Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up? Part II

I pointed out in the previous post that many in the church are caught up with the spirit of the heresy hunter.

This War on Theological Terrorism is nothing more than arrogance and intolerance being passed off as “truth telling” for the sake of Christian orthodoxy.

I gave a few examples of how the real source of division is not from those proposing that Love Wins or from anyone else questioning our traditional “safe for the whole family” interpretations of Scripture. Mostly what we are seeing are the gatekeepers of conservative Christianity behaving badly.

It’s really nauseating. There have been more outcries against Rob Bell’s ambiguity regarding hell than there has been toward American greed, idolatry, militarism, and intolerance. And all of that is in the church! Excuse me while I throw up in my trashcan.

Are there real doctrinal threats? Yes. Are heretics alive today? Yes.

But before we look at what the NT qualifies as heresy, and who are true heretical threats, let’s think about the seriousness of the error made by heresy hunters.

Forsaking Love For Heresy Hunting

Let’s consider the stern warning given to Ephesus by Jesus in John’s apocalypse. I think it speaks to a certain segment of evangelicalism today.

I see what you’ve done, your hard, hard work, your refusal to quit. I know you can’t stomach evil, that you weed out apostolic pretenders. I know your persistence, your courage in my cause, that you never wear out. But you walked away from your first love—why? What’s going on with you, anyway? Do you have any idea how far you’ve fallen? A Lucifer fall! Turn back! Recover your dear early love. No time to waste, for I’m well on my way to removing your light from the golden circle. You do have this to your credit: You hate the Nicolaitan business. I hate it, too. Are your ears awake? Listen. Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches. I’m about to call each conqueror to dinner. I’m spreading a banquet of Tree-of-Life fruit, a supper plucked from God’s orchard.  Rev 2:2-7 (MSG)

Notice that the Ephesian church was commended for their love of the truth in the face of pretenders, but they were firmly warned that their very identity as lovers of Christ would soon be lost if they chose instead to be known as haters of heresy. They would lose any ability to influence the world for the good news of Jesus.

The Nicolaitans (false teachers) may be carrying on some nasty business, but the work of the church is to love Maker and neighbor.

As far as I can tell, I think the Christian fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century against extreme German (ir)rationalists and other European liberals (scholars denying the deity of Christ) has continued unabated into the 21st century against anyone challenging any conservative or reformed theological tradition deemed acceptable by the gatekeepers… no matter how peripheral the issue may be. If you oppose these men, they will write a book against you. You can count on it.

It’s time to stand up against this behavior by refusing to buy into the fear mongering, tattle telling, and name-calling that has many Christians forsaking their first love.

Who Are The Real Heretics?

I think the criteria by which we may discern false prophets and teachers from faithful followers of Christ should begin and end with the following:

1. Do they accept that Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God?

In Matthew 16:15, Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” This has to be the question of the ages. Believer or pretender? How a person answers this question determines how we regard them. Faithful teachers will avow the words of Peter, “You’re the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Does the person in question answer in the affirmative?

And who is a liar? Anyone who says that Jesus is not the Christ. Anyone who denies the Father and the Son is an antichrist. Anyone who denies the Son doesn’t have the Father, either. But anyone who acknowledges the Son has the Father also.  1 John 2:22-23 (NLT)

Declaring “Christ is Lord” is saying something (Rom 10:9-10).  Don’t think for a second that this is not a meaningful confession. Now maybe it has in our day lost some of its original meaning, but it’s not something you should easily ignore because you don’t like the one confessing it. Get over yourself. Love demands that you take them seriously.

If they confess Christ, then consider their behavior.

2. Do they lead moral lives, and are they leading others to do the same?

The Old and New Testaments are clear that beliefs and behavior are signs of a person’s standing with the Lord. You can’t separate belief from behavior (Rom 6; Eph 2:1-9; Jam 1:19-27).

Regardless of whether not we think a person’s theology is bad, or that their prophecies are true, it’s how they live that reflects their heart in relation to the Lord. If they speak truth but live like the devil, they’re a false teacher.

