Heresy: When we really get God wrong.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 April
HERESY 'hɛr.ə.si noun. Belief or opinion contrary to Christian orthodoxy.
[Heretic 'hɛr.ə.tɪk adjective, heretical hə'rɛd.ə.kəl adjective.]

In my circles, Christians don’t use the word heretic very much. They usually go with “wrong” or “non-Christian” or “unbiblical.” If they think the ideas originated from outside Christianity, they’ll call them “New Age-y” or “cultish.”

But the terms they really like are “satanic” and “demonic.” Which is nothing new. Anti-heretics have always tried to get the devil involved: These are all Satan’s ideas, aren’t they? You’re just the devil’s pawns, as it tries to lead Christians astray and overthrow churches and ministries and great Christian leaders with its lies.

Satan may be the father of lies, Jn 8.44 but this doesn’t automatically mean it’s the source of all heresy. We humans are plenty capable of coming up with wrong ideas on our own. Enthusiastically, I might add:

  • Some of us really wanna come up with (and maybe become famous for) new God-ideas.
  • Others really wanna debunk all the God-ideas we don’t really like, or struggle to believe.
  • Others really wanna piss off our fellow Christians. Particularly the ones who were mean or judgmental towards us in the past. If we grew up with oppressive Christian parents, Ep 6.4 it’s evil fun to stick it to them by mocking their religion.
  • And of course there are the people who wanna invent their own religion, ’cause when successful, it’ll make them rich and powerful.

Those who wring their hands ’cause they figure there are more heretics than ever nowadays (and surely it’s a sign of the End Times, innit?) aren’t always aware of why there are more heretics than ever: Freedom of religion. Before the first 13 states of the United States put religious freedom into their constitutions, you could be prosecuted and executed for heresy. In many parts of the world you still can. I’m not at all saying we should take religious freedom away: It means pagans and hypocrites can come out of hiding, and now we know who to minister to. But its inevitable side effect is frauds and heretics get to start churches, and we gotta be on our guard against them.

So how do you know whether someone’s heretic? Well, you gotta know what orthodoxy is. Learn the creeds. Read your bible. Get to know Jesus. If you know the real thing, you’ll recognize when something fake comes along.

But too many Christians don’t have time for that, so they usually just follow certain Christian apologists in the countercult movement. Don’t know whether a certain church or ministry is orthodox? Look up that organization on their website, or send them an email, and they’ll tell you. Why put any effort into following Jesus and becoming orthodox yourself, when you can just defer to “experts”?

As a result, Christians largely don’t know what “heresy” means. They think it simply means we’re wrong. And since we’re wrong about God in a whole bunch of different ways… does that mean we’re all heretics? For some of ’em yeah, that’s exactly what it means. I’ve heard more than one preacher claim, “We’re all heretics! But Jesus is right; follow Jesus.” Their hearts might be in the right place (well, unless they actually are heretics) but no, they don’t define heresy properly. We define heresy by how we define orthodoxy. ’Cause they’re opposites. If it’s not orthodox, it’s heretic; if it’s not heretic, it’s orthodox.

Heterodoxy.

There are other words people throw around, like unorthodox or heterodox. They both mean “not orthodox.” But they’re not synonyms of heretic.

When people talk about “unorthodox views,” what they really mean is, “He put things in a way you’re not used to hearing,” or “She’s gonna question certain beliefs we take for granted.” But these people aren’t actually heretic. They’re orthodox. It’s just the way they explain their orthodoxy comes from an unexpected direction. They’ve chosen a unique way to describe the same traditional beliefs. You know, like when Jesus described God’s kingdom with parables, instead of quoting the Law like Pharisees more typically did.

Other Christians are trying to deconstruct their beliefs. Like good postmoderns, they’re rightly asking, “Is that really true?” about the stuff we Christians take for granted. Sometimes their conclusions look very different than Christian popular culture—but they’re still orthodox, for they still believe in all the basic creedal stuff.

And yeah, okay, sometimes they go too far. Fr’instance the Christian who’s trying to explain the trinity in a way nobody else has.

“…See, in quantum mechanics when you look at the spin of an electron, you find it can spin on its X axis, or its Y axis, or its Z axis. It can spin any of these three directions. Simultaneously!—in can spin all three directions at once. But when you look at it, to measure its spin, you’ll find you can only see one of the spins—X, Y, or Z—you can’t see all of them at once. Well, that’s also true of the trinity. When you look at him, you see the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit; only one of him. You don’t see the other two. But they’re there. Just not observable.”

and whoops, they just taught modalism. Which is a heresy. (And I’m not gonna even touch upon how they also misrepresented quantum mechanics.) Good intentions… but you remember the saying about what the road to hell is paved with.

