Tag Archives: christian arguments

You… you… you… heretic!

Beware – some may not like this post!

These days many countries in the Middle East are in turmoil.  On the news we see the videos of the protestors holding signs, screaming angry words, and overturning cars and statues.  Sometimes we see someone run to the front of the crowd with a rock or a Molotov cocktail, throw it toward the building or group they are protesting, and then run to the back of the crowd.  That may be a helpful image to have in our minds when we consider calling a brother in Christ a heretic or an apostate.  Lob the bomb and run.

Now, no matter what I say after this, I must begin by saying that there are heretical teachings and there are apostates.  Some teachings are inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture and bring harm to the body by misleading God’s people in important matters.  Some people leave behind the true faith of Jesus Christ.  It happens and it is very sad.  But let’s be sure that’s what is happening before we use those words.



But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.  2 Peter 2:1

This is the only real Scriptural use of the Greek word, hairesis, that fits the definition of the word, heresy, as we use it today.  Even here the word keeps its primary sense of “choice.”  Basically, a heresy is a chosen opinion or doctrinal stance that is different from what has been presented by the established method of determining truth.  For most evangelical groups, heresy is a denial of the plain teaching of Scripture and the choice of a teaching that cannot be clearly established by Scripture.  For some denominations, heresy is an opinion or teaching that is outside the traditions or decisions of the church.  A heretic is someone who chooses to associate with or endorse such a teaching. 

Notice that the passage above is quite judgmental of both the heretical teachings and those who are teaching such things.  Sometimes the teaching is that dangerous and the person has to be reprimanded.  Sometimes the church has to be warned about the false teaching.  Some people are called by God to pay the price of pointing out the error. 

But, in spite of the historical images of heretics being burned at the stake, it really isn’t so awful to call someone a heretic or even to be a heretic.  Almost all heretics began as simple believers.  They studied and came to different conclusions than the group.  Most of them used Scripture to establish their teachings and really didn’t consider them to be outside of what is considered orthodox.  Almost any aberrant group began with basic faith and the path went awry after time.  But, when the community began to examine the teachings (through church councils or reading and commenting on books) and decided that those teachings stepped past the confines of Scripture, the trouble began.  What do you do with someone who says to the Christian community, “I know you think that way but I choose to think differently”?  Sometimes you call that person a heretic.

But listen: heretics still consider themselves Christians.  Heretics do not always deny the necessity or sufficiency of Christ.  Some of them believe almost all of what you and I believe, but they teach a few things that are off the track.  For the most part, we can even fellowship together.  If this were not true, and accepted by evangelicals, we would have to call many groups and teachers heretical and separate from them. The Presbyterians and the Nazarenes could do nothing together.  The Lutherans and the Baptists would be out of fellowship.  Most of these divisions we call denominations are the result of one group considering another to be heretical.  Thankfully, we are beginning to find ways back to each other because of Jesus.  I believe that we will find many heretics in Heaven.  (They may be off in the corner getting scolded and re-educated, but they will be there. 😉 )


They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.  1 John 2:19(NKJV)


All of this is quite different from the idea of an apostate.  An apostate is someone who has deliberately renounced the Christian faith.  At one point he appeared in every way to be a part of it, but then he rejected it and began to believe and teach something else.  After the time of Constantine the emperor Julian embraced the Christian faith.  Then he renounced it and began a serious effort to re-establish the pagan religion of Rome.  He has forever after been known as “Julian the Apostate.”  This, of course, brings up all kinds of questions about whether a true believer can reject a true faith, but we don’t have the space here to address that.

So an apostate will join you in saying that he is no longer a Christian.  A heretic, on the other hand, will be quite surprised and even offended if you say that.  But, once again, these labels are rarely helpful in a doctrinal debate.  Like the “lob the bomb and run” crowd, those who call others these names usually want to avoid real confrontation or discussion.  And, as I wrote earlier, the discussion may be an important exercise for all of us. *


*Special acknowledgment to the “Evangelical Dictionary of Theology” edited by Walter A. Elwell and published by Baker for helping me think through these definitions.


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Are teachers more accountable?

My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. James 3:1(NKJV)

Stricter judgment?  Yikes!  What does that mean?  Since all eternal judgment is based on our relationship with Christ, I take this to mean earthly judgment, judgment of the community or church.  James goes on to remind us that the tongue is a dangerous tool.  No doubt, in our culture, he would agree that the pen and the computer are dangerous as well.  Those who teach should be careful.

Is it fair to judge teachers?  That may be the wrong question.  The question may be whether it is avoidable.  Is it even possible not to judge teachers?  Sooner or later, something you teach will come back and people will use it to challenge you.  Sadly, we expect our teachers to be perfect and a failing in one area discredits much of the rest of their teachings. 

