"Daddy, what's a heretic?"

That’s the question I attempted to answer to Lily (6) as we walked out of my Super Seminar, “What in the World Is the Emerging Church and What Does It Mean for Me?” at the National Youth Workers Convention. She asked because a guy named Leo from a place called Severn Church decided — after hearing me speak for about two hours — that I am outside the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy. During the Q&A time, he raised his hand, told me and a crowd of a couple hundred (including Lily) a few things that he agreed with me on, then said, “However, sir, the heresy you’re teaching is that no truth can be known by theology.”

Of course, I’ve never said such a thing, and I told him so. Then I asked him, “Are you calling me a heretic?”

“Yes, sir, I am,” he responded.

Now, I could go on and on about his heresies and my orthodoxy, but I’ve made that case in my coming book, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, so I’m not going to do it here.

More interesting to me were a couple other comments. Leo came up to me after the session to “apologize” and then when on to continue the argument with me. Daniel King, a friend of mine, interrupted at one point to tell Leo that I’ve shown him a great deal of love. Leo retorted, “He may show you love, but you are following a false teacher.” Of course, the warnings against false teachers in scripture have nothing to with epistemological positions, but that’s beside the point. The point is that Leo thinks he’s showing love to everyone who listens to me (including my daughter) by warning them about me.

The other comment came from Daniel’s dad, Mike King, one of my best friends in the world. As we were walking down the hall, on the way to dinner (at a wonderful French restaurant), he answered Lily’s question before I could. “It’s what someone says,” Mike told her, “when they’re trying to hurt and silence someone else. It’s been used a lot in history, and often against people who are really onto something.” (That’s a paraphrase.  Mike said it better.)

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  • That must have been a tough one in front of your daughter. Good on you for showing grace and seeing past his nearsightedness…

  • Len

    Looking forward to the book where you talk about these things and more. Sorry your daughter was exposed to that, very unfortunate. Glad Mike was there for you. In all things love.

  • The church needs to grate against the grain a little bit. This is called following Jesus and his gospel. We will always have a few of the old guard walking around telling us what we are doing wrong and labeling us before they know us.

    I proudly walk with the emergents and it has caused me to be politely asked to “leave a church” in otherwards leave or face the elders. Of course I left, but I still feel God is directing me and in the end all will be well.

    Hang in there and keep peppering your words and mannerisms with grace and humility. I am sure this was not the last one you will have to face.

  • like i told you i was in class that weekend so i could not come to st. louis. But our reading talked a lot about the heresies of the past and i have to say that to call you a heretic is to draw more lines in the sand of Christianity that do not need to be drawn.

  • Yikes! Leo better not come to Bend. I am glad that you were able to be gracious to him without going into a totally unneeded debate. Keep doing what you do… we need it.

  • Tony, you handled that with far more grace than I would have. Let me share a quote with you from my tribe. It comes from John Wesley in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:18

    “So wonderfully have later ages distorted the words heresy and schism from their scriptural meaning. Heresy is not, in all the Bible, taken for an error in fundamentals, or in anything else; nor schism, for any separation made from the outward communion of others. Therefore, both heresy and schism, in the modern sense of the words, are sins that the scripture knows nothing of; but were invented merely to deprive mankind of the benefit of private judgment, and liberty of conscience.”

    Gotta love it

  • Indeed it is unfortunate that Leo both implicitly and explicitly labeled you a heretic in a question and answer session at a seminar.

    Also unfortunate is your choice to refer to “his heresies” in contrast to your orthodoxy on the Internet.

    I understand your anger given your daughter’s inquiry, but perhaps this post would have been best saved as a draft, safe for editing at more sober-minded time.

  • matthewwilcoxen

    What does your daughter being there have to do with whether or not a heretic?

  • matthewwilcoxen

    excuse me, “whether or not you’re a heretic?”

  • Jeromy

    I love those teachable moments when our kids ask such simple, yet penetrating questions; they make you smile and cringe all at the same time. These are very interesting church-waters we find ourselves navigating through. There seems to be a lot of fear and misunderstanding floating around. But, let’s let God worry about the weeds growing with the wheat, and may we focus on baking the kind of bread that brings life to this hurting world. Thanks for all you’re doing, Tony.

  • As part of a denomination that mostly refuses to talk about heresy – while accepting pretty much anything goes in theology – I’m not ready to dispose the concept just yet. That said, I’d have to say I agree with Billy Abraham when he says that Christianity lacks a canonical epistemology. Bare assertion and attendant name calling just doesn’t make it so.

  • Wow, sorry that your daughter was there to see that, but frankly I’m sorry I missed it. I was there a couple of years ago when Jay Bakker got the same deal, only with what seems to be a little more passion in the interchange.

