Why You Shouldn’t Call That False Teaching a Heresy

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today (October 2016).

A group of bloggers seeking reform in Southern Baptist circles recently decried pastor Rick Warren for teaching that God communicates to believers via dreams. The bloggers named Warren and other speakers at a 2015 Hillsong conference “heretical preachers that claim extra-biblical revelation from God.” To be sure, the nature of God’s revelation has been debated throughout church history, and overemphasis on dream interpretation can be theologically dangerous.

Elsewhere, a UK Christian leader has devoted much of his writing and teaching to criticizing Christian Zionism—the belief that the founding of the State of Israel is foretold in Scripture. He and others have begun calling Zionism and its political implications “heresy” in online columns. And their views are not unique: Many Christians believe that Zionism is a misreading of God’s promises throughout the Old Testament.

But are these problems of heresy? Both complementarian and egalitarian leaders have taken to the Internet to call each other’s views on gender and leadership heresy. That, though their respective movements have officially existed for about 30 years.

Some say the Internet has democratized knowledge. Clearly, it has also democratized theologizing. Anyone with a computer and Wifi access can publish their thoughts and declarations onto a level pixelated playing field. Some blogs and Twitter accounts exist solely to cry foul whenever a well-known preacher makes a controversial statement.

Yet the frequency and volume of the proclamations from these sources—and from those who share and retweet them—suggest that some Christians don’t understand the significance of right doctrine, or the gravity of heresy charges. Worse, these disputes lead some to believe that doctrine isn’t worth the effort, since it seems only to breed division rather than promote Christlikeness.

Given our volatile online atmosphere, Christians in general and evangelicals in particular need a clearer definition of heresy. We need to know how to spot the difference between essential truths of the Christian faith and doctrines over which we can disagree and still remain faithful to Christian teaching. Even with a good definition, doctrinal assessment requires wisdom and discernment. It often involves two different ends: first, avoiding overuse of the heresy charge, which strips the word of its usefulness; and second, correcting Christians with beliefs that are false and that can undermine the integrity of the church.

Why Doctrine Is So Important

We may be tempted to think that since theology so easily divides, we are better off simply agreeing to disagree. After all, Jesus said that if we love God and others, we are fulfilling the law. “Why,” some ask, “does it matter that we believe the right things about God, so long as we love him?”

It is certainly true that loving God and others is at the heart of the gospel. But Jesus calls us to love God with our heart, soul, strength, and mind. Loving God involves thinking rightly about him, just as loving a friend or significant other involves rightly knowing their interests, beliefs, habits, and history.

When the Israelites taught their children about God, they recalled all he had done for them and their forebears. They worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the One who had delivered them out of Egypt. And they used specific phrases to describe him and what he had done. These specific phrases distinguished the God of the Israelites from the gods of their pagan neighbors.

Orthodox statements about the Trinity and Jesus Christ function similarly. They identify the God we worship and describe his saving relationship to us. Therefore, in order to love God aright, and to be assured of the salvation he offers, we must know who God is and what he has done for us in and through Jesus Christ.

The Bible reserves strong language for false teachers who promote beliefs that undermine or contradict the gospel. Bruce Demarest, a theologian at Denver Seminary, writes that the New Testament “expresses serious concern for ‘false doctrines’ and places the highest priority on maintaining ‘the pattern of sound teaching.’ Scripture urges Christians to be alert to doctrinal deception and to avoid heresy by carefully guarding the pure content of the gospel.” Again, orthodoxy is not just a matter of theological precision. It’s about making sure the church rightly grasps our God and his work for us in Christ.

That’s why Paul wrote so forcefully to the Galatians, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (1:9, NIV, used throughout). It’s why Peter warned against “false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Pet. 2:1).

It’s also why early Christians wrestled for centuries over the nature and identity of Christ. The church held services and used prayers that worshiped Jesus. But wasn’t he a man in his earthly ministry? If so, did that mean they were practicing idolatry by worshiping a mere man? Or was Jesus in some way divine? Was he divine but only looked human? Or was he human but became divine, for instance, at his baptism? If he wasn’t fully human and fully divine, then could he accomplish salvation for us?

