Heresy and Unity

by Mark M. Mattison

"But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve" (2 Cor. 11:3,4,13-15, NIV).

"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!" (Gal. 1:6-9, NIV).

Without a doubt, these texts and others like them get optimum exposure in many conservative churches today. Does my brother disagree with me? Let him not quarrel about words, and let him "avoid godless chatter" (2 Tim. 2:14,16, NIV). Does a fellow disciple hold a differing view of the incarnation? "This is the spirit of antichrist" (1 John 4:3, NIV). Do any Christians accept the Protestant view of justification? "They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord" (Jude 1:4, NIV). Do any Christians reject it? "You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace" (Gal. 5:4, NIV). Do any Christians disagree with my eschatology? "They have wandered away from the truth" (2 Tim. 2:18a, NIV). Does anyone in the church eat foods which are higher in cholesterol and fat content? "Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things" (Phil. 3:19, NIV). Does anyone forbid the eating of such foods? They are bound to "the basic principles of this world...'Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch,'" (Col. 2:20,21, NIV). Basically, if anyone disagrees with my interpretations, they are destined to "perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved" (2 Thess. 2:10, NIV).


Interpretations and Agendas

The problem with this view is that our interpretations of truth are far more fallible than most of us realize. It is basic human nature to identify our own ways and ideals as "true" and normative. How inextricably bound up in our own cultural mores we all are! How little different from the Protestant missionary of a hundred years ago who said, "We must teach the Japanese to put buttons on their komonos and to sit in chairs rather than cross-legged on the floor." Reference1

The combination of our provincialism and the Scripture's anathemas is an unhealthy one indeed. We rip Scriptrual denunciations from their context and slap them as labels on our enemies. "If you don't agree with us," we explain, "you're not really disagreeing with us but with God. After all, the Bible clearly states my doctrine, and if you can't see it then you've obviously got an agenda."

I'm reminded of a Sunday School teacher who sat at the classroom table one Sunday morning with an open Bible in front of him. He had just read Romans 8:29,30 and articulated a typically Arminian view of foreordination. Then he wrung his hands and questioned how anyone could possibly misunderstand this. It was all so clear, so obvious; if only people would put down their creeds and their baggage and just take God's Word for what it said, there would be no question. Nevermind all the Scriptures that may suggest another interpretation. Nevermind the fact that the greatest theologians have struggled over the issue. After all, they all have agendas.

The problem is that all of us have agendas. It is not a matter of discerning who "interprets" the Bible and who "just takes it for what it says." It is a matter of comparing interpretations, because all of us are interpreters. True, some of us are more skilled at it than others, but who of us is completely correct? There is nothing wrong with having an agenda. We all have them. And most of us try to align our agendas with that of Christ. But if we fail to interpret correctly in spite of our best intentions, will we perish for lack of loving the truth? Can any of us really stomach the thought that God, on the last day, would condemn people just for incorrectly interpreting a Scripture or misapplying it in their theology?


The Real Truth

On what basis will God judge on the last day? Jesus said, "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Matt. 23:11, NIV). On this basis, it would seem better to err on the side of ignorance. It is to "little children" that God's revelation is made, not "the wise and learned" (Matt. 11:25, NIV; cp. 1 Cor. 1:20-31). Who is more likely to be humble: The Christian who confesses ignorance, or the one who is "learned" enough to explain every verse of the Bible?

Some will point out that we must love the truth in order to be saved. We would not disagree with that at all. But who is "the way and the truth and the life"? Is it not Jesus himself (John 14:6)? Must we not "know" Jesus in order to be saved (John 17:3)? And what does this knowledge consist of? The color of his eyes? His height and weight? His age (from eternity, from Creation, from the womb)? Does it not consist of loving relationship instead (cf. John 10:14)? Certainly it does. "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19, NIV).


The Meaning of Heresy

Provided all of this is true, what are we to make of 2 Corinthians 11:4, Galatians 1:6, 1 John 4:3, and all of those other Scriptures? If doctrinal interpretations do not constitute that "truth," then what constitutes a false gospel, a false Christ, a false spirit?

