Why are some beliefs called “mainstream” and others cursed as abominable or worse? How can you tell a heretic from a true Christian? History reveals some surprising ironies!
“Heretic! You are anathema!”
For centuries, these words terrified many who professed Christ throughout the Middle Ages. This severe judgment not only meant being put out of the Roman Catholic Church, but could also mean torture or death—and often did. A common form of execution was burning at the stake, and thousands suffered that horrible fate. Deviating from the religious orthodoxy was dangerous!
What is a heretic? “A dissenter from established religious dogma; especially: a baptized member of the Roman Catholic church who disavows a revealed truth” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The word anathema means “one that is cursed by ecclesiastical authority” (ibid.), and over the two millennia of the Roman church’s existence, many who were so accursed often found that they were also accused—of a capital crime punishable by torture or death by the civil authorities.
Modern scholars acknowledge that the Church as it existed in the first century was quite different in belief and practice from what followed in succeeding centuries. Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, a Protestant clergyman and author, acknowledged the dramatic change that took place. He wrote, “For fifty years after St. Paul’s life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about 120ad with the writings of the earliest church-fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul” (The Story of the Christian Church, p. 41). The Christian Church, prior to these changes that began to occur in the second and third centuries, is known today to historians and theologians as “the Primitive Church.”
What was it like to be a believer in Christ at the time of the apostles? Historically, there were many differences from today. For instance, you would have kept the biblical Sabbath holy, as the commandment states, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), and you would do so in addition to keeping the annual Holy Days (Exodus 20:8–11; Leviticus 23; Hebrews 4:9–10; 1 Corinthians 5:8) and the Christian Passover (Luke 22:15; 1 Corinthians 11:23–25). Gentile members of the original Church were not “trying to be Jewish” when they observed all ten of the Ten Commandments; rather, they were seeking to obey God (Matthew 19:17; 1 John 2:3–4, 5:3; Revelation 14:12).
The “Primitive Church” believed that the gospel of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached referred to an actual kingdom on earth, to be established by Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah who will return to begin His millennial rule. But in the minds of most professing Christians, the message about Christ returning as a king ruling an actual earthly Kingdom from Jerusalem is not literally true, and should be taken merely as an allegory. If someone believes in what they deride as the “political Messiah,” such belief can be labeled heretical.
Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15). Today, however, billions of professing Christians even disagree as to what that true gospel is.
Consider what the single largest group of professing Christians—with more than a billion adherents—teaches to its members: “The kingdom of God means, then, the ruling of God in our hearts; it means those principles which separate us off from the kingdom of the world and the devil; it means the benign sway of grace; it means the Church” (“Kingdom of God,” Catholic Encyclopedia). Many others identify the Kingdom of God with heaven, where they expect to reside upon their death. Some profess no interest in the Kingdom of God, and focus only on the person of Jesus Christ.
They cannot all be right. Yet, ever since Christ’s death and resurrection, the range of doctrines taught in the name of “Christianity” has been diverse. Even during the first century ad, the apostles had to wrestle with false teachers and doctrines. The Apostle Paul lamented the deceptive teachings that had been brought into the early Church. He said, “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:6–7).
From its beginning, the Church founded by Jesus Christ believed that Christ would return in power and glory to establish a world-ruling Kingdom, and that His saints would rule under Him on earth for a period of time known as the “Millennium.” Yet, although that hope-filled message was at the heart of true Christianity from the start, it was rejected in later centuries as mere allegory. The orthodoxy of the first-century Church was soon considered heresy.
Paul also warned that false ministers would come and teach false doctrines. “But what I do, I will also continue to do, that I may cut off the opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the things of which they boast. For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works” (2 Corinthians 11:12–15).
In the fourth century ad, the Roman church held a series of councils or synods to establish the doctrines it would henceforth uphold. During the Council of Nicaea (325 ad), Sunday observance was officially codified (among other doctrines). Then, in the Council of Laodicea (ca. 364 ad), not only was Sunday observance reaffirmed; the long-standing practice of observing the biblical seventh-day Sabbath was forbidden. Roman church leaders needed to make that pronouncement because Christian observance of all ten of the Ten Commandments—including the seventh-day Sabbath commandment—was still widespread.
Canon 29 of the Council of Laodicea states: “Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day [a reference to Sunday]; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ.”
