“But there were also false prophets in Israel, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will cleverly teach destructive heresies and even deny the Master who bought them” (2 Peter 2:1). Heresy is false teaching, and a person who believes such false teaching is a heretic.
The seed of heresy grows when we go to sources outside the Bible to find ultimate truth
What Is Heresy?
There have always been false teachers—in Old Testament times, in New Testament times, and today. Christians want to know that what they believe about God is right and true. The seed of heresy grows when we go to sources outside the Bible to find ultimate truth. This can start with simple “innocent” objections such as:
- “But our culture teaches us that . . .”
- “But we live in a different world now . . .”
- “But surely God would not object to this . . .”
- “But there are good people who practise this . . .”
When we think we have discovered a new truth, but it contradicts the Bible, we have strayed into heresy.
When we think we have discovered a new truth, but it contradicts the Bible, we have strayed into heresy
Why Heresy Is Bad
Heresy is a belief, teaching, or practice that is contrary to the historically accepted fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith as taught by Jesus and the apostles in the Bible and as confirmed by the early church. When someone teaches something different to what the Bible teaches, that false teaching can damage believers’ faith. It can also create serious divisions in the church.
Essential Doctrines of The Christian Faith
It is important to make two distinctions. First, not all disagreements about what the Bible teaches involve heresy. For example, some churches baptise by immersion, while others baptise by sprinkling. Neither one is a heresy.
Heresy is teaching anything in disagreement with the fundamental (essential) doctrines of the Christian faith.
Such doctrines are: one triune God as Creator; Jesus Christ as fully God and fully human; the Holy Spirit as the source of power and comfort; salvation by grace through faith in the redeeming work of Christ alone; the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ; and the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.
Heresy and cults frequently go hand in hand, but not always
Second, heresy and cults frequently go hand in hand, but not always.
Heresy is about theology—the content of doctrinal teaching. A cult is about practice—the style of leadership (usually controlling) and attitude towards others (usually standing apart and feeling superior). Cults frequently teach heresy, but not always. Heresy can lead to cultish practices, but not always.
Three New Testament Heresies
Three heresies are specifically mentioned in the New Testament.
The first is legalism, which is an attempt to earn salvation by obeying laws and doing good, frequently through religious activities and rituals. In the early church, this view was promoted primarily by people who were sometimes called “Judaizers” because they tried “to make these Gentiles follow Jewish traditions” (Galatians 2:14).
The historically accepted doctrine of the Christian church is that salvation is by grace alone. “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Ephesians 2:8-9). The heresy of legalism says that a person must achieve salvation by doing good works in addition to faith in Christ.
Many people think that if their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds, they will be saved. This is heresy
Your Good Deeds Can’t Save You
Here is Paul’s strong response to the Galatians: “I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ” (Galatians 1:6-7; see also Galatians 2:4 and Galatians 5:1-12).
Legalism continues to challenge Christians today. Church members sometimes try to require specific rituals or religious accomplishments for salvation. Many people think that if their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds, they will be saved. This is heresy.
The heresy opposite legalism is antinomianism. Simply stated, this is the idea that because of God’s grace and his unlimited forgiveness, we can behave how we wish. There are no laws or restraints. This heresy is a rejection of morality, including God’s laws.
The historically accepted doctrine of the Christian church is that God expects his people to be holy because he is holy. Peter said, “Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires… But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy” (1 Peter 1:14-15).
If we deliberately sin, thinking that God will automatically show us mercy and forgiveness, we have fallen into the heresy of antinomianism
Should We Keep On Sinning? No!
Paul speaks to this several times in his letters. In Romans he asks with some irony, “Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? (Romans 6:1-2, see also Galatians 5:13-14).
If we deliberately and arrogantly sin, thinking that God will automatically show us mercy and forgiveness, we have fallen into the heresy of antinomianism.
Perhaps the most widespread heresy to infect the early church was Gnosticism. This worldview is typical of the human tendency to think up a theology that “frees” people from sin and guilt without the need for Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The two main elements of all forms of Gnosticism are secret information and elitism. Gnostics espoused that a simple faith was fine, but even better were the deeper secrets known only to those on the inside—the spiritually elite.
The two main elements of all forms of Gnosticism are secret information and elitism
They believed in many spiritual beings. Many Gnostics taught that the material world was evil and the Spirit world was good. Therefore, the body is evil or unreal. Gnostics seem to honour Christ, but they deny that “there is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Paul (Colossians 2:8-23; 1 Timothy 1:3-4) and John (1 John 1:1-2; 2:22-23; 5:1) argue against views like Gnosticism.
Other Common Heresies
In the early Christian church, some heresies denied that Jesus was at the same time both fully human and fully God (Apollinarism, Arianism, Docetism, and Nestorianism). Others wrongly taught that the Trinity did not exist (Patripassianism and Sabellianism). Still others falsely led people to believe that humans were created by a lesser god, that we are only spiritual souls trapped in a physical world, and that anything material is evil (Gnosticism).
One group rejected the Old Testament (Marcionism). Pelagius incorrectly taught that Adam and Eve’s sin did not give the rest of humanity a sin nature, and that each person could choose to be good without God’s help (Pelagianism).
Unfortunately, these same heresies tend to appear from time to time today, even in Africa.
Heresy, Confessions and Creeds
To protect Christians from heresies, the apostles and their disciples prepared summaries of the basic Christian doctrines. In 1 Corinthians 15:2-8, Paul summarised those doctrines that are “most important” – that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, and more. Later, church leaders developed what they called “The Rule of Faith” or “The Canon of Truth.” Creeds followed, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.
To protect Christians from heresies, the apostles and their disciples prepared summaries of the basic Christian doctrines
Thankfully, throughout history God has provided the church with leaders who have fought against false teaching. The early church leaders met in Jerusalem to decide if followers of Jesus must obey Jewish laws and customs (Acts 15). They stood against legalism.
God also used church fathers such as Ignatius (Syria), Irenaeus (Asia Minor), Justin Martyr (Judea), Polycarp (Asia), Tertullian (Tunisia) and Athanasius (Egypt) to defend the doctrines of the church.
How Might We Identify Heresy?
Today, many different churches in Africa teach a wide variety of doctrines and practices. How can we know which ones are right and true? How can we know if a particular church is teaching heresy?
The best way is to know the truth! God has revealed his truth to us in the Bible
The sinless life of Jesus, who was both God and human, and his death, burial and resurrection are at the heart of the gospel. If any teaching denies we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, it is heresy. If any requirement other than repentance and faith is added to Jesus’ work in relation to our salvation, it is heresy. If someone teaches that a spiritual gift or blessing can be bought, earned, or bartered, that is heresy (Acts 8:18-21).
Seeking help from dead relatives in our times of difficulty, especially with charms or sacrifices, shows we have a heretical understanding of life after death (Isaiah 8:19). Encouraging retaliation or revenge based upon Scriptures is heresy because it is based upon a misunderstanding of the teachings of Jesus. Confusing reincarnation with the resurrection is heresy.
How Not To Fall Into Heresy
How can we keep ourselves from falling into heresy? The best way is to know the truth! God has revealed his truth to us in the Bible. David tells us to hide God’s Word in our hearts so that we can keep from sinning against him (Psalm 119:11). The book of Acts gives us the example of the Bereans who “searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth” (Acts 17:11).
We must regularly read and study the Bible to keep our beliefs and behaviour in line with God’s thoughts
Read The Bible & Christian Books
That means we must regularly read and study the Bible to keep our beliefs and behaviour in line with God’s thoughts. In addition, we can also read Christian literature to help us better understand what the church has taught throughout its history. Also, we can talk with trusted Christian leaders when we have questions.
Many Africans tend to be spiritually sensitive people. Often we experience dreams, visions, inner voices and other spiritual communications. But we must build our beliefs on what the Bible says, not on personal experiences. Any spiritual communication must be carefully compared to the teachings of the Bible. The Bible must always be accepted as supreme truth.
Any spiritual communication must be carefully compared to the teachings of the Bible.
We Can Still Disagree
Of course, not every disagreement among Christians is heresy.
Believers can have differences of opinion such as Paul and Barnabas had (Acts 15:36-41). But, if a teaching is contrary to the Bible as interpreted by the historically accepted fundamental doctrines of the Christian church, it is probably heresy. And, if a teaching causes dissension and division among believers, it should be examined for heresy.
“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realise what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right” (2 Timothy 3:16).
If a teaching causes dissension and division among believers, it should be examined for heresy
God warns that teachers of heresy will experience “sudden destruction” and that they are doomed to the “blackest darkness” (2 Peter 2:17). The Bible’s warning to them should also be a warning to us. It should stimulate us to know, love, accept and defend the truth as found in God’s Word (2 Thessalonians 2:10).
Points To Remember:
- Church doctrine is built on a strong foundation over centuries. Any teaching that proclaims to be new, deeper, more comprehensive, or more spiritual than previous biblical knowledge probably contains an element of heresy.
- If you want to discover if a teaching is heresy, study the teaching and compare it with the Bible and the great statements of Christian doctrine.
- Any teaching that questions the reality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is heresy.
- Most heretical teaching is not really new. Compare questionable teaching to heresies of the past to see if it should be rejected.
- Heretics will eventually be exposed by their actions and desires. If a teacher seems to desire fame, power, control over people, or wealth more than living a life of humble submission to God, be on guard for heresy.