What is orthodox doctrine, what is heretical doctrine, and what’s the difference?
It is tempting to say that whatever doctrine is biblical is orthodox and whatever doctrine is not biblical is not orthodox. But this is too simplistic. For example, assuming that only one of the several views (there are at least four) on the Rapture is biblical, it does not follow that the views that are not biblical are therefore heretical. There are some doctrines which, while not in agreement with the Bible, are not so wide of the mark that they must be regarded as heretical.
Another approach that has been taken is to measure doctrines by the doctrinal confessions of some particular denomination. This is fine so long as what is being determined is not orthodoxy but confessional fidelity. That is, if someone wishes to be an ordained minister of a particular denomination, that denomination is within its rights to ask that such a person agree with its doctrines. If someone does not (e.g., if someone disagrees with the denomination’s position on speaking in tongues or predestination), then that person should not expect to be ordained in such a denomination. Given the present diversity of denominations, this should be expected.
On the other hand, it is lamentable that the church has allowed itself to be divided over nonessential issues. Thus, adherence to a denomination’s particular distinctives should not necessarily be made the test of Christian orthodoxy. Of course, some of the doctrinal stands taken by a denomination may be basic to orthodoxy (e.g., a confession of the deity of Jesus Christ). In such cases, the denomination’s confession and orthodoxy coincide.
What, then, should be the standard of orthodoxy? And how should it be determined? Perhaps most troublesome: Who should determine the standard?
Certainly I do not claim to have any particular authority to determine by what standard orthodoxy shall be judged. I claim no special anointing beyond that which all Christians have (1 John 2:20, 27). I make no claims to apostolic or prophetic authority. I am not even an ordained minister. Who, then, am I to judge who is and is not orthodox? Who am I to call anyone a heretic?
My answer to these questions is twofold. First, I am a Christian, and as such have a responsibility to avoid heresy. I can hardly do so if I do not have some idea as to what heresy is. Second, I am a teacher, called by God to the ministry of teaching my fellow Christians sound doctrine. That gives me no special authority or mantle of divine sanction, and I would not want anyone to assume that whatever I say is true. But it does mean that God has given me a special responsibility, and if I am faithful He will use me to guide other believers into a more complete and accurate understanding of His truth. If I am truly faithful, those who are open to God’s truth will know that what I say is true — not because I say it, but simply because I have led them to see what has always been in God’s Word, the Bible.
What, then, is orthodoxy, and what is heresy? First of all, I wish to point out that the term “orthodoxy” is not in the Bible. That does not mean that the concept itself is unbiblical, but that we cannot read off its meaning from biblical texts.
The words “heresy” and “heretic” are in the Bible, and are used in somewhat varying senses. The Jews called Christianity a “heresy” (Acts 24:14), probably meaning they considered it a sect under God’s condemnation. But Paul referred to the various factions among the Corinthian Christians as “heresies,” that is, “divisions” (1 Cor. 11:19). Here he seems to regard some of these divisions as distinguishing true believers from false believers, but other divisions as simply unfortunate expressions of sinful disunity among Christians, without suggesting that all who belonged to these different factions were lost. Elsewhere, though, Paul referred to “heresies” or divisions as works of the flesh (Gal. 5:20) and said that a “heretic” — a man causing divisions in the church — is perverted and self-condemned (Tit. 3:10-11).
Finally, Peter speaks of destructive “heresies” in the sense of doctrines which deny Christ the Lord (2 Pet. 2:1).
From this survey it is evident that a “heresy” in biblical terminology could be merely an unfortunate division among Christians, but in a stricter sense is a divisive teaching or practice destructive of genuine faith and deserving of condemnation. The looser sense corresponds roughly to our modern denominations, while the stricter sense applies most clearly to groups which reject basic Christian doctrines and set themselves apart from the historic church in its many forms. But a “heresy” in the latter sense can have its start, at least, within the church. Whenever heresies in this strict sense arise, Christians are called to separate themselves from those who persist in holding them.
We may therefore define “heresy” in the strict sense as:
a teaching or practice which compels true Christians to divide themselves from those who hold it.
Note the difference here: a “faction” or heresy in the looser sense is an unfortunate division separating Christians from one another, and Christians are called to do whatever they can to overcome these divisions (1 Cor. 1:10). But a heresy in the stricter sense is a division separating Christians from non-Christians (or, at best, from Christians who are persisting in grave error), and Christians are called to draw the line and refuse to have spiritual fellowship with those who cross over it. This is not to say that Christians should not show genuine love, compassion, and personal respect for heretics; too often in church history “heretic” has been a hate-word.