The Council of Laodicea not only prohibited people from resting on the biblical Sabbath as required in the Ten Commandments; it required that people actually work on that day—thereby profaning what God had made holy. Those who refused to break the Sabbath commandment were excommunicated as heretics and declared anathema.
In later centuries, pronouncing anathema on an individual required an impressive ceremony by the Pope himself. “Anathema remains a major excommunication which is to be promulgated with great solemnity. A formula for this ceremony was drawn up by Pope Zachary (741–52)… He takes his seat in front of the altar or in some other suitable place, amid pronounces the formula of anathema which ends with these words: ‘Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive [the person] himself and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment.’ Whereupon all the assistants respond: ‘Fiat, fiat, fiat’” (“Anathema,” Catholic Encyclopedia).
These believers were excluded… excommunicated… condemned!
Jesus prophesied that His Church would be a “little flock” (Luke 12:32) that would undergo persecution. “They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service” (John 16:2). He also said, “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you…” (John 15:20). This would continue right up to the time of His second coming. “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake” (Matthew 24:9).
Are there groups today that profess Christ, but are considered heretical? There certainly are. Today, however, those groups that profess something different from the “mainstream” are more likely to be called “cultists” than heretics, and the term “cult” itself has a particularly negative meaning. Most people, when they hear the term “cult,” tend to think of a group that is perceived to harm its members physically or psychologically. However, in the academic study of religion, the term has a far simpler meaning: “a system or community of religious worship or ritual.”
Also, if you look at 19th century English writing, you will see that “cult” was a non-judgmental word that was basically a synonym for “sect” or “denomination.” Today, however, the word’s meaning has shifted, and we often find it used in a judgmental way. Some use it to express their disapproval of groups who put their members through extreme physical, emotional or personal stress. Within “mainstream Christianity,” however, there is an increasing trend to use the word “cult” as a way to demean those churches that do not teach mainstream theology.
One of the more influential books of this type, Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin, was first published in 1965. Martin brands a number of religious groups as non-Christian cults because of their theology. He quotes eminent theologian and professor Charles Braden: “By the term cult I mean nothing derogatory to any group so classified. A cult, as I define it, is any religious group which differs significantly in some one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture.… From a theological viewpoint, the cults contain many major deviations from historic [Roman Catholic] Christianity. Yet, paradoxically, they continue to insist that they are entitled to be classified as Christians” (p. 11)
Elsewhere, Martin writes: “A cult, then, is a group of people polarized around someone’s interpretation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith” (Rise of the Cults, p. 12). But notice! When Martin refers to “cardinal doctrines,” he is referring to the orthodoxy that developed after the first century and was later codified on the authority of the Roman church. Most historians, both secular and religious, understand this.
Consider this comment by authors Josh McDowell and Don Stewart: “A cult is a perversion, a distortion of biblical Christianity and/or a rejection of the historic teachings of the Christian Church” (Understanding the Cults, p. 17). Their definition goes against the common mainstream picture of a “cult.” Rather, they acknowledge, “In most cases, we would be hard-pressed to isolate any element in the methodology of a cult that is not present in some form in mainstream churches. For Christians, the main issue with cults should be theology” (ibid. p. 20).
As do many such commentators, McDowell and Stewart do not say that a religious group has to be harmful to be a branded as a cult—it just has to be different. Ironically, while saying this, they reject many of the beliefs and practices of the first-century Church. To these writers, for example, keeping the same seventh-day Sabbath Jesus Christ and His apostles kept can be seen as the mark of a cult!
Many “mainstream” ministers fear that their congregants may engage in personal study that will lead them away from the teachings codified by the Roman church at the Council of Laodicea in the fourth century ad. So, they may be quick to use the scare-word “cult” to frighten inquirers away from a theologically different group. Yet branding a particular religious faith as a cult inevitably creates fear and suspicion about its members. It can transform a theological disagreement into little more than simple bigotry.
Today, much as was the case in the fourth century ad, people who hold to Jesus Christ’s original, first-century faith are frequently marginalized as heretical, non-Christian cult members. They are “excluded… excommunicated… condemned.” Once again, “mainstream Christianity” is saying to the original faith, “Heretic! You are anathema!”
Will you follow the majority? Or will you practice the original Christianity of Christ’s “little flock”—the Christianity you find in your Bible—no matter what anyone else may say about it?