Such were the earliest doctrinal issues to be ironed out, and for very practical reasons: They affected how the church worshiped God and understood salvation. There were also pastoral concerns, to ensure believers living in a pagan world understood what they confessed together as one body. Doctrinal issues may require abstract language to explain, but they are not primarily academic. They have serious implications for how we live and talk about our faith.

A Word Worth Preserving

What is heresy? Literally the word means “choice”—that is, a choice to deviate from traditional teaching in favor of one’s own insights. The word can also mean “school of thought.” That seems to be Paul’s usage in 1 Corinthians 11:19, where he uses the Greek word haireseis (“faction”). Gradually, the term came to mean “party or sect,” and over time it took on negative connotations.

Some today cast the word heretic in a positive light: a courageous rebel who thinks outside the box and stands up to the “institutional” church. To be sure, some whom the church called heretics have turned out to be heroes; think of how the Catholic Church responded to Galileo when he asserted that the Earth revolves around the sun.

Then there is the almost flippant use of the word, as when others use it to refer to anyone who doesn’t agree with their denominational or theological distinctives.

But just because a word is misused doesn’t mean it is no longer helpful.

Traditionally a heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine, usually by oversimplification, and has thus lost sight of who God truly is or what he has done for us. While most heretics throughout history were asking legitimate questions, they weren’t called heretics simply for asking questions. Their answers were the problem, as was their unwillingness to accept clear and detailed correction. In many cases, the heretics went too far, trying to mold the faith into the shape of unbiblical ideas they found appealing, especially those of pagan Greek philosophy. Or they began to emphasize certain ideas in Scripture to the exclusion of others.

In order to use heresy properly, we must understand that not all theological errors are equal or carry the same ramifications.

Our own tradition, Protestantism, has outlined three kinds of doctrinal error: (1) an error that directly contradicts a fundamental belief (heresy proper, like Arianism—keep reading); (2) an error that indirectly contradicts a fundamental belief (e.g., to teach that God causes suffering implies that God is not good); and (3) an error beyond a fundamental article (e.g., teaching that Christians must speak in tongues to have the Holy Spirit).

More simply, many Christian theologians distinguish heresy from heterodoxy. Heresy, as historian David Christie-Murray explains, is a belief that denies a doctrine “officially defined” as orthodoxy. Heterodoxy, however, is a Christian belief that diverges from a “commonly accepted teaching.” Heresy denies orthodoxy, while heterodoxy adds a questionable or problematic teaching to orthodoxy.

For example, according to Protestants, the Catholic teaching that Mary was born without original sin and remained a virgin for life is heterodox. It’s not heresy, because Catholics affirm orthodox Christology. But it’s heterodox because we Protestants believe only Jesus—the Word made flesh—was free of original sin, and that Catholic teaching adds something not taught in Scripture. However, Oneness Pentecostalism is an example of heresy, because it rejects historic orthodox Trinitarian theology.

The line between heterodoxy and heresy can be blurry, so we need wisdom, discernment, and humility before labeling a person a heretic. Additionally, we must remember that the sum of what Christians should believe is not identical to the essentials we must believe for salvation. We need to leave room for believers to grow in their understanding of the faith. We believe in justification by faith in Christ, not justification by accuracy of doctrine. No one comes into the family of God ready to pen a book on systematic theology. We are saved by grace, not by intellectual precision.

However, we must also remember that faith is not ignorant or naïve. It is informed, resting on a firm understanding of the Good News. Genuine trust requires a reasonable knowledge of what—and more important, who—is being trusted. And growing in knowledge of biblical truth is a vital component of the Christian life.

What Heresy Looks Like

The apostles were not afraid to denounce heresy. If a teaching or practice threatened the gospel’s integrity, they strongly condemned it—as when Paul denounces Peter and the circumcision party in Galatians 2. Yet heresy charges were not lobbed casually. Nor were they aimed at mere theological imprecision.

For instance, a couple named Priscilla and Aquila pulled aside an intelligent, competent teacher of Scripture named Apollos and “explained to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26). We don’t read of them calling him at heretic. Rather, we see them lovingly correcting a theological error. They wanted him to know the truth and the joy that accompanied it, not to condemn him or stir division.

