What you believe matters. Your beliefs about the world, yourself, and God are always operating in the background of your mind, shaping your decisions and passions. Especially today, where tolerance is often talked about but little practiced, talking about religious belief is difficult and tricky.
Being a Christian means you believe certain theological statements are true while rejecting other claims about God and religion are not true. Of course, that’s not unique to Christianity. Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even Atheism have their own “theological walls” that set the boundaries… and if you pass those boundaries then you can no longer be considered a part of that theological camp.
- An Atheist cannot believe in intelligent design.
- A Buddhist cannot believe the Jesus is the only way to heaven.
- A Christian cannot believe there are multiple paths to heaven.
While some people throw the word “Heretic” at anyone with whom they have a strong disagreement, that doesn’t capture what heresy is. Heresy is a teaching that undercuts and contradicts the essential teachings of a religion. This is why Christians may disagree regarding Baptism or the Lord’s Supper, but Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are considered cults who are outside the bounds of true Christianity.
How Heretics are Formed
Every heretic I’ve studied was a man or woman who was committed to helping people worship God and honor Christ. They were not evil people who tried to lead people astray. Most of them were pastors trying to help their people understand the Bible in the midst of their cultural climate.
There are a few forces at play that led them down the road to heresy. I’m going to hedge my bets to say these aren’t true in all cases, but they are accurate in those I have studied (whether ancient or modern).
- Listened to Culture Over Scripture. Their pastoral concern was so great for their people (which is a good and commendable thing), they found themselves listening to the culture more than is right. When certain teachings of Scripture are opposed to values of the day, then we need to think about what is shaping us most. Every pastor and theologian needs to be a student of culture, and we are all shaped by our own culture more than we usually realize. However, we must keep Scripture as our North Star while navigating through shifting cultures.
- Minimized the Creeds of the Church. Innovation is good in the world of technology, but usually leads to heresy in the study of theology. There is truly “nothing new under the sun,” and all of today’s issues find their roots in discussions of the past. When we take it upon ourselves to second-guess everything handed down to us, we are essentially claiming to be smarter and wiser than every Christian who has lived before us. (Note: Obviously this does not apply to the heretics of the Early Church, as they did not have creeds from which to learn.)
- Did not use Scripture to Interpret Scripture. This doesn’t mean they didn’t read or value the Bible. I have seen this many times where people find an obscure or confusing passage of Scripture and use what they “think” it means in order to re-interpret what the Bible teaches elsewhere. This is simply foolish and irresponsible. Use what is clear and consistent to make sense of what is unclear and confusing. This is especially common regarding the attributes of God and the eternal destiny of nonbelievers.
- Emphasis on Love Over Truth. God is love. God is also a jealous God who will one day judge all people. Christians must be people who reject choosing between love that minimizes theology, and loveless theology. We must “watch our life (of love for God and love for others) and doctrine (commitment to the truth) carefully.” The heretics of the past (and of today) often drive towards choosing one or the other… and it’s usually love at the expense of truth.
“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do,
you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
1 Timothy 4:16
Is Heresy Alive Today?
If the surveys of sociologists are accurate, there are people in our churches today who are actually heretics. Like those who have come before them, they are most likely well-intentioned and do not realize the gravity of their bad theology. See the The State of Theology published by LifeWay Research and Ligonier Ministries (2016). Here are a few “highlights” along with a brief explanation about why this is such a problem.
- 46% Evangelicals agree: “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.”
- What’s the problem: If God is honored by all religions, then the gospel is unnecessary and Jesus died for nothing. Jesus himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
- 71% Evangelicals agree: “Jesus is the first and greatest creature created by God.”
- What’s the problem: Jesus is the Son of God in human flesh. He is the second Person of the Holy Trinity, and as such, he was never created. The eternal God took on flesh and was born as a man named Jesus (John 1). He could save us from our sin because he is God in flesh, not because he was merely the greatest creature who came to our rescue.
- 40% Evangelicals disagree: “Modern science discredits the claims of Christianity.”
- What’s the problem: We need more Christians to work in the sciences because science helps us understand the world God created. But to claim “science disproves Christianity” is to eliminate the existence of God and anything miraculous that cannot be explained by science. Obviously, this is a big problem for religious faith.
- 47% Evangelicals Agree: “Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation.”
- What’s the problem: Sin is measured by who is sinned against. Any sin against the Holy God of creation is a big deal. While not all sin is the same, all sin is equally wrong. Remember, the Bible teaches that all creation fell into sin because Adam and Eve ate a forbidden piece of fruit. The judgment fit the crime because all sin is an expression of rebellion against God’s rule. James 2:10 says, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”
Each of these statements discredit the very foundation of Christian teaching. These statements four examples show that a troubling percentage of Christians today have compromised their faith. I can only assume this is accidental or because they didn’t understand the question, but the results of the “State of Theology” is troubling to say the least.
What you believe matters. If you are a Christian, take God seriously. That means you should get to know Him as well as you can.
Not everyone will become a “theologian” in the professional sense of the word. But that’s why I write this blog… to help normal, everyday Christians be able to grow in their knowledge of what the Bible teaches and how to make sense of important theological concepts that are important to understand.
January 17, 2017 at 1:45 pm
I had a pastor who once declared that anyone who didn’t believe what he taught was a heretic. Ultimately, he condemned a good Catholic friend of mine because she wasn’t born and raised as a Southern Baptist. I decided then and there it was better to be a heretic than his kind of Christian. Some of his favorite doctrines were Young Earth Creationism, Sanctity of Marriage, Gender Complementarianism, and Male Headship. I just couldn’t see Jesus sitting his disciples down and spouting off the kids of messages that my pastor had because Jesus was all like: “The kingdom of God is at hand / within reach!”
January 17, 2017 at 5:49 pm
Hi Jamie. Thanks for your comment, and I’m sorry for that experience. None of those issues directly or foundationally lead to heresy.
Most simply, I would point to the Apostle’s Creed and the other historic creeds of the Church and say, “If you deny anything in here, then you’re a heretic. If it isn’t mentioned in here, then it may be important, but it probably doesn’t lead directly to heresy.” Hope that helps…
February 18, 2017 at 4:25 pm
Hey Mike! Hope your doing well, man!
These statistics from the LifeWay research remind me when the Barna Group came out with similarly shocking numbers in ’07 about how Christianity was viewed. Those numbers ultimately led to the book ‘unChristian’ by Kinnaman/Lyons. The second statistic you list about Christ being a created being caught my eye. 71-percent!?! John 1: yup. Knowing what incarnation is: yup. Arainism much?: yup. Arianism was declared a heresy in 325AD at the First Council of Nicea (and pre-biblical cannon). The Nicene Creed came out of the two Nicean councils as well. Maybe it’s time, as Christians, to add “Not knowing the Councils of the Church” to the list of how heresies are formed.
I’m curious on your thoughts about the role of the church councils, primarily within the Ecumenical period, in declaring Christian doctrine and defending against heresies of the time. Did they have any effective role in defining and defending Christianity? If so, did their role change after the scriptural cannon was introduced?