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4 Big Heresies Still Alive in the Church

  • Mike Leake Borrowed Light
4 Big Heresies Still Alive in the Church

Most heretics come from an attempt to tie together paradoxes in the Scriptures.

After reports had been published that Mark Twain had died, the still living author wrote into the New York Journal with this quip: “The report of my death was an exaggeration”. I wonder if we could say the same about some of the early heresies — because they aren’t quite dead yet.

What is heresy?

  • Heresy is not the same as error.
  • Heresy is the choice to abandon the widely accepted teaching on an essential doctrine and embrace one’s own view.
  • Heresy is to “preach another gospel”, as Paul stated in Galatians 1:9.
  • Technically speaking something is not a heresy just because the church deemed it so. It is heretical because it is teaching which has abandoned the “pattern of sound teaching”.

Here are four heresies which aren't quite dead yet:

1. Judaizers: "Good deeds or efforts contribute to salvation."

1. Judaizers: "Good deeds or efforts contribute to salvation."

One of the first group of heretics were the Judaizers. Most heretics come from an attempt to tie together paradoxes in the Scriptures. They begin well-meaning but take things further than they ought to go. The Judaizers began by asking a right question about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. When uncircumcised Gentiles began following Christ and claiming the promises to Israel, these life-long Jews wondered how the Old Testament laws applied to non-Jewish followers of Jesus. Did they have to become circumcised and follow Jewish customs in order to be equal members with the Jewish Christians?

This well-meaning question was addressed in Acts 15 by the Jerusalem Council. The answer was that Christ had fulfilled the Old Testament and was setting aside the old categories. As Paul summarized in Ephesians 2:15 God was “abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace…” It was union with Christ and not works of law which qualified a person for the promises of God. The Judaizers did not accept this answer and gave Paul issues in all of his missionary travels.

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The fundamental problem of this heresy:

The fundamental problem of this heresy:

Their fundamental problem was that they held that something other than union with Christ was necessary for salvation. According to a recent study by Lifeway and Ligonier, 36% of self-identified evangelicals believed that “by the good deeds that I do, I partly contribute to earning my place in heaven”. This is the same belief as the Judaizers held. Any belief which holds that our good deeds or efforts contribute to salvation is firmly in the same stream as the Judaizers.

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1. Docetism/Gnosticism: “Christ only appeared to be human.”

1. Docetism/Gnosticism: “Christ only appeared to be human.”

Another early heresy was Gnosticism. Though Gnosticism had various forms one of the most pernicious—and one that is still present today—is Docetism. Docetism was an early Christological heresy which taught that Christ only appeared to be human. The foundation of Gnostic philosophy was that all physical matter was evil and all things spiritual were good. Therefore it was unthinkable that God would actually take upon human flesh. This belief also led to either severe asceticism (punishing the flesh) or licentiousness (since they physical had no connection with the eternal).

Most believe the apostle John had a docetic form of Gnosticism in his sights in the writing of 1 John. The Bible is clear, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”

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Anytime we exalt the spiritual above the physical we, too, are falling prey…

Anytime we exalt the spiritual above the physical we, too, are falling prey…

In our day it’s likely more common for people to deny the deity of Jesus than his humanity. Yet the dualism of Gnosticism/Docetism is alive and well. Christian Science and New Age have a strong bent towards Docetism, but the truth is, anytime we exalt the spiritual above the physical we too are falling prey to the dualism of these philosophies. Our bodies matter. This world matters. To deny this is to agree more with early Gnostics than the Bible.

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3. Prosperity Gospel

3. Prosperity Gospel

The ancient form of this modern heresy didn’t really have a name, but it appears in 1 Corinthians 4:8-13. In this text Paul speaks tongue in cheek about those in Corinth who have “already become kings”. The Corinthians believed that they were living in the blessings that are reserved for the future. To steal a popular phrase the Corinthians believed that they were to begin living their best life now. They believed true things but applied them at the wrong time. They wished to acquire on earth what should be sought in heaven.

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Thinking that’s only true in the age to come.

Thinking that’s only true in the age to come.

This quote from prosperity gospel teacher Kenneth Hagin would have been right at home with the Corinthians:

“I believe that it is the plan of God our Father that no believer should ever be sick…It is not—I state boldly—it is not the will of God my Father that we should suffer with cancer and other dread diseases which bring pain and anguish. No! It is God’s will that we be healed.”

The problem, as Paul taught the Corinthians, is that such thinking is only true in the age to come. There is no crown without a cross. This modern iteration of an ancient heresy is deadly. It harms those who are suffering, it detracts from the gospel, and breeds cynicism when promises which God never made do not come true.

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4. Pelagianism: “God responds to us and not the other way around.”

4. Pelagianism: “God responds to us and not the other way around.”

“Look at that innocent baby”? I doubt we realize we are affirming heresy when we say such a thing. Likewise when 83% of evangelicals affirmed the statement, “A person obtains peace with God by first taking the initiative to seek God and then God responds with grace”, I doubt they intended to affirm heresy. But it’s true. Pelagianism is a heresy from the time of Augustine (and it’s other form Semi-Pelagianism) which refuses to die.

Pelagius was bothered by a quote by Augustine who said, ““Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire.” Pelagius believed that such teaching was leading to immorality. He believed Augustine was so exalting divine sovereignty that he was denying human responsibility.

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Pelagius’ logic was that if God commanded something…

Pelagius’ logic was that if God commanded something…

then humans must have the ability to carry it out. He further taught there is no such thing as original sin. We are born with a clean slate, according to Pelagius.

Augustine did not deny that humans were created with a freedom of will. Humans can do exactly what they desire. Yet, because of the fall humanity, apart from grace, will always desire evil. Augustine turned to Philippians 2:12-13 to defend his view of grace. It is God who is at work in us “both to will and to accomplish”.

It wasn’t grace, per se, that Pelagius had a hard time with. It was necessary grace that he could not swallow. Therefore, Pelagius firmly believed that God responds to us and not the other way around. Apparently, 83% of professing evangelicals agree.

Mike Leake is the Lead Pastor at FBC Marionville in Marionville, Missouri. He is currently pursuing his M.Div. at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mike is married to Nikki, and they have two children, Isaiah and Hannah. You can follow him on Twitter @MikeLeake.

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This article is part of our larger resource library of terms important to the Christian faith. From heaven and hell, to communion and baptism, we want to provide easy to read and understand articles that answer your questions about theological terms and their meaning. 

What is Blasphemy and Why is it So Deadly?
What is Heresy?
The Fruit of the Spirit - What Are They?
10 Things to Know About Speaking in Tongues
What is the Tithe?
What is the Sabbath and is it Still Important?
Heaven - What is it Like, Where is it?
Hell - 10 Things You Should Know
Baptism - What Does it Mean and Why is it Important?
Communion - 10 Important Things to Remember
The Trinity - Father, Son, Holy Spirit Explained
Armor of God - What is it and How to Use it
What is Agape Love?
What is Salvation?
The Holy Spirit
What is Sin?





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