Getting Heresy Right

Recovering the Lost Truth about Sins Against Community

The correct opposite of heresy is not only orthodoxy, but robust, loving Christian fellowship, founded on the firm foundation of Scripture.

When I was in college, my friends and I met a few evangelical street preachers from Wells, Texas, a tiny town about three hours’ drive away. They had been sharing Scriptures and witnessing on campus, and we invited them to meet some of our friends at an apartment. Little did we know what the evening would hold.

These young men led us through some biblical discussion in that small apartment, with around twenty young Christians present by the end. There was nothing obviously errant in their theology, their view of Christ, or their explanation of the atonement. They revered the same authors we did, like Leonard Ravenhill and Charles Spurgeon. But I believe we were victims of an attempted heresy of the second degree. These men were true biblical heretics, even though their doctrine was, or seemed, sound. Before I explain why I believe that, I will give you a New Testament definition of heresy.

A Definition of Heresy

For most of the New Testament writers, heresy was a practice, not a belief (Gal. 5:20). Paul lists it with “deeds of the flesh,” along with other types of community division. He seems to put them in order of progression: “contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies.” This toxic sin of community division involves false teaching, but false teaching is only one aspect of it.

Based on my study of the New Testament, heresy seems really close to the modern usage of “cult.” Keep in mind I am not talking about what heresy has come to mean in English; I am talking about what it meant for Luke, Paul and Peter. Heresies fall into a pattern of spiritual pride and spurning fellowship that pre-dates the New Testament, and is alive and well today.

Based on the words of New Testament authors, heresy involved the following aspects:

1. Heretics were those who started a closed religious club, often centered around a human personality. (This community was called an αιρησις, a heresy, Acts 5:17, 15:5, 24:5, 1 Cor. 11:19.)

Our new friends had started a church in rural east Texas, and as far as we knew, they were their own accountability structure. With a lack of spiritual oversight, their community looked more and more like a cult.

2. Heretics claimed a special knowledge that led to salvation (1 Tim. 6:20-21). Anyone that was not enlightened in their particular way, was not heaven-bound (like the Sadducees, Acts 5:17).

In our story, these “elders,” as they call themselves, believed that the 1611 King James was the only inspired translation of the Bible in English. As the night progressed, we realized that they didn’t believe that any of us truly knew Christ, in short, because we were not exactly like them.

3. Heretics disrupt the spiritual unity found in Christ (1 Cor. 11:18-19, Titus 3:9-10). In wider contexts, heresies disrupted unity among the Jews (Acts 5:17, 15:5).

Long after we sent them on their way, we found out that this church does not allow its members to fellowship with any other flavor of Christian, all of which they consider to be lost and apostate. They have even made national news channels for their habit of separating converts from their families.

4. Heretics follow and teach false teaching—in 2 Peter 2:1, we have the only place in Scripture (1 out of 10) where “heresy” evidently means a school of thought. The word heretic seems to apply primarily not to followers of false teachings, but leaders who teach error and encourage division (Titus 3:10). (You could call this second-degree heresy; there often a big difference between “deceivers” and “deceived.”)

The false teaching that these men taught was not obvious to us based on the first few hours of conversation. But as the night came to a close, they continued to exhort all of us to “examine ourselves” to see if we were “in Christ.”  Like the Galatians, they are lost in a labyrinth of legalism.

Heresies & Heretics of the New Testament

The Pharisees and the Sadducees are the first groups called “heresies” or “cults” in the New Testament, but most translations use the nicer word, “sect.” However, they were exclusive religious groups with unbiblical teaching: the Sadducees rejected the belief in an afterlife, and the Pharisees emphasized legal holiness. “Me first” somehow grew into “we first.”

Early Christianity was also called a “heresy,” although it is usually translated as “cult,” since it was an insult at the time (Acts 24:5, 28:22). One can see how a demanding community environment, a charged spiritual atmosphere, the rioting among the Jews, and the new body of doctrine that was refined around the life and teaching of Christ, would make the Jews and Romans on the outside view Christianity as a cult or a heresy. Since cults are almost always built around a human personality, they assumed that this new group was the offspring of Jesus of Nazareth, the failed Messiah claimant, and they called his imitators “the Nazarenes.” They made one miscalculation though: cults tend to flicker out when their leaders die, but the leader of the Nazarenes is alive.

Paul the Heretic

It may shock you to know the only person accused of committing heresy in the New Testament is the apostle Paul.

He fits the four criteria listed above: He disrupted the unity of the Jews; he claimed God had revealed himself to him; he preached salvation in Christ alone; and he led many into the Christian faith which the Jews assumed was a personality cult around a false, and therefore human, Messiah.

Paul responded to this accusation of heresy, firstly, by saying that he was not disputing or stirring up the people (Acts 24:12). Then, concerning his belief, he said that he had not left behind the God of his fathers, and that he believed everything written in the Law and the Prophets (Acts 24:14), i.e. the Old Testament. 

The Sword of Jesus: Good Division

In the context of his followers leaving their families, Jesus told them that he did not come to bring peace, “but a sword.” In linguistics, we call this a “metonymy”; the sword often represents war, but Jesus tells us that he’s talking about division in families. He did not mean that he would cause war directly, but that his ideas would stir controversy and divide between true and false believers.

