What are the grounds for calling someone a heretic or false teacher?

Yesterday I listened to an older podcast of a pastor who, not long ago, was highly influential in my life. As a result of a major change in his ministry, my pastor friend is no longer at his church or currently involved in public preaching. To be clear, there was no moral failure associated with his leaving. Nor were there any financial indiscretions or broken relationships mentioned. The change involved an apparent shift in belief on a very core issue, for which my pastor friend expected to receive some sharp criticism. The backlash that ensued, however, came with ferocity in ways that surprised even him. Lots of name-calling was included; the most common of which was “heretic”.

While listening, I found myself grieving just a bit as I contemplated the reality that his influence has been altogether absent from my life for over a year now. Whereas I do not agree with his new philosophical bent or completely understand the motivations behind it, I still find myself questioning whether or not he has departed from “orthodoxy” and should be considered disqualified from his role of influence among Evangelicals.

Which got me thinking about this question: What are the grounds for calling someone a heretic or a false teacher?

I have chosen four passages among more than a dozen in the New Testament which talk about heresy, false teaching, or false prophecy. Read these passages carefully and respond below with your answer to my question above. It might be helpful to include in your answers some of the other Scriptures which I did not include. I would REALLY like to hear some good responses to this question…

JESUS: Matthew 7:15-20 (ESV)

15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

PAUL: 1 Timothy 4:1-5 (ESV)

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

PETER: 2 Peter 2:1-3 (ESV)

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

JOHN: 1 John 4:1-3 (ESV)

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for 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 from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

7 thoughts on “What are the grounds for calling someone a heretic or false teacher?

  1. Ray says:

    Eric, good post! As a contemplative reader, I typically do not respond to the blogs I read, but your question is a timely one. As a pastor in the trenches of clashing worldviews, I deal with this often. Because of our fallen nature, we are naturally a divisive people. But not all heretics. Like a baseball diamond there are indicators or how far someone may be from “Walking in a manner worthy of our calling” that ultimately lead to answering your question. We ought to know what makes a person a heretic thus constituting legitimate grounds for assigning that label. Titus 3:9-10 seem to offer great insight as well.

    First base: Titus 3:10 describes a heretic as a divisive or factious person. As you would well know, the Gk. word is actually heretic. Interesting that only the KJV translate it as “heretick” and other translations use divisive or factious. So the first indicator of a potential heretic is their fruit as you listed in the Mt 7 passage. On a side note, not all divisive people are necessarily heretics, but all heretics are divisive.

    Second base: A seared conscience and devotion to the divisive topics. Their m.o. is not beneficial to the Kingdom. 2 Peter makes the observation that they can rise up in the midst of orthodoxy, but secretly hold to false ideas until the time they begin to vocalize them leading to division.

    Third base: Titus points out is that heretics reject biblical correction. Selfishly consumed with personal opinions, agendas, and religious opinions that trump the call for unity they press divisive issues. Ultimately this comes from some type of rejection of Scripture. Wether it is consistent misinterpretation, partial or all out rejection of the Canon.

    Home: 2 Pt 1 indicates there is ultimately a rejection of Jesus Christ that somehow takes place.
    Until someone rejects the sound orthodoxies of Christology (deity, virgin birth, etc.), the inerrancy of Scripture, the Triunity of the Godhead, etc. it is not prudent to accuse someone of heresy. Some may make a compelling case based on the first three bases but unless the fourth has been made it is dangerously premature. Until then, Biblical correction should be the case with a warning of the slippery slope that individual is on. Without repentance of the first three, the fourth is likely inevitable.

    Conclusion: All Christians struggle to obey Christ in everything, but Christians don’t reject the biblical teaching of who Christ is or His teachings. The heretic does.

  2. raystrauss says:

    Eric, good post! As a contemplative reader, I typically do not respond to the blogs I read, but your question is a timely one. As a pastor in the trenches of clashing worldviews, I deal with this often. Because of our fallen nature, we are naturally a divisive people. But not all heretics. Like a baseball diamond there are indicators or how far someone may be from “Walking in a manner worthy of our calling” that ultimately lead to answering your question. We ought to know what makes a person a heretic thus constituting legitimate grounds for assigning that label. Titus 3:9-10 seem to offer great insight as well.

    First base: Titus 3:10 describes a heretic as a divisive or factious person. As you would well know, the Gk. word is actually heretic. Interesting that only the KJV translate it as “heretick” and other translations use divisive or factious. So the first indicator of a potential heretic is their fruit as you listed in the Mt 7 passage. On a side note, not all divisive people are necessarily heretics, but all heretics are divisive.

    Second base: A seared conscience and devotion to the divisive topics. Their m.o. is not beneficial to the Kingdom. 2 Peter makes the observation that they can rise up in the midst of orthodoxy, but secretly hold to false ideas until the time they begin to vocalize them leading to division.

