heresy is lying, and one who spreads it is a heretic.
excommunication means you teach or take actions as if you don't belong anymore, so it's being made official.
The power to determine this has at times been used truthfully, so that a group can maintain its identity and purpose. But as often, it has also been used for the sake of maintaining power, inspiring fear, and even for hiding truth. That is why the very idea of heresy has come under severe criticism.
These things may be heresies, in a Christian framework, if on core matters of the faith:
reasons given for actions that do harm to others or to Christians as a whole;
blasphemy : [ Greek blasphèmos < blas- (to curse, bring harm, or treat with contempt) + -pheme (speech)] Definition: Speaking about God with contempt, hatred or disdain.
Blasphemy isn't about letting loose a swear word or doing some religious act in a so-called "profane" style. Blasphemy is not even about being angry with God. Even the truest saints have done such things, in part because they were so true that they could be honest with God and humankind. (Remember that when the charge of so-called 'blasphemy' is used by authorities to silence their opponents.)
True blasphemy is verbally abusing the God who loves you, or doing the equivalent actions or gestures.
Can puny little you hurt the Almighty Creator of the Universe, All Stars and All Time, or his billions of followers? When you were a child, you probably said things that brought your parents to tears and anger. If so, you abused them the way you can abuse God. Or, think of someone you had a close friendship with, but somehow your trust was betrayed. You were close, but bitter words were said and you're now distant and separated. It stings, doesn't it? Blasphemy is when someone does it willfully, with intent and meaning.
God forgives blasphemy, and tries to do something about the separation. But the true blasphemer won't accept that forgiveness, as if to say: "Let me get this right -- you forgive me?? HA !! What nerve!". And so they seal their future. The bigger problem is that too often others join in the harangue, and when that happens, those others are also separated from God.
Blasphemy In the Headlines
In Islam, the question of how to punish blasphemy has come to the forefront today. Many, even within mainstream Islam, believe that the proper sentence for blasphemy is death. But a large opposing stream of thought says no, the blasphemer is simply to be treated as non-Muslim. (This way of thinking is ancient too, dating back many hundreds of years, but is now most typical of Muslims who support a secular form of government.) A few Islamic teachers over the years have even claimed that there should be no punishment at all for blasphemy, though that is the view of a rather small minority. Increasingly, blasphemy laws have been applied to non-Muslims. In some cases (especially, recently in Pakistan), pro-executionists have executed their Muslim opponents for the blasphemy of publicly opposing execution for blasphemy. Christians were once like that, too, as recently as 350 years ago. But that era taught us how madly destructive that was to society in general, and especially to the faith itself, which calls for acts of love rather than hate or anger. Blasphemy is rarely punished among Christians anymore, even within the churches. Even formal action against blasphemy means much less than it used to, since the person is generally free to join some other group or strike an independent path, as so many have done. Non-Muslim governments have for the most part gotten rid of their blasphemy laws.
heresy, definition: [ Greek hairesis (faction, division, contending group) < haireisthai (to choose, take action/sides) < hairein (to take)] teaching untruths about God. Or put another way, a heresy is an idea that warps the truth, usually as held by a leader or sect. It's often misspelled 'herecy' or 'heracy' or even 'hearsay'. One who holds to a heresy is called a 'heretic'. One is not a heretic for raising questions or thinking thoughts. One is a heretic for espousing, spreading, and/or teaching a specific answer that is seriously wrong about God. The term 'heresy' was at first simply used to describe the taking of sides, but as the arguments got more contentious in the Judaism of the century before Jesus, all such terms took on a much more polemic meaning. And when Christianity formed, it continued that negative understanding.
Why Determine Heresy?
In most religions that have a god, being
truthful about that god is taken very seriously. If God is really supreme, then God deserves the supreme honor of our taking the time and care not to run off rashly at the mouth claiming this or that thing is true about or is done by God, especially not to gain personal fame. This is the root of the concept of heresy.
Early Christian heresies were a bit different. Sure, a few of them were used by their leaders to challenge for some amount of personal power or fame, but that was actually uncommon. In the early church, power could not have been their object because until the Roman emperor Constantine, the Christian church had little real power, not even within itself. (And Constantine himself held some views that could politely be termed 'heterodox' -- different teachings that are still within the realm of Christian belief.) Usually, the people who came up with the heretical idea were honestly trying to better understand the significance of Jesus, and thought they had succeeded. Other Christians sifted the idea in detail to see where it led. It didn't matter if the idea or practice was merely odd or strange, since there were already many odd and strange beliefs which were (and are) held by those within the Church. The ones deemed 'heresies' by early Christians were the ideas that led people away from the gospel, or led to a counter-Christian theology or practice. Honest probings, unfortunately, can go honestly and seriously off course. Usually, a heresy led to forming a sect, that is, a group which was more restrictive than the rest of the Church, by not accepting the legitimacy of the more mainline Christian churches. Back then, the new ideas usually grew from looking at Christian beliefs through the eyes of the general culture where they lived, or some rising group within it. The struggle over heretical teachings was done mostly within the Church, rarely from the outside, and usually took a generation or two. The sifting process winnowed out the experiments or traps and kept what rang true. The process helped to refine and mature Christian beliefs, and develop a clearer Christian identity. The word 'heresy' is supposed to be applied only to teachings, the ideas someone spreads around to others, not the ones they keep to themselves. A Christian's actions are matters of 'praxis' treated under personal discipline, or as apostasy, and are technically not matters of heresy. However, the reasons they use publicly to justify wrongful actions can be judged 'heretical'.