The Reformation was divisive. Historians comment on the wars and controversies that followed in the wakes of John Wycliffe, John Hus, Martin Luther, and others. Division is not a bad thing when it is a sword dividing church from world and flesh from spirit. Heretics, though, defame true believers by muddying the waters of belief, in an attempt to soil the blood-washed robes of Jesus’ glorious Bride. I cannot imagine how God will feel about those who so insult the apple of his eye.

Translating Heresy

In his list of “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5, Paul mentions seditions, strifes, and heresies. I have created my own list as a way of seeing where heresy begins and how it grows. (This is loosely based on various translations of Galatians 5:20, as well as experience.)

PERSONAL DIVISION: Arguments, spats, dishonoring, nitpicking, intellectual pride, theological pride, devil’s advocates, estrangement

GROUP DIVISION: Choosing sides, cliques, factions, infighting, strife, silent treatment, party spirit, exclusivism

LEADERSHIP DIVISION: Lack of correction, doctrinal pride, self-celebration, unyieldingness, spiritual pride, denominational promotion, leader worship, celebrity status

COMMUNITY DIVISION: Decay of accountability structures, party lines, personality cults, unwillingness to negotiate, church splits, denominational division, heresy.

Healing Error & Opposing Heresy

The irony today is that those who most often accuse other Christians of “heresy” claim a special knowledge (i.e. orthodoxy) that assures them that they are the right flavor of Christian. I’m not saying orthodoxy is unimportant, but that we must not conflate heresy and error. Heretic-hunters refuse fellowship to whole kingdoms of the Christian church, excommunicating them from their clan, when in reality, what those Christians probably need is the love of their neighbor and continued accountability. Often theological errors are merely symptoms of immaturity and lack of community, and separating the accused “heretics” over a few specs of theological sawdust in their eyes only hurts our community further. The mote is lack of good theology; the beam is lack of good community.

Theological error should be addressed in the context of compassionate fellowship; true heresy, according to Paul, is cancer to a fellowship, and must be cut off. We do not negotiate with heretics. I have seen people come, not merely to disrupt a meeting, but growing like a mold inside a fellowship—dishonoring leaders, claiming special gifting, self-aggrandizing even while talking about Jesus. These are all the marks of an attempted heresy. Amazingly, when this happens, they can give every indication of orthodoxy. Heretics don’t just come to disturb doctrine; they come to destroy a community.

When that happens, Paul says to warn them twice, and then “have nothing more to do with them” (Titus 3:10). One possible translation is “shun”! If a follower of Jesus attacks and dismantles the church that Jesus came to win—even if they do it with a smile—the church should not pat them on the back and pray for them every Sunday. Their behavior causes real damage to our friendship, our community, and our mission. It is better to cut off the right hand of fellowship from them if it will save a soul in danger—not just theirs, but everyone else in the community who is endangered by false fellowship and false teaching (Matt. 18, 1 Cor. 5).

The Opposite of Heresy

The correct opposite of heresy is not only orthodoxy, but robust, loving Christian fellowship, founded on the firm foundation of Scripture. It is not just right doctrine, but right fellowship that heals and prevents the wounds of division. Paul told Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely—it is no good to fixate on one and forget the other. Both are indispensable.

We could reverse the four characteristics of heresy and say that the Church should have these aspects:

1. We have no ethnic, economic, or linguistic boundaries to joining our ranks (Eph. 2). There is no living man able to put you in, or keep you out, of Christ’s church.

2. The knowledge of Christ that leads to salvation is available to all. There is no book, special class of discipleship or instruction in a certain doctrine that can somehow make us either true Christians or “level 2 Christians” (1 John 2:27, 1 Tim. 6:20-21).

3. Teaching and doctrine should encourage unity among true believers, though we cannot be united to the world. We focus not on doctrines that divide Christians (1 Tim. 4:7) but the doctrines that unite us, found not in speculation or man’s teaching, but in the words of Scripture (1 Tim. 4:16).

4. The authority of God’s Word is a purging fire to the confusion and anger of heresies. This was understood even in a Jewish context (Acts 24:14). The best way to avoid destructive division is to dwell long in the words and spirit of the Bible.

No Other Foundation

The fact that the Western church has confused heresy with doctrinal error for so many centuries, shows that the entire basis of our Christian community has been misplaced. We no longer believe in putting theological heretics to death literally, but we kill them in our hearts when we exclude them from the family of Christ. We have built fellowships around beliefs about when it should have been based around the One whom we believe in.

Our community, if it is found in what we believe, and not in him in whom we believe, is in danger of the true sin of heresy. If we gather around the doctrines of one man or a few men, and spend our sermons celebrating those doctrines, our community has become detached from our gravitational center. No doctrine or church leader can bear the spiritual weight of a community.

Disagreement about doctrine may affect the depth of our fellowship; but in regard to non-essentials it should not prevent fellowship. “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

2 thoughts on “Getting Heresy Right

  1. Pingback: Who Is Watchman Nee? | Pioneer Library

  2. Pingback: My Calvinist Brothers and the Left Foot of Fellowship | Pioneer Library

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