At this point I believe it is critically important to remain faithful to the context of Scripture. Most of the strictures and anathemas of the New Testament are pronounced upon either Judaizers or Gnostics. In every case "heresy," or schism, is the issue. The word translated "heretic" in the King James Version (cf. Tit. 3:10) is correctly translated "divisive person" in the New International Version. A "heretic" in Scriptural terms is not someone who holds a different interpretation; a "heretic" is someone who creates division in the body. From that standpoint, it is possible to be divisive ("heretical") even when one is correct in one's interpretation. Hence the necessity to speak the truth "in love" (Eph. 4:16, NIV). In the body of Christ, the opposite of heresy is the building of relationship (Eph. 4:13-16).

The Judaizers and the Gnostics were truly divisive ("heretical"). The Judaizers taught that one must keep food laws in order to be saved; hence Paul wrote that "their god is their stomach" (Phil. 3:19, NIV). Furthermore, they taught that Gentiles had to be circumcized in accordance with Moses' law in order to be saved. In seeking "to be justified by law" (Gal. 5:4, NIV), they had again erected the barrier which Christ had torn down on the cross (Eph. 2:14,15), thus dividing the body. As such they were preaching a false gospel (Gal. 1:6), even though "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything" in the new creation (Gal. 6:15, NIV).

The Gnostics brought another set of problems entirely. Their convictions were built upon the premise that the material universe was not created by God and hence could not be redeemed (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1-5). That was their basis for rejecting, among other things, the doctrine of the physical (bodily) resurrection. Two Gnostics in Ephesus, Hymenaeus and Philetus, created division over this very issue (2 Tim. 2:14-19). An example of this teaching can be found in the Gnostic Testimony of Truth: "[And] some say, 'On the last day [we will] certainly arise [in the] resurrection.' But they do not know what they are saying....[Do not] expect, therefore, [the] carnal resurrection, which [is] destruction,] and they are not stripped of [it (the flesh) who] err in [expecting] a [resurrection] that is empty" (NHC IX, 3, 34,26-37,5). In other words, this Gnostic writer is saying, anyone who believes in a future resurrection cannot experience the true resurrection. The charge is a serious one, and is seriously wrong.

So the seriousness of their error went far beyond eschatological differences. In fact the Gnostics denied the very basis of the gospel itself. If all matter is evil, then the holy Christ could not have been material. Hence they denied that the man Jesus was the Christ (cf. 1 John 2:22). Some of them, like Cerinthus (cf. Iren. Adv. Haer. I.26.1), taught that Christ was only a spiritual principle that had indwelt the man Jesus and had abandoned him prior to the crucifixion. Other Gnostics denied that Jesus was human at all. This Jesus did not come in the flesh (1 John 4:2); he was "a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached" (2 Cor. 11:4, NIV). Why? Because he did not suffer and die on the cross. Gnostics - including those who wanted to call themselves "Christian" - scoffed at those who confessed the crucified Christ. Basilides, for example, taught that "If any one...confesses the crucified, that man is still a slave, and under the power of those [angels] who formed our bodies; but he who denies him has been freed from these beings" (Iren., Adv. Haer., I.24.4).

From this it should be apparent that 1 John 4:2 and 2 Corinthians 11:4 cannot justifiably be used as cudgels against the various forms of Trinitarianism, Binitarianism, Sabellianism, Arianism, or Socinianism - all of which affirm the humanity of Christ, and all of which affirm that Jesus Christ suffered, died, and rose again. The modern-day counterpart to the Gnostic Jesus is not the Jesus of historic Trinitarianism or Unitarianism, but the Jesus of the New Age Movement.

The divisive ("heretical") nature of the Gnostic teaching is apparent. Not only does it deny the basis of the gospel ("Jesus Christ and him crucified," 1 Cor. 2:2, NIV); it involves an equally pernicious ethic. Based on their conviction that spirit is good and matter is evil, the Gnostics retreated into either a narcissistic asceticism (as in Colossians and 1 and 2 Timothy) or a life of wanton hedonism (as in 1 and 2 Corinthians, 2 Peter, 1 John, and Jude). Both of these behaviors are incredibly divisive. Neither judgmental moralists nor selfish hedonists can incarnate the love of Christ.


The Basis of Heresy

Having briefly considered examples of heresy cited in the New Testament, we are in a position to consider the common basis of these divisive teachings. In every case, the New Testament standard which condemns heresy is the same: The cross of Christ. Whether Paul is combating vain Corinthian enthusiasm or pretentious Galatian Judaizing, he cites the truth of the cross (1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 3:1). The teachings of the heretics (the Gnostics and the Judaizers) were at odds with Christ crucified.

