Tuesday of Trinity 17: Beware of Heresy Hunting

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“…they watched Him closely.”

Consider these Pharisees in the Gospel, led by one of their own rulers. Jesus joins them on the Sabbath to break bread with them, and the whole time they’re watching Him closely to see if, or to what extent, He would, in their minds, break the commands about the Sabbath.

Let’s set aside that Jesus is the new wine that doesn’t fit into old wineskins, so that whatever He does with the Sabbath is necessary, and something only to be understood by those with faith – so He’ll never please them on that score short of their having faith in Him. Let’s set aside that Jesus may have been by-passing their own manmade rules regarding the Sabbath and observing it in its original meaning, the way God intended it to be observed. And let’s set aside what Jesus actually ends up teaching them, that the Sabbath is made for man, and it’s intended for “mercy, not sacrifice.” Let’s set aside all this, and simply look at the psychology behind the Pharisees.

Who does that? Who considers their theological system or rituals in such a way? Why weren’t the Pharisees observing the Sabbath? Wasn’t there plenty to do with the Sabbath? Why were they worried more about someone not observing the Sabbath than they were about their own observing of it?

This is what I call the “heresy hunter” syndrome. It’s self righteousness applied to doctrine. The doctrine is not about any positive virtue or what its content does for us. Rather it’s about that satisfaction of “getting it right.” It’s like a student who smiles smugly at the A he gets on a history test, but quickly forgets, because he doesn’t care, about the history he’s just learned or its significance.

In traditions which emphasis “right doctrine,” the “heresy hunter” temptation is always stronger. It’s perhaps one of its by-products. Of course, Old Testament theology being right doctrine, this is definitely one of the by-products we see in the Pharisees.

Now some on the left side of Christian tradition see this as the reason for Christ’s antagonism toward the Pharisees, because they were too uptight about doctrine. Rather, so it goes, Jesus shows we shouldn’t be so strict about doctrine. So, for example, while some might get uptight about the doctrine of the Real Presence – that communion is Jesus’ body and blood – to be strict about that teaching is “Pharisaism.” Jesus would err on the side of mercy and tolerance, so it is thought.

This is a mistake. Jesus got quite strict about doctrine, and took quite a distinct position on doctrine which He presented as absolutely right. And for those who want to apply some idea of flexibility to Jesus’ own words, which words of Jesus are they suggesting we need not be strict about? About whether to have mercy rather than observe the Sabbath Day? About whether we should baptize and teach when making disciples? About whether we should reckon Him a giver of bread or our Savior? About whether we should make peace before going to the altar? About whether we should worry or not? Which teachings of Jesus do we get to be less strict about? I’d like to know.

But just because Jesus is strict about doctrine doesn’t justify heresy hunting. Heresy hunting is more about correctness than it is about Jesus. That has it all backwards. We love Jesus first, for what He does, says, and teaches – which by the way is correct – and then when confronted with something that goes against that, we defend against it. Heresy hunting begins with a posture of first seeking whatever goes against what is correct. And the motivation is not to defend the Gospel, but to satisfy some internal need to have ones ducks in a row.

So, for example, lets look at the doctrine of communion. We hold what Jesus teaches about it. “This is my body…this is my blood.” It’s clear, and St. Paul supports this teaching by saying the bread we break and cup we bless are a “communion” in the body and blood of Christ. Finally, Jesus says those who eat His flesh and drink His blood have eternal life. Pretty straight forward.

Now, those who love Christ and have faith in what He gives and teaches regarding communion joyfully receive communion as what it is, His body and blood given for forgiveness. It’s a great testament of His love and forgiveness, His death for us. It humbles us; it reminds us of His love; it teaches love; it brings us together with other sinners, all who share in this wonderful gift.

Who among them would be looking around to make sure everyone else was properly receiving it, looking to see if they cross themselves properly, or show enough reverence in receiving it, or wondering if they really believe what they are receiving? Communion isn’t a celebration of correctness; it’s a communion in the gifts of His death.

Yes, communion indicates public agreement on doctrine, but that is really the pastor’s job to judge that, and he will have to give an account of his performance here.

Eradicating the “heresy hunter” demon from our minds helps us to deal with other people or religious traditions as well. We receive them not in a “half empty” way, but a “half full” way. That is, if for whatever reason we find ourselves in a tradition we don’t agree with, we don’t sit there and wait to be offended, watching closely for their slip-ups so we can pounce. We can actually receive whatever is good in them as from the Lord, and if error comes up, we can testify to the truth. The former way presents us as being in love with our own sense of superiority; the latter way presents us as faithful to the Truth.

The Pharisees watched Jesus closely, when they should have been rejoicing in the glorious day the Lord had made for them. Again, this doesn’t mean we don’t have a concern about doctrine, or take a strict stance toward the truth, but the order is Truth first, defend when needed. The order for the heresy hunter is look for falsehood first, not for the sake of the Truth, but for the satisfaction of being correct. There is a difference.

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