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'Heresy' - and people who are like you 

Ashley Leighton-Plom writes:Ashley Leighton Plom
This is a reflection on some words from Rowan Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury. I’d like to share it as relevant to our ecumenical journey. It relates to the word ‘heresy’.

Heresy, if and when we use the word nowadays, is normally understood among Christians to refer to beliefs about things like God, Christ, and salvation which are wrong – dangerously wrong.

The other common use of words like “heretic” today are slightly groovy, like when someone says, “I’m a bit of a heretic”, and means something like “I’m a free-thinker, I don’t conform to society”. It usually has positive connotations, like independent thought and enlightenment beyond silly beliefs, someone who quests for truth and who is not afraid to challenge accepted assumptions to do so.

Until recently, those were the two meanings of words like “heresy” and “heretic” that I knew of. But I was recently introduced to a third – more original – meaning when I read a commentary by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on 1 Corinthians chapter 11 and the topic of heresy.* In it, Williams says that the root of the word “heresy” in Greek is the verb “to choose” – ‘hairesis’ – also where the word “adhere” comes from. Heresy, then, has to do with choosing who and what you associate with.

Williams uses this meaning to argue that, for St. Paul, heresy is not holding incorrect beliefs about God, but is “choosing the people you are comfortable with… choosing something other than the full fellowship of believers” to associate with. If this is true, then both the Church’s traditional meaning of heresy as “wrong belief”, and society’s positive use of heretic as “free thinker” are insufficient. “Heresy” could actually mean choosing to only associate with people who agree with you.

Williams develops this claim into a rather deep point about its significance. He says that what is wrong with being ungenerous in who we associate with is that we try to put a limit on God’s grace. We try to limit God’s ability to choose who he chooses, when we choose to associate less generously than he does. The inevitable consequence of this is that we end up believing in a God who is much less generous than the God who chooses to save people despite their depravity and their rebellion against him.

Ultimately, Williams suggests that the salve to this is learning to believe in the generosity of God to love whoever he chooses to love, and to learn to follow him in loving whoever he loves. 

If heresy is choosing to associate only with the people you are comfortable with, something other than the full fellowship of believers, then it turns out that the ecumenical endeavour is the very definition of orthopraxy.

* Rowan Williams, 'What is heresy today?', lecture given at the International Centre, Telford, as part of a diocesan visit to Lichfield, on Saturday 6th November, 2010. You can access a transcript and audio recording online at:

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