There is such a thing as heresy and false teaching and there is a need to expose it. There is a huge amount of false teaching out there. I have great respect for the work of ACFAR and others labouring in the field of apologetics and warning people of the cults. But as Rodgers Atwebembeire, the leader of the Uganda centre of ACFAR said recently, there is always the need to hold onto both truth and love. So easily we lose one or the other and it turns flabby or brutal.
And at the brutal extreme – on the internet – it can get very brutal indeed. There is real danger of what starts out as mainstream, well-meaning, defending-the-faith apologetics turning into a rabid heresy hunt at the end of which the only one left standing is me and my definition of the truth.
So how do we tell the difference between a) a helpful apologetics site / helpful theological debate / incisive analysis and b) an extremist polemic that has, to be frank, lost the plot?
In addition to general rules for evaluating the trustworthiness of web-based information, here are 10 things to look for. Not all of these will be present together or are necessarily red flags on their own but if you get more than one or two of them watch out:
- Overuse of capitalisation, bold, underlining, italics, coloured, and flashing text.
- Overuse of the phrases Satanic deception, End Times, New World Order, One World Religion, works of Anti-Christ, Mark of the Beast.
- Allegations of complex conspiracy theories with massive scope substantiated only rather vaguely by ‘suspicious connections’ between different organisations or ‘suspicious correlations’ between different trends.
- Lack of graciousness and humility, strong sarcasm, vicious character attacks.
- Disregard for church tradition and the ancient creeds and/or rubbishing of great Christians of the past (Luther, Calvin, C.S. Lewis, Stott) or even the majority of Bible-believing Christians throughout church history.
- Lack of proper citation, evidence, relevant academic expertise or fair engagement with scholarship.
- Overuse of ‘heresy’ and ‘heretic’ and incautious accusations of false teaching and false gospels.
- An inordinately long article to deal with a secondary or tertiary issue or to attack a mainstream evangelical figure who is, if anything, only very slightly off the truth, while ignoring far more glaring errors and threats to the church.
- A demand for Bible-only but at the same time a paradoxical fanatical allegiance to the teaching of one or two men or to a particular politics or to a system of theology constructed in the 19th century or to the work of 17th century English Bible translators.
- A call to preserve the truth of the gospel against the attacks of false gospels but at the same time a rubbishing of doctrines such as the imputation of Christ’s righteousness or predestination or the finished atoning work of Christ.
Of course there must be rebuking of one another in love and sharpening of one another in the faith. Of course we will disagree with even our most respected preachers on one or two points – no human is going to have it all right; we don’t have inerrant heroes. But if someone starts attacking the NIV translation or John Piper or the Proclamation Trust or The Gospel Coalition as if they are peddling a satanic deception then I would submit that there is a rather massive loss of perspective going on. Are we really going to lump godly evangelical brothers together with the Council of Trent, Islam, New Age cults and extreme prosperity gospel?
Before throwing the word heretic around and writing off whole swathes of evangelical Christendom we need to take a step back and a) notice the massive emphasis on peace and unity in the New Testament letters; b) distinguish between primary and secondary issues (1 Cor. 15:1-3); c) handle secondary issues according to Romans 14-15; d) move forward only in love (1 Cor. 16:14).
The great irony is that as websites by the hundred promote ideas of Satanic conspiracies behind every successful church or movement or see the tiniest deviation from their -ism as the work of the Anti-Christ, Satan himself is very happy. He loves division and discord and distraction. He loves it when Bible believing Christians refuse to work together over minor differences. He would love it if we all split into virtually cultic groups which believe that ‘only we are the pure church’. We are indeed in the end times (as we have been since Acts 2) and Satan is at work, trying to split us, trying to get a foothold in division, trying to get us to fight one another rather than fight for the lost. Let’s stand against him, not be tossed to and fro by every website but rather speaking the truth in love, grow up into Christ, a body united, building itself up in love.
Tullian: I want you to know that while Christians have differences on a wide variety of issues, I believe that the world is big enough and the harvest is ripe enough for well-meaning brothers and sisters to agree to disagree. The world desperately needs to see Christians standing side by side and back to back, loving one another. And last week I found myself standing face to face with some Christians in a posture of non-love. I’m really sorry about that. …I want people to know that, while there may be differences, we’re on the same team.
The saddest thing about all of this is that, because of the public visibility of those involved, this conflict gained a lot of attention. The reason this grieves me so deeply is because the Bible says God wants the way Christians love one another to be a visual model of the way God loves us. He wants us, in other words, to live our lives together in such a way that we demonstrate the good news of reconciliation before the watching world. He wants us to be loving and patient and forbearing and deferential to each other. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). I’m guilty—we’re all guilty—of saying things and thinking things and doing things and failing to say, think and do things that exhibit the kind of treatment we’ve received in the person and work of Jesus—“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
The late Francis Schaeffer once noted that bitter divisions among Christians give the world the justification they’re looking for to disbelieve the gospel. But when reconciliation, peacemaking, and unity are on display inside the church, that becomes a powerful witness to this fractured world. This conflict has “given the world the justification they’re looking for to disbelieve the gospel”, and I am sorry for my contribution to this conflict. Thankfully, God’s grace covers all our sin. I’d be lost and hopeless without the rock solid assurance that, if we are in Christ, we can never ever out-sin the coverage of God’s forgiveness. That alone makes me want to sin less.
So, whenever you see any of us who claim to be “Christ followers” behaving in a manner that is unlike Jesus, please forgive us. And please let that be a reflection on us, and not on Him. As imperfect people, we will continue to let you down and disappoint you, but Jesus will never let you down—he will never disappoint you, leave you, or forsake you.
I’m honored to be on “the same team” as Christians of all theological stripes and convictions. I love living in a “large tent” with lots of different kinds of people. In the meantime, however, please bear with us all as we grow and change together.