To be labeled a heretic is a serious charge that no believer would want to wear. The word means, in its root form, “to take to one’s self.” From that core meaning, heresy became known as a disunion, a schismatic, a choice, a sect. Paul instructs Titus that if there is a heretic in the body, he should be warned once, maybe twice, then rejected if he persists, “knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.” (Titus 3:10)
As he writes to the carnal Corinthian believers, establishing proper protocol for the keeping of the Lord’s table, Paul bluntly states that “there must also be heresies among you that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” (I Cor. 11:19) That clarification followed Paul’s acknowledgment that he had heard, and was inclined to believe, that there were divisions amongst the members. Then followed the Apostle’s instructions about how the Lord’s Table should be administered.
Thus, heresies and heretics were at work in the earliest days of the New Testament church, and they have wormed their way through His Body to the present. When Paul contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit, he mentions heresies right there in the midst of the worst kinds of transgressions: “…idolatry, witchcraft, hatred…wrath, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revelings, and such like.” (Gal.5:22) Peter says in his epistle that false prophets were among the people who “privily shall bring in damnable heresies.” (2 Pet.2:1)
Heresies were present from the beginning, even before the New Testament epistles were written, the most notable being Gnosticism. That false doctrine propounded that humans are divine souls, trapped in material bodies and created by an imperfect god. Paul combated this heresy in Galatians and other books. Not long after the Apostles were gone from the scene, Arianism poked up its theologically deformed head—teaching that Jesus, like all human beings, was created by the Father, was not divine, had a beginning like every other being, and that ”Son of God” was a title given to Him out of courtesy.
Many other theological aberrations surfaced through the ages. In time, the Roman Catholic Church considered itself to be the bastion of “orthodoxy,” and from that pinnacle of power it labeled any non-conformist body or movement, many of which were truly New Testament bodies, as heretics. The most egregious of them all, in Roman Catholic thinking, was of course Protestantism and its reformers.
But what about today? Are there schismatics still at work, planting seeds of division in His Body? To be sure, there are. When I was a seminary student nearly 60 years ago, there was a charismatic pastor who mesmerized his followers with his brilliant mind, his apparent command of Biblical languages, and his unique ability to organize and catalogue a system of doctrines using language and terminology peculiar to him. His ministry broadened from the local church he pastored to a nation-wide following of disciples who read his books and listened to his tapes. Many good, Bible-loving people defended his ministry and promoted it. But when it became known that he had purged the word “blood” from all hymnals used in the church he pastored, his heresy was manifested to all, and many of his followers abandoned him. I offer this illustration as just one of many examples in our day of heresies. Many others could be named: Calvinism (limited atonement), the Modern Tongues Movement, Baptismal Regeneration, Ultra-Dispensationalism, King James Only (some make it a test of fellowship and are mean-spirited, castigating all who disagree with them), and more.
There are some hallmarks of heresies and heretics. They include an “intellectual” approach with an individualistic style, accompanied by an inordinate authoritarianism; a tendency toward some extreme, a man-centered ministry; a rejection of most other ministries, and of the Church at large; an intolerance of anyone who disagrees with them; a doctrinal system built on taking a few verses out of context, and not comparing scripture with scripture; and often a mean-spirited, divisive demeanor that does not smack of Christian charity or a Christ-like attitude.
In this 21st century, it is so easy to tune in to ministries that broadcast to world-wide audiences. We can and should thank God for the blessing of “attending church” via streaming and media opportunities at our finger-tips. The recent pandemic opened up a whole new world and way of listening to, and broadcasting, the Word of God. But with that, and with the blossoming of new ways of communicating, comes the dangers of deception. If Satan was able to deceive Eve when she had a mind that had not yet been darkened by the fall, he is able with his wiles to deceive the masses yet today. And through heresies he is able to spoil once vibrant lighthouses where local churches beamed the life-saving gospel.
It behooves us, then, to beware. The churches singled out by Jesus with a special letter addressed to them in the book of Revelation had been, in part at least, infected by doctrinal deviation even before the close of the first century. Satan is a master deceiver and divider. Be on guard for his damnable heresies, and do not let Paul’s advice to Titus fall on deaf ears today. After one, maybe two, admonitions, reject the heretic for the good—the spiritual survival—of the body.
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” (I John 4:1)