Discerning the Difference Between Theological Error and Heresy

Josh Buice

photo of eyeglasses on book page

The church for generations, in fact from the very beginning, has experienced fights, feuds, differences of opinions, skirmishes, and theological wars over doctrinal error. In many cases throughout history, the church has been forced to deal with these issues in a way that demands separation from those who hold to false doctrine. Such separation necessitates a clear label as a warning to everyone. That label has been properly designated as heresy.

Not all error is heresy, but all heresy is error. Understanding the difference will prevent unnecessary separation and will enable the church to maintain unity and purity at the very same time.

It’s critically important to exercise wisdom in how we approach doctrinal error. Not all error is heresy, but all heresy is error. Understanding the difference will prevent unnecessary separation and will enable the church to maintain unity and purity at the very same time.

What Is Heresy?

A number of years ago, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor at Wheaton College, caused a great brouhaha as she dressed in a traditional Muslim hijab during the advent season.  Hawkins is a professing Christian, but she also posted some troubling remarks on her Facebook page indicating that she believes that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. She wrote the following:

Please find a cogent analysis of the basis for my claim in the link below–as well as a convincing argument for why asserting our religious solidarity with Muslims and Jews will go a long way toward quelling religious violence and enervating religionist fear of the religious other. Whether or not you find this position, one held for centuries by countless Christians (church fathers, saints, and regular Christian folk like me), to be valid, I trust that we can peacefully disagree on theological points and affirm others like the Triune God (albeit there are differences here as well–Athanasian Creed, anyone?), the virgin birth (or Immaculate Conception depending on your persuasion), and the Resurrection. Let there be unity in our diversity of views about all of the above.

In the wake of the controversy, she wrote:

I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.

Dr. Larycia Hawkins would eventually lose her job on the basis of her doctrinal error. Although several newspapers and media outlets tried to spin the issue as racism, the reason why Dr. Hawkins, a black woman who was a tenured professor at Wheaton College, lost her job was because she embraced theological error of the highest order. In short, Dr. Hawkins is a heretic. Heresy demands separation. Such separation is necessary in academic spheres as well as the sphere of the local church (Matt 18:15-20).

Heresy is theological error of the highest order. It’s the most severe theological error because it attacks the necessary truths about God and the work of redemption that are necessary in order to be a Christian.

Heresy is theological error of the highest order. It’s the most severe theological error because it attacks the foundational truths about God and the work of redemption that are necessary in order to be a Christian. The core doctrines of the faith that are necessary for someone to embrace in order to be a Christian include doctrines such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, justification by faith alone in Christ alone for salvation, and the inspiration of Scripture (the Bible as a whole is the very word of God) to name a few.

If someone denies these key doctrines or one of these key doctrines, they would be outside of the bounds of orthodoxy and should be classified as a heretic. At times, heresy and error are separated by a large chasm. In other cases, the dividing line that separates a heretic from a Christian seems very thin. In circumstances where the border may not seem as obvious, false teachers can use this as a means of advancing forward into the church and creating confusion. In Galatians, Paul wrote a letter to the church to warn them and to correct them regarding theological error of the highest order. Paul’s words are piercing.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. [9] As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed (Gal 1:6-9).

What separated the Judaizers from true Christianity was one little word: alone. They embraced the doctrine of the Trinity—that God eternally exists as one God in three Persons. They aligned with the church on the deity of Christ. They believed and preached the bodily resurrection of Jesus. But, they refused to embrace justification by faith alone in Christ alone. They added circumcision to the work of Jesus—which is heresy. All heresy demands separation. Therefore, Paul admonished the church and demanded that they separate from such people. Paul’s words are heavy, but necessarily so as he defends the gospel of Jesus Christ and the faith once delivered to the saints. What the Judaziers called truth, Paul labeled as error worthy of anathema.

Heresy is a technical term reserved for theological error that denies foundational Christian doctrine necessary for salvation. It should not be thrown around lightly. In Titus 3:10, we find these words, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.” The KJV renders the Greek word “αἱρετικός” as heretic. The ESV translates it as, “stirs up division.” The KJV prefers the title, more of a transliteration, while the ESV prefers the definition of the term or the function of the title. Both are correct, and the idea is that a heretic stirs up division in the church by a denial of the truth.

When a person is labeled as a heretic and excommunicated from the local church, the body of Christ is communicating that they have no credible reason to believe the person is in the faith and they can no longer embrace the person as a brother or sister in Christ.

When a person is labeled as a heretic and excommunicated from the local church, the body of Christ is communicating that they have no credible reason to believe the person is in the faith and they can no longer embrace the person as a brother or sister in Christ. They are to be treated as a heretic. While the goal in the Christian life is not separation, sometimes separation is necessary. There are two main forms of separation that are required depending on the two different categories of error.

Primary Issue Separation

In some cases, the church must remove an erring member who persists in sin and refuses to repent (Matt 18:15-20). This is what we would call primary separation. It’s separation in an official capacity based on primary issues of the faith. In other cases, a doctrinal controversy demands an official doctrinal statement to provide light and clarity on the dividing line of heresy. We have seen this throughout history such as with the Arian heresy regarding the Trinity. Such a controversy resulted in a creed that communicates the following truths about Jesus:

God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made (Nicene Creed—325 AD).