How, then, should we define “orthodox”? We might define it as:
whatever teachings and practices are sufficiently faithful to Christian principles that Christians should accept as fellow-Christians those who adhere to them.
To put it simply, whatever religious teachings and practices are not heretical are orthodox, and vice versa.
Notice that we have not said that all members of churches which teach heresy are lost. This is no more true than saying that all who are members of churches which teach orthodoxy are saved. In saying that people are heretics, or that they are following heresy, we are not pronouncing judgment on their eternal souls. We are saying that if they follow those heresies consistently, they will certainly be lost. Conversely, in saying that someone is orthodox we are not saying that they are necessarily true Christians with the assurance of eternal life. We are saying that if they follow orthodox doctrine as the basis of their life (and thus trust in Christ alone for right standing before God) they will be saved.
It might seem that doctrinal discernment should be a fairly cut-and-dried procedure of determining whether a doctrine is orthodox or heretical. After all, we have defined orthodoxy and heresy in such a way that they cover all possibilities. Either a doctrine is such that those who hold it should be accepted as Christians (in which case it is orthodox), or it is not (in which case it is heretical). This might seem to imply a black-or-white approach in which all doctrine is either completely orthodox or completely heretical.
Although doctrinal discernment would be a lot neater and simpler if this were the case, unfortunately things are more complicated — in at least two distinct ways. First, a single doctrine is never held in isolation from other doctrines, but rather is always part of a system or network of beliefs held by a person or group. And sometimes that system of beliefs includes many doctrines which are orthodox as well as some which are heretical. For example, a religious group might hold that the Bible is the Word of God, that there is only one God, that Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead, and yet deny the deity of Jesus Christ. Such a group’s belief system is heretical, even though it contains many true beliefs. Moreover, a group’s heretical beliefs generally lead them to misunderstand or misapply even those true beliefs they do confess, since the beliefs tend to be interdependent and thus mutually affect one another. Thus, one of the tasks of doctrinal discernment is to sort out which beliefs in a heretical system are actually heretical, which are not, and how the nonheretical beliefs are misapplied because of the heretical system in which they are held.
The second sort of complication to be noticed is that people often hold conflicting beliefs. Because people are often inconsistent, in some cases they may hold to orthodox beliefs but also hold to beliefs that undermine or contradict their orthodox beliefs. The difficulty presented in such cases is to sort out whether the belief system is basically orthodox or not.
For example, many professing Christian groups today confess belief in one God, but also speak of human beings (usually Christians in particular) as being in some sense “gods.” This verbal contradiction may or may not betray a real contradiction in the substance of their beliefs. Making matters even more difficult is the fact that these different groups mean vastly different things by calling believers “gods.” In some cases it is evident that they really do not believe in one God at all. In other cases it is clear that they are using the word “gods” of believers in a figurative sense such that their confession of one God is not contradicted at all. In still other cases a real tension exists, and it is difficult to avoid concluding that the group in question holds conflicting views.
In order to accommodate this phenomenon, it is helpful to speak of religious doctrines which undermine or are in tension with a group’s orthodox beliefs as aberrational. Holding such aberrational views is a serious problem, and those who do so must be considered as being in serious sin and should be treated accordingly. Specifically, those advocating such errors should not be allowed to teach or minister in the church, and those refusing to keep such aberrant views to themselves should be excommunicated.
The charge that a person or group’s beliefs are aberrational is a serious one that cannot be made easily. It is arguable that at one level any incorrect belief is at tension with or undermines orthodox beliefs. By aberrational, however, I am referring only to false beliefs which do serious damage to the integrity of an orthodox confession of faith.
The sum of the matter is that doctrinal discernment is a difficult task — one which requires sensitivity, a sense of proportion and balance, and a deep understanding of what is essential and what is not. New heresies and aberrations are constantly arising, as well as new insights into biblical truth, and discernment is needed to tell the difference. Thus, the task of doctrinal discernment is an ongoing necessity in the Christian church.
Having shown that doctrinal discernment is necessary, I have yet to say very much at all about how it is to be done.
