A Biblical Guide To Orthodoxy And Heresy
Part Two: Guidelines
For Doctrinal Discernment Page 3 (page 1
Applying The Standards
How shall the identification of heresy be carried out in practice? And who shall be involved in the process of identifying and responding to heresy? Here I wish simply to give some brief suggestions as guidelines that seem to me to be in keeping with
the teaching of Scripture.
Who Should Judge
How Should We Judge?
I have already argued in Part One
that the Christian church
as a whole is responsible for exercising discernment or judgment concerning heretical teachings, and that such judgment should not be left solely in the hands of trusted religious leaders, no matter who they are. Here I wish to sharpen this point somewhat.
Ultimately, only God can judge human hearts, since only He knows infallibly what people are thinking and feeling. We do not even know our own hearts infallibly (Jer. 17:9-10
). Therefore, when we speak about judging heresy, we are not
claiming to know the hearts of those espousing the heresy. We are not setting ourselves up as arbiters of their eternal future, deciding who will be saved and who will not.
What the church is called to judge is whether certain teachings should be allowed to be propagated in its midst, whether certain practices should be condoned, and whether certain individuals espousing heretical teachings or immoral practices
should be allowed to remain in the community of faith. This kind of judgment is to be exercised by the whole church, although some persons in the church will play a more direct role in the process than others.
There are commands in the New Testament directing all Christians to exercise discernment (1 Cor. 5:9-13
; 1 John 4:1
). Yet, some Christians are more gifted or skilled in such discernment than others. God gives some Christians special gifts
of discernment concerning spirits (1 Cor. 12:10
). God gives some Christians gifts enabling them to be teachers (Rom. 12:6-7
; 1 Cor. 12:28-29
; Eph. 4:11
; James 3:1
). God has also called some Christians to be in positions of leadership in the church such as pastors, elders, overseers, deacons and they will clearly have a more direct role in carrying out the judgment of the church concerning heresy (Acts 20:28
; Phil. 1:1
; Eph. 4:11
; 1 Tim. 3:1-13
; Tit. 1:5-9
; Heb. 13:17
; 1 Pet. 5:1-3
). For this reason, such Christian leaders should inform themselves and consult with gifted Christian teachers to make sure that mature discernment is exercised in their congregations. And the leaders and teachers should work together to instruct the church body as a whole in sound doctrine and in the practice of discernment, so
that the whole body will indeed be of one mind in its discernment.
The Challenge of Discernment
At last we come to the "nitty-gritty" of discernment. Just what should we do in order to exercise sound doctrinal discernment? How should we go about becoming more mature and skilled in discernment? The following guidelines are not
exhaustive, but they are especially critical.
- Learn to exercise discernment while growing as a Christian in faith, love, and holiness. I would like to assume this is obvious to everyone, but it bears emphasizing and even placing first on the list. The Christian life is not an intellectual game in which the object is to prove that you are right and to ferret out everyone who is wrong. Discerning orthodox from heretical teaching is only one aspect of the Christian life, though it is an important one. Moreover, doctrinal discernment itself should involve prayer, fellowship with other Christians, ministry to other Christians and to the lost, as well as doctrinal study. May I also say that I am preaching to myself here more than to anyone else! As one whose lifetime ministry and career is concentrated in the practice and communication of doctrinal discernment, I (and my colleagues in
discernment ministry, as well) am more apt to forget this than other Christians.
On the other hand, let me also emphasize the word "growing" in the above statement. There is not some minimum standard of spiritual achievement that must be reached before one may begin exercising discernment. Rather, the exercise of discernment is one function in the Christian life in which all believers should
be growing throughout their Christian experience.
- Develop a thorough and sound grasp of Scripture. Other things being equal, the better one understands the Bible, the better one will be able to discern truth from error. Not every Christian can be a Bible scholar, but virtually every Christian can study the Bible in depth and gain a profound understanding of its teachings.
There are various ways in which one can study the Bible, and all of them are important. Read the Bible itself read whole books of the Bible, and read the whole Bible (though not necessarily in any particular order). Commit portions of
Scripture to memory. Study the Bible topically, searching through Scripture and reading what it says on particular subjects (see Acts 17:11). Use study aids, theological textbooks, and the like (though discernment will be needed in choosing and using such works). Study the Bible by yourself and in groups. Find competent teachers and learn as much as you can from them. The point is to use every resource possible to increase your understanding of Scripture.
- Study Christian doctrine from a variety of traditions within orthodox Christianity. As you become fairly clear on the essentials of the faith, you should seek to become familiar with some of the different perspectives on Christian doctrine within the household of faith. You will want to acquaint yourself with different views held by Christians on such controversial doctrinal matters as baptism, the Millennium, spiritual gifts, predestination, and the like. Understanding the different perspectives held by orthodox Christians on these doctrinal matters will enable you to appreciate better the difference
between essentials and nonessentials of the faith, as well as to gain a more mature and biblical position on them.
- Learn as much relevant information as possible about a questionable teaching or religious group before making any judgment. Scripture says, "He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him" (Prov. 18:13). It is sin for Christians to judge someone's beliefs as heretical on the basis of less than adequate information.
