One of the greatest spiritual cancers assaulting Christians today is the pervasiveness of heresy. New Testament Greek lexicons define heresy as dissensions arising from diversity of opinions and aims, and a body of men following their own tenets. Modern English defines heresy as the belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious doctrine. When the aforementioned “men” teach “their own tenets” and “dissensions,” drawing people after them, they are called heretics. Though these definitions seem a bit simple, non-threatening, and nonchalant, the Bible takes a much harsher stance against heretics and their heresies. The Lord Jesus also warned of these men, declaring that in the last days, false prophets would arise and deceive many. In Galatians 5, the Apostle Paul listed heresy as a work of the flesh—as wicked as adultery, idolatry, witchcraft, and murder. Paul warned Timothy of the last days’ “seducing spirits and doctrines of devils,” causing some to depart from the faith. Paul even delivered Hymenaeus, a preacher, over to Satan, for preaching heresy. In his case, he was preaching that the resurrection had already happened. Peter addressed heretics in Second Peter 2, equating heretics to false prophets and false teachers. The Holy Spirit, through Peter, called their heresies “damnable.” But even more disconcerting is the prophecy of Peter stating that many would follow after the pernicious and destructive ways of these false teachers. It is through perverse doctrines that many Christians are being taught to betray Christ. Because of these dire biblical warnings, we must address heresy and the heretics that promote them. Before we do this, let us first discover how we as Christians are to build sound Bible doctrine and then compare heresy to doctrinal differences so common in the Body of Christ.
A doctrine is a systematic set of teachings upon which an individual lives their life. Every person on earth lives by some kind of doctrine. Atheists have doctrine. Muslims have doctrine. Environmentalists have doctrine. Even the bar-hopper has doctrine. In this regard, doctrine isn’t so much what you believe as it is how you live. We, as Christians, are to have doctrine based upon the Bible. Heresies are doctrines that usually reduce the authority of God’s Word with the aim of causing the hearer to depart from Christ altogether. Some heresies are doctrines with just enough Scripture in them to appear convincing to the unstudied. Other heresies are nearly all solid Bible-based doctrine with the exception of a little bit of purposed leaven to slowly poison the hearer (even mercury at >1ppm in fish is considered to be contaminated and toxic). The only proven method to eliminate heresy and avoid deception is to study the Bible with the desire to draw near to God (it should be apparent that one could study the Bible with the wrong motive and it benefit nothing).
Paul exhorted Timothy to study to show himself approved unto God. We are to be students of God’s Word. We must allow the Scriptures to interpret themselves. This is called hermeneutics. Christian doctrine is based solely upon God’s Word. Doctrine is never built on hearsay, experiences, worldly wisdom, or the teachings of other religions. If we want to have sound Bible doctrine, the Bible must be the only text from which we build doctrine. The Bible establishes a law concerning the power of witnesses, “At the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15b). This verse is quoted again in Numbers 35:30; Matthew 18:16; John 8:17; 2 Corinthians 13:1; 1 Timothy 5:19; and Hebrews 10:28. Noteworthy is the fact that this spiritual law of witnesses is established twice in the Old Testament, twice in the Gospels, and three times in the Epistles; thus, more than fulfilling its own mandate. These verses teach us that we can’t base doctrine on only one verse. We must have the witness of at least two or three verses to establish any word or doctrine. We are to build doctrine based upon text, not supposition. Heretics often twist the Scriptures, usually taking verses out of context in order to back up their heresies. Their doctrines are not based on the Holy Scriptures; but rather, perversion and deception. We, as sound students of God’s Word, must be willing to submit all of our personally held doctrines to this divine litmus test, and even be willing to go back and reevaluate our beliefs to further line them up with Scripture.
When contrasting sound biblical doctrine to heresies, we must also keep traditionally held doctrinal differences in mind. Among orthodox evangelical Christians there are many doctrinal differences. We understand that these doctrinal differences arise from different interpretations and emphases among the various denominations and affiliations within the Body of Christ. Though Christians often align their memberships and even ministerial credentials with the group that closest mirrors their personally held doctrines, the term heretic or heresy is rarely, if ever, hurled between denominations. Consider some of the numerous contradictory “orthodox” doctrines in Christendom today: there are Calvinists and Armenians debating predestination versus freewill. Both are based on the Scriptures—countless scriptures. There are numerous debates on the major eschatological doctrines: pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, post-tribulation raptures, and no rapture at all. Each has a scriptural precedent. There are numerous stances on water baptism: baptize immediately, baptize after discipleship, baptize in Jesus’ name only, baptize in the name of the Trinity, baptism is critical for eternal salvation, baptism isn’t critical for eternal salvation. Then there are cessationists arguing that the Gifts of the Spirit have ceased while their Pentecostal brethren in Christ argue weekly that the Gifts have not. These are just a few examples of doctrinal differences currently found in orthodox Christian churches today. Yet, for these differences, we don’t consider these diverse doctrines to be heresy—just different doctrinal stances. (Though to be fair, we hold the doctrines we do because we believe them to be the accurate interpretation, with anyone else’s opposing doctrine to be “wrong” or “in error”).
I spent 10 years convincing myself from the Bible that I could lose my salvation, then I spent the next 10 years convincing myself from the Bible that I couldn’t lose my salvation.
One pastor with 50 years experience once said, “I spent 10 years convincing myself from the Bible that I could lose my salvation, then I spent the next 10 years convincing myself from the Bible that I couldn’t lose my salvation.” These are two totally different doctrinal stances, but both based completely on the Bible. Furthermore, the Bible tells us the best we can ever know is just in part. We are fools to think we can know everything now. We must be open to continuous studying of the Word, and if any man thinks he knows anything he knows nothing yet as he ought. So what is heresy? And when does a doctrinal difference make someone a heretic? And is Mark T. Barclay a heretic? That will be the subject of next article.