Principles For Identifying Heresy
Discerning orthodoxy from heresy should be done on the basis of sound principles, each of which in turn must be based on the teaching of God’s Word. I begin, then, by discussing four principles which the church ought to utilize as tools to identify and expose heresy. Although they are subject to misunderstanding and abuse, all four — properly interpreted — are valid and should be utilized together in doctrinal discernment.
The protestant principle. Here I am not referring to an exclusively Protestant position, but rather to a principle that will be especially agreeable to Protestants (particularly evangelicals). According to this principle,
the Bible alone is the written Word of God, and as such is the infallible, definitive standard in matters of controversy in the church.
This principle follows from the teaching of Jesus Christ Himself, who taught that while human tradition and religious leaders are fallible, Scripture is the Word of God and never errs (Matt. 5:17-20; 15:3-9; 22:29;John 10:35). Since to be a Christian means, minimally, to be a follower of Jesus Christ, no person or group can claim to be truly Christian that does not at least acknowledge this special authority of the Bible.
I said that this teaching is not held exclusively by Protestants, though it is especially agreeable to them. Both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy (the other two main branches of Christianity) teach that the church’s traditions are infallible and authoritative, a teaching with which Protestants cannot agree. Thus, these branches of Christianity do not adhere fully to the protestant principle as defined here. On the other hand, Catholicism and Orthodoxy do teach that the Bible is the norma normans — that is, the norm by which all other norms are to be judged. Thus, at least in some sense, the view of all major Christian traditions is that Scripture has the final word. But evangelical Protestants have upheld this principle more consistently than Christians in the Catholic or Orthodox traditions.
On the other hand, liberalism — which began in mainline Protestantism and has virtually engulfed it, and which has now made significant inroads in Roman Catholicism — completely denies the protestant principle. Liberalism presumes to judge the teachings of the Bible according to the canon of human reason. Accordingly, it should be rejected as apostate by true believers of all major Christian traditions.
The protestant principle has often been summarized by the Protestant Reformation motto sola scriptura(“only Scripture”). Taken in its true sense, this means that only Scripture is an unerring verbal expression of the mind of God for the church prior to Christ’s return. But this should not be interpreted to mean that truth can be found only in Scripture or that all traditions are based on falsehood. Nor should it be interpreted to forbid using words not found in the Bible to express biblical doctrine. For example, the idea that the Bible is a “canon,” or rule of faith, is biblical — even though the word “canon” is not found in the Bible. The idea that God is “self-existent,” meaning that His existence depends on nothing other than Himself, is biblical — even though the word “self-existent” is not in the Bible. This is an important qualification to the protestant principle, violated by many heretical sects.
The evangelical principle. In Europe, “evangelical” is virtually synonymous with “Lutheran,” and the principle I enunciate here will be especially agreeable to that tradition, though certainly transcending it. According to this principle;
whatever is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ is to be rejected as heresy
This principle is based directly on such passages as Galatians 1:6-9 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. Here, “the gospel” refers not to the Bible in its entirety, but to its central message of reconciliation of human beings to God through the redemptive work of Christ.
This principle implies that not every misinterpretation of or departure from the Bible is equally damaging to authentic Christian faith. Misunderstanding the relationship between the Millennium and the Second Coming, for example, is not as serious an error as misunderstanding the relationship between faith and works. Denying that Jonah escaped alive after being inside a large fish for three days is not as bad an error as denying that Jesus rose from the grave after being dead for three days. Whether the errors are clear-cut or debatable from our perspective, it remains true that some errors are worse than others.
On the other hand, this principle can be misapplied by treating the gospel as a “canon within the canon” such that some parts of the Bible become more authoritative than others. While we may draw more directly on the Gospel of John or the Epistle to the Romans in our presentation of the gospel, our understanding of the gospel should be shaped by the entire Bible. Some extreme or aberrant groups have lost sight of this and have argued that only one part of the Bible — say, the Book of Acts — presents the gospel of salvation. Besides being contrary to the facts (e.g., Paul rehearses the basics of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8), such an argument undermines the unity of Scripture.
Moreover, even seemingly less important errors can be symptomatic of outright heretical beliefs. For example, while some variant views on the Millennium are tolerable among Christians, other views should be regarded as heretical, such as the view that the Millennium will be a period in which unbelievers will be raised and given a second chance to save themselves by doing good works. Clearly this view is heretical because of its bearing on the doctrine of salvation. The belief that Jonah was not swallowed by a fish and then set free three days later might be symptomatic of a prejudice against all miracles. On the other hand, some Christians who freely confess that God could have done such a miracle hold that the Book of Jonah is a parable and was simply not intended as history. The latter view may be wrong, but it is not anti-Christian in the way the former view clearly is.
