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How Should We Treat Heretics?

I’ve had plenty of criticism from readers of my blog over the years, but years ago, after writing my post about why Christians should see the upcoming movie “Noah” I was surprised at the level of venom coming from Christians trying to “defend the faith.”  Sometimes it seems those trying to fight for doctrinal purity are the most angry and bitter people of all. There’s no question that doctrine is important, but the other side of that question is:

“How should we deal with people who disagree with our position on the Bible?

In Christianity Today magazine, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson wrote a feature called “Lament for a Divided Church.” In it, she dealt with our attitude toward those who appear to deviate from what we believe is correct Biblical doctrine. Here’s the most interesting part of her piece for me, and I’d love to hear your reaction:

Love the Heretic, Hate the Heresy

“What if enemies of Christ have snuck inside the gates? False teachers were condemned and sent away by the apostles; shouldn’t we do the same? Isn’t division preferable in certain cases? The matter finally comes down to how we view the “enemy” that the false teacher has become. Is the heretic an enemy like Satan, to be thrown into the lake of fire and tormented forever? Or one of the lost sheep whom Christ goes to great lengths to rescue, the ungodly for whom Christ died? The truth is, no heretic will recover from his heresy as long as the orthodox permanently reject him. And there’s always the possibility that buried beneath the heresy is a neglected shard of truth. Lutheran theologian Arthur Carl Piepkorn liked to say that heresies were Bußpredigten, meaning “repentance sermons”: They were rebukes to the mainstream church for overlooking some aspect of Christian truth and love. Sticking with enemies and heretics is not for the faint of Spirit. It means forgiving seventy times seven. It means humbly counting others more significant than yourself. It means blessing, not cursing, those who persecute you. It means, in short, doing unto others as Christ has done unto you.”

I wonder how that attitude would help us discuss doctrinal differences while maintaining the unity that Jesus died for?  At the very least, it might be a catalyst for more civil discussion online – even when it comes to what we believe are life or death issues.

What do you think?


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  1. As long as our enemy can keep the church jousting with windmills, polishing our armour, or fighting with each other, the unifying force and powerful community of grace and faith and acceptance is hobbled.

    Love the sinner, hate the sin. “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more” – someone important said this, because the words are in red.

    We are all, sinners, saved by grace. And while I’m still learning and growing (and making mistakes along the way), I strive to treat all that my Saviour treated me. With a loving acceptance of the “heretic”, but with the separation of the “heresy”. With the acceptance of the “sinner” and then encouraging them to “sin no more”.

    Yes, our church leaders must work to address the issue of unity, and do so in such a way that doesn’t “divide” the flock, or ostracise the “heretic”. And yes, the integrity of the biblical message and content must be maintained. There is a Biblical method for dealing with conflict within the church, so maybe, just maybe, we should be employing that?

    We, as Christians, should not be focussed on whether “I am of Paul”, or “I am of Apollos” – Titus 3:9 clues us in – “Do not get involved in foolish discussions about spiritual pedigrees or in quarrels and fights about obedience to Jewish laws. These things are useless and a waste of time.” Let’s keep the main thing the main thing.

    And while we may not agree on what the correct flower arrangement should be, we should be able to agree on this: There’s a lost and hurting world out there, that needs a Saviour.

    Steve – a beggar showing other beggars where to find some bread.

  2. This is a tough one for me Phil. As a pastor I do feel I should preach the truth. That sometimes requires “defending” it. I strive hard not to mention names from the pulpit, of both cult groups and especially individuals. I also wonder if the “hate the sin, love the sinner” has become an anathema phrase. I know we use it with the gay movement and they hate it. It has become hackneyed. Can we do the same with the heretic? I am far less judgmental than I used to be. I would have said “Kick them out” in my younger years, but now I am not so swift to do that. UNLESS it is blatant and they are attempting to teach it and spread it. Then I feel leadership should step up. I know I have several in the church I pastor who are advocates for the president’s party & all he stands for (which makes me cringe) but I choose to love them anyway. I’m sorry if this is so round robin but my thinking is not set in stone in this.

  3. Personally I think burning at the stake is too good for cinema heretics – ie people who text during the film.

    Sorry, wrong religion.

    How should we treat Christian “heretics”? I think it is the height of arrogance to assume we have all our doctrines completely correct, so we tell others they don’t at our extreme peril. Certain things are black and white no-brainers (ie believing in Jesus is the only way to be saved, etc) but Christians fall out over such petty, ridiculous things (disagreement on gifts of the spirit, end time theology, etc, etc). Frankly, the recent furore over the Noah film makes me tear out my hair in despair.

    So yes – we should all be kind and Christlike to one another, regardless of our doctrinal differences.

