Apologetics Index
A Biblical Guide To Orthodoxy And Heresy

A Biblical Guide To Orthodoxy And Heresy

Part One: The Case For Doctrinal Discernment

Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

"A Biblical Guide To Orthodoxy And Heresy" was orginally published in the Christian Research Journal as a two-part article. It is reproduced here in its entirety. For your convenience, Scripture links have been provided to the Bible Gateway's online text of the New International Version. = off-site link.    Terms are defined in Apologetics Index.


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For most Christians today, the challenge of learning how to discern orthodox from heretical doctrine has apparently not been faced. Either they treat doctrine as minimally important and so regard charges of "heresy" as rude and unloving, or they treat doctrine as all-important and so regard anyone who disagrees with them in the slightest as a heretic. In short, most believers seem to think either that there are almost no heretics or that almost everybody outside their own little group is a heretic.

The cause of doctrinal discernment, then, is in serious jeopardy. Although anticult and discernment ministries are mushrooming everywhere, many of them operate on the basis of an excessively narrow understanding of orthodoxy. Consequently, such groups are charged deservedly with "heresy hunting" and discredit the practice of doctrinal discernment. At the other extreme — and often overreacting to such heresy hunters — are those within the Christian community who reject any warnings of heresy among professing Christians.

In this two-part article I will attempt to set forth a balanced approach to the issue of doctrinal heresy. In this first part I will present a biblical case for the practice of discerning orthodox from heretical doctrines. In the second part I will offer guidelines for doctrinal discernment.

In order to make this article as useful as possible, I will avoid making references to specific heretical or suborthodox groups, doctrines, and practices. This is so it may be read without conflict by persons in religious groups which discourage reading literature that criticizes their beliefs. In addition, I will avoid quoting and citing sources other than the Bible so that what I say can stand as much as possible on its own. A bibliography of recommended reading will be provided at the end of Part Two.

My own theological convictions are those of Protestant evangelicalism. Most of what I have to say in this article, however, is compatible with other Christian traditions as well.

The Necessity of Doctrine

The words "doctrine" and "doctrinal" have become pejorative terms for many — like indoctrinate or dogma. Even many evangelical Christians, who do affirm certain doctrines, pay little attention to doctrine beyond a certain minimum.

Of the many objections to Christian doctrine, five may be singled out as especially influential. Doctrine is often said to be
  1. irrelevant
  2. impractical
  3. divisive
  4. unspiritual
  5. unknowable
The importance of doctrine can best be shown by presenting positive answers to these charges.

The Relevance of Doctrine

In popular thought doctrine has to do with insignificant matters that are irrelevant to most people. Although doctrine can be trivialized, Christian doctrine is extremely relevant to all people. Christian doctrine (i.e., the teachings of Scripture) answers the fundamental questions of life -- questions such as who God is, who we are, and why we are here (Ps. 8:3-8; Heb. 11:6). How we answer these questions decisively shapes the way we live. To ignore them is to go through life blithely unaware of what is really important.

Doctrine is particularly important because a sound proclamation of the gospel of salvation depends on an accurate understanding of what that gospel is, what salvation is, and how salvation is received (Gal. 1:6-9; 1 Tim. 4:16). Nothing less than our eternal future depends on it. I do not mean to imply that we must all become theologians and experts on every fine point of doctrine to be saved. But the church as a whole must take great care that it faithfully proclaims the true gospel, and every Christian has a stake in the matter. I will have more to say on this point a little later.

It is true that some doctrinal issues are less important than others. One of the most crucial functions of Christian theology, and one of the most neglected, is to sort out the really important — the essential — from the less important and even the irrelevant (cf. Rom. 14).

Thus, handled properly, doctrine is very relevant to human life, and pursuit of sound doctrine should therefore be the concern of every person at least to some extent.

The Practicality of Doctrine

It is common in our day to assert that practice is more important than theory — that orthopraxis (doing right) is more important than orthodoxy (believing right). But this assertion is itself a theory — something people think and then say, and then try to put into practice. The fact is that what we think determines what we do. Thus, doctrine — as something we think — affects what we do, and so has practical significance.

It should be recognized, of course, that the practical effects of doctrine have limits. Doctrine does not always or solely determine our actions, since people often act on desires or concerns contrary to the doctrines they hold. For example, someone may believe as doctrine that lying is wrong, but selfish or prideful thoughts may take precedence over doctrinal convictions and lead the person to lie. The practicality of doctrine is found not in determining our practice, but in informing it — in giving us the knowledge with which, by God's grace, we can do the right thing.

The point is that we should regard both knowledge and practice as important. Ultimately, what is important is that a person truly live in obedient fellowship with God and experience His love; in that sense, of course practice is more important than doctrine. But God Himself has made it clear that He uses doctrine to further that practical goal in our lives (1 Tim. 1:3-7; 2 Tim. 3:15-17).

The practical importance of Christian doctrine, then, is great indeed. Doctrine enables us to develop a realistic view of the world and of ourselves, without which we are doomed to ineffectual living (Matt. 22:23-33; Rom. 12:3; 2 Tim. 4:3-4). Doctrine can protect us from believing falsehoods which upset people's faith or lead to destructive behavior (1 Tim. 4:1-6; 2 Tim. 2:18; Tit. 1:11). Doctrine also prepares us to minister to others (Eph. 4:11-12).

The Unity of Doctrine

Perhaps the most common criticism people voice about doctrine is that it divides people. And indeed, doctrine — in the history of Christianity as in other religions — has often been allowed to divide people in reprehensible ways. But in a crucial sense doctrine is intended to unite people.

While it is true that doctrine inevitably divides people, this is not something that can be avoided. People think different things, and they do different things on the basis of their differing beliefs. What is undesirable, however, is that doctrine should divide people who ought to be together, or that divisions should be expressed in wrong ways. That is, doctrine should not divide faithful Christians from one another, preventing them from having fellowship together. Nor should doctrine lead people to hate or mistreat people who hold different doctrines than they do.

The Bible commands Christians to divide themselves from false teachers or heretics on the basis of doctrinal factors (Rom. 16:17; 2 John 9-11). In doing so, they are to stand together in unity against heresy (Eph. 4:12-13). Thus, taking a stand against heresy can promote genuine Christian unity.

As Christians mature together in their understanding of biblical doctrine, they become more united as their thinking becomes shaped more and more along the same lines (1 Cor. 1:10). Moreover, a balanced understanding of doctrine can help Christians divided by doctrinal differences to be reconciled as they learn which points are minor or unsound and which are not (1 Tim. 6:3-5;Tit. 1:9-14). It turns out that shallow understanding of doctrine easily promotes disunity among Christians, while deepening understanding of doctrine tends to foster greater Christian unity.

The Spirituality of Doctrine

Although some people regard the pursuit of doctrinal accuracy as an unspiritual intellectualism, sound doctrine is actually very important to sound spirituality. Christian doctrine teaches us about God, His purposes and will for our lives, what we are like spiritually apart from God's grace, how God's grace changes us — in short, everything we need to know in order to pursue true spirituality (Rom. 6:17-18; 1 Tim. 1:5, 10; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Doctrine provides external, objective controls for our inward, subjective experiences so that we may discern genuine spirituality from fraudulent, artificial, or even demonic spirituality (Col. 2:22-23; 1 John 4:1-3).

In pursuing an accurate understanding of Christian doctrine, we are fulfilling one aspect of God's greatest commandment — that we love God with all our _minds_ (Matt. 22:37). This commandment surely implies that we should take great care and make every effort to conform our beliefs and convictions to the truth (cf. Rom. 12:2) — and this means doctrine.

Something should also be said here about the relationship between doctrinal discernment and spiritual discernment. In 1 Corinthians Paul speaks more than once about spiritual discernment. The spiritual person discerns all things, including the things of the Spirit of God, which can only be discerned spiritually (1 Cor. 2:14-15). The members of the congregation were to exercise discernment concerning the prophecies that were delivered in the church (1 Cor. 14:29). And some Christians are specially gifted to discern evil spirits from the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:10). On the basis of these and other passages, some Christians have thought that discernment never has anything to do with the exercise of the intellect. In their view, one discerns between good and evil in doctrinal as well as practical matters simply by listening to the inner voice of the Holy Spirit.

By no means do I wish to disparage the work of the Holy Spirit in giving Christians discernment. Certainly all Christians must depend on the Holy Spirit to illuminate their minds that they may clearly see the difference between good and evil, truth and error. And many Christians who are ill-equipped to study doctrine in depth are remarkably discerning.

It would be a mistake, however, to pit spiritual discernment against doctrinal discernment. For one thing, the view that discernment is purely spiritual is itself a doctrine. Moreover, such a sharp separation of doctrine and spirituality assumes a dichotomy between the mind and the human spirit. Since this assumption is also a doctrine, the whole argument is self-defeating. There are also biblical reasons to reject a dichotomy of mind and spirit (which I will not elaborate here).

For another thing, the Bible also encourages Christians to use their knowledge of Christian doctrine in discerning truth from error and good from evil. The classic example of this is 1 John 4:1-3, where John commands us not to believe everyone claiming to be speaking by God's Spirit, but instead to apply a doctrinal test (belief in the full humanity of Jesus Christ) to those making such claims. Similarly, in 2 John 9 we are told to watch ourselves and not be deceived by anyone who "does not remain in the doctrine of Christ." In 1 Corinthians, Paul not only speaks of spiritual discernment but also presents doctrinal arguments in answer to the heretical belief that "there is no resurrection of the dead" (1 Cor. 15:12-19).

Rather than pitting spiritual and doctrinal discernment against one another, we should see them as two sides or aspects of the same activity. True spirituality includes a submission of the mind to the teachings of the Bible, and sound doctrine includes the belief that our knowledge of the truth is dependent on the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Thus in true discernment at its best, the whole Christian draws upon his God-given knowledge of biblical doctrine in sensitivity to the Holy Spirit.

The Knowability of Doctrine

Some people avoid studying Christian doctrine because they are convinced it is too difficult or complex to grasp. While small children, the mentally retarded, and certain others may be admitted to be incapable of understanding doctrinal matters, the vast majority of adults — young and old — are able to understand much more than they have bothered to learn. Every individual is responsible to acquire doctrinal knowledge as their mental faculties, educational level, and opportunities allow.

Scripture commands all Christians to learn doctrine. Generally, removable spiritual impediments — not irremovable intellectual ones — prevent Christians from advancing in doctrinal understanding (Heb. 5:11-14). Christ has given teachers to the church to assist believers in learning doctrine (Eph. 4:11). Obviously such teachers must master doctrine on a level beyond most other Christians, but they do so for the purpose of imparting as much truth as possible to the rest of the members of the body of Christ.

Sound doctrine is difficult enough to require honesty and discipline, yet easy enough that — with the exceptions mentioned previously — all who seek God's grace and commit themselves to the task can learn it (2 Pet. 3:16-18).

Doctrine and Salvation

In discussing the relevance of doctrine, I mentioned that a person's salvation can depend to some extent on doctrinal understanding. Since this point is so often contested in our day, it deserves closer attention.

Almost everybody who acknowledges Jesus Christ in some way will agree that those who completely and explicitly reject Jesus Christ are lost. Many people find it difficult, however, to believe that some might sincerely think themselves to be following Jesus Christ and yet, due to heretical belief, be lost. Jesus Himself promised, "Seek, and you shall find" (Matt. 7:7); should not those who seek for Christ find Him? And do not many sincere members of groups which evangelicals label heretical truly want to find Christ? They may read the Bible more studiously than many an evangelical church member; they may express an ardent desire to know God and obey Him; they may zealously proclaim the message of Christ as they have been taught it. Are they not, therefore, seeking Christ, and will they not, then, in accordance with His promise, find Christ? And if so, how can salvation depend on doctrinal beliefs?

These questions may be answered by keeping the following biblical principles in mind.
  1. Not everyone who acknowledges Jesus as Lord will be saved. This follows directly from Jesus' own words in Matthew 7:21: Simply acknowledging that Jesus is Lord does not guarantee a person's salvation. The acknowledgment might be mere lip service, as demonstrated by refusal to obey Him as Lord (Luke 6:46). Or someone might call Jesus "Lord" and not mean the same thing as what the Bible means by it. This leads me to a second principle.

  2. Many who claim to acknowledge Jesus actually believe in "another Jesus," and are either deceived or deceiving. This follows directly from 2 Corinthians 11:4. Many who speak of faith in "Jesus" have an understanding of who and what Jesus is that differs so much from reality that in truth they do not have faith in the real Jesus at all. If a person thought Buddha was another name for Moses, we would not normally consider him a Buddhist, no matter how piously and moralistically he lived out his belief in "Buddha. " Similarly, someone who denies the biblical view of Christ should not be identified as a Christian, no matter how religiously he follows his belief.

    Some people who believe in "another Jesus" are no doubt insincere, and Paul warns of "deceitful workers who disguise themselves as apostles of Christ" (2 Cor. 11:13). I like to think the best of people, even people with whom I have serious disagreements. But I have become acquainted with a few persons about whom I have had to conclude, reluctantly, that they are simply liars. These people know on a conscious level that the message they proclaim is false.

    On the other hand, some people, even members of Christian churches, can be "led astray" (2 Cor. 11:3b) by such deceivers. Thus, it is possible for sincere people, even people who were part of the fellowship of true Christians, to be deceived into following "another Jesus." Not that such people are perfectly innocent — rather, they are like Eve who, though deceived by the serpent (2 Cor. 11:3a), was guilty of sin and held accountable by God (Gen. 3:1-6, 13-16).

  3. Those who are zealous in religious matters are not necessarily saved. In Romans 10:2 Paul says of his Jewish brethren who rejected Jesus, "They have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge." Zeal, of course, implies sincerity — that is, the mental state of believing that what one is promoting is based on truth. The Jews who rejected Jesus were for the most part zealous, and therefore sincere in this sense — but they were still lost (Rom. 9:1-3; 10:1). Their zeal was, in particular, for a right standing with God — but they sought it on the basis of their own works, as if salvation was by works, rather than receiving the righteousness which was available in Christ through faith (Rom. 9:30-10:4).

    Matthew 23:15 addresses zeal of another kind — zeal in seeking converts. The Pharisees were extremely zealous in missionary work, but all they succeeded in doing was leading more people into their error. Zeal in witnessing or evangelizing does not indicate that a religious group is God's people.

  4. No human being truly seeks for God unless God's Spirit draws that person; therefore, those that appear to seek for God but do not come in God's way are not seeking for God at all. In Romans 3:11 Paul quotes Psalm 14:2 to the effect that "there is none who seeks for God." Sin has so perverted the desires of all human beings that none of us, by our own natural wishes, is looking for God. This is because "the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God" (Rom. 8:7). Of course, some people do seek for God, otherwise God would not call upon us to seek Him (Isa. 55:6, etc.). But when people seek God, it is only because God has first "sought" them and drawn them toward Him by His grace (Luke 19:10; John 6:44; 15:16).

    When people therefore appear to be "seeking God" — when they study the Bible (2 Pet. 3:16), attend meetings, pray, change their lifestyles, attempt to obey the commandments, even speak of their love for God and Christ — yet persist in worshipping a false God, or honoring a false Christ, or following a false gospel (Gal. 1:7-9; 2 Cor. 11:4), we must conclude that they were not really seeking God. Rather, they may have been seeking spiritual power, or security, or peace of mind, or warm relationships, or knowledge, or excitement, or anything other than simply God. And in saying this, I am not claiming that all genuine Christians on the other hand have sought purely and simply after God. No, our testimony as Christians must be that we were also following our own divergent path when God sought us, stopped us in our way, and led us up a new and narrow path leading to salvation in Jesus Christ (Matt. 7:13).

  5. Anyone who truly desires to know the truth about God and His way of salvation above all else can and will be saved. This is the other side of the coin from the previous point. Jesus promised that "the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out" (John 6:37). However, we must come to the true Jesus on His terms. Judas came to the true Jesus, at least outwardly (actually, Judas did not know who Jesus really was), but he did not come on Jesus' terms and was consequently lost (John 17:12). The cost of abandoning heresy is usually great — the loss of friends, the embarrassment of admitting error, the threat of the heretical teachers that all who leave their teaching will be lost. But salvation is available for anyone who by God's grace puts truth (and the One who is truth) above these things.


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