Combating Heresy – the Fourth Solution: Compassionate Rhetoric

The final step to combating heresy is to have mastered the art of rhetoric. Again, while the first two steps (studying orthodoxy and living correctly) apply to all Christians, this step, along with the third step (studying heresy), is limited to a few people and is not something everyone should or can engage in.

The reason having compassionate rhetoric is important is that it allows the one who is studied in orthodoxy and heresy to succinctly and clearly explain why a certain belief is wrong. He can do this among colleagues so as to break down a certain heresy or he can do this amongst the masses to explain why a new belief is wrong. Most importantly, he must be compassionate in his approach.

There are two approaches in combatting heresy through rhetoric; the sledgehammer approach and the Socratic approach. The Socratic approach is always preferable because it disarms those trapped by heresy, but the sledgehammer approach is needed when combatting those entrenched in heresy (that is, when you’re fighting wolves instead of trying to rescue sheep). But in both approaches, insulting the heretic or those trapped by heresy is never a viable option.

I am reminded of the multitude of Christian websites that promote apologetics, but then insult those who disagree with them. There is a difference between being firm, standing your ground, and just insulting someone. When we insult the heretic, what good does it do us? Think of Mark Driscoll and his approach to dealing with people. He insults men who he sees as effeminate, insults Mormon missionaries, and insults adherents to the Emergent Conversation. Now, at base much of what he says is correct, but how many self-proclaimed effeminate men, Mormons, or Emergents will listen to what he has to say? When you’re insulted, do you really want to be lectured by the one insulting you?

Driscoll’s approach, while funny to those who agree with him, does little to change the minds of those who disagree with him. This leaves Driscoll preaching to the choir, to a group that already agrees with him. So what does he accomplish in the end?

That is why compassionate rhetoric is so vitally important. Those who are trapped by heresy are enslaved to a false belief and their minds have been taken captive. Now, while those who adhere to false beliefs might be stupid (which we can never forget that stupid people do exist), it is up to us to lift them up from their stupidity and into enlightenment. Some might take issue with me calling such people “stupid,” but that is because the word “stupid” is used solely in its derogatory form. Traditionally, “stupid” has meant “lacking in intelligence or common sense.” Is there a better way to describe a heresy? Heresies are false and therefore not truthful. Most of the time they are also illogical. Those who adhere to such heresies have forgone using their rationality and common sense and instead embraced a lie. Such an action qualifies the person to be considered “stupid.”

Now, this doesn’t mean we go around calling heretics stupid, for where would that get us? Instead, we must patiently and slowly rehabilitate their thinking and get them to see that they have believed a lie.

But only someone who has studied rhetoric and knows how to compassionately speak is capable of accomplishing the above. On this issue I think of myself and one of my friends Vic. For me, I tend to take a sledgehammer approach. When I notice a belief is wrong I go through and show why that belief is wrong. When the person disagrees I tend to be very blunt with the person and show why that person is wrong. While I do my best to remain civil, such an approach leaves little room for civility. While I know how to study orthodoxy and heresy, I am challenged when it comes to compassionate rhetoric. In a debate against a wolf, I will hold my ground and nothing will move me. In a debate against a sheep captured by a wolf, I am useless and will cause more harm than good.

My friend, however, is the perfect example of what it means to be compassionate. He will approach an issue, ask questions, and allow the person to discover for himself why his belief is wrong. By using a Socratic method, he tenderly guides the person to the truth. Such an approach is preferable in most cases. While my approach is helpful in academic settings and public debates, my friend’s approach is better because it leads people away from lies and towards the truth with greater success.

The last solution in combatting heresy is having those who can debate heretics in public and show them why they are wrong, but also gently guide those trapped by heresies away from the lies and towards the truth.