The difference between error and heresy

Part 1

1 John has its fair share of verses aimed at the false teaching threatening John’s readers. There’s been plenty of advice, and in particular calls to be discerning. So how do we work out what is right, what is wrong, what is mere error and what is damnable heresy?

Like a triage nurse who has to work out what sort of medical emergency is taking place and the seriousness of the issue, we also need to have a theological triage. With a bit of help from Albert Mohler (president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) here are some thoughts:

We begin with first-level theological issues which are those doctrines and beliefs which are essential and critical to the Christian faith.  A denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself. First level issues include doctrines concerning the Trinity, the authority of the scriptures, the full deity and humanity of Jesus, and justification by faith (to name a few). Any changes to these doctrines, or denials of them, fundamentally alter the nature of the gospel message.

Second order issues include doctrines and beliefs which are important but do not alter the fundamental gospel message. The weight of these issues should not cause Christians to question the salvation of other Christians, but they do impact the fellowship of believers. One typical example of this is the debate over infant vs adult baptism.

Third order issues are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship – even within local congregations. A common example of this would be matters of eschatology – the sequence and events during the ‘End Times’. Christians can disagree on these matters, even sharply, but remain in true fellowship with each other as they stand together on first order matters.

Part of growing in discernment is to not only grow in familiarity with what scripture teaches on these matters, but to also understand the value that scripture places upon them. This helps us avoid a further error in which all disagreements are elevated to first order matters, and also help us understand that the way in which a disagreement is framed may reveal more serious matters underlying them (as a controversial example: arguments for women pastors, a second order issue, may reveal a disdain for the authority of scripture, a first order issue).

Space restricts further discussion on this – so over to you! How would you rate your understanding of Biblical doctrines? And do you think you presently understand enough to discern not only what the issues are but also how they are argued?


Part 2

Last week we began thinking through the difference between errors in our understanding and outright heresy. The first part dealt with the need to discern between important central doctrines and secondary (and third tier) matters which do not affect one’s salvation.

This leads to a few good questions: how can you tell whether something is false teaching or simple error? Can you be wrong, but not a false teacher? How can I tell whether something is necessarily heretical – and what if I mistakenly believe something, or hold a position, which might not be helpful?

I recently heard a very helpful podcast from ‘The Mortification of Spin’ where Carl Trueman  (professor of Biblical and Religious studies at Grove City College, and former professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary) had a very helpful definition. He says:

“Heresy is a theological position, view, belief, and/or doctrine, which if held persistently and consistently would effectively undermine the individual or church’s credible profession of Christian faith.”

This definition is helpfully applicable. For instance, a younger Christian might articulate an unsound understanding of the Trinity or the incarnation of Jesus – but for the fact that they are younger in faith and teachable doesn’t necessarily mean their error makes them a heretic. But on the other hand if someone persistently and consistently rejects sound teaching in favour of error then we must soberly and gravely warn them that their persistence will lead them away from salvation in the gospel.

So when we hear some error being taught or espoused, it will be helpful to first seek clarification – especially if the person speaking is someone in church, a friend within your circles, or a teacher you are able to access. Quotes can be taken out of context, tired minds can utter sloppy phrases, and even the best of us can trip over our tongues.

The matter becomes substantially different when it comes to high profile public figures whose teaching reach beyond the four walls of their church. While it may be prudent to privately contact them, the public nature of their ministry does not call for it. Matthew 18’s exhortation to privately confer with your brother relates to the context of the local church. It is a misapplication to require private conversation over publicly available teaching.

Again, more could said here but over to you. Is Trueman’s definition of heresy helpful for you? How often have you been able to identify unhelpful or false teaching?


Part 3

Over the past few weeks we’ve been considering the difference between error and heresy. If you haven’t caught up on these bulletin articles head to our church’s website where each of these three parts will be posted together.

Today we’re considering what this all means for us. Last week heresy was defined as “… a theological position, view, belief, and/or doctrine, which if held persistently and consistently would effectively undermine the individual or church’s credible profession of Christian faith.” With this in mind, here are some thoughts of application:

We need to talk about it. It would not be good for Christians to become known as people who are always ‘against’ something and not ‘for’ something. In a perfect world it would be great to just be able to speak about the beauty and wonder of Jesus alone – but we don’t live in that world, yet. Until then we need to talk about the subject of false teaching as and when it comes up. We need to be conversant with the matter – especially with the fast growing prosperity gospel (which dominates the apparent growth in numbers of Christianity in the West and especially in Africa) – in order to know how to point out its errors, show up its weaknesses, and redirect people to the truth of the gospel of Jesus.

In step with this we need to talk about it carefully. It would not do our witness any good to become those Christians who pick theological fights in every conversation. To call our false teachers is a weighty, serious, and sorrowful matter. It should never be done with pride or with glee. Most false teachers have strayed from genuine faith, and but for the grace of God we might fall into the same temptations to forsake Jesus. Rather our words need to remember with grief that there are many who have been duped by their teaching, who now have a false impression of Jesus and the gospel, and who are lost eternally if they persist in their teaching.

Finally, some of us might need a reality check. It’s been my experience that each time I’ve had to confront false teaching somebody pushes back – ‘I don’t think it’s right for us to judge.’ The use of Jesus words in Matthew 7:1 are misapplied. It fails to see that Jesus is speaking against judgementalism, and also fails to notice in 7:15 that Jesus himself calls for discerning who are false prophets. Therefore, we cannot ignore the reality that false teaching is pervasive in our world at this time, and we need to be conversant with it.

So over to you. Has this three-part series helped in your thinking? What ways have you seen discussion on false teaching to be helpful or unhelpful? What resources have you used to help grow your discernment and humility on this difficult subject?