Teachers are accountable rightly when they claim that their teaching comes from God or is “biblical.”  They ought to make their case strongly with Scripture support.  Teachers are accountable wrongly when their followers look to them without questioning.  That isn’t necessarily the fault of the teacher.  However, I believe that teachers should cultivate questioning and allow discussion, simply to avoid the impression that they speak with the voice of God.  When the teacher is sharing something that is clear from the Scriptures, he/she should let the Scriptures speak.  In other words, if God said it, show me.  If you are saying it, I will feel much more free to disagree.

There are certain “job hazards” that come with being a teacher. Some people, who perhaps lack the means or the interest to attack the teaching, will attempt to discredit the teaching by discrediting the teacher.  The teacher’s life becomes much more open to inspection and challenge than the life of the student.  I suppose this is true in Christian circles more than in others, but politicians face a similar hazard.

Also, teachers are placed in a position of having to produce material.  To write regularly on a blog, preach each Sunday, write follow-up books, whatever—takes work.  No one wants to use the same ideas over and over, whether they are his own ideas or the rehashed ideas of others.  Teaching today must be innovative, interesting, motivating, and challenging.  How do you come up with that regularly?

Well, good teachers are also students.  They study the Scripture and they study writings of other teachers and they study people and life.  As they study, they learn and form ideas.  One serious job hazard is the temptation to teach what is being learned, rather than what has been learned.  In other words, teachers sometimes teach out of their own journey.  Not a bad thing in itself, except that a journey is not a conclusion.  How often have we learned things at or near the end of the journey that affect our whole understanding of where we have been?  If we teach out of the journey, we may mislead people and may find ourselves defending things we aren’t even sure of ourselves.  Pretty soon we have painted ourselves into a corner.  Labels come that we don’t want, but we can no longer deny easily. 

Preachers often hear themselves quoted as saying things they didn’t say.  You may have heard of the ancient heresy called, “Nestorianism.”  It had to do with how we understand the union of God and man in Jesus.  It is interesting that some people suggest Nestorius never really taught Nestorianism.  There is real question as to whether Pelagius ever taught what became known as Pelagianism.  What happened?  Well, the followers of these men took the teaching farther than their teachers.  But when the teaching went over the edge and became objectionable, the name continued.  Few people warn teachers of this “job hazard.”

Our evangelical fathers asked an appropriate question, “Where stands it written?”  What they meant was that the doctrine, in order to be taken as prescriptive or normative, had to be found in Scripture.  They would then test the application of Scripture to the question, using accepted methods of interpretation.  Teachers have to be willing for their teachings to go through such a test and the people who do the testing may not have studied the issue as long or as carefully as the teacher.  It is similar to placing a painting out for public view.  Regular people are quite free to stand in front of the artwork and decide whether they “like it or not” based on their own set of standards.  Just as this is often frustrating to an artist; so the examination of a teaching can be frustrating for a teacher.  A job hazard. 

God calls some to teach.  Just be careful . . . and be ready for challenges.



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Who Said What?

One of the more shocking chastisements I have heard used among believers is the idea that we are not to use names when referring to those with whom we disagree.  We are supposed to say “some teachers” or “a certain someone I know” or use some other method of keeping an identity anonymous.  This surprised me again recently.

Now maybe my background is the problem.  I have advanced academic degrees and learned that referencing sources is important. If you don’t name the person you challenge in your dissertation, the professor will probably mark you down.  If you say, “A certain teacher believes;” the professor will ask, “Who?”  Identifying sources allows others to verify your words and determine for themselves whether or not they agree with you. 

Or maybe it is because I have been a pastor for so long.  Many times people have come to my office and have said, “Pastor, quite a few people are concerned…”  But I only see one person in front of me.  Who are the others?  Where are the others?  Are they afraid to identify themselves?  Do they really exist?  I have spoken against what I call “back-pocket people,” and have asked “representatives” to represent only themselves.  My desire is to value the disagreement or concerns of one person and there is no need to hint at more. 

Or maybe it’s because I sat so long under the teaching of a legalist who always had these amazing examples to support his points.  The problem was that these examples never had names.  It became very difficult to believe that they existed at all.  Today, when the teacher or author says, “A certain man,” I just assume he is telling me a parable. 

So, I think there are situations that call for names to be used.  Authors, teachers, politicians—people who present their ideas to large audiences—should be named when their ideas or writings are challenged.  Why?  Because each teacher is different.  Teacher A teaches the idea one way.  Teacher B communicates it another way.  If I fail to distinguish between them, I may misrepresent one of them.  Also, the author/teacher has already identified himself with the idea.  It is neither gossip nor accusation to refer to the teaching and the teacher together.

