Responding to Heresy
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To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before
his glorious presence without fault and with great joy--to the only
God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus
Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.
We live in a culture where we are taught that tolerance is the highest form of respect. To claim objective truth is arrogant. To take a stand is seen as unkind and unloving. And this thinking is in the Christian world as well. From relativism, where truth cannot be known or does not exist, to heresy, claiming something different from what the Bible teaches. It seems reasonable to think that the believers closest to the apostles and their teaching would have the best idea of what is true. And to say that Scripture means something different than what was originally believed is to claim that what was traditionally accepted in the first 1900 years or so is either wrong or God has decided to do something new that was not foretold in Scripture. In the Old Testament, we can find many prophecies about the coming Messiah and the new covenant, but what in the Bible has prepared believers for what we see now in New Apostolic Reformation doctrine? Or other movements such as Word of Faith or Emergent? I believe these movements have twisted Scriptures and given them different meanings than what was originally taught and accepted or some have simply decided doctrine is no longer important. Not all "new" teachings would be classified as heresy, but when we find heretical teaching, what are we to do with it?
DIVISIONS, BUT NOT HERESY
The Bible answers this question through what the authors taught and how they responded. Almost every New Testament book talks about false teaching in some form or another. Sometimes it was because they were coming out of the old covenant and they were confusing the former with the new. We find this with the Roman Christians. The church in Rome was divided. There were the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. They did not agree with each other especially in regards to the Law of Moses. The Jewish believers said it still played a prominent role in daily living whereas the Gentile believers disagreed. Which makes sense because Gentiles didn't follow the law before accepting Jesus as Messiah so why would they start now? One of Paul's purposes in writing was to clear up the confusion. He gives this warning:
I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and
put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you
have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not
serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk
and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.
This warning is not to be confused with those who are bringing false teaching to light. Rather it is warning Christians to stay away from teachers that are saying something different than what the Christians in Rome were initially taught from the apostles. But as far as we can see, Paul is not addressing heresy, but division.
THREE EXAMPLES OF HERESY
Timothy was put in charge of the church at Ephesus. He was a young pastor, and Paul writes to give him instructions. One of the things Timothy had to deal with was the false teachers.
For some people have deliberately violated their consciences;
as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked. Hymenaeus and Alexander are two examples. I threw them out and handed them
over to Satan so they might learn not to blaspheme God.
1 Timothy 1:19-20 NLT
Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will
become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some.
2 Timothy 2:16-18
In the Corinthians church, Paul faced many trials. While some accused him of not being a real apostle, the false teachers and apostles were pulling the Corinthians believers away from the "sincere and pure devotion to Christ" (2 Cor. 11:3).
For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other
then the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit
from the one you received, or a different gospel from the
one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.
2 Corinthians 11:4
HOW TO RESPOND
When we take a closer look at these three examples, we will gain insight into how to deal with false teaching when we see it. This is especially true for when we detect heresy.
Identify the false teacher by name. Paul did not hesitate to call out the false teachers publicly. He named them so that others would be warned. If you look in the gospels, you will see that John the Baptist and Jesus did this first with the Pharisees and the Sadducees
Describe the teaching. Hymenaeus and Philetus were saying the resurrection of the dead had already taken place and that they were living the heavenly life. Hymenaeus is called out again along with Alexander for blaspheming God. And in the Corinthian church, we see the false teachers teaching a different Jesus, a different spirit, and a different gospel
Stop the teaching. We should keep the false teachers from having a platform whenever possible. We should not go to their churches to speak or invite them in to speak at our churches. If false teachers are in the church you attend, do what you can to bring attention to them and their false teaching. If the teaching is in the church, but not the teacher, bring it out into the open with the elders or church leaders. I am not talking about those teachers we disagree with on lesser issues, but those who are teaching false doctrines and heresy. Titus 1:11 says the same thing; "They must be silenced." Paul is referring to those who insist on circumcision to be saved. And notice Paul threw Hymenaeus and Alexander out of the Ephesian church
Disprove the teaching. Prove what is false by teaching what is true. Talk about why the teaching is wrong and shouldn't be believed, and then explain the truth and why it is true. Point out any lies and differences from what is taught in the Bible or by the early Creeds that universally accepted the same teachings about essential matters about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and salvation as were taught by the apostles.
