Who Has the Right to Call False Teaching Heresy?

By Dr Paul M Elliott

Part 10 of a series. Read part 9.

Our current series addresses these questions: “My church is no longer true to the Word of God on essential Christian truths. What should I do? Should I leave? Should I stay and try to fight error? Will I be guilty of schism if I do either one?”

Contrary to what many church leaders are saying today, the Bible assigns the right — and responsibility — to call false teaching by its right name, not to a handful of theological specialists, but to every believer.1

The Definition of Heresy

First of all, exactly what is heresy? It is any teaching that rejects, or is at variance with, the system of doctrine that the Bible plainly teaches. Therefore, heresy is also the adherence to such a doctrinally deviant position by any individual, church, or denomination. The essence of heresy, always, is that it assigns the word of man greater authority than the Word of God.

“Never Let Anyone Call Heresy By Its Right Name”

Some people, including many church leaders, say that only an official church body has the right to declare anything to be heresy. Those who make this claim will often say that since an official church body has not declared the doctrines of a particular false teacher and his followers to be heresy, no one else has the right to do so.

Such false and misleading claims have aided and abetted the spread of heresy throughout church history. Today in Evangelical and Reformed churches, Bible colleges, and seminaries, there is great resistance to the use of the term “heresy.” One of the unwritten principles of those who aid and abet the spread of heresy either by deliberate inaction or by doctrinal indifference seems to be, “Never let anyone call heresy by its right name.”

But sometimes this false principle does not remain unwritten. During the period of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s failure to deal with those within it who teach the soul-damning doctrine of justification by faith plus works, OPC elder Dr. James S. Gidley, writing in the OPC’s official magazine, publicly declared:

No individual elder or minister, or group of ministers and elders not constituted as a court [official body] of the church, can lawfully declare someone to be a heretic or to be guilty of censurable error.2

Who Has the Right — and Responsibility?

The Bible plainly teaches that this is not true. Christ and the apostles expected both church leaders and regular church-goers to recognize false teaching and false teachers. Pastors and elders have a particular Biblical responsibility, both individually and collectively, to warn the flock of God and to deal with error (see, for example, Acts 20:17-38, 1 Peter 5:1-4, 2 Timothy 4:1-5). But the Bible also assigns the responsibility for vigilance to every Christian. Dealing with heretics always begins with individual judgments based on the Word of God.

In a letter to the editor of the OPC’s magazine, responding to James Gidley’s statement quoted above, Dr. John W. Robbins wrote:

This rule is without Scriptural support, and Mr. Gidley, tellingly, cites no Scripture to support it. Therefore, there is no reason to accept the Gidley Rule.

Second, there are many passages of Scripture which deny this rule. Both Christ and the apostles not only expect individual officers in the church to recognize false teaching and teachers and to warn the flock of God against them, but also expect ordinary Christians to make such judgments about teachers. Far from Christ and the apostles espousing a “hermeneutic of trust,” to use a phrase that the OPC’s Committee on Creation has recently used, the command of Christ and the apostles to all Christians is a hermeneutic of skepticism: “Believe not every spirit,” “test the spirits,” do not believe even an angel from heaven or an apostle or “those who seem to be something” (Gal. 2:6), if they depart from Scripture and the Gospel.

Third, the Gidley Rule would make all discipline for doctrinal error impossible, for in order for ecclesiastical discipline to begin, some individual who, by definition, is not constituted as a court [official body] of the church must declare a teacher to be guilty of censurable error or heresy, and such a declaration must be made publicly. Mr. Gidley’s Rule is a catch-22.3

Authentic Christianity in Contrast

Contrary to those who would aid and abet doctrinal deviancy, or would have church members simply ignore or tolerate it, we have such statements from the Word of God as these, all of which are addressed to “rank and file” church members, not theological specialists:

“Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” 1 John 4:1-8

Such testing does involve spiritual maturity:

“However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature. . . not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For “who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 2:6, 13-16

We read in Acts 2:11 that the people of the fledgling church at Berea did not even accept the word of the Apostle Paul without testing it against the final authority of Scripture. They “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” The Greek word translated “searched” means that they “carefully investigated.” And they did it not just once, they did it daily — every time the Word was preached or taught.

Does this mean that a Christian should be “in the face” of the pastor or teacher who, as a fallible human being, occasionally and inadvertently says something that is not entirely true to the Word? Of course not. Such matters should be dealt with privately and peaceably. Any sincere and faithful minister of the Word should welcome such questioning — and even correction — from a member of the flock entrusted to his care. But where heresy is concerned — the open rejection of plain Biblical truth — Scripture commands a far more public and decisive course. And it assigns that responsibility not to a handful of specialists, but to every Christian.

Next: Is It Wrong to Leave a Church Because It Hasn’t Officially Endorsed Heresy?

References:

1. Material in this article is adapted from Christianity and Neo-Liberalism by Paul M. Elliott (The Trinity Foundation, 2005).

2. James S. Gidley, “Quick to Hear, Slow to Speak, Slow to Anger” in New Horizons, Volume 25, No. 6, June 2004, 9.

3. John W. Robbins, “Declaring Error” in New Horizons, Volume 25, No. 9, October 2004, 21-22.

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