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Vol. 2 No. 2 - Pentecost 2007

On Mistakes and Heresies

"...There must be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you." - 1 Cor. 11:19

"If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that." - 1 John 5:16

For those who have found the fullness of Truth in Orthodoxy after leaving behind a heterodox confession, it is inevitable to experience a flood of questions about "getting it right". The zeal to achieve this goal is understandable, and even admirable in a time and place where the evangelical spirit and personal piety have faded in many places.

Yet there is an inherent risk with such zeal, a risk which finds itself summed up in the account of the Publican and the Pharisee: for those who take matters of faith seriously, the ever-present temptation to judge others can be spiritually lethal. The North American landscape makes this particularly challenging, dotted as it is with a plethora of examples of religious pluralism, strangeness, and - yes indeed, brethren - heresies.

In a pluralistic society, heresies - false teachings about Christ, His Church, and the nature of the human condition - abound. These are evident in the sugar-coated speeches given by civic leaders who do not wish to alienate any group of votes, however weird or wrong the group may be. This is seen among heterodox, who offer innovations and personal constructions as models for "reinventing" the Church - you know, the Church that is the Body of Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever?

Unfortunately, this is even seen among the Orthodox, who are tempted to flirt with falsehood, in order to be accepted by society at large, who would recast the secular mind of the world, and wrap it up nicely in paper festooned with three barred crosses. As the faithful recognize, such decoration does not make something Orthodox, and heresies - whether outside the Church or (especially) inside the Church, must be condemned. This is the purpose of the Sunday of Orthodoxy: to draw the line between Truth and error, and it is the responsibility of every Orthodox Christian to speak boldly and with love and gentleness in its defense - even Canadian Orthodox, who suffer from the temptation of understatement in all things.

In our defense of Truth, we must exercise care in dishing out the verdict. There are individuals, including clergy, who preach heresy in our day. Yet there are many, many more who fall into something which resembles heresy, but which is far less damnable, and ultimately, more forgivable, and that is the reality of making mistakes.

The distinction between heresy and mistakes is an important one. Heretics hold a view that becomes an ideology, grabbing every opportunity to promote that ideology. Those who make mistakes (even doctrinal or spiritual ones), may repeat their errors, but the errors themselves do not become their identity, their reason for living. Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky, whom many recognize as a saint, said and wrote things which were wrong, yet he willingly accepted correction from those in the Church who approached him with a loving spirit. He saw no need to carry on decades-long battles, to arrange public speaking tours or (in our day) to create virtual online libraries to smash the opposition. Holy people just don't seem to have that in them - which is of course what makes them holy.

Similar questions confront us in the Church today, where criticisms of heresy are readily offered, where an accurate assessment would recognize that such views are often, in fact, mistakes in judgement, erroneous statements or choices often made with the best of intentions. Critics of the Gregorian Calendar can be tempted to cast it as a heresy, when in fact it was adopted by most westerners in good faith, despite the fact that this mistake caused and still causes huge divisions among Orthodox brethren - who remain in communion with each other! Those who participate in the so-called ecumenical movement with Protestants and Roman Catholics do so with the best of intentions, often finding themselves maneuvered into awkward "prayer services" which can compromise their reputation, and often their conscience - without ever intending to compromise their faith (although in cases where such actions scandalize the faithful, the responsive correction must by necessity be more swift). From liturgical innovations to pastoral over-leniency, the distinction between error and heresy is repeatedly presented to us, and in most cases, we find the former, not the latter.

Mistakes need correction: they do not need acrimony, mudslinging against the personal character of those involved, or schism. In North America, there is certainly room enough for us to exist, to remain in communion with each other, and to still speak plainly - even fiercely - against falsehood, including occasions when that falsehood is the result of personal mistakes by clergy or bishops.

It is sometimes easy to take the tumble from error into heresy, but there is something that can save us from the fall, and that is humility. Humility is the spirit of reconciliation and repentance. Humility is the spirit which returned the erring apostle, and the unbelieving apostle, back to the Lord. Humility is the fruit of the Spirit of Truth, and where it is present, a thousand souls can be brought to repentance.

Without this spirit, however, we can push our brethren down the hill from error to heresy, schism, and apostasy, and in our zeal, share in their sin, leaving the evil one as the only one laughing as we fall.

Father Geoffrey Korz, (Pentecost, 2007)

© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.