Understanding the basis for heresy helps us to understand the basis for true unity. The Scripture is clear on this point. The one non-negotiable doctrine of Christianity is the death and resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-3). As long as Christians can unite around that one focal point, we are united. Theologically, we can disagree about anything else. The apostles and the early Christians often disagreed, sometimes vehemently, and they had to work diligently to maintain their unity around that one focal point. The Judaizing issue threatened to tear the church apart at an early stage. Only spiritual toleration of peripheral differences could hold the universal church together (Rom. 14).

Paul's tolerant attitude toward disagreement manifested itself in many ways. In Philippians 1:15-18, Paul wrote that the ministries of other preachers should be appreciated, even though some of them were his rivals. In Philippians 3:15,16 he wrote that "if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained" (NIV).

Division always racks the body when other standards are elevated to the level of the cross. The Judaizers wanted the cross plus circumcision. If only all Christians would be required to confess Christ crucified and the Mosaic code, there would be unity. If only all Christians would be required to confess Christ crucified and a certain millennial theory, Christ crucified and a certain catechism or confession or statement of faith, then there would be unity.

These aspirations are myths. In the first place, Christians in their diversity are not able to come to this type of agreement. In the second place, when a group of Christians do finally reach uniformity, they inevitably find other things over which to disagree. That is the tragic legacy of creedal Christianity. The Apostles' Creed wasn't enough. Neither was the Nicene Creed, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Athanasian Creed, or any of the other hundreds of creeds that have been drawn up through the centuries. The moment a body of Christians agree on a creed, more differences emerge, and other creeds are drawn up to expand the anathemas. That is division (heresy) at its worst.


Unity, not Uniformity

From this it should be clear how Christian unity should be understood. Unity is not the same thing as uniformity. Jehovah's Witnesses have uniformity, but only at the expense of true unity. The New Testament model is unity in diversity (cf. 1 Cor. 12). There are many reasons for this. First, recognizing the validity of diversity preserves humility, whereas denying it fosters pride. "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought....Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body" (Rom. 12:3b-5a, NIV).

Second, inviting diversity enables us to challenge ourselves, to grow, and to improve our own understanding. "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Prov. 27:17). That could not happen if there were no disagreement.

Third, seeking unity in our diversity and our adversity enables us to achieve consensus and discern the mind of Christ (Matt. 18:15-20; cp. 1 Cor. 5:4). When Christians solve their differences and their problems together following the pattern of Philippians 2:1-4, placing others' interests above their own, they can reach a solution which benefits everyone and oppresses no one. This procedure is diametrically opposed to the democratic method of imposing the majority opinion on the entire body, which by its very nature is heretical. It also enables Christians to become better peacemakers (Matt. 5:9) and ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18). Notice in the context of this last Scripture that the ministry of reconciliation flows directly out of the cross of Christ (2 Cor. 5:11-21). The cross of Christ and the unity of the church are bound up together, as in Ephesians 2:14-16.

Fourth, recognizing diversity enables us to be clear about the basis of our true unity. This should not be construed as a "lowest common denominator" type of religion, but as a definitive statement about the meaning of the gospel. Christians who impute saving power to theologies and doctrinal certainties are often unclear themselves about what the gospel is. We who champion the virtues of Christian diversity can be far more clear. We claim solidarity "together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ - their Lord and ours" (1 Cor. 1:2b, NIV).



The verses of Scripture are not like stones to be lifted from their environment, loaded into our theological slings, and flung at our differing brothers and sisters in Christ. They can just as easily use the same hermeneutic against us. We dare not tear out the bricks of "God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone" (Eph. 2:19b-20, NIV). Paul warned the Galatians: "If you keep on biting and devouring one another, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other" (Gal. 5:15, NIV). We must never anathematize fellow disciples on the basis of differing doctrinal interpretations. Rather we must incarnate in our lives the reconciling love with which God brought us to himself through Christ, reaching out to other Christians in an effort to preserve Christian unity (hence fighting "heresy" or division) even as we extend God's forgiving love to the rest of the world which also needs to know Him (John 17:20-26).



1James D.G. Dunn and Alan M. Suggate, The Justice of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1993, p. 63.