    Unless people are texting in a cinema of course. In such a case, bring on the angry mob…

  4. “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, rdo not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, 11 for whoever greets him stakes part in his wicked works.” (2 John 1:10)

  5. Latimer, Cranmer, Ridley, Tyndale. Sometimes the heretics of the day become the church heroes of tomorrow.

  6. AMEN to the perspective of believing that Christians who disagree with us may be people on a different part of their spiritual journey! I am seeing the growing need for Christians to give one another more GRACE. For not only our family, to not be divided, but for the non-believers to to see who Jesus is by seeing our love for one another! As my husband reminds me: There are no vacancies in the Trinity! It’s not up to us to get angry at others who aren’t doing it our our way. Judgment is the job of the Holy Spirit. Let’s pray for the people who we disagree with.

  7. I feel like some people need to grow up. None of us have 100% absolute truth. Otherwise we would all agree on every detail as it pertains to biblical doctrine. There are some who holds beliefs that push the envelope with me but as long as they are rooted in the bible and I can see fruit on their tree I chose to include them in my circle of love.

  8. Remember that to the religious leaders of his time, Jesus was considered an Heretic.
    We must also remember “…the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13)
    Peter and Paul had disagreements, but they respected each other and worked it out. A Church divided is a weak church, and a Church that tries to sit in judgement of our culture is a church that can’t change our culture.
    And finally, to those who think they have it all figured out and are better than the rest of us, pride is a sin too.

  9. interesting timing, Phil. Greg Boyd and I are writing a joint article on the H-bomb. how ‘heresy’ is used compared to what it meant in the early church and the NT. in short, ‘heresy’ and ‘heretical’ for the NT authors was more a practice than a belief. It was the act of causing division in a local assembly. sometimes this was done through pushing a false doctrine, but it could also be done with a truth, when used in a divisive way. The Corinthians, for instance, were dividing over their favorite apostle. ‘Heresy’ is listed in Paul’s works of the flesh lists in Galatians because chiefly its an action rather than an idea. Later in church history it came to mean any teaching that ran contrary to the creeds. Consequently, so many beliefs today fall within the realm of orthodoxy (the creeds say nothing about them) and yet those beliefs are routinely called ‘heretical’ by certain Christian subgroups. It’s a fascinating topic for sure and one worthy of exploration.

    1. Incredibly insightful Frank, and I can’t wait for the article. I agree that in MANY cases, the differences between the early church and today are dramatic. Different cultural context, political atmosphere, etc. As a result, we can’t automatically assume our experience trumps all others….
      Thanks so much for this!

  10. Mr. Cooke
    The level of venom you received does not surprise me at all. Most Christians cannot or will not accept those who believe as they do, even if they too are Christians.

    Not sure that can ever be reconciled.

  11. Something you stated is totally being overlooked. If we do not support Christian Film as a whole no money will be thrown into making more. Let’s take what the enemy means for harm and use it for Gods glory. Even if we know the message is not 100% accurate in a film does it not lead to open discussions at the water cooler. If the “Industry” as a whole sees there is money to be made in Christian film and a demand for it we will see a shift happen.

  12. You can’t rightly influence anyone you cut off, now can you?
    God’s really good at fixing up bad theology if we’re good at building bridges to Him.

    Now putting that person on staff and giving them a microphone?…that’s a different issue.

    It’s funny how we’ll bring God to any sinner, heretic and unbeliever in the public square, but if they want to come into our buildings and lives they have to bring themselves to God first.

  13. Yes the Pharisees are still with us. For them the inerrant word as written in the Bible is more important than getting people into the kingdom. The Gospels were written in simple every day Greek for everyone! Will I be going to see Noah YES and I will taking my friends and neighbours.

  14. Could n’t agree more with… maintaining the unity that Jesus died for us and the attitude in dealing with the differences.

    What disturbs me is how Christians present themselves as a divided group. it’s a bad picture when unbelievers look at us. It’s heart breaking that we bring the disagreements and doctrinal differences online and in trying to defend our faith we end up criticizing our own publicly.

    We see where the furore about the movie Noah springs from.

    I do hope nevertheless that we’d appreciate the movie, the storytelling technique and the production of this massive christian film as a matter of pride and an opportunity to share.

  15. I hope this helps a little to show proof of what Gods truth has always been from before the foundation of the world. His Grace 7 Mercy towards all mankind….this is the picture i see and have been revealed by the holy spirit., i hope it will help in understanding what this life is about, and what it ought to be amongst Gods people in reaching out to the lost.

    Chad Holtz is a Methodist pastor who was asked to resign by members of his rural North Carolina congregation after he questioned the Christian dogma of an “eternal hell.” Holtz had made positive remarks about the bestseller book Love Wins, written by Rob Bell, another pastor who questions the existence of “hell.” (Bell was the focus of the cover of the April 25, 2011 issue of TIME Magazine, captioned “What If There’s No Hell?”)

    Holtz agreed to leave his church in what he termed a “divorce.” In an interview published online Holt said, “We do these somersaults to justify the monster god we believe in … Am I really going to be saved just because I believe something, when all these good people in the world aren’t?”