Finally, it should be noted that in mainline denominations heavily influenced by liberalism, the “gospel” has typically been reinterpreted and watered down to the point of no longer being the biblical gospel at all. The evangelical principle must always be tied to the protestant principle and not pitted against it, as is the case in liberal Protestantism.
The orthodox principle. I call this principle the “orthodox” principle because it will be especially agreeable to Christians in the Orthodox (Eastern) tradition. According to this principle,
the creeds of the undivided church should be regarded as reliable expressions of the essential truths on which they speak.
This principle follows from the biblical teaching that the Christian faith was delivered once for all to the saints (Jude 3) and that the gates of Hades would not prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18). These texts (see also Matt. 28:20; John 14:16; Eph. 4:11-16) make it inconceivable that the whole church could establish as normative what is in fact aberrant or heretical.
Thus, the creeds formulated by the early church before it split into Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism, and accepted by all three branches of Christianity, should be regarded as reliable standards by which heresies may be exposed. Such creeds as the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds — which speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as one God (the Trinity), and of Jesus Christ as uniquely God and man (the Incarnation) — expressed the faith of all Christians when they were written, and have unified all Christians against heresy for centuries. They are therefore deserving of respect and should be honored as tools for identifying and exposing heresy.
Note that I am not saying that Christians cannot choose to disagree with some of the precise wording of these creeds. After all, they are not infallible, inspired documents. Nor am I saying that those churches which choose not to use the creeds, or which have little or no regard for creeds as such, are heretical. Rather, I am simply saying that a doctrine or belief should be regarded as heretical if it departs from the essential, substantial teachings of these creeds. I am therefore adopting a more flexible form of this principle than is actually held by Eastern Orthodox Christians themselves. I am also pleading with my anticreedal brothers and sisters in Christ to rethink their rejection of these fine expressions of orthodoxy.
The catholic principle. By “catholic” I do not mean specifically Roman Catholic, but simply “universal” (which is what the Greek word katholikos means). The notion of “catholicity” has been much abused, but it has also been ignored; both are unfortunate. The catholic principle is that
any doctrine that contradicts what the church as a whole (in all times and places) has regarded as essential to the faith should be regarded as heretical.
This principle also follows from the biblical teaching mentioned above that God will keep the whole church from heresy.
It should be noted that this principle is a generalization, not an absolutely definitive test. I say this because by the “whole” church I do not mean every last individual in the church, as if the dissent of one or a few professing Christians could negate a doctrine’s status as “catholic.” The principle rather seeks to uphold what the vast majority of those who have participated in the church’s worship, in all its various branches and denominations, and who have upheld the faith as defined by the orthodox principle, have regarded as essential or basic to their faith.
Moreover, the catholic principle — properly understood — presupposes the protestant principle. That is, when we speak of “the church” in all times and places, we are speaking of that community of faith which regards the Bible as the supreme norm of its faith. We are thus excluding from the outset those segments of Christendom that have abandoned faith in the Bible as the Word of God. It has only been in the last two centuries that large segments of Christendom within both Protestantism and Catholicism have denied absolute biblical authority. And in the vast majority of such cases, the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement have been rejected as well. These segments of Christendom must be regarded as apostate, having fallen away from the faith.
These considerations are helpful in making more precise the notion of appealing to the position of the “historic Christian church” as a litmus test of orthodoxy. What we ought to mean by this expression is the Bible-believing community of faith as it has existed continuously throughout the centuries. Those segments of Christendom which have introduced new doctrinal revelations, or which have rejected biblical authority, are by this definition not part of the historic Christian church.
Finally, note that not everything that has been believed by most Christians falls under the catholic principle, but only those things that the church has held to be essential. For the first fifteen centuries of church history, virtually all Christians held that the earth was at the physical center of the universe. But by no means does this make that erroneous belief part of the “catholic” or universal Christian faith. Here the “evangelical principle” is a valuable corrective to a possible misapplication of the catholic principle.