  • Maybe this is me reading into it too much, but as I was sitting there listening during the seminar, and then afterwards when the two of you spoke more, I felt like he came in to make that point, to cause that scene. It certainly never felt like he was open to listening – and I was disappointed with that in that you opened the seminar mentioning that you understood people get worked up sometimes with your talks, but to please keep in mind your daughter was there! He had an agenda and it wasn’t going to be stopped.

    What I found the most fascinating, and perhaps the most illuminating aspect for me as someone who has been curious about the emergent movement for a few years now, but still not quite sure if I’m understanding it or not, was the interplay between the two of you at the end. His almost need to have you label him as wrong and your refusal to do so; I think that’s where the emergent humility finally clicked into place for me, where you can completely disagree with someone yet still acknowledge that as passionately as you may believe what you believe, you could still be wrong and they could be right. So I guess what I am saying is, in those few minutes afterwards I felt like I learned more and understood more about the emergent community than I have in the last few years of attending seminars, reading books and having dialogue.

    So, all in all, I’m really glad I went to the seminar. I was offended at his behavior, especially considering your request because of your daughter being present, but I’m thankful this could be a teaching moment for her and me.

  • carla

    It’s good for Lily to know what she’s involved in here.

    Seriously, I can’t imagine that you handled this with anything but grace. And it does matter that your daughter was there and that you asked people to keep that in mind. I mean, if someone has a beef with what you’re saying–and it’s fine for someone to have a beef with something–they can still be respectful and engage in civil discourse about it, particularly when they’ve been asked to do so.

    I get that for those who believe you to be a false teacher, there is no choice but to call you out with all the righteous anger they can muster. But here is always a choice and if someone can’t say what they feel needs to be said with love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control, then they need to take a moment, pray for some infusion of the Holy Spirit, and try again.

  • Tony Arens

    TJ – I don’t think you’re a heretic, but I do think that some of what you teach is incorrect.

  • I’m disappointed that we still brandish the word heretic about as if it was a judgment we individual Christians are in a position to make. Heresy, historically, is always the product of a group of people, making it very contextual, exceptionally political, and always very serious. The notion that I could stand up in a seminar at Youth Specialties conference, pronounce someone as heretical, and consider this in any fashion appropriate (be it historically, Christianly, or otherwise) just seems ludicrous. This is not an apology for a laissez-faire approach to theology. Heresy certainly exists, and certainly we can speak of heresy, but we must do a lot more than just assert something like what Leo purportedly asserts. Articulating which heresy Tony is particularly advancing (relativism, to my knowledge has never been determined heretical; if Tony even subscribes to such a view) is at least a more appropriate approach, if one feels so inclined. However, that takes a lot more work, considerably more tact, and an ability to point out precisely those underlying assumptions and presuppositions that warrant such a charge. That would involve a discussion over coffee or dinner, because it would take a lot longer to hash out, and that just doesn’t seem the point of what Leo is up to. It took until 451 to get to Chalcedon, which means requisite caution was exercised over plenty of years before declaring certain Christologies beyond the bounds of orthodoxy. Stated simply: defining heresy just ain’t as easy as we want it to be!

    On a completely different note: Tony, well done in asking Josh Carney to fill in for Dan Kimball in Austin. Josh is a good, good friend of mine with an exceptional mind and even better spirit. He tells me it was good.

  • Way to go, TJ! I think it’s an honor to be called a heretic. Maybe you should add that to your resume . . .

  • I talked with a women who is a Spiritual Director and has her degree from St. Thomas. She is in her mid 70 and a very spirit filled Episcopalian (not the holy roller kind but one who is in touch with the Holy).

    I told her about Tony’s encounter at the NYWC. Her thoughtful comment was, “Being called a heretic is like wearing a badge of honor. I don’t know who Tony is but you tell him to keep on teaching or whatever he does. You know, Dave, some saints of the church were also called heretic at one time or another.”

    So Saint Tony … do you like that title or Dr. Tony or it could be The Most Rev. Saint Dr. Tony Jones the heretic? And your feast day would be on April 1st or your birthday. You pick! 😉

  • Interesting episode. I won’t comment on that directly. Just thought I’d put a plug in for my supervisor’s book because it deals intimately with the subject of heresy and the birth of tolerance in early modernity: John Marshall, John Locke, Toleration, and Early Enlightenment Culture.

  • Interesting episode. I won’t comment on that directly. Just thought I’d put a plug in for my supervisor’s book because it deals intimately with the subject of heresy (and so I thought you might be interested) and the birth of tolerance in early modernity: John Marshall, “John Locke, Toleration, and Early Enlightenment Culture”.