That’s why I’ve gotta make it clear: Most heresy is unintentional. People aren’t trying to be wrong! They wanna describe God properly. They think they are describing him properly. The way everybody else describes him—the way the church councils sorted him out, the doctrines our traditions have passed down to us, the faith statements most of us hold to—got it wrong. Whereas they studied their bibles, or had some special revelation, or saw something everyone else missed, or revived something the ancient Christians called heresy. They got him right. Come into the light with them!

But yeah, they got God wrong. As we all do. It’s just their particular wrongness has to do with one of the non-negotiable beliefs, and stands a really good chance of leading people away from God, his grace, and his kingdom. It’s not a little error. It’s a whopping big one.

Legalists and heresy.

As I said, many Christians claim every error is heresy. Preach a sermon, mix up Elijah and Elisha, and they figure it counts as heresy. Post a comment on Facebook, mistakenly say Jesus fed the 500 instead of the 5,000; heresy. Tweet a bible verse and forget to capitalize “God”: Heresy. It’s so easy to fall into heresy, innit?

Well no it’s not. Orthodoxy is defined by the Christian creeds. They’re where our non-negotiables come from. Preach otherwise, and that’s heresy. Make an error in any other way, and it’s not heresy: You’re just wrong. Everybody make mistakes, but not everybody’s a heretic.

True, not everybody agrees orthodoxy’s defined by the creeds. Christian Fundamentalists will insist it’s defined by their fundamentals. A number of Calvinists insist it’s defined by the Westminster Catechism (the long one or the short one; either way). Individual churches insist their faith statements sort ’em out: If you can’t abide by the church’s official doctrines, you really shouldn’t stay in their churches. Sorry; that’s the line they draw in the sand.

Problem is, if you’re really legalist, everything’s a non-negotiable belief. If your church officially condemns gambling, but you like to play the lottery from time to time, no foolin’: They’ll actually worry you’re going to hell. ’Cause to their minds, a real Christian wouldn’t see gambling as a debatable issue, one where we’re free to disagree. To their minds, it’s sin. Any gambler who claims to be Christian, isn’t. It’s a stretched-till-broken interpretation of 1 John 2.4, but one they firmly believe. Yep, they think heretics are going to hell.

And they’re not alone. Most Christians presume heretics are going to hell. It’s what they think “heretic” means: An unbeliever. An idolater. A pagan. A non-Christian. Ask your typical Evangelical what they think about any church who doesn’t match their faith statement. Their answer is nearly always on a spectrum from “Maybe they’re Christian” to flat-out “They’re not Christian.” Doesn’t matter how creedal that other church is. Doesn’t matter how Spirit-filled that church behaves. Doesn’t matter if they’re political allies. “We believe X and they don’t, so we can’t guarantee they’re in the kingdom.”

What about grace? Oh, grace is a whole separate discussion. Bring up grace, and suddenly these Christians’ll stop being so hardline. It’s because yes, they agree we’re all saved by God’s grace. But deep in their core, they suspect we’re saved by orthodoxy—and if we’re not orthodox enough, we’re probably not saved. Regardless of grace.

To some degree just about all us Christians suspect this. We gotta purge ourselves of it. We’re saved by grace, not orthodoxy. Just about everybody who comes to Jesus on their deathbed is full of wrong beliefs about God. Will God save ’em anyway? Sure. ’Cause if we trust Jesus to do the saving, Jesus is all right with us, same as that thief on the cross. Lk 23.42-43 Not even heresy can stop God’s grace.

So it shouldn’t stop our grace, either. I’m not saying heretics aren’t wrong; I’m certainly not saying we should let ’em into positions of church leadership. I’m only saying Jesus died for them too. Friend or enemy, let’s love ’em.

Dark Christians and heresy.

Another of the more common wrong ideas is heretics are evil. Like I said, too many Christians quickly make the leap from “You’re wrong” to “You’re Satan’s pawn.” How’d they get tricked into the devil’s service? Well they must be evil.

Okay: Ever met a nice non-Christian? Unless you grew up really sheltered, of course you have. Many pagans are nice people. Same with people of other religions: Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews. Some of ’em even have a reputation for being nice. Wish we Christians had a better one… but I digress.