Kinds Of Heretical Doctrine
Taking the protestant principle to heart, we next turn to the Bible — what kinds of heretical doctrine does it discuss and forewarn us about? The Bible makes frequent reference to false teachings and it is often within the context of refuting heresy that its positive doctrinal material is cast.
The Old Testament contains solemn warnings against anyone who prophesies or proclaims teachings in the name of any god but the LORD, Jehovah (Deut. 13:1-5; 18:20-22). This is the assumed context in which the New Testament teaching about heresies is framed.
In the New Testament, there are warnings about false prophets (Matt. 24:11, 24; 2 Pet. 2:1) — that is, those who make predictions in the name of God and whose predictions turn out to be false (cf. Deut. 18:22). There is also a warning about false apostles (2 Cor. 11:13). There are warnings about those claiming to be the Christ, or claiming that Christ has come, or that the Day of the Lord has come, or that the resurrection has occurred — when all these events will be so plain and conspicuous that no one will miss them (Matt. 24:5, 23-27; 2 Thess. 2:1-2; 2 Tim. 2:16-18).
There are also warnings about those who proclaim another Jesus or a different gospel, or who introduce a spirit other than God’s Spirit (1 Cor. 15:3-5; 2 Cor. 11:4;
Gal. 1:6-9). The teaching that circumcision and keeping the Law are necessary for salvation is condemned (Gal. 5:2-4; Phil. 3:2). On the other side, teaching that liberty in Christ gives us excuse for licentiousness is also condemned (Jude 4).
The denial of Jesus Christ’s coming in the flesh is regarded as from the spirit of antichrist (1 John 4:1-6). There are warnings about people who cause dissensions by teaching doctrine directly opposed to what Christians already know to be true (Rom. 16:17; Tit. 3:10-11). There are warnings about those who claim to love God but do not love God’s people (1 John 4:20; 5:1), and who deliberately break away from the church on the basis of perverted doctrine (1 John 2:19). Finally, there are warnings against adding to or taking away from the words of prophetic Scripture (Rev. 22:18-19) or twisting the Scriptures (2 Pet. 3:16).
Looking over these warnings from Scripture, we may classify heresies into six major categories:
- Heresies about revelation — teachings that distort, deny, or add to Scripture in a way that leads people to destruction; false claims to apostolic or prophetic authority.
- Heresies about God — teachings that promote false gods or idolatrous distortions of the true God.
- Heresies about Christ — denials of His unique Lordship, His genuine humanity, His true identity.
- Heresies about salvation — teaching legalism or licentiousness; denying the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection; and so forth.
- Heresies about the church — deliberate attempts to lead people away from the fellowship of true Christians; utter rejection of the church.
- Heresies about the future — false predictions for which divine authority is claimed; claims that Christ’s return has taken place; and the like.
Note that errors in any one of these six categories tend to introduce errors into the other five. Take, for instance, the heretical view held by many groups that the church became totally apostate in the early centuries and thus had to be “restored” in the last days. This doctrine implies (1) that Scripture is not a sufficient revelation, but needs supplementing or “explaining” by some authoritative teacher or publication. It also almost always serves as a basis for rejecting the early church’s views of (2) God and (3) Christ. Since the Reformation is rejected as falling short of the needed restoration, (4) the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith is likewise rejected. And the doctrine of a restoration comes to dominate the group’s views of (5) the future, as it requires them to view many or most biblical prophecies about the future as finding fulfillment in their own group.
We find then that an error in any area of doctrine can affect every other area. Therefore, although heresies tend to fall directly into one or more of these six major categories, heresies can in fact occur on virtually any doctrinal subject. For example, someone who teaches that angels should be worshipped is teaching a heretical view (Col. 2:18), even though the subject matter is angels. This is because worship of any creature completely cuts the heart out of any confession of God as the one God.
Nor should it be thought that the New Testament gives us a complete catalogue of all possible heresies. In our day there are literally thousands of clever distortions of Christian theology that deserve the label heresy, and they can be seen as such apart from being explicitly anticipated and identified as heretical in the Bible. The Bible teaches us what is absolutely essential, enunciates principles as to what is basic to sound Christian faith and what is nonessential, gives us a wide variety of examples of heresies, and expects us to exercise discernment in evaluating new and controversial teachings when they surface.
Furthermore, it must be realized that as the church progresses through history and deepens its understanding of Scripture, heresies in general are becoming more subtle, more deceiving, more easily mistaken for authentic Christianity.