    Third base: Titus points out is that heretics reject biblical correction. Selfishly consumed with personal opinions, agendas, and religious opinions that trump the call for unity they press divisive issues. Ultimately this comes from some type of rejection of Scripture. Wether it is consistent misinterpretation, partial or all out rejection of the Canon.

    Home: 2 Pt 1 indicates there is ultimately a rejection of Jesus Christ that somehow takes place.
    Until someone rejects the sound orthodoxies of Christology (deity, virgin birth, etc.), the inerrancy of Scripture, the Triunity of the Godhead, etc. it is not prudent to accuse someone of heresy. Some may make a compelling case based on the first three bases but unless the fourth has been made it is dangerously premature. Until then, Biblical correction should be the case with a warning of the slippery slope that individual is on. Without repentance of the first three, the fourth is likely inevitable.

    Conclusion: All Christians struggle to obey Christ in everything, but Christians don’t reject the biblical teaching of who Christ is or His teachings. The heretic does.

  3. Harold says:

    I think there are many instances of “a rush to judgement” in labeling and punishing a person as a heretic. I can think of several persons treated as a heretic that were later somewhat vindicated,
    Right now, I cannot think of one treated as a heretic and time proving the labeling was correct.
    Although I suspect there are some. I like Ray’s baseball diamond approach.

  4. Mark Tate says:

    To define heresy, there must be an orthodoxy-and many believe the Bible is clear enough to call those who depart from an orthodoxy as stepping into heresy. Church history demonstrates that heresy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder-or however that beholder interprets the Bible. Interpretations change, orthodoxy changes and thus heresy changes-and the Church ends up with collateral damage, or individuals caught in the crossfire. So-What are the grounds for calling someone a heretic or false teacher? Its someone who has transgressed orthodoxy, however that happens to be defined at the moment, by whoever has enough power to enforce his/their orthodoxy at the moment. Since Jesus ascended, EVERY single Christian group has been considered orthodox by some and heterodox by others.

    This is certainly not to say that none have misled the sheep of God’s pasture-it is to say that we should tremble at the responsibility of determining heresy-or orthodoxy, for that matter. At the risk of preaching to the choir, let me say that Jesus said that the truth would set us free. Maybe it really is that simple.

  5. Joe Wolfe says:

    There’s not much to add to what Ray said about using the word “heretic”. I certainly agree with his observations. I’m not certain, though, if someone can teach heresies without being a heretic. Can someone proclaim heresies unknowingly or rather teach principles and concepts that lead others down the slippery slope toward heresy. If this were the case, then the use of the word “heretic” describing the teacher would certainly be premature. Teachers have a great responsibility to the health and growth of the flock.

  6. Don Shank says:

    Have you ever thought about (…or how many times have you thought about…) the arch angel, Lucifer? Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth. … “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? … At the beginning, before his rebellion, Lucifer was part of a Trinity. …. Doctrine of the Trinity · The Plan of God · The Meaning of the Spring Holy Days · The Fall Holy Days’…”

    The whacko angel wanted the boss’s job in the worst way…so much so that he did worse than Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2) in trying to build a tower to heights above heaven. He was in heaven and could have reaped a huge slice until he attempted his power play. Instead, he became known as the worst heretic known to the Trinity and man.

    “Its who you are and the way you live that counts before God … That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship.” (John 4:22-23 Message)

    God is pleased when our worship flows from being saved; when our worship is scripturally accurate; and when our worship is spiritually authentic.

    God is pleased when our worship is sacrificial and practical. Consider this fusion of images from our Lord, Jesus. “He was the Lion from the tribe of Judah, and is the Lamb that looked as if He had been killed. Some Jews thought of the coming of the Savior as a mighty warrior-lamb, but in the Book of John Jesus is presented as the Lamb who dies that the people can be forgiven (John 1:29). John’s lamb combines both of these ideas. It is by dying in order that people might live and be forgiven that Jesus (the Lamb) fights against as the Warrior-Lamb.” (Notes page 1498 —NCV.)

    Consider carefully over and over this heavenly beauty from Revelation 5:11.12 NCV.
    “Then I looked, and I heard the voices of many angels around the throne, and the four living creatures, and the elders. There were thousands and thousands of angels, saying in a loud voice:
    “The Lamb who was killed is worthy to receive power, wealth, wisdom and strength, honor, glory and praise!”
    God is pleased with unconditional followers of Jesus because our worship is sacrificial and practical.
    The Lake of Fire awaits the devil.

    (Eric, Part one of this appeared in a meditation artical I wrote for our Adult Life group newsletter of Sunday, November 25, 2012.)

  7. Eric Costanzo says:

    Great comments by all. I appreciate your input and well thought out arguments. While I miss my pastor friend and his influence very much, I am inclined to agree that he did not handle his responsibility as a teacher as well as perhaps he should have. Heretic, no. Maybe just a bit hasty. Nevertheless, I miss him and am quite sure I’ve been guilty of irresponsibility in teaching at times myself.

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