If they confess Christ, does their life bear evidence of Christ at work within them (Jn 15)? Jesus said to examine the tree. Does their tree bear fruit of the gospel? Are others coming into the mystery of Christ and his eternal purpose through their ministry? Are folks being set free?

And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Jesus, John 8:32 (NIV)

Paul spoke about what Christian evidence looks like in Galatians 5:22-23. He said it looks like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

If their conduct is worthy of the gospel of Jesus, then ask their community.

3. Are they supported by reputable members of the Christian church?

What are members in their local Christian community saying about them? And what are folks in your own community saying? What you hear matters to a certain extent (Eph 1:15-17).

You will want to check with those believers you respect who are outside of your own tradition. Let’s be honest, denominational thinking can cloud our judgment. Don’t just ask a Jew… ask a Gentile. Don’t just ask another Baptist… ask a Methodist, an Anabaptist, and a democrat.

Also, what are outsiders saying about them (1 Tim 3:7)? You may have to talk to them to get the real story. If you go to the religious leaders, they may say, “he’s a drunkard and a fornicator” as they did our Lord. Instead, what does the unbelieving neighbor across the fence say about them?

We should all put down any gossip or misinformation we hear in this process (Prov 16:28). Don’t listen to hearsay. If you can, go to the person directly (Matt 18:15-19). If you can’t, speak with those who know them. If you can’t do that, then read their book(s) or blog for yourself. Pray and ask the Lord for discernment.

Remember that many distortions and lies were told about Jesus and the early church. Imagine hearing “eat my flesh and drink my blood” out of context. That can (and did) start some nasty rumors. It was troubling enough to Jesus’ original audience.

So, don’t just get ticked off and leave the scene. Ask questions. Seek understanding. Get clarity before jumping to conclusions about another brother and sister in Christ. Always think the best and believe the best about another person. That’s how love works.

Look at it this way… you may not simply be rejecting a troublemaker, you may actually be opposing the Lord himself. If they are a believer, you’re doing just that. And if they’re an unbeliever, you should be heaping hot coals and giving cold water in Jesus’ name, not being hateful and ugly to those you deem to be a theological threat.

Confession, behavior, and community. All of these must be considered together. None of these questions should be considered apart from the others. Do they all check out? If so, embrace them in the Lord.

So What Is Heresy?

What should be considered “heresy” in the church?

While there may be some unsettling notions that challenge some of our core theological ideas, I believe we can set up a clear boundary around what should be recognized as real heresy.

Heresies are those doctrines and teachings that undermine the person and work of Christ. Real heresies contradict the testimony about Jesus that has been handed down to us by the apostles. 

Real heresies strip the incarnate Christ of his elevated position of God’s highest honor (Phil 2:6-11). Christ is the exact representation of God’s being (Heb 1:3). He himself is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by him (Jn 14:6). He is the only mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5). He is the divine Word made in human flesh (Jn 1:1-14).

Anyone who denies the earliest and most reliable testimony of the person and work of Jesus should be considered a false teacher propagating doctrines of demons. These teachings are meant to deceive and lead others astray. Both the NT and the early church testify to this.

No doubt, some have unknowingly been a conduit for this demonic activity. But unfortunately, many conservative evangelical Christians have broadened “heresy” and false teachers to include anyone that questions what they deem “historical” orthodox Christianity. I have found that it’s usually a critique of Western Christianity that gets you labeled a heretic these days.

But this isn’t heresy according to the NT.

For example, some believe that those claiming that Genesis 1-2 is an ancient pre-scientific cosmology (not to be read literally) are heretics. It wouldn’t be the first time. They did it to Copernicus and Galileo. Of course, now you will be considered an idiot if you don’t believe in heliocentrism. Think about it. Our history of over-reacting really needs to stop with this generation.

The gatekeepers may say it’s mere novelty that drives an emerging evangelicalism. But they need to humble themselves and remember that some things which appear new to them, others have found to be old forgotten teachings and traditions of the church. And then leave room for legitimate insights into faith, science, and biblical theology.

