Disagreement vs. Heresy

Heretic.

If you’ve been on Twitter for a while, you’ve probably heard the term tossed around. Sometimes it is deserved, sometimes it is not, and sometimes it seems like “heresy” simply means “whatever I strongly disagree with.” In today’s American church culture, which is sometimes welcoming to a fault, how should we be using the word heresy?

Fr-Justin-BelitzWe’ll start with a definition – a heresy is a teaching within the church that is so wrong that the church must break away from the person, people, or group promoting that teaching and assume him/them to be unsaved. Heresy is the opposite of orthodoxy. A heretic is someone teaching or holding to a teaching that is heretical.

This is important – when someone says that someone else is a heretic, they are saying that person is outside Christian orthodoxy and is not really a Christian. To call someone a heretic is to say that they are heading for hell unless they repent of their wrong belief(s). Throughout church history, heresies have cause schisms in the church.

The charge of heresy is a serious charge that should not be used for simple disagreement. Complementarianism v. egalitarianism, infant v. believer’s baptism, premil v. amil v. postmil, grape juice v. wine in communion, choice of Bible translation, etc – these are peripheral issues to the gospel, not central issues, and therefore not issues over which we should be declaring others to be unsaved. While peripheral issues vary in degree of seriousness, ranging from difference in Bible interpretation to difference in preference, none of them rise to the level of heresy. While we may choose to not attend a church with someone who disagrees with us on peripheral issues, we should be able to be accept them as our Christian brothers.

Issues that are central to the gospel are issues where heresy is most easily seen. The bodily death and resurrection of Jesus, His sinless life, His dual natures (man and God), His atoning work on the cross, salvation by faith and not works – these are some of the doctrines to which you must hold to be a Christian. To deny one of them or teach something that is in direct disagreement with the Biblical and historical view is to hold a heretical position and to be outside of Christian orthodoxy.

Heresy isn’t something that came from the church or church councils, but from the Bible. In the Bible, Christians are warned that false teachers and prophets will rise up from inside the church, teaching dangerous and destructive things and trying to destroy believers (2 Pet 2:1-6). We are told to avoid people who teach things that are contrary to Biblical teachings (Rom 16:17-18; 2 Jn 7). Paul wrote that if anyone should come teaching a gospel opposed to what he had already taught, that person is under God’s curse (Gal 1:8-9).

Heresy is real, and it is important for the church to recognize and stand against it. People who teach and/or believe heresies are in danger of hell, and it is the duty of the church to love those people by calling out their sin and pleading with them to repent. Let us not use the charge of heresy to try to end an argument or make people stop listening to those with whom we disagree, but to point out false teachings that are destructive to men’s souls.

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The Greatest Cause of Atheism

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

This quote by Brennan Manning is pretty famous. If you were a DC Talk fan in the ’90s, you’ve probably heard it so often you’ve memorized it. It’s famous for a reason – it plays so well in our moralistic, works-screen-shot-2013-02-08-at-9-40-44-amoriented culture. It’s a good bit of public self-flagellation for the church, a solid mea culpa. If the Church would just get right with God, get out house in order, and start acting more like Jesus, we’d see so many conversions that all the churches we already have couldn’t hold the new Christians. This quote has emotional and spiritual punch.

But before we repeat it, put it on Facebook or Twitter, or write a blog post about Christians who don’t act like Christians, let’s ask a simple question – is it true?

To answer that question, and all other questions of theology, we must turn to the Bible.

Romans 1:18-23 :

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Paul’s argument here is simple – everyone has rejected God. Everyone knows about God because He has not hidden Himself, and yet all have rejected Him. No one has any excuse for rejecting Him that would let them escape judgement. Further, those who rejected God (which, again, is everyone) reaped darkened hearts and minds which cannot understand the things of God but rather have idols – animals in Paul’s time, other things in ours, but idols just the same.

2 Corinthians 4:2-4 :

We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

Here, Paul’s argument is a little different but just as straightforward – unbelievers don’t believe because the devil (the god of this world) has blinded them to the truth of the gospel. They cannot see the glory of Christ on their own. This dovetails nicely with the above passage out of Romans. After the sin of our first father Adam, everyone who has ever lived has been blinded to the gospel by the devil because of original sin – the original rejection of God and His ways because Adam thought he knew better.

No where in the Bible are we promised that living a good life will bring people to Jesus. In fact, the Bible promises the opposite – that people will hate Christians because we live good lives (2 Tim 3:12). “Try harder” is the voice of legalism, not of grace, and it should not be a loud voice in the church.

This is not to say that it doesn’t matter how Christians act. When we were washed and regenerated by the Holy Spirit, we were also given the power to live lives that are pleasing to God. We should follow the example of Jesus (1 Pet 2:21-25). To not do this is to give unbelievers opportunity to blaspheme and profane the name of our Lord (Rom 2:23-24). Christians are to do good (1 Jn 1:11), imitate the faith of those who went before us (Heb 13:7), put off our sin and clothe ourselves with Christ (Eph 4:22-24). We are to live peaceable lives (Rom 12:17-18) and have such good conduct that, even when we are reviled, unbelievers see that we have good deeds (1 Pet 2:12).

