Why are we so afraid of the “H” word?
No, I’m not talking about hell. We would be well-advised to be afraid of that place. The Puritans had no problem encouraging their congregations to do all within their ability to avoid it and so should we. No, I’m talking about the word “heresy” (or its more personal face, “heretic”). Why are we so afraid of that term?
True, Christians are not to be judgmental, to presume to determine the eternal destiny of others simply based on our observations and our biased comparisons with ourselves. However, we are to be discerning. Paul speaks of disciplining Alexander and Hymenaus. John warns of traveling teachers who taught a false gospel. Each of those cases required discernment, the ability and the willingness to judge between right and wrong, truth and falsehood. Unfortunately, that’s the very thing so many in our pews are unable or unwilling to do.
Many folks are unable to discern wisely because they don’t really know what they believe or why. How can you tell between true doctrines and false when you don’t really know what’s true? Others, however, are unwilling to be so discerning. Some wisely fear the sin of judgmentalism. Others fear the unpopularity of the label “judgmental.” Some want to be known for what they are for not what they are against. Our reasons for silence are legion.
As noble as our desires may be, there are times when we must call a heresy “heresy.” The failure to be discerning goes against the clear teaching of Scripture. The failure to defend the Gospel is a failure of biblical proportions.
Definitions of heresy are hard to come by. Most dictionaries define heresy in the broadest of terms. A heresy is any teaching that contradicts the established orthodoxy. That’s helpful but not good enough. First, what is the established orthodoxy? Second, who establishes the orthodoxy? Is every point of theological “orthodoxy” equally important? Must we know and agree on every point to be Christian? Thus, such a broad definition of heresy is too broad, unhelpful, and potentially divisive.
So, I add my own definition to the mix. A heresy is any theological teaching that contradicts the Gospel, the acceptance of which would condemn the would-be believer to an eternity of punishment in hell.
With this definition I hope to avoid those secondary theological issues like eschatology or church polity. As important as they are, they are points at which believers can agree to disagree without eternal consequences. I can be wrong as to how the end times will be play out and still be permitted by God to take part in them. (Thank you, Jesus, that I don’t have to know everything to be a Christian.)
Instead, I hope to limit the scope of heresy to the most important of doctrines as they relate to the God-given Gospel: theology proper, Christology, and anthropology. Who is God and what is He like? Who is Jesus and what has He done? What does any of this have to do with me? Get these doctrines right and go to heaven. Get them wrong, skip go, and go directly to hell. Worse yet, if you’re teaching these false doctrines, you take people to hell with you.
If my definition is in the proverbial ballpark, if I’m correct in the broadest sense possible, there’s much that passes for Christianity in today’s marketplace of faith that is heresy. Preachers who deny or avoid the holiness of God have left the camp of biblical orthodoxy and are in bed with heresy. Groups who claim the name of Christ but believe Christ to be anything other than fully God, fully man are heretical. People who ignore sin and teach a Gospel of self-help, human potential, and the “secret” of our own deity are heretics. The Gospel has been comprised and souls are at risk.
The label of heresy is not one to be taken lightly. Instead, we should use the term ever so reluctantly, as a title of last resort. We should seek to understand, to reconcile, to redeem, and to return wayward sheep to the fold. Yet, in the end, we must be like our returning Savior: bold, valiant, and determined to protect and to serve the honor and glory of our God who has proclaimed His Gospel to us.
Weakness in the name of compassion will not cut it. Passivity based on ignorance is unacceptable. We must study to show ourselves approved and we must speak boldly as we defend the Gospel once for all delivered to the saints. To do otherwise might salve tender egos and promote a hollow unity but it also consigns the souls of those who believe these false gospels to hell.
Please note, I am not calling for a witch hunt here. The church doesn’t need another Inquisition. We’ve tried those things and the church is perpetually on trial in the court of public opinion because of those embarrassing failures.What I am calling for is honesty — Gospel honesty. Let’s call false teaching what it is — heresy. I’m calling for boldness. Our reputation before God is far more important than our reputation before man. I’m calling for discernment. We must know what the true Gospel is. We must know what is of first importance. We must stand, take up the banner of the Gospel, and wade in where modern man fears to tread … into the battle for the Truth, be it ever so painful or unpopular. The true Gospel, the soul saving, life-giving Gospel, is at stake.
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About Peter Beck
Peter serves as assistant professor of religion at Charleston Southern University where he teaches church history and theology. While serving as senior pastor in Louisville, Ky., he completed his PhD in historic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His dissertation, The Voice of Faith: Jonathan Edwards's Theology of Prayer, is soon to be published. He, his wife Melanie, and their two kids, Alex (12) and Karis (7), live near Charleston, SC. Peter's goal for his teaching and writing ministries is "love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5).
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