It seems from this question, its comments, answers, and chat, that the word "heresy" and any of its derivatives can be seen as offensive. We are a non-doctrinal site and so there's no such thing as orthodoxy here. Therefore, anyone addressing some point of view as a "heresy" is not making a valid argument in the context of this site. Given many, many years of religious conflict where this word has been used as a weapon against opposing beliefs, we should just consider the word as offensive.

To quote Ami:

I think it's really dangerous to throw around the label "heresy" on this site...under any circumstances and in any context.
This site can be a wonderful amalgam of different view points and perspectives.
Disagreements need to be cast in the language of rigorous textual analysis. Name calling and broad generalizations are the most sure way to undermine that project.

So I'd like to take a simple vote:

  • Vote this question up if you feel that posts that use the word "heresy" should be flagged for the moderators to delete right-away - because it is inherently offensive.

  • Otherwise vote this question down.

(And feel free to provide more nuanced positions as answers. But make your opinion known by voting on this question first.)

Edit: There has been a lot of discussion since this was posted. In light of that, I am editing the question to give early voters a chance to reconsider should they choose.

For those who can't see the vote splits, we have currently had 9 votes. Please note that moderators are bound by decisions taken on meta - if there is a clear consensus here that 'heresy' is inherently offensive, we will have no choice but to immediately delete most questions and answers using the term - this is rather drastic action to take so please consider your vote carefully! –  Jack Douglas Feb 14 '12 at 7:29
@Monica - in practice that would be unworkable - see my comment here for why I think that is the case. –  Jack Douglas Feb 14 '12 at 18:09
@Monica thanks for that link - very useful insights in the top answer IMO –  Jack Douglas Feb 15 '12 at 8:43
@Monica: I agree with Jack. I'm planning on "borrowing" the question idea for Christianity.SE. –  Jon Ericson Feb 15 '12 at 17:11
I just submitted the question this morning. I spent a long time considering how to ask it there. (I find it interesting that you mention the wisdom of drawing the other aside to discuss conflict in private. This was on of Jesus' commands to us too. Can that idea be found in the Tanakh?) –  Jon Ericson Feb 16 '12 at 18:45

5 Answers 5

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I thought I was done with this topic, but on further reflection I think something more needs to be said.

First of all, I appreciate Dan's thoughts on the meaning of heresy. He's laid out a rational and balanced case for responding to the use of the word "heresy". However, I think something is missing.

Words have meanings, but they also have histories, and the history of a word changes its meaning. While it is true that "heresy" is derived from the Greek word for "choice", it does not simply mean "choice", and "heretic" does not simply mean "one who chooses what he wants according to his own ideas and opinions, selecting certain parts of the Christian Tradition while rejecting others". The site to which Dan links clarifies:

By his actions, a heretic not only destroys the fullness of the Christian truth but also divides the life of the Church and causes division in the community.

That is the basic meaning of heretic within the Orthodox Christian tradition. "Heresy" is not simply choosing this teaching or tradition over that one, and is not simply being wrong about some point of doctrine. The article continues:

Generally speaking, the Orthodox tradition regards the teachers of heresies as not merely being mistaken or ignorant or misguided; it accuses them of being actively aware of their actions and therefore sinful. A person merely misguided or mistaken or teaching what he believes to be the truth without being challenged or opposed as to his possible errors is not considered to be a heretic in the true sense of the word.

A couple things are notable here; first, that the word heretic is applied only to those who have been challenged and willfully continue in their errors; and second, that it is applied only to those who "cause division in the community". Mere disagreement about the finer points of doctrine is not heresy, thus we are not "all heretics".

But the word heresy means more than division within the community. As church and state became intertwined in the Middle Ages and beyond, heresy became a crime punishable by death. In Torquemada's persecution of "crypto-Jews", the Marian persecutions in England, the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, the executions of Michael Servetus, William Tyndale, and others, the label of heresy was a license for silencing dissenters permanently.

I can appreciate the fact that most people who use that word today do not want to kill the people they accuse. Nevertheless, I think there are more appropriate terms that can be used to express strong disagreement without carrying the baggage of some of the church's worst behavior.

I don't expect to change anyone's mind; I just thought this side needs to be heard. –  Bruce Alderman Feb 16 '12 at 23:33
+1 Well said. As a practical matter, there are other ways to express the idea that something is unorthodox in a way that does not make people think of the Spanish Inquisition. I think the cost of allowing people to use that particular word is minor compared to the danger of giving readers the wrong impression about our community. –  Jon Ericson Feb 17 '12 at 0:06
On further consideration, I'm accepting this answer. As a community we don't think that using the word "heresy" or its derivatives is grounds for immediate deletion, but we are strongly opposed to its general use. Caveat scriptor! –  Jon Ericson Feb 17 '12 at 0:10
You make an important and IMO helpful point (though perhaps the word has lost some of its sting in recent years). My caution is that there is more than one way to cause division - and in community building we need to be working against them all, rather than promoting one against another which is what we would be doing if we were too heavy-handed with censorship. –  Jack Douglas Feb 17 '12 at 7:34

Heresy (αἵρεσις) simply means "choice," and "a heretic is one who chooses what he wants according to his own ideas and opinions, selecting certain parts of the Christian Tradition while rejecting others" (OCA). As @JonEricson pointed out here, "'Heresy' implies 'Orthodoxy'...." The word orthodox comes from two Greek words: ὀρθός meaning 'straight' and δόξα meaning 'belief.' In order to declare someone as a heretic, there must first be an agreed upon standard for 'right belief.'

But none of us agree on which tradition is correct, and thus we are all heretics. We have all chosen what tradition(s) to believe and follow over and against others. From a Roman Catholic perspective, many Protestants are heretics. From a Southern Baptist perspective, many Roman Catholics are heretics. And on and on the name-calling goes. The term is intended as a derogatory label, despite its original meaning.

