I once took a college spring trip to Key West, FL. A buddy from church and I left out on a Friday and made our way down to the tip of the Continental United States. We stopped off at Marathon Key and got a campsite for the first night. Being college students, this was going to have to be a budget trip. If I recall, that campsite cost us $70 a night (and this was back in the 90’s). We both realized quickly that we didn’t have the money to last a full week down in the Keys. On Sunday morning we got up and, having nothing else to do, we went to church. I recalled seeing an Assemblies of God church on the main drag so we stopped in there, arriving just a little late for the first service. With nothing to do and nowhere to go (we were after all college students flying by the seat of our pants), we stayed for the second service as well. During the second service I remember hearing the pastor mention the name of their sister church down in Key West. When he mentioned the name of that church, I knew within myself, that’s where we need to head next. Long story short, we made great friendships that week with some beautiful Assemblies of God brethren and even got to spend the rest of the week sleeping in one of the Sunday school rooms. God provided housing for us at no cost. At the nudging of God’s Spirit, we went down there to have fun, but God did so much more. During that divinely appointed Spring Break, I had the honor of personally leading 25 people to Christ through simple street evangelism. My friend led two people to the Lord. We came back a week later with 27 salvations under our collective belt (that’s far better than what most college kids do on Spring Break).
Upon our return, we were so excited to tell everyone what God had done (this was the 90’s, we didn’t have cellphones, and Zuckerburg would have been in middle school). In those days, the group of believers I ran with called the positive fruit of evangelism, “getting someone born-again.” And so that’s we said when we returned from the Keys. Them: “How was Spring Break?” Us: “Awesome! We got 27 people born-again.” Most people were so excited to hear such a testimony, but inevitably there was Brother Semantic ready to extinguish young college zeal. His retort would have sounded something like this, “Brother, you didn’t get anybody born-again. It is Jesus that saves, by the power of the Holy Spirit. You were either sowing, or watering. It is God that gives the increase. You sound so prideful when you talk that way.” Eh, maybe we did sound prideful. Or maybe it was just shear excitement and exuberance at such a wonderful Spring Break.
In my last article, we began to define doctrine, sound doctrine, and heresy. We determined from the Scriptures that the only way we as Christians are permitted to build doctrine is from the Word of God, and more specifically, from the witness of two or three verses. The intention of these articles is to scrutinize the doctrines of television preacher, Mark T. Barclay, to determine whether they are heresy or sound doctrine. If the doctrines of Mark T. Barclay can be proven to be heresy, then we can, with all humility and without a critical spirit, call him a heretic. However, if his doctrines are proven to be merely doctrinal differences and not heresy, then we must leave him and his ministry alone and obey the Scriptures that command us to, “know them that labor among you and esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (1 Thessalonians 5:12,13). Paul didn’t encourage us to love the Gospel Preacher because we agreed with all their doctrine, for doctrine is not even mentioned in the verse, rather, it is for their work’s sake that we love and esteem them.
So, What is Heresy?
So, what is heresy? According to the sum of the New Testament verses addressing the subject, heresy is a doctrine or system of teaching designed to deceive and lead people away from a holy life serving Jesus Christ. Heresy is designed to remove the love of God from a believer’s heart, callous their soul against sin, and turn them against truth by providing an easier standard. In short, any opinion or teaching that is repugnant to the doctrines of the Bible is heresy.
When does a mere doctrinal difference qualify to be labeled as a heresy? Doctrine can earn the label of heresy when it produces the following perverse fruit:
Deception in the minds of believers (Matthew 24:4, 5, 11, 24)
Lawlessness in the hearts of believers (Matthew 24:12)
Remorselessness in the hearts of believers (Matthew 24:12)
A perversion of the Gospel (Galatians 1:7)
Bewitching the hearer out of the Gospel and back into spiritual slavery (Galatians 3:1)
Causing people to depart from the faith (1 Timothy 4:1)
Producing an attractive alternative Gospel to follow (2 Peter 2:2)
Causing the Gospel to be slandered and mocked by others (2 Peter 2:2)
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.