For example, modern-day heretics who reject the Old Testament are rarely as frank about it as the second-century heretic Marcion, who simply denied that the Old Testament was in any sense Scripture (he also discarded much of the New Testament). Instead, they adopt a method of interpretation which, while formally admitting that the Bible is God’s Word, in effect makes the Old Testament irrelevant to the Christian, which is contrary to the clear teaching of the New Testament (Rom. 15:4;
2 Tim. 3:16).
In short, heresy is any doctrine which the Bible explicitly labels as destructive, damning error; or a doctrine which the Bible instructs is not to be tolerated in the church; or any doctrine which, even if not mentioned in the Bible, utterly contradicts those truths which the Bible indicates are essential for sound Christian faith.
Aberrational views can also be classified according to the above six categories. In each case, the aberrant doctrine seriously compromises the Bible’s essential teaching in one or more of those six areas, although not outright denying it. For example, the practice of speculating on the precise date of the return of Christ can often be an aberration that stops short of heresy. The practice is certainly unbiblical, and in the context of heretical systems of doctrine such date-setting can itself be regarded as heretical. But in some cases, teachers have argued more modestly that Christ might return on a certain date, admitting the very real possibility of error, and urging only intensified obedience to God’s Word. Even this sort of teaching should be regarded as more or less aberrant, since it compromises the biblical warnings against making predictions of this sort; but it is not of itself heretical.
Applying The Standards
How shall the identification of heresy be carried out in practice? And who shall be involved in the process of identifying and responding to heresy? Here I wish simply to give some brief suggestions as guidelines that seem to me to be in keeping with the teaching of Scripture.
Who Should Judge
I have already argued in Part One that the Christian church as a whole is responsible for exercising discernment or judgment concerning heretical teachings, and that such judgment should not be left solely in the hands of trusted religious leaders, no matter who they are. Here I wish to sharpen this point somewhat.
Ultimately, only God can judge human hearts, since only He knows infallibly what people are thinking and feeling. We do not even know our own hearts infallibly (Jer. 17:9-10). Therefore, when we speak about judging heresy, we are not claiming to know the hearts of those espousing the heresy. We are not setting ourselves up as arbiters of their eternal future, deciding who will be saved and who will not.
What the church is called to judge is whether certain teachings should be allowed to be propagated in its midst, whether certain practices should be condoned, and whether certain individuals espousing heretical teachings or immoral practices should be allowed to remain in the community of faith. This kind of judgment is to be exercised by the whole church, although some persons in the church will play a more direct role in the process than others.
There are commands in the New Testament directing all Christians to exercise discernment (1 Cor. 5:9-13; 14:29; 1 John 4:1). Yet, some Christians are more gifted or skilled in such discernment than others. God gives some Christians special gifts of discernment concerning spirits (1 Cor. 12:10). God gives some Christians gifts enabling them to be teachers (Rom. 12:6-7; 1 Cor. 12:28-29; Eph. 4:11; James 3:1). God has also called some Christians to be in positions of leadership in the church — such as pastors, elders, overseers, deacons — and they will clearly have a more direct role in carrying out the judgment of the church concerning heresy (Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:5-9; Heb. 13:17;1 Pet. 5:1-3). For this reason, such Christian leaders should inform themselves and consult with gifted Christian teachers to make sure that mature discernment is exercised in their congregations. And the leaders and teachers should work together to instruct the church body as a whole in sound doctrine and in the practice of discernment, so that the whole body will indeed be of one mind in its discernment.
How Should We Judge?
At last we come to the “nitty-gritty” of discernment. Just what should we do in order to exercise sound doctrinal discernment? How should we go about becoming more mature and skilled in discernment? The following guidelines are not exhaustive, but they are especially critical.
- Learn to exercise discernment while growing as a Christian in faith, love, and holiness. I would like to assume this is obvious to everyone, but it bears emphasizing and even placing first on the list. The Christian life is not an intellectual game in which the object is to prove that you are right and to ferret out everyone who is wrong. Discerning orthodox from heretical teaching is only one aspect of the Christian life, though it is an important one. Moreover, doctrinal discernment itself should involve prayer, fellowship with other Christians, ministry to other Christians and to the lost, as well as doctrinal study. May I also say that I am preaching to myself here more than to anyone else! As one whose lifetime ministry and career is concentrated in the practice and communication of doctrinal discernment, I (and my colleagues in discernment ministry, as well) am more apt to forget this than other Christians.
