College to about 100 bright folks.  Most were undergrad students. Some were graduate students and a few alumni. The chaplain was there.  My wife Chris and two of her sisters attended as well.  And just to be sure I had all bases covered, I invited three Muslim friends from the area.  A Pakistani man and a Palestinian/Lebanese couple. All three devout Muslims and committed American citizens.

Speaking to such a group is a challenge. Probably, above all else, I wanted my Muslim friends to be honored and to understand me.  I had been asked to speak about Jesus and Muslims. I did that for 30 minutes and then opened it up for Q and A.  Overall it went really well and hopefully was helpful and informative for the crowd. I asked my Muslim friends to answer a couple of the questions that were about Islam and they did a great job.

At the end of the time two young students approached me and were very upset.  I would categorize their issues with me thus:

1, They wanted to be sure I had orthodox Christian views.
2. They were concerned that I had gone soft on Islam.

I hear that a lot.  I get it in responses to my blogs and my speaking. Only by a few. Usually about one percent of the audience voices their disapproval in a loud and stern voice.  And they are probably speaking for a few more – let’s say 10%.  10% do NOT like what I’m saying. And I’d say around 50% love what I’m saying and it comes as comforting affirmation to their souls. The other 40% are those who think they agree, but aren’t sure and have never heard what I’m talking about before.  I’d say that’s a fair and typical categorization of my audiences.

Back to these two young men who were, in fact, convinced I was spreading “dangerous heresy” and they needed to “stand up for the truth.”  First of all let me say that from all appearances they were extremely bright and well-intentioned.  My guess is that they’d be ready and willing to die for their version of truth (which they wouldn’t call “their version of truth” but simply The Truth).  So I admire them and wish them the best. They just happen to provide a useful tool for analyzing a trend.

These two young men quoted scripture at me faster than I could respond. They wanted to see my doctrinal statement of faith.  They asked me “what is the core message of the Bible” and “how does someone get saved.”  Honestly, all good questions.  The problem I have is that when I start to feel like I’m on the Heresy Hot Seat, I don’t want to answer. Just my little form of rebellion.  I tried really hard to listen. To be nice.  Respectful and honoring.  But about 10 minutes into getting grilled by two kids – I couldn’t take it anymore. I should have been more mature. I might have remember how I thought and acted at 21.  I was extremely precocious, thinking I knew all truth. I remember when I was 16 in a bible class telling me 45 year old Bible teacher he was wrong because he believed that the gifts of the Spirit had ceased with the end of the Apostles.  He was shocked and I was sure.  So I understand….

But still…. Here’s my issue with heresy-hunting:

1. I will and do readily admit that I don’t know everything and I’m likely to be wrong about some things. So cut some slack you heresy hounds.  You’re probably right. There!  How’s that?    🙂

2. I like to play with the use of words – as you all know.  I think “getting saved” is not a bad phrase, just not as helpful as “beginning a life of following Jesus.”  These two men, and many of my critics, are so used to hearing certain phrases spoken in a certain sequence, that if you mess that up – well, you must be teaching heresy.  Let’s be sure we’re critiquing the heart of the matter, rather than judging the words used to describe the matter.

3. Hunting heretics doesn’t seem to be particularly scriptural and for sure isn’t very helpful to the clear commands of Christ – to love your neighbor and your brother (not to mention, your enemies).

4. The arrogance that heresy hunters manifest is disturbing at best. It suggest that the one has figured out full and final revealed truth, and the other hasn’t.  Throughout the years I’ve seen several examples of the one who preached most powerfully against a certain sin, be the one who fell into that sin. Not loving may be the greatest heresy of all.

So….do I approve of bad doctrine? Of course not. I take theology and doctrine very seriously.  I study it. I subscribe to several magazines that uphold it. I read two or three books every week – and have all my life – to keep up with it.  And I love God’s word and read it daily to (among other things) be sure that I am in step with what God actually teaches and wants from me.