Remain Humble, Teachable, and Loving

Finally, let’s return to the verse we began with in the first installment.

The “teaching that you have learned” (Rom 16:17) could be used to mean what some people first learned in their 8th grade Sunday School class with Mrs. Jones. I’m sure old lady Jones may have been a godly woman who loved the Lord, but neither she nor your pastor is the final arbiter of truth.

Truth is discovered in communion with Christ and the church—even those members of the church that make us uncomfortable.

This often means that our knowledge of the truth will need to be revised and expanded after many seasons of Christian growth. The truth doesn’t change, but our perceptions of the truth will in due season.

The interpretation of Romans 16:17 that allows you to defend everything you’ve ever been taught by your mom, your denomination, your favorite pastor, and John Calvin… just isn’t what the apostles had in mind.

The apostles were referring to those things that have been clearly taught about the person and work of Christ.

Dear brothers and sisters, we must remain humble. I surmise that there is much about my own theology that falls short of God’s glory. If I knew what needed to be corrected, I would (on most days) gladly do it.

Can you say the same?

Walk in the light you have. Remain humble, teachable, and loving.

Are you getting all of your life from the living Christ, or from all of your theological opinions? Do we share Christ together? If so, all that is left is love. Without it we’re just making noise. It doesn’t even matter who is right or wrong when love is lost (1 Cor 13).

Hear the words of Jesus…

Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.  Jesus, John 13:34-35 (MSG)

Love and teach the truth. And leave the heretics to Jesus.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.


About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 20 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Pennsylvania. View all posts by David D. Flowers

20 responses to “Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up? Part II

  • Terri Churchill

    Great post David! Praying that it impacts us as a community of believers who have so much more in common than our differences.

  • James Goen

    Good post. I think this dialogue is definitely needed because too many people believe that if they disagree doctrinally with another person, that it gives them a reason to cease being loving towards that person. However, as you rightly stated, heresy are those things that undermine the person and work of Christ.

    The Judaizers in Galatians who are putting Christians back under the law, those were heretics. The Gnostic issue that Paul addresses who again try to get Christians to believe in holy days, and self discipline for their righteousness rather than looking to Christ, those were heretics. People who lift up Christ and encourage others to do what Paul encouraged the Colossians to seek the things above, those people are not heretics.

    I think the biggest cause for much of this, is that those who persecute rely more on the their own intellect for discernment than the spirit that God has given them.

  • naturalchurch

    I spend a weekend in a hunting cabin some time ago, and couldn’t stop staring at all the mounted heads on the walls (I live in Africa, so you can imagine). And so I was inspired to take a walk through my theological hunting cabin. My first heads were Reformed ones (Dutch Reformed, that is – I had just converted to Pentecostalism). But I soon became disillusioned and started taking shots at televangelists (I have a hall reserved for them. That was a great season). I converted to Calvinism soon after (great to go hunting with a lot of guys), but got shot in the process (apparently I had some Charismanic remnants in me, and I like Watchman Nee) and so I fired back. They’re pretty good shots, though, and so I ran into the woods where I discovered some Organic folk. They mostly do their shooting with slingshots, if they shoot at all (Might have something to do with David – the other one). I’ve been burned with a pebble or two, but I think I’m safe for the time being. And I’m giving up this shooting business (unless a real Goliath shows up, of course).

  • jaredcburt

    This topic is something good to think about and I appreciate you addressing it. I think both heresy and the response to heresy (or the lack thereof) is a serious problem in our day. We fight heresy with “truth in love” and I find both “truth” and “love” in short supply in many teachers and preachers. You seemed to outline some of this well in your blog.

    However, while certainly there has been abuse in addressing heresy, this is not to say that addressing heresy should not have a main place in churches. It certainly had a prominent place in the ministries of the apostles (cf. Galatians, the Pastoral Letters, 2 Peter) and should in the ministries of pastors/teachers today also (2 Tim. 3:16ff). I agree with Roger Olson here and would maintain a distinction between heresy and a heretic. It is one thing to label someone a heretic (a serious charge) and quite another to point to a specific teaching and say “that’s heresy.”