Heretics are no more evil than anyone. They’re only wrong. Sometimes they grew up heretic, but regardless of what their heretic church teaches (or sometimes because of what their heretic church teaches), they’re good people. Sometimes they became heretic because they made an honest mistake. Rarely is it some evil plan to seize power and corrupt Christianity—and we can usually see such cults coming.

So why do so many Christians presume all heretics are evil? It’s what dark Christianity teaches. Dark Christians are the folks who fixate on sin, evil, the devil, and hell. They fear these things, try to fight ’em, and worry they’re everywhere. Everywhere. They go looking for it. And if they don’t find it, they invent reasons why it must be there nonetheless: It’s doing a great job of hiding. But it’s there!

The dark Christian believes all heresy comes from Satan. Any mistaken Christian teaching is the result of some wayward Christian who stopped listening to the Holy Spirit, so the devil took advantage and tricked ’em into heresy. So heresy is never an honest mistake: It’s the product of a Christian gone wrong. It comes from unconfessed sin, secret evil, overconfidence, ambition, greed, lust, you name it. It might even come from someone who decided to turn traitor against Jesus, like Judas Iscariot did, and is working with Satan to undermine the church in a thousand little ways. You know, like a bad Cold War spy novel.

To their minds, all heresy and heretics are devilish. All heretics are evil. Heretic churches are outposts of hell. The only exceptions are their churches—Jesus’s only true churches—who follow him correctly and properly, and aren’t secretly run by the Beast.

Thanks to dark Christians, our history is full of instances where heretics were persecuted and killed. Muslims and Jews were tortured to death. Witches were hanged, or pressed to death. Apostates were burned. Heretics were drowned, garroted, beheaded, or exiled. Thankfully, much of that evil came to an end… but dark Christians wouldn’t mind at all if it started back up again. There’s a lot of people they’d like to see dead, and they’re not just heretics.

Yeah, it’s entirely graceless, but dark Christians don’t do grace.

The fear of heresy.

Mormons are heretic. I don’t say this to insult them; only to point out their beliefs don’t jibe with traditional, creedal Christianity. To them, the trinity isn’t one being, and Jesus isn’t “begotten, not made.” Not only was Jesus made, they believe the Father was made—born on another world, and became God through his God’s grace. Yep, they believe God once worshiped a different God. Like I said, heretic.

I learned all this stuff ’cause years ago I met some Mormon missionaries and picked their brains. At the time, all I knew about Mormons came from what dark Christians claimed Mormons believe, so I decided I oughta hear directly from Mormons themselves. I didn’t want to lead them on: I warned the missionaries I already had a church, and didn’t plan to convert. But they were kind enough to answer all my questions anyway. Mormons tend to be nice like that.

So one day I was flipping through the Book of Mormon in the local coffeehouse. (Since Mormons don’t do coffee, it definitely made me stick out.) A Christian of my acquaintance caught me reading it, and immediately voiced his worry:

HE. “You shouldn’t read that.”
ME. “Oh, are you afraid I’ll turn Mormon?”
HE. “You laugh, but you might. The devil will try to trick the elect.” Mt 24.24
ME. “Yes it will. Usually by hitting us when our guard’s down. You think I’m reading this with my guard down?”
HE. “I sure hope not. But you’re not so naïve as to believe you can’t be tempted.”
ME. “Oh, I can be tempted. But not by this. I’ve been a Christian all my life, and been studying it in depth for decades. Reading a book which I don’t consider inspired by God, isn’t gonna sway me.”
HE. “You think it can’t sway you, but that sounds like pride.”
ME. “You say that like it’s a bad thing. You realize pride is so powerful, it allows Christians to resist the bible? The bible. The word of God itself. And here I am using it on the Book of Mormon. If I can resist bible with my pride, what makes you think it’s gonna fail me with the Book of Mormon?
HE. “Well, pride belongs to the devil. So does that.” [pointing at the book]
ME. “Pride doesn’t belong to the devil. Pride’s morally neutral. It’s what we put our pride in. Paul boasted of God. 1Co 1.31, 2Co 10.17 I’m proud of him too. I’m proud of Christians who follow God. Pride’s good when we put it in the right things.”
He. “But when you read the Book of Mormon, you’re putting your pride in your intellect.”
ME. “No; I’m putting it in Jesus. I trust him. This, not so much. This, I’m skeptical of. This, I doubt. So it’s not much of a temptation.”
HE. “I dunno. I’ve known Christians who went Mormon. You don’t think you’re better than they are?”
ME. “Of course I think I’m better than they are. So do you; it’s why you’re not Mormon. We think we’re right, and think they’re not. Do you think you’d be swayed by the Book of Mormon?”
HE. “I’m not gonna read it.”
ME. “So you think you could be swayed by it.”
HE. “I’m not gonna risk it.”
ME. “Well, maybe you shouldn’t. Some of us have more faith than others. Me, I think I have enough faith in God that this isn’t gonna lead me astray. You might too. But you might not; what do I know? How long have you been Christian?”
HE. “About 10 years.”
ME. “How much have you seen?”
HE. “Seen?”
ME. “Miracles. How much have you seen God do stuff?”
HE. “I’ve seen a lot.”
ME. “So you know he’s real.”
HE. “Yes.”
ME. “This” [pointing to the book] “gonna change your mind about that? That we haven’t really seen God; that it was the devil, and the real God only does stuff in Mormon churches?”
HE. “No!”
ME. “So what’re you worried about?”

