Should Churches Discipline Heretical Members?


St Peter's Rome

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The word “heresy” is considered politically incorrect these days in a world in which the only “heresy” is orthodoxy. As someone in a traditional Christian church (the Anglican Catholic Church), I would hope that the church would act against the threat of heresy, including excommunicating someone who openly promulgates heresy despite warnings.

“Heresy” means “division.” It refers to doctrines, which if taught by church members, oppose the central teachings of the church. Now church members can hold heretical opinions, but they do not become heretics until they publicly espouse such opinions. So a member of the Anglican Catholic Church may not believe a central doctrine such as the bodily resurrection of Christ and happily take communion as long as he keeps his mouth shut about his position. But if he publicly proclaims his views, then he is a heretic and should be, first of all, warned to cease proclaiming heresy. If that does not work, formal church discipline, up to and including excommunication, can and should be administered.

Now what if an ACC member publicly supports the moral rightness of abortion? That person should be warned, and the rationale behind the church’s condemnation of abortion should be explained. If he still proclaims the rightness of abortion in a public setting, then the Bishop may impose other penalties, including barring the individual from taking communion. If the behavior continues, excommunication may be the only viable option.

Some bishops read the parable of the wheat and tares and figure that God will sort out the wheat from the tares at the end of time, so why discipline heretics now? The problem is that a failure to discipline a heretic becomes, in the mind of the public, evidence that the church either approves what the heretic says or at least that the church does not consider what the heretic proclaims to be that important. This sends the wrong message.

I would argue that a weak approach to dealing with heresy has harmed the Roman Catholic Church. It routinely tolerates those who openly speak of their public support of abortion. It allows heretics who deny the resurrection of Christ to openly proclaim their views while still allowing them to partake of communion. I realize that the Church may fear a societal backlash if the Bishop excommunicates heretics in his diocese, but I believe that the public would have greater respect than before for the Roman Catholic Church. A group that stands up for itself would be a group that many American people would find refreshing. I hope that the Anglican Catholic Church does not repeat Rome‘s mistake and that it will always maintain church discipline.

Secular Britain

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20091223-_DSC5237_38_39_40_41 Knowlton Church

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The controversy over the Pope’s visit to the UK is linked by the media to the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. And it is true that some priests committed terrible crimes and that the church did an inadequate job in disciplining the priests involved and helping those victimized. However, the ultimate source of hostility to the Pope’s visit seems to be British secularism.

Less than 10% of the UK population attends church services on any given Sunday (as opposed to a high 30s figure in the US). A significant number of the residents of the UK are atheist/agnostic (ranging from 31-44% as opposed to 3-9% in the US according to While this percentage is much lower than in Scandinavia and a few other European countries, it is still very high. If one adds to that percentage pantheists and nonpracticing believers, the percentage of nonreligious people greatly outweighs the percentage of religious people in the UK. Unfortunately this has been combined, in some individuals, with a hostility to traditional Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church, which opposes abortion and homosexuality activity is hated by many members of society who support such practices. There is also hostility to the Roman Church’s opposition to the ordination of women to Holy Orders (a practice only recently introduced into the Church of England). There is something ironic here: people who are anti-religious trying to tell a religious institution what to believe.

But the sad thing for traditional Christians everywhere is how Europe has, since the eighteenth century Enlightenment, thrown off its Christian heritage, beginning with the French Revolution and continuing until the present day. Although this means that the remaining practicing Christians take their religion seriously and are very dedicated, throwing out Christianity has left a hoard of people without a sense of purpose in life. Into that void comes consumerism and hedonism–if this life is all there is and there is no ultimate meaning, why not? But a people without meaning cannot maintain a stable society over time. Muslims in the UK and in other European countries understand this, and this is one of the sources of their success. A people who no longer believe anything other than “shop until you drop” will not be able to withstand Muslim believers who maintain a purpose beyond self-gratification.Muslims hold on to the idea of moral discipline formerly held by Christians, and are willing to take a stand against both legalized murder and sexual perversion. The few remaining Christians in the UK and in Europe do their best to survive in a hostile society that is much like the hostile Roman Empire prior to Constantine. History is not an inevitable march in one direction, and hopefully UK and other European Christians can make an impact on society–the Roman Catholic Church has in a small way. More UK citizens in Great Britain attend Roman Catholic services than members of the Established Church attend services in the Church of England, and the crowds who have come to see the Pope, while smaller than expected, are still large and enthusiastic. Perhaps some of the individuals in that crowd can do their small part to reverse secularization in the UK.

The US should take notice. Weekly church attendance in the US has dropped seven percentage points in the last twenty years. More and more US citizens consider themselves “spiritual,” which usually means that they want the benefits of religion without making any moral changes in their lives or paying the price that religions such as Christianity demand. The percentage of atheists and agnostics is rising in the US. The Courts have removed religion from the public square, allowing large segments of the population to only hear a secular message. The positive point is that there are millions of traditional Christians in the US, both Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant who are willing to fight the growing secular tide. It may be a losing battle (it is far easier not to be a Christian than to be one), but at least Christians can continue the fight. I pray that the US does not rapidly secularize as Europe did–I must admit I am not optimistic–but Christians always have one thing that the atheist lacks by the very nature of his lack of belief–hope.