Christians who do not live out what they profess are absolutely going to be used as an excuse for unbelief. While no man can stand before God and say “my Christian neighbor was a poor example, so I deserve to get into heaven,” it is tragic that so many people believe they are justified in their unbelief by those who profess Christ but live a life that doesn’t line up with that profession. But to say that Christians behaving badly are the greatest single cause of atheism is to reject what the Bible teaches about unbelievers. It is to take much more responsibility for other people’s regeneration than we need or deserve.

Our Self-Revealed God

BeFunky_IMG_2863.jpgFor this week’s Theology Thursday post, we’re going to tackle the issue of revelation – how God has revealed Himself to us.

Importance of Revelation

It is important to realize that God didn’t have to let us know anything about Himself. Everything that we know about God that is true has been given to us by Him. Our knowledge about God has come to us through two different means, but all of it comes from God Himself. It is within His ability to hide Himself completely, but our generous God has chosen to make Himself known to us.

The fact that God has made Himself known and knowable is itself an important bit of theology because without any ability to know God we would have no hope of salvation. The Bible is clear that Christians are those who know God (Jn 17:3; Phil 3:10; 2 Pet 3:18; 1 Jn 4:7) and that those who do not know God are not His (Gal 4:8).

General Revelation

There are two ways that God reveals Himself – through general and special revelation. General revelation is given to all people around the world. It comes to us through the created world and tells us basic things about God and His moral requirements. General revelation is the reason that most people in most times and places have held to many of the same moral ideas – for instance, that murder and theft are wrong.

The clearest passages on general revelation are both found in the book of Romans.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.

This passage (Rom 1:18-20a) teaches that all men know about God through creation. God has revealed Himself in creation from the beginning of the world clearly enough that He holds men accountable for their refusal to understand what He has shown them about Himself.

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.

This passage (Rom 2:14-15) teaches that God has given men a basic morality. We may not be able to derive all the nuances of the Mosaic law from nature, but God has given each of us a conscience that knows right from wrong.

Special Revelation

Special revelation is how God has revealed Himself to us through supernatural means. Miracles, healings, dreams, visions, prophets – all of these are special revelation. Special revelation is given to specific people or people groups at certain times.

The most important forms of special revelation are the person of Jesus Christ and God’s revelation of Himself through the Bible. Hebrews 1:1-2 reads:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

These verses teach that the ultimate form of special revelation comes through Jesus. Jesus is the One who shows us God as He is most clearly, to the point that if we know Jesus we also know the Father and have been given the gift of the Spirit (Jn 14:7; 15:26).

The Bible is the record of God’s dealings with man, His special revelation through part of history, and especially of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is inspired by God and was given to Christians for our good (1 Tim 3:16).

The Difference Between the Two

General and special revelation are similar in many ways. Both teach us about God. Both come from God. Both are infallible when correctly understood (source).

However, there is a major difference between the two. While both can inform us about God, only special revelation can give us enough information for salvation. General revelation teaches us general things about God – that He exists, that He is good, that there is a basic morality. Special revelation is what teaches us about everything needed for salvation – original sin and the fall, the person and work of Jesus, the need for faith in Him. That is why Jesus gave His followers the command to go and preach the gospel throughout the world. General revelation can ignite a person’s search for God, but only the Spirit working through the proclamation of the gospel can save (Rom 10:14).

The Start of Something Thoughtful

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Today I start a new series called Theology Thursday. Every Thursday I’ll take a look at a different theological topic and write about it from the perspective of a conservative Calvinist. You can throw out your thoughts in the comments section and we’ll think through the topic together.

To kick off the series I’ll answer this question – What is theology?

Simply put, theology is the study of what a religion (in this case, Christianity) believes to be true, and/or the body of beliefs held by a religion. The word technically means the study of God (theos – God; logos – knowledge, study), but Christian theology has been broken down into many categories depending on what specific topic you are studying and therefore I think a broader definition is the easier one with which to work.

The second part of that definition is very important. If theology is the body of beliefs about God, everyone is a theologian. It is not something we can leave to the scholars and pastors. When someone makes a statement about God, they are making a theological statement.

Jesus is God – theology.

There is no god – theology.

We are all part of god – theology.

Whether their statement is right or wrong, orthodox or heretical, well-thought-out or simply shot from the hip, the things someone says about God are their theology. Even statements like “I don’t do theology” or “Theology is divisive” are theology because they are reflecting what someone believes about the importance of knowing the truth about God and our relation to Him.

What you believe about God is of incredible importance and carries huge consequences. It is worth taking the time to figure out what you believe, studying to find out if what you believe is right or wrong, and then learning more. It won’t be easy, but it will be infinitely rewarding.

For a post on the objections raised against learning theology, go here.