Avoid those who teach or believe what is false. When you have done everything you can do to alert others to false doctrine, and it is ignored by the teacher or the follower, it is time to cut ties with them. Again this is not about minor doctrines that don't affect salvation or the nature of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. People can disagree on many things in the Bible without venturing into heresy. We need to keep in mind that the Bible also teaches unity within the body of Christ (Rom. 15:5-6) and living at peace with everyone as far as it depends on you (Rom. 12:18). That being said, the Bible does warn believers to stay away from the "fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them" (Eph. 5:11); to turn away from those who teach what is contrary to what the apostles taught (Rom. 16:17); to keep away from every brother who doesn't live according to the teaching received from the apostles (2 Thess. 3:6); to have nothing to do with people who have a form of godliness but deny it's power (2 Tim. 3:5); and to warn a divisive person twice, and if they won't listen, to have nothing to do with them (Tit. 3:10)
How does one prepare? Here are a few ways:
Remain in Christ. As important as responding to false teaching is, without a solid foundation, we ourselves are in danger of being deceived. In John's warning against antichrists and those who are trying to lead Christians astray, he ends by saying:
But you have received the Holy Spirit, and he lives in you,
so you don't need anyone to teach you what is true. For
the Spirit teaches you everything you need to know, and
what he teaches is true--it is not a lie. So just as he has
taught you, remain in fellowship with Christ.
1 John 3:27 NLT
Search the Scriptures. The Bereans were commended for not just accepting everything they heard as truth. They went back to the Scriptures to find out if the teaching was true. Paul and Silas went to the Jewish synagogue so we can assume they were speaking to the Jews in Berea. And as a result of the people's open-mindedness and diligence to search the Scriptures day after day, many Jews believed, as did many of the prominent Greek women and men (Acts 17:10-12).
Test the spirits. Understand the many warnings in the Bible about false teachers, prophets, apostles, and messiahs are for believers. Until I was researching all this, I had no idea how much was written warning believers of this. It was everywhere, and it is believed things will get worse right before Jesus returns. So it is imperative that we get this. When we read verses like Matthew 7:21-23 that talks about those who will say "Lord, Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name" but Jesus will reply, "I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God's laws." Or what about Mathew 24:24 that warns believers that false messiahs and prophets will rise up and perform great signs and wonders to "deceive even the elect--if that were possible." That means us. Jesus said, "See, I have warned you ahead of time." If we don't test the spirits, we are easy prey. But in order to test the spirits, we have to know what is true and what is false. John says the reality of a person's Christianity is whether they listen to and believe what the apostles teach. He puts it this way:
We are from God, and whoever knows God, listens to us; but
whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we
recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.
1 John 4:6
The Bible talks a lot about false teachers, prophets, apostles, and messiahs. Jesus warned believers ahead of time so that they would be ready and know how to deal with them. The apostles not only dealt with false teaching and heresy, but they also warned Christians to be aware and prepared. Not all disagreements fall into heresy or false doctrine, so we need to be careful and diligent. Remember the One who is able to keep you from falling and whenever possible, live at peace with others. But when you see false teaching, it's important to expose it and the ones who are teaching it so that other believers are aware. We are told to stay away from those who will not listen to truth. Even when it's not heresy, if it is divisive, we are to keep clear. Whether this is something you see as a problem right now or not, I hope you will prepare yourself for a time when it may be of concern. As we move ahead and begin to look at some of the false teachings in more detail, I hope you will weigh in when you agree or disagree. When done in a spirit of love and humility, the conversation can be helpful to others.
NLT Study Bible: Introduction to Romans pp.1988-1992: The Holy Bible,
New Living Translation. Copyright 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission.