How can I tell the difference between a false teacher and a heretic?

On December 28th, 2021, I released an article titled It Is Time to Call Out False Teachers. The article, to my amazement, spread quite quickly across social media and other platforms as clearly, individuals wanted to understand what was going on with the Church of God and restoration. More specifically, what was my issue with well-known Canadian pastor Henry Hildebrandt? Because of its widespread reach, my inbox and private messages on social media are filling up with questions asking whether we should call out false teachers by name or leave it alone for the sake of unity? What is the difference between a false teacher and a heretic? Because of feedback, I want to clarify the difference between a false teacher and a heretic so that we see what is essential and what is an is not an attack. 

First, when discussing false teaching, it is vital to remember the root of the problem, which is false teachers. But false teachers are not always heretics. I say this because experience has shown me and many others that when starting in Christian ministry or, more specifically, in preaching ministry, there will be times when error occurs. Perhaps one missed text interpretation or too wide of an application point was made. Even the slippery slope may have caused one to move from exegesis (the exposition/explanation of a text based on careful Scriptural analysis) to eisegesis (Leading out of the interpretation, moving into their own conclusion). Moving past this, as Christians, we know a false teacher by technical terms in Holy Scripture. His name  is Apollos. He was a native to Alexandria, and while he was in Ephesus, he displayed a knowledge of Holy Scripture. We read that he was instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke powerfully and accurately, but he only knew the baptism of John. Priscilla and Aquila heard his preaching, so they invited him to their home; they explained to him the way of God more adequately and then he was sent on his way (Acts 18:24-28). So though technically, at that time in his life, he was teaching falsely and technically could be called a false teacher, we do not necessarily apply that. Why? Because Apollos was open to correction. So when dealing with a false teacher, we must remain focused that a false teacher is a person who is not open to correction and resists the correction when they are made aware of their error.

Now, false teaching and heresy often are in tandem. 2 Peter 2:1 “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” Reading this text, we understand pretty quickly that when individuals teach falsely, it moves into heresy when they attack the very core teachings of Jesus Christ. Paul had to deal with this often. The false teachers in his context were those scribes and Pharisees coming behind him in his ministry to quarrel about genealogies and to have all these useless debates. Titus 3:10 Paul warns that a divisive person once is to be warned, then a second time. After that, we are to have nothing to do with them. Why? Paul says, “you may be sure that such people are warped and sinful and self-condemned.”

Again, therefore we must be careful. If we are talking to a false teacher and correcting them and they are open to the correction, and we see a maturing in their understanding of Scripture, it could mean they are simply in error. They are growing, and we do not need to charge them of heresy. However, if they consistently refuse to see the errors of their way, action needs to be taken. Dr. Robert Godfrey does say it well, 

classically the word heresy was used to describe those theological errors so serious that it would deprive one of salvation.[1]

There is a high level of importance here. First, we should understand that not every argument or disagreement in Christianity is heresy. Second, not every teaching is false; not every opinion is an error. However, the serious issue is the defiance of being orthodox. When one uses the term orthodox, they mean is the teaching/understanding correct? Do specific doctrines of the Christian faith match historical understanding?

For example, we say what is essential to the Christian faith when we use the term orthodox. So, in short, the essentials of the Christian faith would be the Deity of Jesus Christ or the person-hood of Christ being truly God truly man, how salvation is a work of God’s grace alone and not by the works of man. Therefore salvation is only through Jesus Christ alone. Another essential aspect of the Christian faith is the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Gospel as articulated within Holy Scripture. Lastly, the Trinitarian understanding of who God is. I will break these down quickly for us. 

The deity of Jesus Christ and the Trinitarian understanding of who God is is complex. In Deuteronomy 6:4 we read, “Hear oh Israel the Lord our God the Lord is One .” So the Christian does not deny the monotheistic revelation of who God is in Scripture. However, the Christian understands that this one God has been revealed in Holy Scripture to exist eternally in three co-equal persons (Matt 28:19, 1 Cor 8:6, John 14:26). So, the Christian affirms the doctrine of the Trinity as one God in essence and three in person. The importance of this is first and foremost is the deity of Jesus Christ. He is not simply a prophet or a wise teacher but so much higher. He is God Incarnate or God veiled in human flesh (Col 3:15-20). The doctrine of the Trinity also teaches us that through the work of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us is also God himself working our sanctification so that we are conforming to the image of Christ (Rom 8:29, Eph 4:24). When one teaches contrary to this essential truth and refuses to be corrected through Scripture, historical Christian councils, through creeds and confessions, they are moving towards and potentially already in heresy.[2]

The second essential truth is that salvation through Jesus Christ alone. Suppose you have attended a service at the Mill or watched online. In that case, you will know that we almost weekly declare that salvation is by grace through faith alone. To deny salvation is only found in Jesus is extremely dangerous and absolutely false. Acts 4:12 “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (ESV) Jesus was clear in John 14-6 when He said, “I am the way the truth end the life no one comes to the Father except through me.” This means it is not contingent on the church, and it is not contingent on a man. It is not contingent on the Pope or the Roman Catholic system nor contingent on works or personal merit. Salvation is only through Jesus Christ. When someone teaches anything contrary to this truth and refuses to be corrected, they are a heretic. [3]

Covering this, we come to the essential teaching of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Remember, the resurrection is not some second or third-tier area of importance, but it is a first-level paramount belief. The resurrection is so essential that the apostle Paul says, “if Christ had not been raised our preaching is in vain, and our faith is in vain” 1 Corinthians 15:14. The resurrection of Christ is our assurance that Jesus is indeed God. It is the demonstration of God’s power and His glory. If one questions, attacks or denies the resurrection of Jesus Christ, they deny that Christ’s earthly ministry was not satisfactory and therefore there is no salvation. Like the other two essentials, if someone is teaching in error and falsely on this and refuses to be corrected, they are a heretic.[4]

The last one I want to touch on is the Gospel; the Gospel is the message that is found in 1 Corinthians 15:1- 4. Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures that he was buried; he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. This is the message in which we are to proclaim. We are not to preach any false gospel. We are not to preach anything that would take away the necessity of coming to faith in Christ alone. There is a reason Paul says “if anyone preaches another gospel than the one you received, they are to be accursed (Galatians 1:8-9). When someone preaches the Gospel, they preach about the life of Christ, his death upon the cross at Calvary, the propitiation for our sins and that He is the resurrection of life and is coming again. This is the central theme of the Christian message; for someone to attack this or alter this message, it’s not just false but can lead to all sorts of heresy. For example, Christ died to come and give us health, wealth and prosperity.

So, what sorts of heresy do we see today from certain teachers? I will list some here, with each hyperlinked to a specific article to help understand the heretical position. The first one is Anti-Pualism this is the belief that the apostle Paul was a heretic. Those who believe that Paul’s teachings or epistles should not be part of the New Testament Canon. There is also that of Arianism. This is the belief that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were lesser than God the Father. Such teaching holds that both were created beings and not persons within the Godhead. Some individuals feel that God no longer intervenes or interacts with his people or the world that would be Christian deism. Inclusivism teaches that faith is not a necessity for salvation because of God’s mercy. In short, if you took it to the whole end of this understanding, many individuals will be saved. Nestorianism; the belief that Jesus was two distinct people. One Heretical teaching significantly impacting the internet today is teachers holding to the teaching of Modalism. Here, there is a denial of the Trinity and that God is not three distinct persons but three different aspects of God. Some may disagree, but another Heresy is the prosperity gospel which attacks the essence of the gospel message itself regarding health, wealth and prosperity. Pluralism is the belief that two or more religions can be true simultaneously. We see this significantly today with those declaring that Islam and Christians essentially worship the same God, which any Christian should absolutely reject. Lastly, as the list is getting too exhaustive, Kenosis; in which Jesus ceased to be divine while upon this earth.[5]

Sadly, many of these heresies are finding their way back into the Christian Church. Even though historically the ecumenical councils have dealt with these issues, individuals trying to be hip, relevant, new, different or whatever are reintroducing old heresies that have long been extinguished.

With all this and going back to the original statement, I called out Henry Hildebrandt, Ray Tinsman and the Church of God Restoration movement because they fit both false teaching and heretical. They spoke in their own words that salvation is through their self-appointing apostles. Through their movement, they teach they have the authority to write Scripture. (See Here)When theologians questioned them about this, CoG, have not made any public correction about the false teaching. Since individuals belonging to and are entrusting this movement for their salvation, it is most serious. Since the Gospel is being attacked, these men must be called out by name.

In my preaching ministry from the pulpit, I have called men out by name not because they were in error, not because I disagreed with them, but because what they were teaching was examined and questioned by many sound theological minds within Protestant Christianity and deemed false teaching or heretical. Why? Such (false) teachers refused to be corrected. Either through ignorance, pride or both, they chose their positions and heresy over truth. 

For example, Rob Bell[6], famous for his book love wins, moves into the areas of universalism and teaches that everyone will go to heaven. Creflo Dollar teaches a polluted theological prosperity heresy which twists and alters the message of what Christ came to do and ties it into the fact of a holy anointing of health, wealth and prosperity[7]. Steven Furtick, who is puffed up in his ego and has more so in the last few years, attacks the very Gospel of Jesus Christ. [8] Though Furtick has been corrected by so many people on the public forum, he goes deeper in the pit. Benny Hinn is not only a prosperity teacher, not only one who is hyper charismatic but has made false prophecies and false declarations of the Holy Spirit. He has attacked the very message of Christ in his ministry.[9] TD Jakes openly calls himself and prides himself in being a Oneness Pentecostal, which we would determine as Modalism.[10] Yet people watch his ministry, and buy his books even though he denies the Trinity and how God has revealed himself in Holy Scripture. Kenneth Copeland, Jesse Duplantis and Joyce Meyer hold to the prosperity teaching. Who  have openly taught the little god theology and attack aspects of the atonement [11].

These are the areas we need to focus on. So dear Christian, I hope that when you read authors and blog posts in different articles or hear other teachers, you are not so quick to automatically yell and scream heretic or even false teachers. The balance is difficult. We must ensure, first and foremost, that we give each person an opportunity to articulate their positions and work through difficult doctrinal positions. We all are maturing in our own lives and ministries. But, at the same time, we must not – ever tolerate individuals who absolutely refuse to be corrected. When one is by proper definition a false teacher, providing false teaching, (and heresy) they  must be treated like poison in the water well.

By going through this article, I hope it has helped you understand a little more why faithful preachers need to once again thunder from the pulpits all attacks against Christ and his glorious Gospel. We do not need to worry about cancel culture; if people do not want to listen to us or ignore us-so be it, but at least we will be faithful in our due diligence to ensure that those who are attacking the core doctrines of the Christian faith will be held accountable. Those sitting in the pews will also understand it’s not safe nor wise to go after such men or women.

As always, I appreciate the feedback and please feel free to email me any questions you may have regarding this article or any other article that we put out here at the Mill Christian fellowship

In His Grace

Pastor Steve

___________________

1. How do you define Heresy? Robert Godfrey -Ligonier

2. For Further reading please visit https://www.monergism.com/topics/trinity

3. To learn more, please visit Grace to You, The Doctrines of Grace

4. To understand more about the importance of the Resurrection please visit Reformed Theological Seminary – Why the Resurrection Matters.

5. To research more, please visit the List of Heresy from Monergism.

6. To learn more, read  Is Rob Bell Teaching Universalism? Are People saved After Death? Alex Carmichael. Christian Apologetic Research Ministry.

7. To learn more read The False Teacher Creflo Dollar. By Tim Challies

8. To learn more read Steven Furtick. By Matt Slick – CARM

9. To learn more read The False Teachers: Benny Hinn by Tim Challies

10. To learn more read T.D Jakes by Matt Slick.

11. To learn more read Is “Name it Claim It” teaching Biblical and Are Christians “little gods”? by God Questions

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