It is difficult to know how to respond to those who express concern that one’s theological views are heretical, equating what one believes with false doctrine. On the one hand it is tempting to say we just understand the gospel differently. On the other hand, since one often finds it necessary to affirm views diametrically opposed to what other people believe to be “orthodox,” it is understandable they should be concerned about the teaching of that which they consider “heresy.” In their definition, I would be forced to consider their teaching heresy as well, since I do not believe they are correct. But rather than hurl the accusation of “false doctrine,” I think I would be more tempted to accuse such people of mistaken doctrine, or ‘hear say.’ The accusation of being a false teacher is too strong for someone we perceive to be seeking to lead people into a relationship with God.
A situation like this arose over the teaching of Apollos, who was still teaching John’s baptism after Jesus had come. Priscilla and Aquilla did not accuse him of heresy and seek to get people to censor his ministry. Instead, they took him aside and presented the way of God to him more fully. He was unaware of the complete message, as it had now been developed. Admittedly, not all opposers fail to approach those who hold different views, but the failure of such approach to persuade their dissenters of their “errors” often results in their being labeled heretics, rather than mistaken. I wonder what would have happened if for some reason Apollos had not understood the newer message and had felt unable to call people in this way. What if he had continued to call people to repentance for the forgiveness of sins as John had taught? Would he have then been called a heretic? If so it would be more because he had access to the original apostle’s message and could verify its details in a way we cannot. For Apollos not to do so would have demonstrated his insincerity.
Differences Between Then And Now
While it is true the apostles contended for the truth as it had been revealed to them against men who were seeking to deceive the flock of God, two points are different in our present day case when compared to its alleged first century counterpart.
The first is the false teachers of Paul’s day sought to lead people into sin, usually to benefit themselves in some way. They did not seek to lead people to God, albeit in a mistaken manner. To the apostle, false doctrine was teaching people it was alright not to keep God’s moral law. Titus 2:1 shows Paul exhorting Titus to “teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.” The chapter then details, not theological dogmas to be accepted, but moral conduct to be maintained, in various stations of life. The chapter culminates in verse 12 by saying the purpose of God’s grace in our lives is that it “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age . . .” People who teach contrary to this are teaching false doctrine. Such men Paul condemned. They were on a personal glory trip, often just trying to make money.
Where such a situation exists today it must be confronted and condemned. No one should teach doctrines that lead people to sin. No theological viewpoint is immune to individuals espousing its teachings simply to gain a following. Such individuals, if they appear, must be assessed on a personal basis. They do not reflect the truth or falsehood of the theological system they espouse. These people must be assessed as individuals.
The second difference between our situation and Paul’s day lies in the fact that the apostles’ understanding of the gospel and its doctrines was through direct revelation, something which is not the case for us today. While theological dogmas in the sense of revealed doctrine are important along with moral conduct, we must read their writings and, through attempting to allow God’s Spirit to guide us, come to understand what they meant. This requires much prayer, sincerity of heart, and diligence of study. Such sincere study never guarantees our conclusions will be free from error. Such errors, and Christians who seek to propagate errors that have arisen as mistaken results of sincere study, can hardly be called “heretical” and “false.” They are mistaken. How many of us in all sincerity have taken our stand for what we perceived to be God’s truth on some point, only to find at a later date we were somehow mistaken and had to change our view? I would be surprised to meet any Christian whose views have never changed.
Accountable To Seek The Right View
No doubt God will hold us accountable for our diligence, or lack thereof, in seeking correct views, but there must be room to differ where we sincerely do not see things the same. If advocates of a particular theological view refuse to accept as true what the Bible says, they lose the right to be called Biblical Christians. We often interpret passages differently than one another, but we are seeking to understand what the apostles meant. None of us has the inside on this. We must respect when we do not see things the same. Philippians 4:15-16 says, “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” In context Paul is denying the claim to have arrived in his knowledge. He still has things to learn. He recognized he was right in what God had revealed to him, but God had not revealed everything to him. It is dangerous to assume we understand everything and censor others who disagree. What if we are wrong? How will we ever come to know this?
We cannot come to the point of perfect knowledge, at least not in this life, but we can live up to what we see. Doing so is maturity. Failure to live by the light we see would be insincere and chargeable as living by false doctrine since here we would be deliberately doing what we perceived to be wrong. Deliberate refusal of what the Bible clearly says would also be so chargeable. The problem is, its teachings are not as clear as some would have us believe. Even Peter had trouble understanding the writings of Paul. Evidently some people feel better equipped than this apostle. We have seen that teaching people to violate moral law is heretical. We must allow others the space to differ if they see things differently. Admittedly, sometimes our are not peripheral, but deal with the basic doctrines of the faith. Nonetheless, God is capable of guiding us through even such fundamental differences, knowing our heart’s sincerity.
A Lesson From History
It seems to me the principle I have described has functioned between Arminian and Calvinist branches of the church for years. Each has on occasion hurled the “heresy” charge at the other, but each has also come to accept the other as a sincere, if mistaken, attempt to describe the gospel. The same attitude seems to be in order with other viewpoints in general. Historically a wide variety of supposed “heretical” ideas have always existed in the church, but on the fringes due to the power of ecclesiastical censorship. Even Calvinism sought to eliminate Arminianism as heresy in its earlier days. It failed. Because Arminianism is too big to “get rid of,” Calvinist branches of the church “accept” it today as a sincere understanding of the gospel. This is not tantamount to saying it is right. An examination of these opposing views will show they also differ on major points of soteriology and cannot both be right. One is “heresy,” if heresy must be defined as failure to come to the right conclusion, and not as refusal to love truth. They have sought to find common ground instead of emphasizing differences. There simply are too many sincere people on both sides of this issue for one to effectively eliminate the other. In the past, political pressures were used to attempt such conquests. Today such censorship is more difficult to achieve since our culture is pluralistic and open to people’s rights of freedom of conscience.
I suggest as long as the question of moral sincerity on the part opposing theological views is answerable in the affirmative, they should be given the same right as the two major historical viewpoints. Saying a viewpoint has a right to be heard is not saying it is right, but that it is a sincere attempt at displaying the truth. While obviously not every view can be true (and there is nothing saying there might not be a better ways yet of expressing the gospel), we do not need to seek to eliminate each other’s influence from the church. Censorship is unnecessary to eliminate error. Truth will be best shown when it is placed beside error. Let the evidence be presented; if we remain unconvinced then let us each respect that our differences do not arise from insincerity and therefore “false” or “heretical” intentions, but from sincere and therefore “orthodox” attempts to understand the truth. Only those who do not love truth, who deliberately violate the light they have seen, are unorthodox.
If a theological viewpoint is incorrect in its assessment of the gospel, then it is mistaken. If it is confused, and this confusion arises not from motives to lead people astray or away from following God, but from sincere error, then to this extent it could be said to be ‘hear say.’ This does not make it “heresy.”
Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (www.whatibelievethisweek.com)