When Christians separate from a person who holds doctrines that contradict primary issues of the faith, they are intending to label that person (in a local church setting) or people (in a more broad sphere) as heretical (unorthodox and outside of the Christian faith). R.C. Sproul explains the need for such separation as he once wrote:

The church has always had to deal with heresy, and the church has always made a distinction between heresy and error. This is a distinction not of kind but of degree. The church is always plagued with errors or at least some members who are in error in their thinking and in their beliefs. But when an error becomes so serious that it threatens the very life of the church and affects the essentials of the Christian faith, then the church has to stand up and say, “This is not what we believe. This false belief is heresy and cannot be tolerated within the visible church.” Historically, that’s what has happened with conflicts over theology.1R.C. Sproul, “The Church is One

Secondary Issue Separation

While all heresy demands separation from God’s church, not all error demands the same type of separation. At every G3 National Conference, we enjoy rich fellowship between both Baptists and Presbyterians. In fact, there is an array of various traditions in attendance at the G3 Conference. We maintain a healthy fellowship as we come together under the grand banner of the gospel. Although we assemble in conferences together we remain separated on the Lord’s Day as we gather in the context of our local churches. This is what we refer to as secondary issue separation.

Secondary issue separation is not to be confused with “secondary separation” which is the general practice of separating from people who do not separate themselves from individuals or groups who have been classified as heretics or engaging in unrepentant sin.

Within the sphere of evangelicalism as a whole, there are voices that will critique you for not separating enough and other voices that will critique you for separating at any level. In recent years, G3 has been forced to separate from certain individuals and organizations who have chosen to take a different approach to social justice. In some cases, that has resulted in open critique of me personally (since I’m the president of G3). Some critics have labeled me as a purist or separatist or as I wrote in a recent post—a fundamentalist. Sometimes separation is a good thing, but it doesn’t always mean that by such separation we are anathematizing the person or organization. It’s a decision based on wisdom and the care of the local churches that we aim to serve.

On matters of secondary issue separation on a local church level, individual Christians will join and worship in different churches on the basis of theological convictions, positions, ministry philosophy, and a variety of other reasons while at the same time maintaining a Christian friendship. Someone who embraces the regulative principle of worship is not going to join a church that has a ministry philosophy built upon a normative principle of worship.

A certain Christian unity can exist among diversity in the broader sphere while necessitating separation at the local church level.

Doctrine matters and secondary issue separation although necessary at times, does not mandate that churches in the same community label one another as heretics because they differ on the regulative principle of worship. A certain Christian unity can exist among diversity in the broader sphere while necessitating separation at the local church level.

A Call for Charity and Wisdom

When it comes to theological division in the church, we must exercise both wisdom and charity. It’s unwise to walk around your house in the summer with a sledge hammer smashing furniture to kill flies. There’s a much better approach. It’s also necessary to treat poisonous snakes differently than little harmless flies. The ultimate goal of the Christian life is a commitment to truth which will produce unity among Christians, but there are dividing lines within the faith that necessitate separation.

In some cases, it’s possible for a person to espouse heretical doctrine while not being a true heretic in the technical sense. If the person is teachable and willing to be corrected, that individual should be embraced as a brother or sister in the faith. In other words, wisdom tells us that we should not be too quick to brand someone as a heretic necessitating primary separation without properly assessing their positions.

When it comes to theological division in the sphere of evangelicalism, we must likewise exercise both wisdom and charity. In some cases, it’s possible for a person to hold to what may be considered error but does not necessitate primary separation. It’s possible to be charitable with brothers and sisters in Christ over non-essential issues of the faith—even if those issues are important matters of theology.

When it comes to the apostolic gifts, eschatology, Calvinism, and a host of other theological issues that fall in the category of important doctrine, a certain amount of charity is necessary among Christians. Wisdom tells us that we are to view differences on baptism differently than we would view positions on abortion. The issues of egalitarianism and head coverings will require different levels of separation. The issues of critical race theory and intersectionality (CRT/I) mandate a different level of separation than one’s position on the consumption of alcohol. Wisdom enables us to make such distinctions.   

The call of the Christian life involves the pursuit of wisdom (Prov 4:1-9), but not just any wisdom—biblical wisdom that enables a person to discern between a theological skirmish and a theological war. There is a difference between error and heresy.

Wisdom demands that we not only know the difference between error and heresy, but that we likewise openly oppose heresy. It’s not enough to merely recognize heresy. It must be opposed. R.C. Sproul writes:

Relativism says this: “truth is what you perceive it to be, and what is true for you may be false for somebody else.”  In our present society, you’re perfectly free to believe whatever you like, but the one thing you may not do is to deny its antithesis.  You can say, “I believe that this is true.”  But you cannot say with impunity that that which opposes it is false.  We have a whole generation of Christians who have been brainwashed by the spirit of relativism so they’re completely hesitant to say, “I deny that error over there.”  We don’t have heresy trials anymore because, in relativism, there is no such thing as heresy.2R.C. Sproul, Feed My Sheep, ed. Don Kistler, (Soli Deo Gloria Ministries, 2002), 144.

Understanding the battle lines are important in the Christian faith, and such knowledge requires wisdom. The call of the Christian life involves the pursuit of wisdom (Prov 4:1-9), but not just any wisdom—biblical wisdom that enables a person to discern between a theological skirmish and a theological war. There is a difference between error and heresy.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

References

References
1 R.C. Sproul, “The Church is One
2 R.C. Sproul, Feed My Sheep, ed. Don Kistler, (Soli Deo Gloria Ministries, 2002), 144.
Author photo of eyeglasses on book page

Josh Buice

Pastor Pray's Mill Baptist Church

Josh Buice is the founder and president of G3 Ministries and serves as the pastor of Pray's Mill Baptist Church on the westside of Atlanta. He enjoys theology, preaching, church history, and has a firm commitment to the local church. He also enjoys many sports and the outdoors including long distance running and high country hunting. He has been writing on Delivered by Grace since he was in seminary and it has expanded with a large readership through the years.