From its earliest history the church has been vexed by heresy. We often wonder, why do heresies exist? Paul, writing to the Corinthians, said: “For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you” (1 Cor. 11: 19). That is, heresies exist for the trial and refinement of the saints. They are a “necessary evil.” The wheat and the tares must grow together until the harvest (Matt. 13: 30). In a great house there are many vessels– some of gold & silver, others of wood & earth (2 Tim. 2: 20).
But though heresy is no new thing, it has been controlled and even suppressed in past ages. In recent years, however, a number of “strange and divers doctrines” have made themselves felt in certain sectors of the Christian community. These doctrines have caused turmoil and upheaval in the lives of others, preventing many from exercising evangelical (i.e. saving) faith.
Lest more souls led into error, it is essential to know how to deal with these problems when they come along. As with any disease, having the right vaccinations is required. But this presupposes that we understand all of the “risk factors” involved in accepting heresies. This article will deal with the question: “How do Christians fall into heresy?“
In a way I am apt to deal with this issue, for in 2005 I accepted the heresy of Hyper-Preterism, & became immersed in spiritual error and apathy for a year-and-a-half. When I look back at this unfortunate period, I realize that my decline into heresy was gradual and insidious. It was not something I embraced at once. I had first to espouse a number of false premises which determined my actions. As a result my practical policies became molded along different lines–lines which led me straight into heresy.
I feel that it is important to tell Christians how they can prevent themselves from making the same mistake. In pursuance of this goal, I have identified a few salient “risk factors.” How do Christians come to identify with heresy? As I see it, there are five “easy step” signs which we must guard against. Each of these steps forms a lower grade in the descent into error. Things to watch out for are:
#1: When we practice our Christianity inside a historical vacuum.
#2: When we espouse a false conception of “Sola Scriptura.”
#3: When we accept Alexandrian/esoteric methods of Bible-interpretation.
#4: When we remove ourselves from the local church environment.
#5: When we refuse to listen to the admonitions of others.
The First error (#1) comes into play more often we think. As an Independent Baptist, I was “prime pickings” for the incursions of predatory teachers. I had been taught that my ‘denomination’ was completely separate and distinct from the church as a historic body. In fact, I was even told that we were not a denomination & did not belong to Protestantism. I knew nothing about church history other than the “Blood trail.” I had vague & shadowy notions that Baptists had always existed, & that the Roman Catholic church had always been the enemy.
It is clear to me now that, however positive certain aspects of my faith were, I was practicing my religion inside a historical vacuum. Thus, when doctrinal novelties started to come my way, I did not ask the simple question that might have prevented me from embracing error: “Do these doctrines have any historical validity?” If I had been taught the truth–namely, that the church has a real continuity throughout all ages of history, from the very moment of its first constitution by Christ & His apostles–if I had been taught these things, I would never have fallen into heresy.
But because of the historical vacuum in which I was, I had come to identify with another error (#2). This was the false concept of the doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” which is prevalent among many Protestants. It is the belief that “Sola Scriptura” means “My interpretation over yours.” Let us face the painful fact that the Protestant church has gravely abused the principle of “private judgment.” This has gone on to such an extent that the same doctrines may mean something different to every person you ask. This breaks down the idea that there is any “absolute truth” in the Word of God, and paves the way for “emergent” and relativist tendencies in religion.
Because of the widespread abuse of private interpretation, many have felt, and some have even ventured to assert, that nothing can be known for sure. Of course the error lies in the assumption itself. If it is true that nothing can be known, then it must be known that nothing can be known. But if it is known that nothing can be known, then something can be known. Therefore, it is false that nothing can be known. Since there are absolute truths in Scripture, we must seek to learn them. And since Christ’s church has functioned for 2,000 years, as “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3: 15), then we are sure to find them running throughout all ages of Christian history.
It is bad enough to exercise Christianity inside a historical vacuum. But when we embrace the false idea that Sola Scriptura means “my private interpretation of Scripture,” we break away from the “one body” and “one faith.” We assert that our newfangled views are unequivocally correct, & that the historical church has always been wrong. This false premise has caused many to err from the paths of unity, to become schismatics who sow division.
In getting rid of Papal infallibility the Reformers made a wise move. But their nominal successors, which include Christian “teachers” of our own time, have run to the opposite extreme. Whether they realize it or not, they have embraced the wormwood philosophy of “personal infallibility.” Obviously there is a middle ground which we as Christians have refused to follow. Those who reject the pope’s authority for their own are perfect candidates for heresy.
Collateral to the above errors is another (#3) which caught me about the same time. That was the acceptance of an Alexandrian/esoteric method of Biblical interpretation. This is a kind of hermeneutics which, knowingly or unknowingly, mixes Christianity with Greek philosophy. Its concept can be traced back to Pythagoras, who divided his students into two classes– exoteric and esoteric. The exoteric group has to be content with the outward meaning of the text, while to the esoteric ones the more advanced doctrines are confided.
Christians who accept this mindset are elitists who perceive the Bible as a series of “higher mysteries” to which only they have the keys. The apparent meaning of words is only an outer garb of something abstruse & inaccessible to the majority of Christians. When practically carried out, Scripture is made to mean anything the interpreter wants it to mean. Here is where heresy enters.
