Some Thoughts On Using The Word “Heretic”

Some of you may have noticed that I seldom use the word “heresy” or “heretic” when I speak of heterodox versions of Christianity and those who follow them. I have thought that, perhaps, some of you might have gathered the wrong idea that I do not think that heterodox opinions are heretical. This is not the case. However, I also think that the word “heresy” is not a very useful word when we are speaking to the heterodox.  

The word “heresy” has a technical meaning within the Church. Its meaning is particular to the context of those who leave the Church by embracing heterodox opinions. However, for those outside the Orthodox Church, for those who have never even heard of the Orthodox Church and know nothing of their theological ancestors who left the Orthodox Church more than a millennium ago, the word “heresy” has no particular denotation beyond “You disagree with us,” but it carries the very strong connotation that “we think you are miserable, stupid and damned because you don’t agree with us.”

This is why I avoid using the word. I am not afraid of the word, I often use it when I am speaking to those who understand what it means–and more importantly, what it does not mean. But admittedly, that is a pretty small group. Even among Orthodox Christians, I am wary to use the word because one often encounters among the Orthodox faithful a latent triumphalism that seems to relish the cultural connotation of the word “heretic” as much as or more than its technical meaning.

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