Several years ago, while talking to the pastor of another church, I made passing reference to a Christian teacher who promotes theistic evolution: the idea that evolutionary theory is consistent with the creation account in Genesis and that God, in fact, used the process of evolution to create life on earth as we know it. The pastor immediately labelled this as “heresy.”
In a Reformed Baptist Facebook discussion group of which I was briefly a member, someone asked a question about annihilationism—the teaching that the punishment God will inflict in hell is death rather than ongoing conscious torment. The very first comment read, “What heretics have been spreading that falsehood?” In the same group, I was labelled a heretic for suggesting that grape juice is an acceptable substitute for wine in the Communion meal.
These interactions highlight an unhelpful trend among Christians who are (rightly) concerned to guard the truth of Scripture. Too often, we fall into the trap of decrying brothers and sisters in Christ as “heretics” simply because we disagree with their interpretation of Scripture. This is an effective rhetorical tool. After all, what Christian wants to be labelled a heretic? But it is a tactic we do well to avoid if the term “heresy” will retain any meaning.
As it is used in the New Testament, the concept of heresy has at least two shades of meaning, neither of which gives the individual Christian—even the administrator of a large and popular Christian Facebook group!—the authority to determine what is, and what is not, heresy.
The Greek word from which we derive the English “heresy” is used most commonly in the New Testament to describe a divisive person or teaching in the local church. Titus 3:10 translates the word as “one who stirs up division.” Writing to the Corinthians, Paul acknowledged that “there must also be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognised” (1 Corinthians 11:19). In these contexts, the local church, not the individual Christian, must determine what is “heresy.”
As we use the word, it usually applies to aberrant teaching, which we too often describe as teaching contrary to our personal beliefs. This is the sense in which Peter employs the term in 2 Peter 2:1–3, but he is careful to give strict limits on what should be determined “heresy.” He writes of “false teachers” who promote “destructive heresies” and defines “heresies” as teaching that “den[ies] the Master who bought them.” Heresy, in other words, is teaching that is so contrary to the message of the apostles that it denies the authority of Jesus Christ. In the first five hundred years of new covenant history, a teaching was only determined to be heresy upon universal agreement of representatives from churches across the spectrum of traditions. Ecumenical councils were called and robust discussion held before a teaching was considered sufficiently aberrant to be classed as “heresy.” There is no precedent in the New Testament or church history for individual Christians to define the terms of heresy in their personal capacity.
Historically, Christians have been rather generous to embrace each other as brothers and sisters in Christ despite theological and interpretive disagreements. The line has been drawn only when a teaching directly undermines the gospel of Jesus Christ. I may (and personally do) hold to a young earth creationist interpretation of Genesis 1, where the days of creation are understood to be ordinary, 24-hour days, but my own interpretation of Scripture doesn’t warrant me labelling an old earth creationist a heretic. Christians can be wrong in their interpretation of Scripture without denying the lordship of Jesus Christ. Orthodox evangelical Christians (John Stott, John Wenham, John Stackhouse, Philip Edgecumbe Hughes, etc.) have embraced annihilationism. Non-heretics have been known to substitute wine with grape juice at the Lord’s Supper. Every theological disagreement does not rise to the level of heresy.
At the same time, Peter clearly warns that “destructive heresies” will infiltrate the church and will undermine the authority of Christ both in their teaching and their ethical implications. These teachings will be so aberrant as to divide from what Christianity has historically held.
I have encountered the work of professing Christians who have openly rejected the divinity of Jesus Christ. There are teachings that claim to be Christian that hold to the possibility, and even necessity, of earning salvation by good works. Some have clung to their profession to be Christian while denying the bodily resurrection of Christ or his future return to judge the living and the dead. These are destructive heresies that undermine the authority of Christ, blaspheme the way of truth, and invite eternal condemnation.
As you meditate this morning on 2 Peter 2:1–3, do so with a twofold prayer. First, pray for the wisdom to be generous with brothers and sisters in Christ who love the Lord and preach the gospel even as they disagree on some matters of biblical interpretation. Second, pray for the wisdom to identify and avoid false teachings and teachers who undermine the authority of Jesus Christ by their destructive heresies and thereby lead others down the path of eternal destruction.