What's Wrong With Calling Out Heresy?
The early or 'classic' heresies seem hypnotic in their ability to lead people far astray, into spiritually deluded and destructive beliefs and behaviors. (This is shown by how the ideas keep coming back in new forms, with the same results of belief or practice; for instance, gnosticism.) Thus, a passion for truth is the root of the concept of heresy. The idea of heresy runs into trouble, however, on several fronts, the biggest of which is, 'who determines what is heresy?'. Those in a position of power have routinely claimed the power to define heresy and used it against those who challenged their authority, sometimes all the way to murder and war. Take this example, from John Calvin: "Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crime and guilty as they are". If the New Testament is right, such reasoning tells lies about God - and that means they are themselves heretics. And their actions of murder mark them as apostates.
Another thing must be made clear -- no one person has the authority to declare something heretical or define any one specific heresy. (In the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope has such authority in consultation with the College of Cardinals.) You can express your opinion that certain ideas or practices are indeed heretical (as I myself do in Spirithome.com, regarding dominion theology and the prosperity gospel). But that doesn't mean they are actually formally deemed 'heresies'. That takes a strong consensus generated over the course of more than a generation of watching the idea or its practitioners develop. Beliefs have consequences, and time will help sort out the heresy.
Can We Get Past the Concept of Heresy?
How can Christians honor the truth behind the concept of heresy, without letting it be a weapon in defense of the powerful? The nearest way is to have full, frank and open discussion of such matters, among a people who take seriously their duty to keep testing and prodding, prayerfully applying the Bible and the tools of discernment. And not putting up with any attempt to manipulate the dialogue, subtle or up front. Alas, even that doesn't work as well anymore, as some people have become ever better at manipulating words and images to sell self-serving lies about God. In the free-wheeling online world, there's a lot of lying about God being done.
apostasy : [ Greek, 'revolt'; apo- (away from, off) + -(hi)stanai (to stand)] Definition: defection; abandonment of what one once held or believed. Often misspelled 'apostacy'. One who commits apostasy is an apostate. It's usually used when someone makes a clear and public break with an orthodoxy or established teaching they once held dear. It's another of those words (like 'heresy', 'blasphemy', and 'excommunication') that are used by those who have power to stomp on those who have none. Yet the word itself is about a change that happens all too often in real life.
Apostasy and Change
How can one tell the difference between apostasy and just plain change?
Sometimes, change happens when someone finds out that their position has been built upon lies and accusations and anger instead of love and truth, and the truth demands that they rethink what they believe. That's an act of repentance and is thus an important part of following Christ. The switch would be an act of spiritual honesty. It's seen as 'apostasy' by the group that the person leaves, but the person would say that his/her previous position was really an 'apostasy' before God.
Apostasy can happen when someone realizes there is more to gain personally by changing position - most likely, that they'd no longer be on the outside of those they seek to befriend or attract. Sometimes, the switch is made to get a better shot at power or acceptance, or to take advantage of the opportunities of the moment.
'Apostasy' is not a mere change of mind, but a switching of sides, of actually joining what was once perceived as 'the enemy'. It can't be done without ripping apart the good and bad of being on the previous side; that's why it produces such anger. A person can ease their way into apostasy, by not being aware at the time that what they're doing is a switch, but then eventually adjusting to it. Or, one can get there by little nudges and small steps, each taken as part of a journey of thought or of life. But there comes a time when the switch has been made. And, whatever the reason, turning one's back on the true God is a profoundly negative act, even if done with good motives, precisely because there are no other real gods. The truth matters.
Which Side Are You On?
Most religions take apostasy seriously. The punishment is usually that the apostate person is no longer counted as part of the group (expulsion), and no longer gets the benefit of taking part in the group's religious activities (excommunication), or even in their non-religious cultural acts (shunning). The normative punishment for apostasy within the Christian tradition is excommunication. We all go through changes in how we view the world around us, and we wonder, doubt, test, probe, evolve, retrace. But there comes a time when doubts and differing ideas harden into personal convictions and are taught and acted upon. At such a time, the body of believers is within its rights to demand spiritual honesty.
The action of how to treat 'apostates' is much like those which are used by ethnic or political groups, clubs, and schools of thought to define their membership circles. Those too can be harsh.