The early church combated heresy by reinforcing biblical doctrine with creeds. Arguably, the earliest creeds appear in the Bible. Many scholars believe Paul is reciting a creed when he summarizes the truths “of first importance”: that Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised on the third day, and appeared to the apostles and many others (1 Cor. 15:3–7).

After the apostolic age, the early church possessed what was known as “the rule of faith,” which Bruce Demarest describes as “brief summaries of essential Christian truths.” Some teachers, however, began to lead movements that blatantly opposed the apostles’ teaching, and the church was compelled to articulate more clearly the essentials of Christianity. Core doctrines like the Trinity and the person of Christ were developed through the early church’s struggle against heresy. And the rule of faith birthed more precise statements like the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Thus, heresies forced Christians to think more precisely and definitively about the truth of the gospel.

Three important heresies stand out.

Marcionism

Marcion was the son of the bishop of Sinope, Pontus (in modern-day Turkey). Around 140, he traveled to Rome, where he was welcomed by the church, but by 144, his views had gotten him into trouble, and he was excommunicated.

Among other troubling beliefs, Marcion taught that the God of the Old Testament was legalistic and wrathful, a fundamentally different being from the gracious and loving God of the New. He rejected the authority of the Old Testament, and also attempted to liberate the church from all law. He believed the only way to do this was to rid Christianity of all traces of Judaism. Marcion ended up creating his own Bible, which included only a shorter and earlier version of the Gospel of Luke and ten epistles of Paul. Marcion also edited these books. For example, he cut all Old Testament citations from Paul’s letters.

The early church concluded that Marcion’s divisions between law and gospel, Old and New Testaments, were foreign to the apostles’ teaching. Second-century theologian and bishop Irenaeus spoke forcefully against Marcion. He wrote that Marcion “mutilated the Gospel according to Luke, removing all the narratives of the Lord’s birth, and also removing much of the teaching of the discourses of the Lord wherein he is most manifestly described as acknowledging the maker of this universe to be his father.”

Sabellianism

During the second and third centuries, Christians struggled to reconcile the oneness of God—“I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Isa. 45:5)—with the three divine names that appear at the end of Matthew: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19).

If there is no God besides the God of Israel, who are the Son and the Holy Spirit? Are they newer gods who had just been revealed? Are they less divine than the Father? A third-century priest named Sabellius concluded that FatherSon, and HolySpirit were labels for the three different ways God had revealed himself.

His views became known as Sabellianism, better known today as Modalism. This heresy teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not distinct persons but simply different modes or forms of God. Sabellians maintained that any Scripture passage suggesting that God is more than one person must be interpreted metaphorically.

But an African theologian named Tertullian argued that a metaphorical interpretation twisted the terms Father and Son, which were revealed to us to convey something real about God. “In order to be a husband, I must have a wife,” Tertullian wrote. “I can never myself be my own wife. In like manner, in order to be a father, I have a son, for I never can be a son to myself; and in order to be a son, I have a father, it being impossible for me ever to be my own father.” Further, he showed that Christ revealed his deity to the apostles by assuming attributes of the God of Israel (when he said, for example, “I am,” in John 8:58, harkening to “I Am Who I Am” in Exodus 3:14), and by calling on God the Father as a distinct witness to his own identity.

Arianism

Theology doesn’t often cause urban uprisings, but it did in Alexandria, Egypt, in 318. That year, people streamed into the streets chanting, “There was a time when the Son was not!” The slogan expressed an idea that had become popular: that Christ was a created being. But that idea was opposed by another group of Christians, led by Bishop Alexander of Alexandria and his protégé, Athanasius. They insisted that Christ is eternally divine along with the Father.

This controversy had political ramifications, and eventually spread through the Roman Empire and threatened to fracture the church. What caused this crisis? The teachings of a Libyan priest in Alexandria named Arius.

Arius wasn’t trying to stir division. He thought that the relationship between the Father and Jesus was simple and needed to be freed from overly complicated explanations. Since the age of the apostles, Jesus had always been considered to be divine in some sense. But his precise relationship to the Father had not been settled on yet.

Arius argued that the Son was created before the rest of creation. As Arius put it, “Before he was begotten or created or appointed or established, he did not exist.” Further, Arius believed, the Son is not of one divine substance with the Father. He is rather of a similar substance (homoiousios in Greek) to the Father. The divine qualities of the Son are derivative—contingent, not essential—and given to the Son by the Father.

