Have you ever seen someone say online or heard someone say in person, “She’s a false teacher,” or “He’s a heretic?”
I’ve seen the claim made on social media about Christian leaders and Bible teachers more times than I can count over the last few years. I’ve always just chalked it up to evangelicalism’s “taking all sorts.” But occasionally, when I see a friend or acquaintance echo an accusation, I lean in. Not long ago, I saw a link to a promised comprehensive catalog offering “definitive” proof of heresies. What I found was a list of various teachings or situations the compiler found problematic: a different view of women’s roles in the church, a different position on how the gifts of the Spirit are manifested today, friendship with—or sharing a platform with—people who teach wacky things. I will admit some of this raises my own eyebrow, and none of it is beyond biblical scrutiny, but in terms of proving a charge of false teaching, I should say I find these catalogs of alleged malfeasance a bit…lacking. And here’s why:
Misidentifying False Teaching
First, there is a biblical standard for determining heresy and it doesn’t amount to simply things we find odd or disagreeable. Historically, the Church has produced a number of creeds and confessions to help us with these kinds of rulings. In the Southern Baptist Convention, the Baptist Faith and Message confirms both the standards for Christian orthodoxy (what doctrinal beliefs make a Southern Baptist a genuine Christian like the rest of the world’s genuine Christians) and the standards for Baptist cooperation (what makes a Southern Baptist a Southern Baptist). The danger, for any evangelical of any denominational or associational stripe, is confusing cooperation with orthodoxy.
So how do we know how to separate the biblical category of false teaching from teaching we just think is “false?” Again, the historic creeds and confessions are helpful here, but so is, guided by the Scriptural priorities on heresy, an application Dr. Al Mohler has called “theological triage.” Basically, this is a way of ordering doctrinal categories to help us know how to relate to others who profess Christianity.
Theological triage divides doctrines into three categories. The first would consist of “First-order” doctrines, things that every genuine Christian ought to affirm to be a Christian. This includes things like the Trinity, the Incarnation, justification by faith, etc.
“Second-order” doctrines would include things that provide boundaries for Christian fellowship—meaning, we would have to agree on these teachings to be able to covenant together in a local church. This would include things like views on baptism, church governance, roles of women in the church, and in some cases perhaps views on the charismatic gifts. Thus, I can’t share church membership with my Presbyterian or Anglican friends, mainly because we differ on who is an appropriate recipient of baptism, but I can still cheerfully affirm their Christianity, just as I hope they can mine.
“Third-order” doctrines would be teachings you and I could disagree on but still be in fellowship in the same church. This may include things like the age of the earth and certain details of soteriology and eschatology. I think it’s one of the strengths of the Baptist Faith and Message, for instance, that while it affirms the Lord is returning bodily and visibly to consummate his kingdom and establish the new heavens and new earth, it says nothing about the timing of a rapture or a particular view of the millennium. Thus, my friend Bob and I can disagree on the timing of the Lord’s return but still enjoy fellowship together in our local church. We agree on first- and second-order doctrines but not all third-order ones.
A Common Misconception
So let’s take one example used to demonstrate “proof” of heresy, for instance—a different view of the spiritual gifts. You may disagree with the beliefs of others in these matters; you may be a cessationist, for example, when it comes to the miraculous gifts, believing the miraculous gifts have ceased. But continuationism (the belief that miraculous gifts are still operable today) itself isn’t heresy. You may think it wrong or even unwise. But by the biblical standards of false teaching, believing the Holy Spirit still operates in all the New Testament gifts today doesn’t qualify. What has happened is that many Christians who don’t believe the Spirit still speaks in any way today (outside the Scriptures) have elevated that belief to a test of Christian orthodoxy. They’ve made a second- or third-order issue a first-order issue.
I understand why people may have questions about the wisdom of someone’s statements or wonder about the wisdom of sharing a platform with those who are in error. Cooperation at such visible levels can give the impression of an endorsement. You and I may find this exceedingly unwise. We may find it incredibly unhelpful. You and I might never do that ourselves. But can we rightfully deduce from associations, however unwise, an affirmation of heresy?
Sowing Unnecessary Division
It all boils down to this: unless and until someone actually teaches something heretical, we shouldn’t call them a heretic. In other words, someone’s not a false teacher just because you disagree with or don’t like what they teach. Someone is a false teacher if they deny a first-order doctrine or promote any teaching that would compromise a first-order doctrine.
Look, the world is in such turmoil right now, barreling full-steam further into the post-Christian era that dawned on the West years ago. The true Church cannot afford to keep turning on each other and condemning each other over second- and third-order doctrines. We may not be able to join the same church. But we should be able to affirm the Christianity of those who share our central convictions. The world will know we are Christians not by our loathing but our love.