On Heresy Hunters
On so many fronts, getting the biblical balance right is always crucial. It is always so easy to go off on unbiblical extremes. When it comes to the issue of heresy, there are two extremes to avoid. One is to pretend nothing is heretical, and never speak out about aberrational or heterodox teaching.
The other is to see a heretic under every bed, and to label anything and everything we happen to disagree with as heretical. Both of these extremes must be resisted like the plague. Doctrinal purity is very important, but so too is Christian unity.
Truth and unity both matter, and we must work to preserve both, as I write here:
Anyone who knows me or has read my material knows that I am certainly a stickler for good theology and sound doctrine. But I am also concerned when this becomes an extreme, unbiblical and un-Christian endeavour. That is, it is too easy to degenerate into a rabid and unhelpful heresy hunter.
While we all must insist upon due doctrinal diligence, the sad truth is, there are just far too many uninformed heresy hunters out there. Way too many believers are accusing one another of heresy and apostasy, and are pronouncing anathemas on those suspected of holding to any slight deviation from their pet theological stance.
Now there most certainly is such a thing as heresy, and apostasy. When someone denies the key tenets of the Christian faith, such as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, or salvation by Christ alone, then orthodoxy quickly gives way to heterodoxy.
But there are plenty of secondary doctrines which we have room to move on, and to hold to a differing view from your brother does not automatically turn you into a heretic who must be burned at the stake. One’s view on eschatology or church government or worship styles are not matters to go to the wall over.
Yet far too many believers will elevate their particular pet peeve when it comes to doctrine and practice and elevate it to the heights, and anyone who dares to disagree with it is immediately labelled as a back-slider or apostate or worse. Such unnecessary theological intolerance helps no one, but harms many.
Examples of this are far too easy to come by. I actually had a guy recently send in this comment: “God cannot be ‘forced’ to do anything, you reprobate heretic.” Suffice it to say I did not bother to print this guy’s comment. So what was he on about here? Earlier I had written an article about God’s rejection of Saul:
In it I said, “Overall, the biblical message is that God is indeed sovereign, but he is not directly the author of evil. This passage is one of many texts that must be examined in this light. And it serves as a strong warning to us all as well. God may well use a person for his purposes, but it is also possible for that person to reject God, forcing God to reject him.”
And for daring to say that, I am now a “reprobate heretic”! Do I laugh or cry at this? Obviously my point was that God felt compelled to act, in light of Saul’s bad choices and rebellion. Of course God is not forced to do anything in one sense. But this person leapt to an unwarranted conclusion about what I had said, and was ready to at least tar and feather me.
But this is going on all the time, and it certainly leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many believers – and rightly so. And sadly because of this, these same Christians will often then go to the other extreme. So anxious are they to avoid this hyper-critical spirit, that they will refuse to criticise, assess or judge anything.
They want to be seen as tolerant and loving and gracious – all very good traits indeed, rightly understood – so they will abstain altogether from making theological and doctrinal critiques and judgments. That is equally damaging and harmful.
Such people then do indeed often end up tolerating grievous theological error, and can end up embracing real heresy, all in the name of being non-judgmental and Christlike. So both extremes have to be resisted, and we have to keep working on the biblical balance.
The truth is, in a fallen world, we will never have all the truth, and we will never fully agree with everyone else. And a bit of humility here can go a long way. Lots of lesser doctrines we can and should hold on to more lightly. Yes, defend to the death the utterly key and vital fundamentals of the faith, but cut a bit of slack on the less important theological issues.
I like and quote from many other believers who I greatly respect, yet I may well disagree with various positions they hold to. And many would feel the same about me. On the basics we get along, but on many more minor issues we may well have plenty of disagreements.
Christian fellowship and unity must be promoted where possible, and learning to get along with those who do not fully see eye to eye with you is a mark of Christian maturity and wisdom. Wanting to pick a fight with anyone over anything and everything is not.
And as is often the case, there is a fine line running between arrogant, proud pugilists who seek out enemies everywhere, and those who will staunchly stand for biblical truth, but will do so in love, recognising that secondary issues can be treated much more lightly.
So I plead with all the heresy hunters out there – and undoubtedly some folks will think that I am one – to be prayerful, careful and humble as you stand for truth. Staying on your knees is the very best place to be fighting for biblical and theological orthodoxy.
If the church has been greatly harmed by heresy over the centuries, it has also been greatly damaged by overzealous, unwise, uncaring, and unloving heresy hunters. A pox on both their houses.
16 Replies to “On Heresy Hunters”
Bill, I have found in my own experience that most of these folks are frustrated legalists full of the word of biblical knowledge but severely lacking the spirit of truth. In my experience these folks are generally so “idolatrous” with their pet doctrines, that they will almost kill you for standing up against their “doctrine” because at the end its “their doctrine” and as much as I would like to dismiss NKJ James 4:2 You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have. . . The Strongs number for murder is 5407, and its used 10 times in the NT and its always used in the context of murder
I recently had two of these types in 2 weeks. Thanks for sharing this article Bill. God Bless you my friend.
Nice response Bill.
We have to hold to what the balance of scripture points to even when there are some difficult passages to either understand or in more cases accept.
There is no doubt however as you’ve mentioned, that there are some theological matters which are very very tricky to both comprehend and form a crystal clear understanding of how such matters operate within our limited human intellect.
