I recently was presented an opportunity to hear a notorious churchman give a lecture at the school where I teach. He is a rather famous man (or I should say infamous), a retired bishop who is renowned for his heretical teachings and now consults for a pornographic magazine. I can understand the curiosity of wishing to hear a popular and gifted speaker, but at the same time I could not avail myself of the opportunity to go and hear this man. I could not imagine what he could possibly say of interest that would not be offensive, nor could I imagine him who has so strongly denied the most fundamental elements of our faith being willing to listen to my feeble voice of reason. Paul’s admonition to avoid such people clung to my mind.
While our Lord was often criticized for spending time with sinners, the Apostle Paul tells us to avoid people of ill repute. Of course, the sinners Jesus spent time with were tax collectors, prostitutes, and such. They were people who had led impure lives and whom Jesus called back to lives of purity. However, had they told Jesus that he was wrong and gone about teaching another message about salvation, I am sure Jesus would have avoided them and told his disciples to do likewise.
The Fathers of the Church are rather clear about how to deal with heretics. As Anthony the Great said: “When you find someone arguing, and contesting what is true and self-evident, break off the dispute and give way to such a man, since his intellect has been petrified. For just as bad water ruins good wines, so harmful talk corrupts those who are virtuous in life and character.” Solomon said the same thing more succinctly over a thousand years earlier: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself” (Proverbs 26:4).
This is the risk we take in speaking to the foolish who, with misguided zeal, choose hell over heaven and try to take as many with them as possible. Some cult leaders incite their followers to commit mass suicide, but most heretics are more reasoned and wait for the devil and his vultures to take away the carcasses after death. Such followers are like people with oozing, untreated sores, the vileness of which is difficult to behold. One can have compassion on those sickly souls, but if they glory in their infirmities and rotting spiritual wounds, there is little that can be done for them. Furthermore, it is dangerous to travel among them, for their wounds are contagious for all but the most holy of saints. To use another analogy, the lifeguard who would jump in to save a drowning man who is determined to go to the bottom of the sea must be extremely strong and experienced or he is a fool and will soon be dead. Hence the warnings of Paul and Anthony and Solomon.
As our post-Christian era advances, we can expect heretics to abound. We need to avoid such people for the sake of our souls. Even as an object of intellectual study, heretics are best listened to by only the most spiritually advanced. Curiosity is never a good reason to jeopardize one’s soul. We should be careful of the company we keep and the words that we hear, for words are very powerful tools for healing or for destroying. That is why our Lord is described as the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Lest we become fools, let us avoid those petrified intellectuals who distort the word and deceive the hearts of the faithful.
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.
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“Petrified Intellects” first appeared in the November 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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