It has been a value in Western culture for well over a century now to embrace a certain amount of diversity and tolerate different ideas. Just how wide in scope this is has changed over time, of course, some times and places being more open-minded than others, though in recent years the range of possibilities have undeniably grown wider than ever before. It has become difficult in this day and age to declare something as “wrong” or “untrue” without someone retorting back “well that’s, like, just your opinion, man.”
This valuation of tolerance and open-mindedness has become a popular virtue among Christians as well, and this is where we find a particularly difficult two-edged sword. On one hand, this openness has allowed for a great deal of ecumenical progress – bringing conflicting Christian traditions closer together than ever before, simply because we’re more willing to talk to one another, listen, and re-think some of the language that divides us. On the other hand, as people often joke, if you keep too open a mind, your brain might fall out. That is to say, when we over-value tolerance and agreement, we can lose the ability to discern and declare falsehood and untruth.
When it comes to defining Christian truth we are forced face-to-face with the hard reality that Truth is a person, Jesus Christ, the man who is God. He is truth; his word is truth. There is right and wrong, there is right teaching and false teaching, when He speaks, there is no grey area in between. That which He speaks, is.
But alongside the unpopularly black-and-white reality of Truth, there is still a sliding scale of how serious untruth is. The Scriptures teach definite things about God, Christ, the Church, the world, and so forth, and conflicting interpretations of the Scriptures is the fault of us sinful fallible human beings, not the fault of the Bible itself. But not all mistakes are equal – some are worse than others. It would help many of us, I think, to revisit some standard terminology so we can deal afresh with disagreements between Christian teachers.
Level One: to be Mistaken
Sometimes a mistake is just mistake. We don’t all study every subject in the Bible in great depth, so we’re bound to misunderstand and misinterpret stuff. Pretty much everyone makes mistakes. And yes, that does have an adverse effect on our closeness with Christ, how in-step we are with the Spirit, how clearly we understand the Bible.
An example of this might be the difference between believing that Christians should not drink any alcohol and believing that we may. One is bound by a legalistic demand, the other is free in Christ to enjoy the goodness of that part of God’s creation.
But a simple mistake is a simple mistake; much of Christian growth involves filling in the gaps of our knowledge and experience, correcting our mistakes, and learning to love the Lord unhindered by falsehoods. On the Day of Judgment, our simple mistakes might be embarrassing, or even comical, but I don’t believe they’ll be held against us as sin.
Level Two: a False Teacher
Where a mistake is an unintentional belief, a false teaching is an intentional belief; and a false teacher is one who actively teaches (or models) something that is incorrect. This level of wrongness can be a great hindrance to Christian life or teaching.
For example, the difference between believing in evolution or 6-literal-day creationism results in two very different methods of biblical interpretation, and they both can’t be right. Similarly, the doctrine of the Rapture is a false teaching that not only distorts one’s ability to understand the Bible, but can also impact the way one perceives the Christian hope, the place of environmentalism, and methods of evangelism.
Teachers will be judged more strictly than other Christians, so whatever false teachings we commit to will be painful to correct. The work of a false teacher will pass through fire on Judgment Day and may prove to be less fruitful than previously imagined. But a false teacher isn’t going to hell on account of those incorrect beliefs.
Level Three: a Heretic
This is the end of the road, the type of mistake so severe that the result is definitively non-Christian teaching. This is a false teaching so off the mark that it actually undoes the Gospel of Christ and proclaims a different religion. As a result, heresy is a magnitude of falsehood that leads to damnation unless repented of and abandoned.
St. Paul called out the Judaizers as being heretics for requiring the Rite of Circumcision before entry into the Church. In doing so, they elevated the Law of Moses into the place of Christ as a source of righteousness, whereas the Christian Gospel puts forth Christ alone as the one who justifies sinners.
Another example we’re more likely to see today is to deny the humanity or divinity of Christ. Any Christian that misses one of these crucial truths about Jesus is no Christian at all. Many of the “mainline” Protestant denominations have increasingly embraced heretical opinions such as these, thus earning the rightful label of heretic. All who abide by heretical teachings are indoctrinated into a false religion as lost as the Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and everyone else. The only difference between a heretic and another non-Christian is that a heretic thinks he/she is a Christian (as is the case with Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses). This can be an advantage in evangelism in that they’re already pretty close to the truth, but it can also be a huge disadvantage because they think they’re already one of us.
Sometimes the most effective lie is the one closest to the truth.
We’re Here to Help
Lest I end this blog post on a scary note, allow me to note a few resources the Church has to protect us from heresy.
The historic liturgy is a wonderful resource. By making use of pre-written prayers and a careful plan of Scripture-reading, the worship services of the Church constantly reinforce true Christian teaching. It doesn’t cover everything perfectly, and it’s not really a teaching tool in itself, but it provides a common language with which we speak the truth before God with one another.
The Creeds are authoritative summary statements of belief that are very useful for “fencing off” the safe pastures within which God’s flock may feed. The Apostles’ Creed is the most basic, and the Nicene Creed is more careful about lining up our teachings about Jesus Christ. The Athanasian Creed has an excellent treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Biblical scholars, while obviously not infallible, are very helpful in enabling us to understand the Bible accurately. Next time you pick up a Christian book in the hopes of getting to know God better, look up the author. Where and how has he/she learned about the Bible and what qualifications does he/she bring to the table? With all the books and popular authors out there today, there’s a lot of fluff on the Christian bookstore shelves which really aren’t worth your time. Look for the writings of reliable teachers; your pastor or priest should be able to point you in the right direction.
The clergy are supposed to be holy men of God who know the Bible and theology better than the average Christian. There are, of course, lots of bad or lazy pastors out there, and hopefully you can tell the difference. Ask yours who his favorite theologians are, and look them up yourself. Ask your pastor what his specialties are in terms of theology and biblical interpretation; we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and it’s good to know when someone is working from experience versus relying on the witness of others. A good pastor is humble and remains constantly in touch with the writings and teachings of others; it can be good both for your pastor and for you to ask him who he’s been reading lately!
The more you learn, the better-equipped you are to recognize heresy and false teaching for what it is. And although one can’t reasonably expect perfection from oneself or even one’s pastor in this life, we can live a life of constant growth towards our Lord and Savior as we cultivate a habit of learning and a spirit of discernment. Light has no fellowship with darkness, after all, so the more we walk in the light, the more we can avoid the darkness!