Fortunately God knows 🙂
Wise words here Bill. I have had to be monitoring myself over the past 18 months, all to do with one teacher. I heard some Universalism teaching and from there my ears were itching to see where I could pick out even a scent of heresy. So your point about watching out for heresy or differing views only again encouraged me to seek scripture before my own opinion, thank you.
Thanks Johannes. Actually, universalism is pretty close to heresy in my books!
See here for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/03/12/against-universalism/
Good article, I think we need to understand one verse here which will help us in this and that is:
Eph 3:19 And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.
Love passes knowledge. Many people have been taught a certain thing and therefore hold to it, while others are simply ignorant. I know of people who hold to differences in doctrine such as women teachers or not, Calvinism etc and I know they love the Lord, so I love them.
They are wrong but I still love them lol… (forgive my pun).
So true – and so clear in scripture too.
Romans 14. What else can I say?
Maybe I could add an observation. I find people who think they have better then average discernment are the ones most likely to strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.
Relishing debate is religionism.
After all, didn’t the Pharisees think they were so discerning?
In these situations, I remind myself that we see as in a mirror dimly. I daily need the guiding voice of the Holy Spirit to keep me on track, and this is just how Father God has set-up life in this world. The just shall live by faith, not by their extensive understanding of scripture.
It really is a sad state of affairs in the Christian church when you are called a ‘reprobate heretic’ for stating that God ‘is not directly the author of evil’. This relates to the Arminian-Calvinism debate.
John Piper, a Calvinist, stated: ‘So every spin of the roulette wheel … you know Las Vegas … every roll of the dice in your family board game, every reaching of the hand for the scramble of the letter, is determined by God’ (‘John Piper Addresses God’s Sovereignty Amid Calamity’).
Piper’s view of the Sept 11, 2001 disaster was: ‘God, by his very nature, cannot or would not act to bring about such a calamity. This view of God is what contradicts the Bible and undercuts hope’ (John Piper, ‘Why I Do Not Say, “God Did Not Cause the Calamity, but He Can Use It for Good”‘)
John Calvin agreed with such a sentiment:
‘Let us suppose, for example, that a merchant, after entering a forest in company with trust-worthy individuals, imprudently strays from his companions and wanders bewildered till he falls into a den of robbers and is murdered. His death was not only foreseen by the eye of God, but had been fixed by his decree. For it is said, not that he foresaw how far the life of each individual should extend, but that he determined and fixed the bounds which could not be passed, (Job 14:5).’ (Institutes of the Christian religion 1.16.9).
Roger Olson, an Arminian, disagrees:
‘I think it is the height of insensitivity to target calamities in which husbands, fathers, mothers, children have died horrible deaths and pronounce them “God’s judgment.” I would urge Christians not to do that unless they are certain God has called them to do it and given them the reason that particular disaster was his judgment. And I would urge people like Piper not to do it unless they are also willing publicly to proclaim that a kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered child was also targeted by God and why. It’s all part of a package deal in his and their case (i.e., Calvinists). So, my challenge to them is to bite the bullet and not just proclaim natural disasters or even man-made disasters “God’s judgment” but also to explain that they believe every child murdered, tortured, raped is also suffering because God willed it’ (My response to John Piper’s Recent Statements about God and Tornadoes).
Well said, Bill.
Thanks for this article Bill, its something that’s been heavy on my heart for the last few months, I’m glad you found cause to write about it.
The heresy hunters don’t even realise when they’re sowing discord amongst brothers which God says he hates, literally. They are the pharisees of our day and age, looking for an error under every rock and thinking its Gods appointed will for them to flush out those who will ruin their denominational rigidity.
The anointing of the watchman is one that mixes a message of warning & hope side by side as per all the canonical prophets, these type are rather watchdogs who bark hard, worst of all ruining the witness of Christendom which is our paramount service while on pilgrimage in this life.
This is a timely message for all those believers who like me have found themselves as a clanging symbol in a Kingdom that demands both truth & love to be offered as best practice.
Thanks again for seeing these things for what they are.
P.S For any future reader who remains hard hearted thinking its a loving act to offer correction alone, naivity never sounded so wise; People will receive the revelation they are missing most naturally from those they are in an existing relationship with, which of course is best served in a pastoral sense. Pray also precedes a job done well. God changes hearts, so unless you have a clear unction to preach morality & doctrine in the highways & byways then think again about where you juvenile flesh leads you.
Bill, I agree with your’s and particularly Paul’s comments above. You can use look up almost any significant figure in church history by using the search terms “name” and “heretic,” and find a website on it. Talk about overkill. I don’t have the patience to even talk to those types.
Heresy is determined by comparison to some standard, called ‘orthodoxy’. Historically, that standard has not been the opinion of individual Christians alone but the result of the combined efforts of Christians in Council. Perhaps there are too many ready to cry ‘heresy’ without taking the steps to determine orthodoxy first.
Great article Bill
I thank you for this article. I have felt this way for a long time, as I have seen people’s ministry destroyed, all their work undercut, because some authority labelled them heretical. And all kinds if damage results. It’s a wonder anyone even tries to teach or write or minister. I certainly don’t want false teaching to lead anyone away from Jesus, but the label if “heretic” is used far too often, in my opinion.