How should the Church respond to heretics?
Of course, it depends on the person, situation, and historical context. Nonetheless, it can still be helpful to look to precedent. There’s one story that goes all the back to the beginnings of the Church of how the Apostle John responded to a heretic – and it’s quite a challenging story.
The story is recorded in the 2nd century book Against Heresies by St. Irenaeus. Irenaeus had been a disciple of St. Polycarp, who had been a disciple of John. It’s from this direct line to John that Irenaeus got his information.
At the end of the 1st century, there was a gnostic heretic named Cerinthus. Among other things, he denied the Virgin Birth, denied that Jesus was the Christ his whole life, and taught that Christians were required to follow the Mosaic Law.
One day, John went inside a public bathhouse, but quickly spotted Cerinthus inside. John immediately ran out of the building, exclaiming to those with him, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within!” (Against Heresies, 3.3.4)
Ouch! Can you imagine a bishop (bishops are successors of the Apostles) doing something like that today?
One thing that’s obvious from this story is how seriously John took the truth of the Gospel. Whether or not you think this type of reaction is advisable today, Christians can still be challenged by John’s zeal for the truth.
Pray for the conversion of heretics!
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