On the other hand, let me also emphasize the word “growing” in the above statement. There is not some minimum standard of spiritual achievement that must be reached before one may begin exercising discernment. Rather, the exercise of discernment is one function in the Christian life in which all believers should be growing throughout their Christian experience.
- Develop a thorough and sound grasp of Scripture. Other things being equal, the better one understands the Bible, the better one will be able to discern truth from error. Not every Christian can be a Bible scholar, but virtually every Christian can study the Bible in depth and gain a profound understanding of its teachings.
There are various ways in which one can study the Bible, and all of them are important. Read the Bible itself — read whole books of the Bible, and read the whole Bible (though not necessarily in any particular order). Commit portions of Scripture to memory. Study the Bible topically, searching through Scripture and reading what it says on particular subjects (see Acts 17:11). Use study aids, theological textbooks, and the like (though discernment will be needed in choosing and using such works). Study the Bible by yourself and in groups. Find competent teachers and learn as much as you can from them. The point is to use every resource possible to increase your understanding of Scripture.
- Study Christian doctrine from a variety of traditions within orthodox Christianity. As you become fairly clear on the essentials of the faith, you should seek to become familiar with some of the different perspectives on Christian doctrine within the household of faith. You will want to acquaint yourself with different views held by Christians on such controversial doctrinal matters as baptism, the Millennium, spiritual gifts, predestination, and the like. Understanding the different perspectives held by orthodox Christians on these doctrinal matters will enable you to appreciate better the difference between essentials and nonessentials of the faith, as well as to gain a more mature and biblical position on them.
- Learn as much relevant information as possible about a questionable teaching or religious group before making any judgment. Scripture says, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him” (Prov. 18:13). It is sin for Christians to judge someone’s beliefs as heretical on the basis of less than adequate information.
There are a variety of strategies you can use to gain information about a group. You can inquire about religious affiliations — the denomination or religion of a teacher or group — though in some cases certain organizations or persons may deny their controversial religious affiliations. You can ask for information about their history or leaders, as sometimes this is illuminating. You can consult standard reference works, dictionaries, or encyclopedias that list religious groups and organizations and describe their beliefs. In most cases, except with very new or small groups or teachings, these strategies will give you adequate information.
- Base your understanding of a questionable doctrine on what those who espouse it say about it themselves. This follows directly from the above principle and from the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12). Just as we would not want someone to label us heretics or accuse us of other evils (Matt. 5:11) on the basis of what others say about us, so we should not criticize others’ views without being sure that we have heard them firsthand. This does not mean that every Christian must personally read the primary literature of a heretical group before concluding that it is indeed heretical. Rather, a Christian critique of a supposedly heretical group should be considered less than adequate to the extent that the accusations made are not backed up with accurate quotations from the authoritative leaders of the group.
In questionable cases where no adequate Christian analysis or evaluation has yet been done, it is very important to gain primary source information about the group’s doctrines. One approach that is often helpful is to ask for a doctrinal statement. However, keep in mind the following two observations:(1) Some groups that have no doctrinal statement are nevertheless orthodox. (2) Doctrinal statements of heretical groups are often kept as orthodox-sounding as possible to avoid easy criticism. Other publications may be more revealing of the group’s true colors.
- Do not assume that the use of orthodox language guarantees orthodox beliefs. As I have just suggested, unorthodox and aberrant groups are often not straightforward and honest about the true nature of their beliefs. They will frequently use biblical language and sound very evangelical in order to avoid criticism. This is exactly what the New Testament warns us about (e.g., 2 Cor. 11:4).
In the case of groups that are dishonest about their true beliefs, gather as much information about their beliefs as possible and compare what they say to the public with what they say to one another.This may involve attending their meetings and asking questions without seeming critical (see Matt. 10:16) or obtaining in-house literature normally available only to members. Generally, such investigations should be carried out by those with some experience and training in doctrinal discernment, such as those involved in discernment ministries. In some cases, ex-members may be the best source of such information and materials.
- Treat the information supplied by ex-members with respect but due caution as well. Every heretical group eventually begins generating ex-members in greater or lesser quantities, and these persons can be invaluable resources. Often their most important contribution is their access to publications and recordings unavailable to the general public. Their personal testimonies can also be very informative and helpful.