  • I was in the seminar as well ( I was the big guy in the second row – right behind Lily), and I grieve what this guy did. The fact that the Body of Christ still gets hung up on the fact that different Christians love in different ways – we lose focus on the fact that LOVE is what is at the center. You’re response was grace-filled…because we all know that you could’ve theologically obliterated the guy right on the spot…but that wouldn’t have been very loving. 🙂

    I’ve been struggling with my own “emergent tendencies” in a framework that prides itself on denominational structure. your seminar helped me to understand that it is okay to retain my Wesleyan heritage while being formed and informed by other traditions. Your seminar was great and was a huge blessing. Thank you, Tony.

    Blessings to you and your ministry.

  • Tony,
    My husband and I were at your Theological Tools seminar and enjoyed ourselves terribly. I wrote about the seminar on my blog for some friends who couldn’t be in St Louis. Both my husband and I were totally impressed by how content Lily was during the seminar, and I was watching her watch you while you talked. As a mom-to-be, I hope that we are able to be such strong spiritual role models to our child. We wanted to snatch you and discuss parenting, but never got the chance. Thanks for sharing some wisdom with us!

  • carl anderson

    i really appreciated your vulnerability in risking standing for what you believe and modeling faith for your daughter (and the rest of us) while humbly trying to transform a monologue into a dialogue.
    it was a beautiful witness to the grace of Christ at work. may you continue to draw others into Christian community – whatever that means.

  • rndaniel

    “Way to go, TJ! I think it’s an honor to be called a heretic. Maybe you should add that to your resume . . .”

    Maybe that’s why “TJ” tried to get the guy to call him a heretic in the first place.

  • Roy

    I was in this seminar as well as the forum and a previous seminar. I felt bad for both parties. For Tony having to respond to the guy, and for the guy who was too closed minded to see past himself. As someone who knew very little about the Emergent movement and as someone who doesn’t fully agree with it now that I do know, I don’t think heretic should have been used.
    I think we need to question how and why we do things, especially as youth pastors, because our students are doing the same thing. I question my faith and my call daily and God is always faithful to answer those questions.

    Lily was an angel during all the seminars. She did better than some of the adults. The one thing I saw in Tony was his commitment to his family and especially to Lily. Those seminar were strictly voluntary, if you weren’t prepared to hear something you didn’t like, you shouldn’t have gone…

  • The Jewish religious leaders did not–at least I dont think they did–have the word heretic for Jesus, or they would have called him that. Instead they crucified him. Later the word heretic was applied to many who voiced ways foward who were also crucified or burned at the stake. Oddly enough the church usually ended up following them. (of course there were the Gnostic heretics who were truly heretics because they were taking the formulating a Christian Gnosticism and there aint such a thing).

    Tony, all the more need and reason for your new book to come out. And when you’ve spent that much time and care to articulate things in print I am glad you did not take the time to go into a detailed apologetic here.

    You have many brothers and sisters standing with you, on this same journey. We may not agree always. I don’t think you would want us to. Because as you said in your book, its our conversations in conversation with those who came before us, under the gudiance of the Spirit that leads us to clearer articulations of truth and doctrine.

    Peace bro.

  • rndaniel … not quite sure why you’re saying Tony tried to get him to call him a heretic; the guy started off by saying Tony was teaching heresy, which is in effect calling him a heretic. Tony asked him if that’s what he was calling him and he said yes. That’s not baiting, that’s giving the guy a chance to reword what he said, and he didn’t – he stuck to it.

  • Tertullian

    “It’s what someone says,” Mike told her, “when they’re trying to hurt and silence someone else. It’s been used a lot in history, and often against people who are really onto something.”

    Sure, that’s what it means to be a heretic if rational truth is simply a matter of political might. But it isn’t. In fact, rational truth has little to do with political might. It is true that being put out of the church has in many times and places been at bottom a matter of political might – so don’t sign up for Roman Catholicism! That doesn’t mean we need to trash the notion of orthodoxy. And Eric’s right; there’s certainly nothing essentially heretical about relativism per se. But c’mon, Tony. Deepen your sense of what orthodoxy means. The shortsightedness of the orthodoxy-equals-hegemony polemic is getting old. Walter Bauer is dead, haven’t you heard?

  • Tertullian

    Scuse me, Erik.

  • Tertullian,

    Thanks for getting my name right. 🙂

    And, by my suggesting that concilliar statements regarding heretics are deeply political does not mean they are untrue. Rather, my hope was to point out that heresy is a difficult and serious matter, not a charge to throw around flippantly. Again, to talk about heresy today would mean a greater attention to the context in which certain views were described as such, appropriately draw paralleling comparisons to the present, and then clearly showing the views in question fit. That would take considerable care, precision, and caution, not a NYWC seminar room.