Arianism caught the attention of Emperor Constantine. Fearing that the church’s discord might fracture the empire, he called the Council of Nicaea (325), attended by 318 bishops, to resolve the situation. After dramatic debates, the majority stood with Alexander and condemned Arianism. (Only two other men were exiled with Arius. Thus, the outcome was virtually unanimous.) The bishops formulated a summary of the Christian faith that used precise wording to denounce Arianism: “We believe . . . in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance [homoousious] with the Father.”

Why the precise wording? Because, as Athanasius argued in On the Incarnation, salvation itself hung in the balance. The Bible’s teaching on Christ’s atonement requires a mediator who is fully God, with the holiness to make a perfect offering for sin, and also fully human, one who truly represents those to be reconciled to God.

As fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus famously put it, “That which was not assumed is not healed, but that which is united to God is saved.” Gregory understood that what we believe about Christ is directly connected to what we believe about salvation.

The orthodox bishops at the council struggled to gain popular approval. In fact, the council caused Arianism to grow more rapidly. It grew so much that Constantine—who was not concerned about fidelity to the strict wording of the Nicene Creed—restored Arius. He required Arius to submit in principle to the Creed. Arius did, but Athanasius, Alexander’s successor, and other bishops believed he was lying.

Athanasius was exiled five times for defending Nicene orthodoxy. In 46 years as bishop, he spent only 17 in Alexandria. But he remained faithful, even though he was up against what seemed like the entire world. Today he is recognized as the foremost defender of Nicene orthodoxy and the most prolific writer of Trinitarian theology in the fourth century.

A few years after Athanasius died, the Cappadocian Fathers—Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus—carried the torch to subdue Arianism and Semi-Arianism at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

How to Identify Heresy

This brief sketch shows that a mature definition of heresy draws on the rich biblical, theological, and historical teachings of Christianity. So we must recognize the various places and levels of theological authority.

Scripture is the highest authority, of course, followed by the great ecumenical creeds (Apostles’ and Nicene), and then by denominational confessions. Those include Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles, Lutheranism’s Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, and Methodism’s Twenty-Five Articles of Religion. Many evangelical organizations use statements of faith to delineate their theological convictions. Creeds, confessions, and statements of faith can help us understand Scripture, but they should never be placed above Scripture.

That said, the creeds in particular are great summaries of biblical truth and are indispensable for pinpointing heresy. Accepted by Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians, the Nicene Creed—which should be called the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, since later debates led to an expansion of Nicaea’s formula at the Council in Constantinople (381)—wonderfully encapsulates the fundamental teachings of historic Christianity. If a believer genuinely accepts the Nicene Creed, they should not be dubbed a heretic. It’s worth asking: “Can they say the Nicene Creed without crossing their fingers?” If yes, they may still be wrong or heterodox on other matters, but we cannot call them heretics.

The creeds are bare-bones structures, the outlines of the sketch. Confessions and statements of faith color in the picture. They tie theology to everyday life and highlight denominational distinctives—how one Christian tradition differs from another. Confessions and statements of faith often define a particular group’s belief on secondary issues such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, predestination, and the end times. They arise when particular theological issues are debated. For example, many evangelical statements of faith include affirmations of the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture. That’s because evangelicals have wanted to distinguish themselves from liberal Christianity, which often denied these teachings.

Today we rarely confront heresy as such, in part because those who adopt a heretical view frequently leave the church when they do so. But heresy is still alive and well. One practical example: The reason we don’t count Jehovah’s Witnesses as fellow Christians is because they espouse Arianism.

Even though heresy is rare, heterodoxy and false teachings are not.

In a pluralistic world, some sub-Christian or extra-biblical teachings—like the Immaculate Conception, that the only appropriate Bible translation is the King James Version, or that the Jewish laws are mandatory for Christians—find their way into otherwise orthodox churches. Most would not count as heresy, but that does not mean we can ignore them.

That said, we are called to confront with love, just as the early church confronted Apollos, patiently guiding people to a fuller understanding of the faith. Even this calls for discernment, because often we’re not dealing with theological error as much as different interpretations of Scripture. In those cases especially, we should eschew the word heresy. And in all cases, we should recall this saying: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things love.”