He was worried because he was raised to believe he should worry. ’Cause other Christians worry. Dark Christians are especially worried. Doesn’t matter what Jesus teaches about worry.

They fear our knowledge of God isn’t strong enough to recognize heresy. And sometimes they’re entirely right about that: Like I said before, Christians are often ignorant about orthodoxy, and won’t catch the heresy ’cause they’re taught plenty of wonky things by their favorite preachers, podcasts, and books. But worry tends to be based on the popular legalist belief that every error is heresy—and heresy sends us to hell.

It does not. Our resistance to God’s grace sends us to hell. Our rejection of Jesus sends us to hell. Really, we embrace hell, instead of God; we won’t let him save us. Heresy isn’t an embrace of hell; it’s an embrace of error. Now, if that error includes rejecting Jesus, and lying to ourselves about it, we’re screwed. 1Jn 1.5-10 It’s for this reason Jesus instructs us to watch out. Mt 7.15-20 Don’t fall for heresy!

Armor of God.

Watch out for fake teachers, fake prophets, fake Christs. Watch out for “knowledge” based on nothing, “prophecies” which people psych themselves into thinking came from God, “doctrines” invented by partisans with an ax to grind, “signs” which are nothing more than oddities plus fear, and “truths” which are lies. Watch out for the devil, who roams like a lion in search of prey 1Pe 5.8 —and if you’re not wielding the Holy Spirit, you’re the prey.

But Jesus never instructs us to flee these things and these people. Resist temptation, yes; and if you lack the willpower or self-control to do so, get away from it. Resist people who lack the discipline to do their homework and study the scriptures properly; I’ve known many people who were undermined by the fact they loved their teachers, and were blind to the ridiculous things they taught. But few of us are tempted to embrace someone we know is self-delusional, fraudulent, fruitless, or consistently wrong. Our eyes are wide open.

What do we do with such people? We resist. Resist the devil, and it does the fleeing. Jm 4.7 Remember the armor of God? It’s not just so we can have Christian costumes for Halloween: It’s what we’re meant to resist temptation with.

Ephesians 6.10-18 KJV
10 Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. 11 Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. 13 Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. 14 Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; 15 and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16 above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. 17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: 18 praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints…

Heresy’s most certainly a spiritual force. So we resist it with the armor: Truth, rightness, good news, trust in God, salvation, God’s word. Plus prayer. These are our weapons. Get ’em, then stand and fight.

I constantly search for truth. So the Holy Spirit regularly leads me to it—either personally, or with the help of my fellow Christians. I trust God; I read his word; I’ve got the armor. It’s why I can read heretic books, and quickly identify the heresy. “That’s not biblical. That’s not true. That’s not the Spirit’s fruit. That saves no one. That’s not the gospel. That isn’t rightness. That doesn’t grow faith. That sounds problematic.” And so on. I know better than to let it slide; I keep my guard up.

I don’t just have my guard up when I’m reading books I know to be heretic. There’s a lot of crap out there, and the devil specializes in blindsiding us. Christians make mistakes all the time, y’know. Never take your guard down.

(“Even with God?” Don’t be silly. God is the armor.)

So yeah, don’t be afraid of heretic books. But never read them lightly. Never read anything lightly. Even fiction—notice how off-base Christians will get when we start to overanalyze the Narnia books. Armor on. Test everything.

And if it’s weak armor, ask for God’s help: Pursue truth, faith, and rightness; listen to God’s word and get it in you. Draw close to God—and he’ll get you ready to stand your ground.