I’d like to take a few moments to talk to you about everyone’s favorite subject: heresy. It’s not a term we hear all that often anymore, but the meaning behind it still appears every once in a while. Christians in America today seem to spend half their time debating who’s right and who’s heretical. As Baptists, the idea of heresy should seem completely foreign to us. To accuse someone of heresy would be utterly hypocritical on our parts.
Baptists today are heretics, as a matter of fact. We are simply the latest in a long line. Just think about our origins. Historians agree that John Smyth was the founding father of the Baptist tradition. Let’s remind ourselves of the genesis of the first Baptist congregation through the words of W.T. Whitley from his compilation of John Smyth’s works:
All being equal, Smyth proposed that Helwys their social leader should baptize them, but he deferred to his spiritual leader. Smyth therefore baptized himself, then baptized Helwys and the others. Thus, they prepared for a New Testament church of people baptized on profession of their repentance and faith in Christ.
“Smyth therefore baptized himself.”
Se-baptism, why, that’s heresy! That was the reaction of the majority of Christianity, but was it the case? On the contrary, what we see here is Smyth: a restless man who would only be a Baptist for a brief moment before seeking admission into the Waterlander Mennonite community, and spent his life searching ceaselessly for truth and for the most accurate manifestation of the New Testament church. He may have been first ordained as an Anglican, but that didn’t stop him from evolving as the Spirit shaped him and led him to new ideas and a new form of faith.
When we think of the early “heretics,” those with whom Irenaeus or Tertullian were so concerned, we think of deviations from the norm in an era when Christianity was in its infancy and unity was necessary for survival on a global scale. In the modern age, we need no such unity of doctrine. In the words of another great Baptist, Roger Williams, “God requireth not uniformity of religion,” Christianity is not at risk of extinction. What is the risk in allowing the Spirit to move among the body of Christ and to push the limits of our understanding of the divine?
Whether we’re talking about heresy or orthodoxy, we’re really talking about positions and doctrines regarding something which human language and thought cannot begin to even comprehend. Who are we to say that one idea is heresy while another is orthodox?
Now, am I saying that there are never any theological ideas which may prove harmful? No, not at all. I am simply saying that Christians, and particularly Baptists, should be a little more cautious about declaring an idea to be wrong or heretical. When it comes down to it, we’re all just heretics on a quest for truth.