The first-century Gnostics used this method to attack the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Gnostic Christians have always existed, and continue to follow the footsteps of their ancient founder Simon Magus. Gnosticism also allies itself with Greek philosophy to advocate the notion that matter is evil. And therefore Gnostics teach that “resurrection” is a release or escape from the bondage of matter.
Origen, the foremost proponent of the Alexandrian school, promoted this view when he taught that the body is the prison-house of the soul. The idea has always been prominent more or less among rationalistic thinkers, and is a chief article of assent among metaphysicians & poets. Nevertheless, it bears certain similarities to heretical Gnosticism. The Pythagorean view of esoteric teaching makes it easy for men to spiritualize and allegorize the plainest declarations of Holy Writ.
But this Alexandrian/Gnostic mindset has grave errors. In the sermon entitled “Faith,” Henry Van Dyke writes: “Religion is full of mysteries. The object of the Bible is not to increase them, but to remove them. If a certain amount of mystery remains, it lies in the subject, and not in the way in which it is treated. For the most part, the teachings and rules of Scripture are so clear and direct that the wayfaring man, though a fool, need not err therein; they shed light and not darkness; they disperse the clouds to reveal the sun.”
How I realize this now! But when I adopted the Alexandrian mode of interpretation, I lost site of the facts, wandering deeper & deeper into the labyrinth of Gnostic Christianity. This enabled false teachers to impress their views upon me that the historic church had it wrong for 2,000 years. When I finally did accept heresy, I had already imbibed the misconception that only a small number of men can ever arrive at “the truth” of Scripture. I thought I was advancing in knowledge, but I was really going backwards. Had I kept in mind that Scripture was written to Galilean fisherman and simple-minded folk, I would never have fallen into error.
Then, too, the more detached I became from mainstream, historic Christianity, the more I disparaged the importance of the local church in the life of the believer. And this pushed me into error #4. In drifting away from the local church, I appealed to my privileges in the “church universal.” Most Christians who dissociate themselves from organized Christianity do the same. This is a grave mistake.
Of course it is often difficult to find a church that is truly a center of spiritual grace & worship. However, we are exhorted not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Hebrews 10: 25). In addition, only a local assembly can baptize believers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The local church is needed to keep the ordinances and sacraments of Christianity. Thus it should occupy an important place in the life of each Christian.
The real trouble of leaving a local church environment is that it releases one from any kind of church discipline. How can we discipline those who aren’t under any type of church authority? This is very difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, while we may combat their false doctrines, we must acknowledge that as long as heretics operate outside the confines of organized Christianity, they have a right to freedom of speech. I guess the real question is, do they pose a danger to others in this capacity? The answer is yes–but only if you listen to them, & take their teachings to heart. Otherwise they have no power over you.
Error #4 generally works alongside error #5. As I cut loose from the local church, naturally I didn’t feel myself obliged to listen to anyone else. Ironically, on looking back now, I see that there was really no admonition from others. My pastor was having personal problems regarding his salvation, & was in no position to counsel me on the dangers of false teaching. I had already found a “teacher” who claimed he had “the truth.” And because I had accepted a number of false premises, this teacher found a ready listener when I came to visit him that memorable day in November 2005.
Had I received Scriptural admonition, however, it is likely I would have turned. Then again, perhaps I would have remained steadfast in my views. It is impossible to tell now. As a rule it is very difficult for one who has set his mind on heresy to listen to the counsel of others–especially when he sees himself as having superior knowledge/understanding of Scripture. That is why when one has embraced the four above errors, it is a simple matter for him to sink into error #5. And once he does so, leaving heresy is something that only God can convince him to do (2 Tim. 2: 25-26).
Irenaeus wrote: “They must be opposed at all points, if perchance, by cutting off their retreat, we may succeed in turning them back to the truth. For, though it is not an easy thing for a soul under the influence of error to repent, yet, on the other hand, it is not altogether impossible to escape from error when the truth is brought alongside it.” (Against Heresies, III. i. 3).
Luckily, I had that inner voice that told me the doctrines I had accepted were wrong. Although I ignored the promptings of that voice many a time, eventually the spiritual apathy in which I fell convicted my heart that a return to truth was needed. It never ceases to amaze me in how many ways I’ve come back “full circle” to the same Gospel I was taught. At any rate, I know full well that by identifying all of the risk factors involved in heresy, I see more clearly than ever how easy it is for Christians to get sucked into a false system.
So, having discussed all of the risk factors, what is our recommended mode of vaccination? There are five things we can do to help prevent ourselves and others from accepting heresy. They are:
1. To ensure that our teachings are in harmony with 2,000 years of orthodox Christianity.
2. To develop a correct view of “Sola Scriptura” which keeps individual interpretation within the “rule of faith.”
3. To interpret the Bible in its most natural & obvious sense, unless something in the text itself warrants a figurative interpretation.
4. To maintain (if and when possible) communion with a Scripturally-organized local church.
5. To remember that we are “subject one to another” (1 Peter 5: 5), and may be held accountable for our actions.
These, then, are some active measures we may take to prevent ourselves from being caught by heresy. False doctrine is insidious and soul-damaging, & so there is no such thing as being “too cautious” in our protective armor. Just remember that removing ourselves from a risky environment will greatly lessen our chances of being ensnared by wolves in sheep’s clothing. Then let us get inoculated against these errors, that we may stand in the truth, steadfast & immoveable. And once firmly established, nothing that anyone says will ever cause us to fall again.