But I do have a general rule to follow.  Let the circle of the teacher’s teaching be the circle of the identification.  In other words, if an author presents his ideas in a book that is promoted and marketed publicly, then naming that author in reference to his teachings in another book, or any smaller venue, is acceptable.  If the teacher has a blog or a radio program, a reference in your book may be too large, but in your blog or radio program it may be acceptable.  But if a person makes a comment on Facebook, then Facebook should be the limit of the naming.  And, this is my opinion, ideas expressed in private conversation should be answered in private conversation.

A couple examples (and I will avoid names): One legalistic teacher has a ministry that has reached something near 20 million people.  Is it fair to use his name in association with his teaching?  Of course, provided it is truly his teaching you are referring to.  (No matter how large the ministry, you are not free to misrepresent someone.)  Someone makes a comment I dislike on a friend’s Facebook page.  Am I free to use that offender’s name in my blog?  No.  There are many people who read my blog who would not know this person and I would be introducing him in a disparaging way to them.

Sometimes I hear words like libel or slander used when names come up in Christian discussion.  Libel is associated with written defamation.  Slander is usually a spoken false charge or defamation.  Both have to do with purposeful misrepresentation.  If I write, “Bob is a tax cheat,” I had better be able to back up my statement with facts.  Even if I can do so, my purpose in writing the words must not be to defame Bob or to harm him publicly.  That would be libel.  If I think that someone is cheating on his wife and I say that publicly, I could easily be guilty of slander. 

But referring to the published teachings of an author/teacher by using his name is neither libel nor slander, as long as you can show that the person actually is proclaiming the ideas.  You are free to disagree or interpret the ideas as you wish.  You may not be free to interpret the teaching and then represent your interpretation as the interpretation of the other person, however.  Instead, you have to say something like: if this is what the author means, then he is teaching xyz.  Even then, he is free to disagree with you (and use your name in the same circle).

I will close with a contrasting thought:  It really isn’t necessary to use names in all circumstances.  Sometimes, as in this blog, you will be better served by just talking about a teaching in general.  Supporters of teachers or authors can pick up an offense quite quickly.  Often they don’t care about the teaching you are trying to talk about.  All they care about is that you named their favorite teacher and said negative things.  You become the enemy unnecessarily.  And, if you pronounce judgment on the teaching, you may be seen as pronouncing judgment on the person.  If you say, “x teaches abc and abc is heresy,” you will be heard to say that x is a heretic.

Sometimes it just isn’t worth it.



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Why We Fight

The old joke says that wherever two or more Baptists are gathered they start a new denomination.  Throughout history churches, denominations, ministries, and Christian friends have separated themselves from each other for the most amazing reasons.  Did you know that groups have divided because one believed that the adult immersion baptism should be performed face-first, while the other believed that the person being baptized should bend backwards into the water?  Seems like an exaggeration to us, but I assure you that individual churches have divided on far less important grounds.

Why are we so quick to divide?  Why do we so willingly separate ourselves from brothers and sisters in the Lord?  I don’t have the space for a long dissertation, but I would like to throw out a few things I have been thinking about.

First, we fight out of habit.  Fighting against the enemy is part of our heritage as believers.  The Jews have fought against enemies for 4000 years.  The early Christians not only were afraid of the Romans and the Greeks, but also the Jews.  Enemies were everywhere and have always been everywhere.  Even within the church there were those who endangered the message.  Paul talked about false prophets who would teach compromise and misuse the trust of the church.  Terms like apostate, false teacher, or heretic, have almost always been part of our vocabulary.  In other words, fighting is familiar—even sacred—ground.

Second, the more the church withdraws from the world, the more we see the enemy in each other.  We certainly do have enemies.  There have always been those who have wanted to destroy the church’s message, to wipe it out.  Philosophers and tyrants have gleefully announced the termination of the Christian faith.  But in a culture like ours, where the enemy outside is not obvious and we worship without fear, our conditioning moves us to discover our enemies inside.  We argue about big and little things and draw lines of distinction between us with little understanding that the real enemy is something and someone else.

Third, the flesh isn’t gone from us.  We all still suffer from feelings of inferiority, isolation, and more.  We want to be right, look right, and be accepted as right.  It is easy to jump to our own defense when someone disagrees and, unfortunately, easy to seek an advantage when we disagree with someone else.  When we hear someone suggest that we are wrong, we hear them saying that we have failed and are unworthy of respect.  It doesn’t matter whether that’s what the person meant to say, the flesh reacts anyway.  We fight because we want to protect ourselves and those with whom we identify.

