In arguments between religious people we often hear one side accusing the other side of being heretics.  Generally, it means that the other side is guilty of veering away from some doctrine or item of belief that is considered to be vital to that particular religion.  For example, supposedly teaching "salvation by works" is seen as heresy by Calvinists, and teaching a doctrine called “eternal security” is seen as heresy by the opposite side.  But is this concept of theological orthodoxy consistent with what the Bible teaches about heresy?

The only use of the word heretic in the King James Bible is one from Paul's letter to Titus, where he says:  "He that is a heretic after the first and second admonition, reject."  (Titus 3:10)  It doesn't give much of a definition, but the verse preceding it may be a clue.  It says (in a more modern translation)  "Shun foolish questionings, genealogies, strife, and disputes about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain."  This apparently led one translator to use the phrase "factious man" for what is translated as heretic in the KJV.

This could still be seen to support the idea that a heretic is someone who does not toe the line with church authorities.  But in a debate between the so-called heretic and the church authorities, would they not both be seen as 'disputing'?  And wouldn't that require us to reject them both?

I have generally understood the verse about rejecting a heretic after the first and second admonition as a guide when confronting people on the streets who just want to argue.  It has saved me a lot of fruitless hours, and enabled me to reach a lot of other people whom I would not have reached if I had continued to spend time on that one argumentative (or "factious") person.

But I still think that a deeper understanding is necessary.  If, for example, this web site adopted a policy that rejects anyone who disagrees with us, wouldn't we end up like all of the churches, i.e. just assuming that anyone who disagrees with us is a heretic?  I should think so.  

What I am leading up to here are two things.  One is a suggestion that a heretic is only someone who resists the Spirit of God, and not necessarily someone who rejects us.  And the other is that there is a link between being a heretic, being insincere, and being guilty of the unpardonable sin.  This seems to be consistent with the entire message of the New Testament as we have understood it.

God comes saying (through Jesus) some things that sound a bit unorthodox and some people (rightfully) question it.  But there are other people who do more than question it.  They actually sense that there is truth in what Jesus is saying, and they resist the Spirit of Truth itself.  Jesus senses this, he makes a couple of attempts to get them to stop resisting the truth, and then he rejects them.  "Woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”  That kind of stuff.

The unpardonable sin is primarily unpardonable because the Spirit that would like to pardon the person is being resisted.  When the Pharisees accused Jesus of having a demon, they were calling God's Holy Spirit an evil Spirit.  They were, in effect, closing the door on God's ability to administer love and forgiveness to them.  They were committing the unpardonable sin.  As Jesus said afterwards, "Every sin that men commit can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven."

A literal interpretation of that would say that even if a person later repents of having resisted the Spirit, they cannot be forgiven.  I think that there is a place that some people come to where they so totally reject the Spirit of Truth that they consign themselves to a lifetime of rejection.  But I don't think that is the case with everyone who resists the Holy Spirit's tug on their heart.

I have encountered people who were distraught because they thought that they had committed the unpardonable sin.  But I think that as long as someone can be distraught about it, they have not committed it.  People who have really committed the unpardonable sin, who are real out and out heretics, never break.  They become totally hardened to the truth forever and lock themselves into a cave of bitterness from which they will never emerge.  It may even be that one reason why we are urged to turn away from a person who is rejecting the truth after the first and second admonition is so that we can avoid pushing them into a hardness that they may never be able to pull out of.

Of course, before we can even give an admonition, we need to be sure that (a) we are really genuinely acting as vessels through which the Spirit of Truth is speaking to them; and (b) that they are really resisting that truth and not just seeking further clarification.

When we convey the truth from a pure heart, it convicts people.  And the more pure our heart is, the more it will convict them.  That conviction will either melt the hardness or it will strengthen it.  If you find that your efforts are only making the person more hard, then it's time to back off.

At that stage, and in your thinking, you probably need to regard the person as a lost cause.  You can go on to discussing more trivial things, but it is pointless arguing any further along the lines that you were going.  About all you can do is to pray that God will send someone else along who can get through to that person, or that you may eventually find some other topic or situation where the person will not resist the Spirit of Truth speaking through you.

All of this is consistent with my understanding of sincerity, which I feel is crucial to all that Christ was on about.  He was looking for those people who are sincerely hungering after righteousness.  These are the people who probably won't even need an admonition (much less two of them).  They will recognise the truth in what we are saying, and they will respond positively.  Or if they do ask questions, they will honestly and humbly listen to our answers.

If sincerity is the bottom line in our theology, then insincerity is the ultimate heresy.  Can you see how it fits in with what I have been saying?  Insincere people are not going to like any teaching that exposes their unwillingness to change, and they will especially not like a teaching about sincerity.  They are going to resist it.  But don't assume that because you are involved in an argument with them that you are actually presenting them with the Spirit of Truth.  Remember that the concept only works to the extent that we ourselves are sincere.  And don't be too quick to believe that just because you have an opinion about something that that represents sincerity.

Sincerity means being open to the possibility that the other person may actually be right.  In other words, we need to be listening very deeply to the person who is arguing with us, just as we want that person to be listening very deeply to what we are saying.  When I do this, I find myself trying to understand where the tensions are coming from.  I try to get inside the other person's head and to understand what it is that they are trying (albeit unsuccessfully) to communicate to me.  Sometimes when I do that, I find where the problem is coming from, and we can move forward; but often when I do that (try to understand where they are coming from), it gets them even more angry.  And that's when I start to think that I am encountering insincerity.

I recently encountered a rabid woman.  She was full of accusations against me.  It was virtually impossible for me to allay all of her fears.  But I prayed for wisdom and then, after giving her a pretty strong admonition (which actually caused her to slow down and listen) I was able to deal with her questions, and she turned right around.  A few days later, however, the same process had to be repeated, but in both instances, she did not continue to reject what I was saying.  In her own way, she had assumed I was a heretic, and in my own way, I was pretty convinced that she was a heretic (i.e. someone who was closed to the truth).  But I think that we both found out that we were wrong.

Anyway, it's about time for a conclusion, and I think the conclusion is that we should probably go on avoiding situations where people want to argue; but just that we should be open to the possibility that the person trying to argue with us may not have really heard what we were trying to say.  Maybe with a different approach, or after a period of silence, there will be room for you to move forward in the relationship.