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.