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.