Heretic Hunting

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010 at 7:58 am

I try to diligently evaluate what I hear or read in light of God’s word. I desire to speak the truth in love, bringing correction when needed. Often, I am very bold when writing (as on this blog), and very timid when directly addressing someone (either in person or via online means).

But there’s one thing that I’ve been very, VERY wary of. I’ve been very uncomfortable with using the term “heretic” or accusing someone of being a “false teacher.” Either of these terms bring to mind witch hunts, burning at the stake, and other such things–in which someone is condemned to torture or death as a result of their beliefs. I don’t like it. I don’t like those terms, or their connotations, at all.

Which is why when I was recently going through a Bible study on II Peter, I got rather uncomfortable. In chapter 2, Peter is all over false prophets and false teachers, likening them to brute beasts made to be hunted and killed, calling them acne on the face of the body of Christ and wells without water. It’s not a pretty picture. Peter speaks of the false teachers’ sins (covetousness, exploitation, deception, denying Christ, despising authority, walking in the flesh, presumption, willfullness, speaking evil of dignitaries, etc.) and of their impending punishment (swift destruction, the wages of unrighteousness, blackness of darkness forever).

I might be afraid of the term “false teacher”, but Peter certainly wasn’t. John recognized that false prophets have gone out into the world, and warned the church to test the spirits to see whether they were from God (I John 4:1-3). In 2 Corinthians 11:13, Paul condemns the false apostles who try to commend themselves to the Corinthian church. In Galatians 2:4, Paul speaks of the Judaizers as being “false brethren” who “came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage.”

False prophets, false teachers, false apostles exist. They seek to bring people into bondage to a gospel that is not the gospel at all (Galatians 1:6-9). They seek to deceive, if possible, even the elect (Mark 13:22). However, the Judge of the world is not slow–He has a judgment reserved for these false teachers, a horrible punishment.

Okay, so…false teachers exist. It says so in Scripture. False teachers aren’t just a myth made up by the superstitious, witch-hunting, unenlightened masses. They’re real. They’re dangerous.

And what on earth are Christians supposed to do about them?

Scripture gives us some direction as to how we are to deal with false teachers (thankfully, Scripture does not suggest that we burn them at the stake or otherwise torture them).

First, we are to recognize them. Romans 16:17 says to “note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned”. I John 4:1 tells us to test the spirits, and then gives us a litmus test by which we may know deceptive spirits from the Spirit of God:

“By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.”
~I John 4:2-3

Thus, the primary means by which we can recognize a false teacher is a denial of the incarnation of Christ. Other mentions of false teachers and false “gospels” throughout the New Testament give additional characteristics of false teachers: they deny the centrality of the cross and insist upon good works (Galatians 1-2), they deny the Lord who bought them (2 Peter 2:1), they walk according to the flesh and despise authority (2 Peter 2:10), they promise liberty but actually enslave to lust (2 Peter 2:18-20).

The second thing believers are to do with false teachers is to avoid them. I Timothy 6:3-5 says that “If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness….from such withdraw yourself.” Romans 16:17 urges the believers to “avoid them.” II John 10-11 tells believers not to greet or receive into their house the one who teaches a doctrine contrary to the doctrine of Christ, lest they become participants in the false teacher’s sin.

Finally, we are to combat false teaching by speaking truth. This charge is particularly true for leaders within the church. Paul charges Titus in Titus 2:1 that he “speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine.” An elder is supposed to hold fast the faithful word he has been taught, so “that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.” (Titus 1:9). Timothy was to “charge some that they teach no other doctrine, nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith.” (I Timothy 1:3-4) All believers are called to “hold fast” to sound doctrine (Phil. 2:16, I Thess 5:21, II Thess 2:15, II Tim 1:13-14).

Interestingly, we are never called to pass judgment on false teachers or heretics. Instead, we know from Scripture that they are already under the judgment of God–but that God delays in sending His judgment because He is merciful and desirous that none should perish (2 Peter 3:5-9.) Our role is not to pass judgment on them, but to “beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 2:17-18)

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