  • Tertullian


    Oh, I agree wholeheartedly with your thickening of the notion of heresy, as well as your attention to the fact that, yes, calling someone a “heretic” at a conference is, well, silly. Thank you for explaining your point further. You’re right as well that the introduction of politics as a matter for investigation does not preclude the rational truth of particular church dogmas. However, I still take issue with Tony’s recent stint at Wheaton: “Orthodoxy is a happening, an occurence [sic], not a state of being or a state of mind or a state-ment.” He uses some clever semantic gymnastics, courtesy of LeRon Shults, to wrench the notion of orthodoxy into orthopraxy, presumably for fear of the fact that orthodoxy involves stating rationally that one belief is right, another wrong, and as a result, it entails a political power-play. Tony’s mishandling of this issue is getting old, and it’s time for a guy who has a PHD in theology to man up and define what theological ortho-doxy (i.e., right doctrine) is, rather than to discuss orthopraxy under another name….

  • Tertullian,

    Fair enough. I’ll leave Tony to reply as I now understand your comment to be more particularly directed to him.

  • Tertullian

    Something tells me there will be no such reply….

  • Tony, this reminds me, in a /very/ tangential way, of my experience last night. I took son Daniel (12) to his first football game. Cal / USC – at Berkeley. It was raining. We got soaked. Great time!

    Making the long walk to the stadium, we passed endless wild frat houses. He asked – “Dad, what are all these houses with guys drinking beer and acting weird?”

    As we got closer to Memorial Stadium, the ear splitting chants got louder and more frequent: “f*** the Bears!!” (or) “f*** the Trojans!!” Now, Dan doesn’t lead a “sheltered life” but we don’t (OK, rarely) swear at home, and try to limit his exposure to social / media garbage.

    There was more (aggressive student behaviors, verbal fights, campus police removing two people just in front of us, etc.), but the point is – venturing out into the “real world” with our kids is risky. AND healthy.

    In the bigger picture, at 12 years old, and a reader of 2-3 “grown-up” books per week, Dan is able to process all this – heck, maybe this experience will subconsciously attract him to Cal Berkeley as a university option?

    But at 6 years old, and with a stated caveat up front, your daughter should have never been subjected to such a public character assault. In this case, the weakness of character falls squarely on your accuser.

  • I think Adam, the gent that came with me, said it best, “if a two hour seminar can shake the foundation of your belief system so much that you have to go on the attack, then it’s time for a new theology.” Or at least a confidence boost. Good thing he wasn’t in the seminar for “Lilly’s Axiom,” or who knows what you might have been called. Tony, I take pride in being the “follower of the false teacher.” 😉

  • Eduardo

    I believe history also teaches us, like your friend Mike said, that men like Arius, Pelagius, Servetus, etc, were onto something too… Be careful with what you teach to yourself and then to others man. Just an advice!

  • We’d probably disagree Tony, but I still wouldn’t consider you a heretic – and it’s not that I’m trying to justify myself. I just want you to know that I think you looked allright with a shaved head.

  • Jeffe


    I too was in attendance at the seminar and was grieved by what occurred. First of all, as the father of a 5-year-old girl myself, I noticed how well behaved Lily was during the seminar. She did great. No doubt you are a proud papa. Secondly, I am also sad that she had to witness her father attacked that way. Although visibly frustrated with the exchange, you handled the situation with grace, and as pointed out in other posts, it gave you the opportunity for a great life-lesson with your daughter. Thirdly, I think it’s great that you brought her with you to the conference in the first place. What a great opportunity for her to spend quality time with daddy. I certainly appreciate your body of work as an author and thinker, but most of all, I appreciate your efforts to be a great dad!

  • I still remember you saying something to the effect that a heretic can’t have such beautiful kids .. And I have some beautiful kids!!!

  • Where is Leo’s response to your posting? Is this gentleman aware of you posting his faux pas? I don’t know that I’m in either your “camp” nor “his” Theologically/Epistemologically/Ideologically/Philosophically/etc., but maybe having your daughter present in the world of academia isn’t the best idea? I can’t imagine you would want your daughter “around the table of discussion” that once upon a time led to Christians killing other Christians. I pray God we never return to those darks days, but I’m terrified that my suspicion that history is cyclical is true.

    Keep fighting the good fight Tony, I enjoy your writings as they challenge and affirm much of my own thoughts. I’m sorry that you weren’t at Atlanta for YS, it would have been great to be there to interact with you and other agreers, dissenters, and apathetics.