    Certainly, some may have gone too far and they are greatly criticized for it regularly. Perhaps in the minds of many Piper went too far with Bell. But if he went too far with three words then it makes me wonder about so many who have leveled entire blogs in response to his three words. I think a greater problem are the ones remaining silent as the face of Christianity is fundamentally transformed (some for the better and some for the worse) because they avoid criticism.

    After reading both posts, I can say I agree with the “assumptions” critique of the first blog and with much of what you say in the second blog. I probably have the greatest reservations about the last line, “Leave the heretics to Jesus.” I just feel like following Jesus will mean calling out the dogs (cf. Phil 3), the fools (Gal. 3), the false prophets (2 Peter 2), and the detestable (Titus 1). It is not always obvious who these people are. They are in “Christian clothing” (sheep’s clothing) and masquerade as those who know God (Titus 1:16). And from time to time they depart from the faith after walking faithfully for a time (1 John 2:19, 1 Tim. 1:19-20). Even so, they must be dealt with. But if I am wrong, then you must leave me to Jesus for my error :-). Thanks for thinking and causing others (at least me) to as well. Sorry for the length!

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Jared, I know that “leave the heretics to Jesus” sounds like I’m saying there isn’t a time to call out real heretics, or to recognize some ideas as heresy. But that’s not the heart of what I meant. For example, I think the health, wealth, and prosperity message is heretical (1 Tim 6:3-10) because it undermines the good news of Christ. Paul and the early church fathers felt it necessary to call out false teachers by name. However, they were clearly teaching doctrines that challenged the apostolic message about Jesus. That’s my concern here.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Love ya, bro.

  • John Metz

    Thanks for the post, David. I think you could spend a lot of time here! I do agree that honest, truthful, open, and loving dialogue can go a long way to solving the problems of misunderstanding and rejection. I have experienced this on several occasions over the last few years. By the Lord’s mercy I have witnessed animosity and distrust surprisingly overcome and real reconciliation brought about where no one had any expectation for this to happen. Sadly, there have also been other times when ‘heresy hunting’ was the agenda or when dialogue has been refused.

    Just one thing to leave you with: Heresy also includes the thought of forming a party or a sect based on a school of opinion.

  • David D. Flowers

    Hey John, yeah I could say much more on this topic. I wanted to keep it in two parts. I’m sure I’ll write more on this issue later in another post.

  • john morris

    David, inspiring. I really appreciate this two part message. This is something that has troubling me for some time. I feel caught in the middle of all you have just shared. One of my closest brothers is “heresy hunter”. I love this brother very much, it grieves me so much that we can’t talk and share “certain” things or topics.
    I desire that type of relationship(s). I want to have conversations and explore, without fear of judgement, so many topics. Not things that are false, or wrong. Topics that many today may feel are heretical, however in past years, they may have been a common belief. Simply by talking about a issue, does not make one a heretic.
    If we could only be secure in Christ, and hold to “The Centrality and Supremacy of Christ”, merely talking and sharing of ideas etc. would not be a threat.Thank you again. In Christ, John Morris.

  • Joe

    David – Great post!” Here is my two cents worth.

    Your wrote, “For example, some believe that those claiming that Genesis 1-2 is an ancient pre-scientific cosmology (not to be read literally) are heretics. It wouldn’t be the first time. They did it to Copernicus and Galileo. Of course, now you will be considered an idiot if you don’t believe in heliocentrism. Think about it. Our history of over-reacting really needs to stop with this generation.”

    I think that some one will always claim that a certain passage is not to be read literally, or to be read within the historic culture of the time and is not applicable today. The issue of complementarian vs egalitarian marriage and the role of women in the church are examples. Once we start making exceptions then we can easily go down that slippery slope. It wasn’t that long ago that George Whitfield was successful in advocating the legalization of slavery Georgia. Today, any pastor or teacher who advocates slavery would be run out of town. Therefore, the Christian perspective of right and wrong has changed and most likely will continue to change.