    Mind you, Holtz is not saying that God is a monster. Rather, he’s simply pointing out that orthodox Christianity makes God seem like a monster by claiming he’ll condemn billions of people to an “eternal hell” for not “believing” in Jesus, when he could have saved them by grace. But how can a God who chooses to remain hidden demand human belief? That is patently unfair. If a man refused to introduce himself to other people, then started torturing them for not “believing” in him, we’d lock him up and throw away the key. But as I intend to prove, if you will bear with me, the Bible itself contradicts the idea that God ever said that anyone would go to an “eternal hell.” In fact, if we read the Bible chronologically from the beginning of Genesis to the end of the book of Acts (the self-recorded history of the early Christian church), we will not find a single verse in which God or any Hebrew prophet or Jesus or any apostle ever mentioned a place called “hell.”

    This is true because the words Sheol, Hades and Gehenna do not mean “hell.” The Hebrew word Sheol clearly means “the grave” or “the abode of all the dead, good and bad.” The Greek word Hades also means “the grave” or “the abode of all the dead, good and bad.” Gehenna is a physical valley in Israel, not “hell.”

    According to the Bible “hell” clearly did not preexist and just as clearly was never created. Did evil-minded men begin damning other people to “hell” in the name of God? Yes, they did. But they cobbled their hellish verses into the Bible so clumsily that they forget to insert fictitious verses announcing the creation of “hell”! Such a colossal blunder could only have been made by fallible men, not an all-wise God.


    If we consider the Bible as a whole, from multiple angles, it becomes obvious that “hell” was created by human beings, not God. Where is there any verse in the Bible that clearly announced the creation or purpose of “hell”? There are no such verses anywhere in the Bible. The Bible is completely, absolutely silent about the most important event in human history (if it actually occurred): the creation of a place called “hell” and the change of the ultimate penalty from death to eternal damnation.

    How could a loving, wise, just God create an “eternal hell” yet never once mention its creation and purpose to any of his prophets or apostles? How could God cause or allow billions of people to suffer for all eternity when they died knowing nothing about the Bible, Jesus or “hell”? Why would God save “the chosen few” by grace, but deny any chance of grace to billions of people who never heard of Jesus?

    “All for one and one for all” … Jesus came to take away the sin of the world and Religion says he failed !!!

    Paul says jesus accomplished what the fathers will was , namely the restoration of all things so that God would be all in all. Can’t be all in all if billions are being eternally tormented .!

    1 Cor 15 restitution of all who have been created. In CHRIST ALL are vilified (greek for ‘made alive’ )

    Otherwise God would have destroyed them through death which is the only sentence he placed upon mankind in Genesis 2v16. Wages of sin = DEATH


    CHRIST PAID IT ALL…. Therefore the Debt is gone completely ? We don’t owe anything to God as its not by anything we did or didn’t do that CHRIST became our sin beater ? He took our place and set us free ..!

    Question: is JESUS not much greater than ADAM and SATAN ? Are you certain ? Is the father and the Holy Spirit greater and more powerful ?

    Is God a liar then? HE SAYS IN 1 TIMOTHY 4v 10 : HE IS THE SAVIOUR OF ALL MEN? He couldn’t possibly say this and it not be true?

    Phillippinnes 2 v10 says : At the name of JESUS , every knee shall bow , and every tongue confess that JESUS is Lord to the glory of the father.

    How could this be so of billions were going to be ETERNALLY TORMENTED … And why would that be justified seeing as we only live but a short time ?

    Is that JUST and is that LOVE which is supposed to be UNCONDITIONAL!

    Study to prove yourselves the bible clearly says…. Much more evidence thy God is what he says he is …. ALL LOVING , ALL POWERFUL AND ALL KNOWING. DO WE BELIEVE GOD OR MAN? Blessed and Free in CHRIST`S Love, forever and ever .

  16. If the Bible has all the Truth, why would we accept doctrines contrary to the doctrines of Christ and the Apostles? It’s like accepting the Pharisees’ heretic doctrines, their mixed quasi-Babylonianism, they brought back from captivity. Israel and Judah were heretic before God judged them and carried them away.

    When they were back in the land during Christ’s time on earth, they were not following the Word of God, Moses and the Prophets. Rather, they were practicing a false religion based on their “halakah”, their oral traditions, their interpretation of God’s Word. It was totally polluted! This is why Christ was always so frustrated and angry with them.

    The Bible says that after the 1st and 2nd admonition, we are to reject heretics. Titus 3:10. Paul also tells us to not even eat with professing believers caught up in sin. So if you have a “sister” at church who is intimate with her boyfriend (God calls this “fornication”), or a “brother” in the faith who is involved in pornography (Jesus calls this formication/adultery-looking on a woman….), we are not to associate with them. 1 Cor. 5:11-13.

    Why is the BIble so unimportant to so many professing believers? I guess Jesus was not joking when He said most people are going to hell, including most professing Christians. Mt. 7:13-24.

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