For most religions, apostasy is given stiffer punishments only when the deaths of others are (or may easily be) caused by it. Often the degree of punishments will hinge on:
how fully the person understood their original faith in the first place,
how sane they are, and
whether they are actively spreading their new faith (or lack of faith).
These three factors are also taken into account in formal cases of blasphemy.
If all of this punishment talk sounds harsh, remember that groups have a right to define themselves, especially against those who continue to live the lie that they're still a part of the group when they no longer live like they are. Apostasy is analogous to treason in the affairs of nations, or side affairs in a romantic relationship. Those are taken seriously too; the relationship often is ended, or the nation (even those who have no other death penalty) may execute its traitor. Christianity is a religion of mercy, and of love of one's enemies, and thus killing an apostate is an anti-Christian act. But Christian authorities have killed them, especially in the later Roman Empire and Middle Ages Europe. This points to the problem with such terms as apostasy: those in power will use whatever rules are available to punish their opponents. Christ calls us to love even our enemies - including the apostate who used to be with us.
What Is Excommunication?
excommunication, defined: to disfellowship a person; to bar someone from holy communion and the other services and privileges of the church community. The biblical term for it is the Greek word anathema. According to the Catholic tradition, they are no longer considered part of the Christian church, and thus will not be a part of God's coming Kingdom.
Excommunicated people can't hold church office, can't teach, can't lead prayers, and often can't even enter the church building. The idea has some roots in the Bible. In Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus sets out some steps to be taken when someone of the believing community acts like those who are not. The first step is to talk to the sinner in private. If there is no change, then it is discussed in front of two or three, then to the whole local gathering. If the person does not change, then they are to be treated as what they are: someone whose actions show themselves not to be a part of the group.
The apostle Paul made it clear to the Corinthian church that his call not to associate with immoral people wasn't about the outside world, but about those who supposedly believe but still live in their sin. He warns them not to even eat with such a person. This is drawn from the law of Moses. This may best be taken in the light of 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15, that the banned person is not to be treated as an enemy, but needs to understand the gravity of their disobedience. It's meant as a way of giving them a new chance by letting them know how high the stakes are, how far they have wandered. And it reminds everyone else of what's at stake, too. If the church is defined as being made up of the citizens of the Kingdom, then if you're cast out from the church, especially in Catholic thought, you are not a part of the Kingdom, and when you die, you stay dead. The excommunicated are not considered as being risen with Christ.
Sounds Good, But....
You're probably saying, "sounds sensible, but...". That 'but' is big: 'but' excommunication is done, as often as not, solely to bolster the authority of the leader who orders it. The duty to listen is replaced by the urge to keep power. Such excommunications have caused much injustice within the church. It has cost the church deeply in terms of stifled truth and lessons not learned. Even just the threat of excommunication is enough for evil; for instance, the threat of it led to the betrayal of early Reformer Jan Hus. Excommunication has often been followed by execution.
Excommunication: The Idea Doesn't Go Away
Just about all churches (like most groups of any kind whether religious or not) have some way of throwing people out of the group. And with it comes at least a foggy hint (if not the brash, outright claim) that you have earned God's displeasure and might well roast eternally. If you're saying, 'my church doesn't', you're probably in for a shock. Even when there's no formal way to excommunicate, there are informal ways, and those can be harsh and unjust too. It's even used by those who were victims of it : In 1906,
Pentecostalist founder William Seymour was locked out of a church he was to preach at; in 1914, he locked someone else out of his Azusa church over a doctrinal dispute that had gotten personal. I as a Lutheran have to cope with how Lutheran hierarchs have stomped on people over the years.
It's both a mystery and a paradox. No group can keep its identity and purpose for long when they refuse to set limits and bounds. Do you allow the death squad leader or the Mafia don to mock God by their unrepentant presence and unchanged life? Do you sit quietly as a college professor who speaks out against belief in Jesus as Christ comes forward for the bread and wine in a bald-faced hypocrisy? Do you stay silent as the church's ears get tickled and minds get swayed? Yet, do you allow the power of excommunication to be used by the powerful to silence truth and stymie proper discernment from within your ranks? Neither choice is right, yet is any choice right? The idea behind excommunication lives on despite its rampant abuse. Perhaps one could let truth contend for itself, but our era has bred the best liars of all time, and they're so good at it that their trick theologies and well-cloaked deceptions quite often squeeze out the good. Perhaps all we can do is pray and leave it in God's hands, be as wise as we can be about what we do, be clear about where we ourselves are on the matter at hand, and taste a bitter chunk of the grief God gets from dealing with such a twisted species.
It adds up to this:
apostasy is treason.
blasphemy is insult.
heresy is lying.
You know it's wrong when it's done to you and those you love. It's even more wrong when it's done to God, the One who least deserves it. That's why no matter how times change, and no matter how often they are used against freedom and against life itself, you can't get away from the ideas that underlie words like 'heresy' and 'apostasy'. For Christians, the response must be fully truthful yet done in the merciful, forgiving manner of Christ, instead of the bloody, oppressive manner of empires and crusades.