  • Mark Sequeira

    Pretty hardcore and also hard to accept.

    Loving truth vehemently and loving one another just as vehemently…It’s easier to put these people “outside the camp” because then we don’t have to “love them.” (And can demonize them more easily.) Unfortunately Jesus said do not slander others, period. In fact on Facebook I posted last night:

    “Can anyone please define ‘slander’ for me? Because last I looked, the Bible said those who slander others will be turned away from heaven’s gates. “I warn you, slanderers will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor. 6:10, Lev. 19:16, Matt. 15:19, 2 Tim 3:3, 1 Pet. 2:1)

    “Slander: Uttering that which defames or causes damage to someone’s reputation, either by way of misrepresentation, or speaking to cause harm.”

    I wish the church had more teachers showing us “how to disagree” and how to hold truth while seeking truth, and how to lovingly speak truth to one another while continuing to accept one another as Jesus has accepted us (full of inconsistencies and wrong ideas and full of ourselves).

    Can we really accept others who are full of themselves and still love them like Jesus? Can we really love witch hunters? What does that look like? Can we continue to love those who no longer hold to ‘marriage being between one man and one woman?’ or who are vocally voting for the other political party (God forbid!)?

    This is hard stuff. I appreciate your willingness to wade into these deep waters. Continue to help us understand these things and then do them.

    Thank you. Thank you! Even if we don’t always agree! :–)

  • Joe

    David – “making exceptions” and “slippery slope” have to do with the application of your statement, “Heresies are those doctrines and teachings that undermine the person and work of Christ. Real heresies contradict the testimony about Jesus that has been handed down to us by the apostles.” I mentioned complementarian vs egalitarian marriages as an issue today. Paul’s teaching on marriage seems to be clear that a complementarian marriage is the correct model. Therefore, was Paul giving his opinion in the context of the culture or was Paul handing down a teaching from Jesus? So if a pastor/teacher states that egalitarian marriages are just as acceptable as complementarian marriages (in today’s culture), is that pastor/teacher in some manner undermining the person and work of Jesus and is such teaching a heresy? Since opinions change based on culture or scientific evidence, no doubt other issues may arise for which the same question may be asked as above for marriage models.

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Joe, if I’m understanding you correctly… my response is that Paul only meant that he knew of no specific teaching of Jesus on the matter.

      In my post Addressing Homosexuality: A Third Way I state clearly that Jesus spoke indirectly to the issue of same-sex marriage, but not directly because this wasn’t an issue among first century Palestinian Jews.

      As for complementarian vs. egalitarian (family & church)… I don’t really like this way of dicing up men and women, in the home or the church. I do see complementarian views in the NT as it pertains to the home, but I don’t think it’s as strict as some Southern Baptist propose.

      And at times I do see complementarianism at work in the church, but most of the time it’s egalitarian. So, I don’t think it’s as cut and dry as we would like to make it. Yes, I think culture and context plays a major role here.

      I suppose a person could be undermining the person and work of Christ by teaching marriage ideas counter to biblical (NT) ideas. I think I would place these things in a different category than heresy. And I would usually opt not to call them heretics. Instead, if they seem to align with the three questions I have outlined above… I would say they are simply misguided and in need of correction. I wouldn’t question their salvation over it, or believe that they’re out to destroy faith in our churches.

      I hope that addressed your concerns.

  • stephenr70

    Sadly, I believe that while they may have mostly good intentions and may believe they are doing a service for the Kingdom, several of those calling out “heretics” are – in part – doing it to get themselves or their own blogs noticed. Kind of a speck/plank type situation. :-/

    Good article as usual David. You and Frank are my personal top 2. 🙂

  • lisa

    Awesome post David. Just ran across it doing some research and couldn’t stop reading. Thank you.

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