With this in mind, I don't believe that the title is constructive when discussing textual issues. Admitting your biases is good, but labeling someone a heretic because their biases conflict with your own is unhelpful.


I don't find the heretic label especially offensive, even when it is intended as an ad-hom, because the person calling me that is probably wrong :)

In all seriousness, my issue with it is not so much one of offense and more that it is symptomatic of a post that is not well-focused for this site. We are supposed to be about analysis of biblical texts, but when you're talking about heresy, you have switched to doctrinal issues that are decidedly not what we what this site to be about.

Moreover, this type of name-calling is a good reason to avoid talk of doctrine, and can turn people off. So I don't advocate for an immediate deletion or banning the word, but I would guess that wherever this term is being thrown around, there is already good reason to downvote, close, or delete the post. So lets just keep it focused on the text.

I wish I could do more than +1, your middle paragraph hits the nail on the head! –  Caleb Feb 14 '12 at 2:40
We simply cannot and anyway should not 'avoid talk of doctrine'. Every answer on the site, and most questions, are informed by and contain doctrine aka the writers framework for understanding the text. The way we shape the site is by defining what questions can be asked, not how they should be answered beyond that they must a) answer the question, b) not be spam and c) not be offensive. –  Jack Douglas Feb 14 '12 at 7:25
@JackDouglas, excellent point that we cannot and ought not pretend that doctrinal issues are irrelevant. Perhaps what I intend is that if the focus of a post is on doctrine, it is not in line with this site. –  Ray Feb 14 '12 at 21:56

Fortunately, in the four months this site has been up, this is the first time we've seen the word heresy. (Well, second if you count this answer which notes that Pelagianism has historically been considered a heresy.) However, it's not the first time I've seen users taking such an aggressive tone against people with whom they disagree.

Left unchecked, this aggressiveness will drag down the site and destroy it before it gets out of beta. My vote is to delete these answers or questions, because I don't see how anything less could possibly keep the tone civil.

@Ray and Dan have suggested handling this with downvotes and comments. I'd like to believe that would make a difference. But so far (admittedly, from a sample of one) that does not appear to be the case.

The answer we're discussing has, as I write this, six upvotes and two downvotes, and is the accepted answer for the question. That's good for 71 points. That doesn't look like a deterrent to me.

The original answer used the controversial phrase "heresy of feminism", and after much community discussion @LanceRoberts edited the answer to remove the word "feminism". That's a good start. However, the word "heresy" remains, although what it's referencing is a bit more vague.

By giving positive feedback to answers that include the word "heresy", we are creating an atmosphere where people who agree with that viewpoint feel more welcome, and people with other viewpoints feel less welcome. Eventually, Biblical Hermeneutics will have an orthodoxy, and all of us who don't adhere to it will be "heretics".

Edit: I can see I wasn't clear. The issue isn't name-calling. The issue is setting expectations for which points of view are welcome here. Maybe a hypothetical example would help.

Suppose someone asked a question about the authenticity of the "Comma Johanneum" in 1 John 5:7. Suppose, too, that one answer was from a Jehovah's Witness, and included a paragraph near the end that said, "The Comma Johanneum has often been used to support the false doctrine of the trinity." And finally, suppose that the quality of this answer (minus this doctrinal statement) was such that it became the highest-voted and accepted answer. Some visitors to the site will see this answer and assume this is a Jehovah's Witness website; if they are JW themselves, they may be more likely to stay, but if they are not, they may be more likely to leave. Over time, the readership will skew more toward a JW point of view, and the initial erroneous impression of the site based on the phrase "false doctrine of the trinity" will become an accurate picture of the site's focus.

Suppose, however, that the phrase "false doctrine of the trinity" was deemed offensive by many users, and the user changed his answer to read, "The Comma Johanneum has often been used to support false doctrines." This is no better just for being less specific. It will still be clear to many readers just which doctrine is being referenced.

Likewise here. The phrase "heresies that denigrate the biblical concept of male headship" is hardly different from "the heresy of feminism". It's still obvious that the same concept is being referenced. The end result is that the site will gradually skew toward a Complementarian point of view.

-1 this is nowhere near an accurate assessment of what has happened. Plus the approach you advocate is more aggressive than the problem you want to stamp out IMO. Lance has responded positively to my request that he change certain elements of his answer and as you can see many of the downvotes have since been removed. –  Jack Douglas Feb 14 '12 at 7:19
You're confusing calling someone a heretic as opposed to calling some interpretation/thought process/idea/belief heretical. If you ever hung out in Meta SO, you'd see that I was the one most against name-calling, insults and offensive words, and have lost many hundred rep there taking that stand. –  Lance Roberts Feb 14 '12 at 8:13
@Bruce On re-reading, I apologise for the tone of my first comment though I think the content is right - I'd be glad to have the chance to discuss this in chat (do read back through what was already said there if you have the time). Please ping me in there sometime. –  Jack Douglas Feb 14 '12 at 18:14

"Heresy" is definitely not offensive enough to ban across this site. The word "idiot" is offensive too, but it doesn't make sense to go banning every mildly or potentially offensive term.

+1 'offensive' is 99.9% a matter of judgement rather than a matter of individual words –  Jack Douglas Feb 14 '12 at 0:41
There's already seven billion websites out there where users call each other idiots. Do we want Biblical Hermeneutics to be one more? –  Bruce Alderman Feb 14 '12 at 6:42
@Bruce, we don't need to go around calling people anything. Heresy can address what's said and not the person, since all men are finite, we all have a little heresy in us that comes out occasionally. I'm sure glad others have pointed out my mistakes in the past, God used them to change me. –  Lance Roberts Feb 14 '12 at 8:11

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