Fourth, ministry money comes from loyalty.  That’s a hard thing to admit for most of us.  It is certainly a part of the motivation from the flesh.  To disagree with a teacher or a ministry leader, particularly when it is received as a negative judgment, is to attack the stability or health of the ministry.  If the teacher is shown to be wrong, who will trust him in the future?  Will supporters abandon the ministry?  What happens if they do?  Pastors suddenly become more willing to see division between friends or family members than to see themselves out of a ministry.  Sometimes ministry leaders actually cultivate the divisions because a quick end to the debate is considered less damaging than the attrition from a long disagreement. 

Fifth, we have forgotten how to argue.  Disagreement over doctrinal matters is built into the structure of the church (see the last point) and isn’t going away.  We certainly don’t have to agree, and good discussion has its own value for us.  It is good to think through spiritual things and discuss them with friends.  But somehow we have acquired the idea that arguing is bad and those who disagree are just trying to cause problems.  Nice Christians keep their questions or points of disagreement to themselves, we think.  In the process, we have forgotten how to argue and still be friends and family. 

Sixth, by neglecting the work of the Spirit in the centuries that have preceded us, we repeat old and worn arguments.  Much time, energy, ink, and verbiage is wasted because we have to start at the beginning of every doctrinal disagreement.  Perhaps a little more study would show us how the Spirit led others to work these things out or to discern truth from error.  We may not agree with the outcome, but we can save a lot by attending to the discussion of the past.  Why was a certain doctrine abandoned so long ago?  Why does the church stand where it does today?

Seventh, we do have a real enemy who works to divide us and steal our love and siphon our power away from our real calling.  So often we observe that the only one who gained from the battle was the evil one.  While one side accuses the other of working with or for him, the truth is that our flesh always is open to his influence and both sides are usually manipulated by him to some extent.

Finally, we simply have not been given all the answers we would like.  Let’s admit it: the Scriptures are vague on some pretty important things.  In spite of the fact that we have become expert at finding proof-texts to support our side, the truth is that almost all of our arguments seem contrived and weak.  Some Scripture texts are worded in ways that defy easy translation.  Some points of doctrine are barely referred to at all.  If it were up to me, just in regard to the doctrinal questions I have, the Bible would be much longer.

So, could it be that we are supposed to argue?  If some things seem important, but are not clearly revealed in Scripture, maybe we are supposed to come together in prayer and debate, discuss, argue them through.  Maybe we are supposed to find truth by coming together in the Spirit.  If we come together in the Spirit, trusting Him to lead us, perhaps we will find our answers—or at least we may find that we don’t need the answers after all.  Maybe just finding each other and our Lord will be enough.



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Free to Disagree – Yeah Right!

Now, you are welcome to disagree with me on this—as long as you want to be wrong, stupid, un-Christian, un-patriotic, and worthy of gross rejection.  Oh, oops, I wasn’t supposed to put that last part in there. 

Why is it that some teachers, pastors, group leaders and others try to project this willingness for discussion and differing thought when they really don’t want to hear anything contrary to the conclusions they have presented?  Why is it that Christians are so quick to jump to “my side versus your side?”  Why are we so willing to abandon friendships and relationships for our disagreements?

I am watching a discussion deteriorate into the name-calling and friendship-severing mess we often see in churches and ministries when people stop remembering who they are in Christ and let their differences define their relationship.  It grieves me.  So much is lost when this happens. 

Let’s think about why this happens.  Let’s get the obvious and most nasty reason out first.  There are some leaders who simply cannot abide a challenge to their opinion or teaching.  This is a narcissistic characteristic some people have that moves them to see anyone who disagrees as an enemy or an obstacle.  I have known pastors who fired associate staff upon the first disagreement.  Narcissists usually react very strongly against people who disagree because they feel threatened by the challenge. 

But not all ugly disagreements stem from the paranoia of a narcissist.  Sometimes churches, ministries, even friendships are destroyed simply because people don’t know how to disagree or they hold their own opinions too highly.  Sometimes a minor disagreement is blown out of proportion because a political rift already exists and one or both sides use the disagreement against the other.  Sometimes people are frightened and respond with much more force than is appropriate and the battle escalates from there.

We really can’t do much about the political or ideological rifts and the wars that result from minor disagreements.  In those cases, anything would have been a good weapon and the disagreement was just handy.  No matter how much you try to talk through the disagreement, you find no progress because the disagreement isn’t the real problem.  Some churches, in other words, are primed for an explosion and almost anything will set it off. 

But believers should be able to discuss their differences without becoming angry and attacking.  And we should be able to relate in a way that a simple disagreement isn’t seen as an attack.  Actually, we should be able to see each other in a way that even an attack is not fatal to the relationship. 

In the next several days, I will write more on this.  I would like to address concerns such as: what to do when you are attacked; when it is appropriate to name names; how far a disagreement can go before the relationship should be severed; how far to go to prove or force your point; what arguments are worth having; why Christians, in particular, are susceptible to the us versus them mentality; and more.

Maybe you can add to the list.


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