But whether or not I believe in the cup and wafer actually becoming the body and blood of Christ or not – when I take communion – or that “apostles” still exist – or that I have to understand penal substitutionary atonement – or that Jews can stay Jewish and believe Jesus is the Messiah – surely, while all are important and interesting debates – they will not be the measure of my life with Jesus.

To the two Wheaton students – may God bless you in your passionate search for truth.  May it be full of all of life’s joys and bumps that will form you into the gracious and godly men you want to be.

And to the other heresy-hunters out there….as well-meaning as you are:  Get another Job. One that bears fruit.


  1. Todd G. says:

    Hi Carl, – If you look down at a post I copy/pasted from the following Blog:

    – You will see that a Priest at the Coptic Oriental Orthodox Church said exactly what you often say: “Muslims joined Christians for prayer at this event and they were told by the Priest that ‘ they did not have to change their religion but they needed to know that there is one Savior, Isa [Jesus Christ].’” Do you think anybody wonders if the Priest is Orthodox?

    “On 11.11.11, Egypt had a historic prayer meeting. Egyptian leaders are saying there has been a significant spiritual “shift” in their country and we are trying to make sense of it all..
    – “I saw signs of the beginning of revival that I have never seen before!” an Egyptian evangelical leader..
    – 71,000 attended the all-night prayer meeting in Cario.- It was the largest Christian event in Egypt for over a thousand years
    – It was held at the Cave Church on Cairo’s largest garbage city, Mokattam. This church is called St. Simeon the Tanner Coptic Orthodox Church.
    – The gospel was proclaimed during the Prayer event and some people responded to the challenge call to follow Jesus.
    – Prayers for healing were made at midnight and some people were healed of physical problems.
    – Since the event, one Egyptian Christian leader said “The heavens are clean! It is easy to pray!” He calls it the beginning of revival.
    – Up to a month ago, there was absolutely no promotion for this event. No flyers. In fact, the organizer was still undecided on whether to host it on Friday or Saturday.
    – It was an Egyptian event. Buses took people to this event from all over Egypt with almost no foreigners.
    – In September 2009, a prayer meeting was held in Egypt where the leaders, including the main organizer of this event heard God tell them that there would be bloodshed, persecution and the burning of churches. But if God’s people would come, and hear His voice, and repent, then He would hear their prayers.
    – The passage on repentance that was referenced in the 2009 prayer meeting was the Bible passage read at the beginning of the prayer service. “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7:14
    – On 9th October, 2011, when many Coptic Christians were killed in Cairo, Christian leaders met for 3 days of prayer. During this time, they announced their intention of a prayer event for Egypt, which culminated in this event.
    – Muslims joined Christians for prayer at this event and they were told by the Priest that they did not have to change their religion but they needed to know that there is one Savior, Isa [Jesus Christ].
    – Since the prayer meeting a few days ago, Cairo has experienced highly unusual rain, clouds, lightning and thunder during a month which normally gets only .15 cmsof rain.
    – Dr Rev Sameh Maurice, Pastor of Cairo’s largest evangelical church Kasr el Dobara stood and prayed among the participators.
    – Last Wednesday, Father Simon, who started the Cave Church [The Monastery of St Simeon the Tanner], had a vision of a bright light and a mountain that was lifted up and removed. He was told to prophesy and heard God say that “you will hear wonderful news this year!”

  2. Thanks for raising this issue. I have experienced this quite a bit from evangelicals in my own life and ministry in the area of new religions. I have brought critique to evangelical paradigms of “cult busting” in contrast with a cross-cultural missions approach, and unfortunately the heresy hunting lens has then been applied to me. I think part of the dynamic is that such folks are more concerned with a bounded set approach which is more concerned with defining and defending the boundaries of orthodoxy. By contrast, a centered set approach (which recognizes boundaries) is more concerned with the center (Christ) and facilitating journeys closer to that center. I’ve blogged on this in the past for what it’s worth:

    I appreciate the issues raised here and hope that you continue to help the church engage in critical reflection.

  3. Cory Taylor says:

    I’m with John. Thank you so much for writing about this.

  4. […] From “Heresy at Wheaton” by Carl Medearis. […]