Heresies would not get very far without being plausible and attractive. There must be some advantage in embracing heresy, something appealing to the mind, the heart, the will, that makes them worth believing.
I suspect that each particular form of heresy and false teaching contains elements that supply the motives for embracing them and rejecting orthodoxy. It is part of our pastoral and theological task to figure out what these elements are in each particular case. Sometimes the appeal is crass, as in the health and wealth gospel, at other times it is more sophisticated.
Back in 1998 I read The Cruelty of Heresy by Fitzsimons Allison. Strangely enough it was in the reduced section of a health and wealth bookstore, glinting away like a jewel in a dung heap. It has been by far the most stimulating book that I have read on the subject. Here's what he has to say:
We are susceptible to heretical teachings because, in one form or another, they nurture and reflect the way we would have it be rather then the way God has provided...heresies pander to the most unworthy tendencies of the human heart. It is astonishing how little attention has been given to these two aspects of heresy: its cruelty and its pandering to sin. (p. 17)Fitzsimons Allison applies this insight to adoptionism and docetism. Adoptionism imagines a Christ who is like us, only much more successful. This "Jesus" is top of the class and graduates to become the Son of God. This of course panders to our self-righteousness, to our thirst to achieve our own salvation. It reduces Jesus to the level of what can be reached by our guided efforts. Either that or, if we have some sense and measure of our own sinfulness, this "Jesus" crushes us by his unattainable achievements.
The docetic Christ, on the other hand, was not truly a man but only appeared to be. This is theological escapism at its worst. This version of Jesus corresponds our desire to flee from the trappings, reality, earthiness, and nitty gritty of life. Our humanity is simply too sinful for this spiritual Christ to partake of. Not only is this a bogus Christology, it is also a damning verdict on the very goodness of creation. This insight can help us understand why heresies spread.
There is a saying that "heresies are the unpaid debts of the church." In other words, the explanation for the existence of heresies should be laid at the door of the church. The church has failed to do its job properly. Perhaps some significant aspect of the whole counsel of God was omitted, or there was a perceived harshness and lovelessness on the part of the orthodox that has driven people into the arms of error.
In some cases this may have a measure of truth to it. But it does not work when, for example, we consider the rapid defection of the Galatian churches to another gospel, even though before their eyes Jesus had been clearly portrayed as crucified (Gal. 1:6-7; 3:1). It was not due to a defect in Paul's proclamation that error made inroads in Galatia. Perhaps in some cases the "unpaid debts" theory holds true as a contributing factor. However, as a sole or total explanation it should be discarded.
There is no logical reason why a reaction against a narrow or harsh orthodoxy automatically leads to the embracing of heterodox views (just as there is no justification for ungodly reactions if we are treated in ungodly ways). This is a false move.
Heresies give us what we want. The attraction of the psuedo-spirituality of the Colossian heretics and the legalism of the Judaizers in Galatia were not to be laid at Paul's feet as if his preaching (or that of Epaphras) was to blame. In Colosse the heady brew of legalism and mysticism that offered genuine fullness had "an appearance of wisdom" but was of "no value" (Col. 2:23).
Mystical and ascetic channels to communion with God fitted better with the aspirations of the fallen human heart. Paul offered union with Christ and his finshed work instead. The Judaizers offered the road to self-righteousness and the escape route from persecution (Gal. 6:11).
After all, what is Pelagianism (full fat or semi-skimmed) if not an outward theological justification for an inner spiritual drive?
Review some major theological errors and see if this explanation holds true.