Friday, November 27, 2009

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Heretics

The following is from the Against Heresies archive and was taken from a paper I gave at a ministerial conference:

A word about the title of this series of posts. It is of course a twist on best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Given that heretics twist things I can't see any problem with my spin on the title.

We recognise that there are different types of error

Not all errors fall into the same category of seriousness, and they are not equal in the damage that they can do. For example, John Wesley's views on holiness (and of course the offshoots in the various forms of Higher Life teaching) were wrong, and because they were wrong they were pastorally damaging.

This defective version of holiness created false expectations about the nature of the Christian life. These expectations were of course never realised. However, even though this is an error it is not heresy. On account of this error, and we might add a few others, we would not regard Wesley as a heretic.

What then is heresy?

Michael Horton helpfully describes it as "any teaching that directly contradicts the clear and direct witness of the Scriptures on a point of salvific importance." The late Harold O. J. Brown said that heresy:
Designated either a doctrine or the party holding the doctrine, a doctrine that was sufficiently intolerable to destroy the unity of the Christian church. In the early church, heresy did not refer to simply any doctrinal disagreement, but to something that seemed to undercut the very basis for Christian existence. (Heresies, p. 2)
Heresy is the kind of doctrinal error that is so serious that it redefines the very nature of the Christian faith.

We also recognise that there are different types of people who fall into, or who embrace and propagate error.

In an unpublished paper given at a B.E.C. conference the late Rev. Robert Sheehan helpfully talked about how in the New Testament there are five kinds of people who are in error, and five different responses to those errors by the apostles. They are:

1. The sincerely ignorant
2. The sincere misinterpreter
3. The temporarily inconsistent
4. The deceived
5. The deceivers

There are those who are sincerely ignorant, as Apollos was in Acts 18:24-28. He was eloquent, competent in the Scriptures, and instructed in the way of the Lord. Luke says that he taught accurately the things concerning Jesus. But there was something missing, and when Priscilla and Aquila heard him they explained to him the way of God more accurately. Apollos was in error but not denounced for it. He was teachable and led into further usefulness in ministry.

Others sincerely misinterpret things. They don't want to be in error but they have misunderstood the teaching of the Bible on a particular point (we will come back to this later). Sheehan cites 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 as an example of this.

Then there are the temporarily inconsistent. This is Peter at Antioch whom Paul had to oppose. Peter was not regarded as unregenerate, but his conduct (not his teaching) was not in step with the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:11-14).
So we recognise that there are different kinds of error, different people who are involved in them, and different ways of handling those errors and people.

What about handling truth and error in our ministries?

Since we are committed to the exposition of God's Word we will be dealing with teaching on error as it arises in the text. If we are preaching through Colossians we will explain the features of the type of error troubling the church there, and how to respond to it. This commitment to exposition should prevent the pulpit from being preoccupied with error, or to shy away from confronting it. As Gresham Machen noted, the New Testament books are filled with conflicts with error and the need for churches to go on holding to the truth.

We will also need to deal with error when it becomes a clear and present danger to our churches. At times we will need the courage to name and shame heretics, as Paul did in 2 Timothy 2:17, and not be content with general descriptions of their errors. Calvin said that ministers have two voices, one for the sheep and one for the wolves. We need to wisely discern how to do this in pastoral ministry today.

Having said all this by way of introduction, in these posts I want to deal with the highly effective habits of heretics. There are plenty of books, ancient and modern, that deal with heresies in an A-Z fashion. I want to look at the practices, the behaviour, the habits of heretics.

What are they doing in relation to the truth? How do they behave in and among churches? Think of the way that Paul describes them as swerving from the truth (2 Tim. 2:18), and of wandering into vain discussion (1 Tim. 1:6). Peter describes false teachers secretly, as opposed to openly, introducing destructive heresies. In Galatians the false teachers fawn over the believers. Paul says "They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them" (Gal. 4:17).

As we go through the seven habits (and there could be many more) please excuse me if I do not state the obvious. Of course heretics will be manipulative and authoritarian. I want to press beyond the general description of that manipulation and look at some specific habits where this is


Paul G said...


Any chance of Bob Sheehan's paper becoming available. Would it be suitable for publication in Foundations?

Paul G

Martin Downes said...

I will make some enquiries. It is a certainly a very useful read. A postscript to it would also be good.