One of the marks of a heretical or aberrant group is that its ex-members are all dismissed as disgruntled or envious or immoral persons with an axe to grind. Of course, this may be true of some ex-members. Yet, if a religious group loses a large number of people, and these ex-members consistently tell the same story, their testimony should be given due credence. If an ex-member can back up his (or her) story with documentation or corroborative testimony from other ex-members, that will serve to reinforce his testimony.
Occasionally, certain individuals will present themselves as ex-members of a group and tell sensational stories about their involvement. Great caution must be exercised in such cases, as increasingly there are instances of persons doing this who either were never part of the group in question, or were never as deeply involved as they claim. Whether such individuals perpetuate such deceptions for financial gain, media attention, personal antagonism toward the group, or for more subtle reasons, may not always be clear. In any case it is important that sensationalistic accusations against a group not be accepted on the basis of the testimony of one person or couple apart from corroborative evidence.
- In uncertain or borderline cases, give the benefit of the doubt to the person or group in question. The principle of “innocent until proven guilty” applies here. Some Christians involved in discernment ministries raise “red flags” or, to change the metaphor, “cry wolf” whenever there is the slightest hint of possible heresy. Such a practice brings reproach upon discernment ministries and divides Christians.
- Begin with foundational matters. In inquiring into the orthodoxy of a religious group, much time and energy can be saved and mistakes prevented by asking foundational questions about the group’s attitude toward the Bible and religious authority. Do they regard the Bible as the absolutely infallible,unerring Word of God? Do they regard the Bible as the final authority in religious matters, or do they look to something else (their leaders, a modern prophet, another book, etc.) as an indispensable authority by which the Bible is interpreted? If their answers to these questions are satisfactory, then in most cases they will be orthodox; if not, they will usually be heretical. Keep in mind that some heretical groups profess complete confidence in the Bible and appear to have no other doctrinal authorities; thus, this guideline should be treated only as a rule of thumb.
- Consult with reputable discernment ministries who honor biblical principles of discernment.No human being is infallible, nor is any organization, including Christian discernment ministries. Nevertheless, if you agree that the principles discussed in this article are biblical, then you should consult with discernment ministries who seek to base their work on these principles.
The Challenge of Discernment
In conclusion, I would like to offer a challenge to those who agree that doctrinal discernment of the kind discussed in these articles is necessary. Begin to do something to contribute to the ongoing task of discernment. Encourage your church leaders to preach and teach on doctrinal discernment. Support one or more biblically based discernment ministries, especially any that may be in your local area. If you are a parent, teach sound doctrine to your children. Pray for sound Christian teachers and preachers, and pray that heresies and aberrant doctrines would lose their appeal. Every Christian can and should be doing something to contribute to the church’s discernment of sound doctrine.
Bowman, Robert M., Jr. *The Dominion Debate: Kingdom Theology and Christian Reconstructionism in Biblical Perspective* (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, forthcoming). A case study in doctrinal discernment, distinguishing orthodox, heretical, and aberrational varieties of “dominion theology.”
Bray, Gerald. Creeds, Councils and Christ (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984). Historical study which defends the creeds as faithful expressions of biblical teaching.
Brown, Harold O. J. Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988). A survey of church history focusing on orthodox responses to heresy.
Davis, John Jefferson (ed.). *The Necessity of Systematic Theology* (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1978). A collection of essays on the importance of doctrine to the lay Christian.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 1-volume ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988). Currently the best complete evangelical systematic theology textbook.
Frame, John M. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1987). On theological and apologetical method.
Miller, Elliot. “The Christian and Authority,” in 2 parts, *Forward* 8, 1 (Spring 1985):8-15; 8, 2 (Summer 1985):8-11, 24-26. Argues that the church, reason, and experience are all important but subordinate to Scripture in authority.
A Crash Course on the New Age Movement: Describing and Evaluating a Growing Social Force (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989). A model critique of a non-Christian religious philosophy that avoids sensationalistic or exploitative exaggerations.
Onken, Brian. “Dangers of the ‘Trinity’ in Man,” *Forward* 8, 4 (Winter 1986):26-28. The dangers of making a sharp separation between the mind and the spirit.
Poythress, Vern S. *Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology* (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House — Academie Books, 1987). Distinguishing substantive disagreement from different but complementary perspectives.
Copyright 1994 by the Christian Research Institute.
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