Heresy is a strong word; many would like to avoid it entirely. Just uttering it causes nervousness, if not offense, yet everyone knows there are some religious ideas that are unacceptable and that they may differ between religious contexts. A true heresy is an idea taught, not merely believed, that strongly conflicts with the distinctive doctrines, beliefs, of a church. In order to understand heresy, we need to understand three categories of religious beliefs.
The first is “Essentials”—beliefs considered necessary for the gospel itself. The second we might label “Doctrines,” or “Non-essential Beliefs”—beliefs considered important for that church’s identity, but not essential to the gospel. In other words, people who deny a specific doctrine or believe otherwise may still be Christians, but they wouldn’t fit within the church that holds the doctrine or non-essential belief as important to its history and identity. The third we might label “Opinions”—beliefs held by members in diversity without controversy; beliefs that are not necessarily unimportant but are not worthy of serious debate or controversy.
Let’s Get Specific
For most Christians, since the New Testament and its subsequent two thousand years, belief that God is triune is considered essential to sound Christian belief and teaching. That is, all branches of classical Christianity, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, believe and teach that God is three persons sharing one substance equally. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are together one God but distinct persons. Everyone agrees we can’t fully understand that, but it is a mystery embedded in biblical revelation and Christian tradition and worship. That’s a “dogma.” Someone who teaches against that is teaching heresy—from within a Christian perspective informed and shaped by the Bible and the Great Tradition of Christian belief.
An example of doctrine, or non-essential belief: Methodists believe free will enabled by grace and grace for all people is a distinctive doctrine, not essential to the gospel itself but important for Methodists (among others). And then there’s opinion: Most Christians, including Methodists, would relegate the order of events of the “end times” to the status of opinion—perhaps worthy of inquiry and discussion, but not worthy of correction when someone disagrees with another person in the same church.
When and How to Handle True Heresy
Occasionally, in every church of any size, someone will teach a belief that contradicts an essential of the gospel, such as the triunity of God, or a church-distinctive doctrine. When that happens the first and best thing to do is make sure to understand what that person really believes and is teaching. In theology, words can have different meanings; it’s important to understand before strongly disagreeing. If it turns out, after loving and open-minded dialogue, that the person is indeed contradicting dogma or doctrine, consideration has to be given to what influence that might be having on others. Is the person merely expressing an opinion contrary to dogma or doctrine? Or adamantly attempting to influence the congregation toward wrong belief? If the latter, correction is called for.
And correction can be done without confrontation. For example, rather than calling the person into his or her office for correction, a pastor might meet the person at a coffee shop or over lunch and simply inform him or her that the teaching is disruptive to the unity of the church and should be stopped for the sake of truth and unity. Ask for the person’s honest feelings about that. Engage the person in prayerful dialogue rather than debate. Ask him or her to set the issue aside for a time and consider it in light of Scripture and the church’s tradition.
In the Extremity, Church Discipline Is Called For
Rarely, but occasionally, it is a pastor’s or bishop’s duty to ask a person teaching heresy, a serious error, to be quiet about it, to keep his or her divergent view to himself or herself. Very rarely, but occasionally, more must be done. Every church body has some process for handling this, especially when a person with real influence is teaching error within the church. Many churches have, unfortunately, simply abandoned all such efforts for the sake of unity, but remember, unity without truth is false unity.
Roger E. Olson is Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at Baylor University. A past president of the American Theological Society (Midwest Division), Olson has been the co-chair of the Evangelical Theology Group of the American Academy of Religion for two years. An expert in historical theology, he is a frequent preacher, teacher and speaker for local churches and organizations. His latest study, Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, released last month.