There are a variety of strategies you can use to gain information about a group. You can inquire about religious affiliations the denomination or religion of a teacher or group though in some cases certain organizations or persons
may deny their controversial religious affiliations. You can ask for information about their history or leaders, as sometimes this is illuminating. You can consult standard reference works, dictionaries, or encyclopedias that list religious groups and organizations and describe their beliefs. In most cases, except with very new or small groups or teachings, these strategies will give you adequate information.
- Base your understanding of a questionable doctrine on what those who espouse it say about it themselves. This follows directly from the above principle and from the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12). Just as we would not want someone to label us heretics or accuse us of other evils (Matt. 5:11) on the basis of what others say about us, so we should not criticize others' views without being sure that we have heard them firsthand. This does not mean that every Christian must personally read the primary literature of a heretical group before concluding that it is indeed heretical. Rather, a Christian critique of a supposedly heretical group should be considered less than adequate to the extent that the accusations made are not backed up with accurate quotations from the authoritative leaders of the group.
In questionable cases where no adequate Christian analysis or evaluation has yet been done, it is very important to gain primary source information about the group's doctrines. One approach that is often helpful is to ask for a doctrinal statement. However, keep in mind the following two observations: (1) Some groups that have no doctrinal statement are nevertheless orthodox. (2) Doctrinal statements of heretical groups are often kept as orthodox-sounding as possible to avoid easy criticism. Other publications may be more revealing of the group's true
- Do not assume that the use of orthodox language guarantees orthodox beliefs. As I have just suggested, unorthodox and aberrant groups are often not straightforward and honest about the true nature of their beliefs. They will
frequently use biblical language and sound very evangelical in order to avoid criticism. This is exactly what the New Testament warns us about (e.g., 2 Cor. 11:4).
In the case of groups that are dishonest about their true beliefs, gather as much information about their beliefs as possible and compare what they say to the public with what they say to one another. This may involve attending their meetings and asking questions without seeming critical (see Matt. 10:16) or obtaining in-house literature normally available only to members. Generally, such investigations should be carried out by those with some experience and training in doctrinal discernment, such as those involved in discernment ministries. In some cases, ex-members may be the best source of such information and materials.
- Treat the information supplied by ex-members with respect but due caution as well. Every heretical group eventually begins generating ex-members in greater or lesser quantities, and these persons can be invaluable resources. Often their most important contribution is their access to publications and recordings unavailable to the general public. Their personal
testimonies can also be very informative and helpful.
One of the marks of a heretical or aberrant group is that its ex-members are all dismissed as disgruntled or envious or immoral persons with an axe to grind. Of course, this may be true of some ex-members. Yet, if a religious group loses a large number of people, and these ex-members consistently tell the same story, their testimony should be given due credence. If an ex-member can back up his (or her) story with documentation or corroborative testimony from other ex-members, that will serve to reinforce his testimony.
Occasionally, certain individuals will present themselves as ex-members of a group and tell sensational stories about their involvement. Great caution must be exercised in such cases, as increasingly there are instances of persons doing this who either were never part of the group in question, or were never as deeply
involved as they claim. Whether such individuals perpetuate such deceptions for financial gain, media attention, personal antagonism toward the group, or for more subtle reasons, may not always be clear. In any case it is important that sensationalistic accusations against a group not be accepted on the basis of the testimony of one person or couple apart from corroborative evidence.
- In uncertain or borderline cases, give the benefit of the doubt to the person or group in question. The principle of "innocent until proven guilty" applies here. Some Christians involved in discernment ministries raise "red flags" or, to change the metaphor, "cry wolf" whenever there is the slightest hint of possible heresy. Such a practice brings reproach upon discernment ministries and divides Christians.
- Begin with foundational matters. In inquiring into the orthodoxy of a religious group, much time and energy can be saved and mistakes prevented by asking foundational questions about the group's attitude toward the Bible and religious authority. Do they regard the Bible as the absolutely infallible, unerring Word of God? Do they regard the Bible as the final authority in religious matters, or do they look to something else (their leaders, a modern prophet, another book, etc.) as an indispensable authority by which the Bible is interpreted? If their answers to these questions are satisfactory, then in most cases they will be orthodox; if not, they will usually be heretical. Keep in mind that some heretical groups profess complete confidence in the Bible and appear to have no other doctrinal authorities; thus, this guideline should be treated only as a rule of thumb.
- Consult with reputable discernment ministries who honor biblical principles of discernment. No human being is infallible, nor is any organization, including Christian discernment ministries. Nevertheless, if you agree that the principles discussed in this article are biblical, then you should consult with discernment ministries who seek to base their work on these principles.
In conclusion, I would like to offer a challenge to those who agree that doctrinal discernment of the kind discussed in these articles is necessary. Begin to do something to contribute to the ongoing task of discernment. Encourage your church leaders to preach and teach on doctrinal discernment. Support one or more biblically based discernment ministries, especially any that may be in your local area. If you are a parent, teach sound doctrine to your children. Pray for sound Christian teachers and preachers, and pray that heresies and aberrant doctrines would
lose their appeal. Every Christian can and should be doing something to contribute to the church's discernment of sound doctrine.