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A Biblical Guide to Orthodoxy and Heresy

Part One: The Case for Doctrinal Discernment

by Robert M. Bowman

For most Christians today, the challenge of learning how to discern orthodox from heretical doctrine has apparently not been faced. Either they treat doctrine as minimally important and so regard charges of "heresy" as rude and unloving, or they treat doctrine as all-important and so regard anyone who disagrees with them in the slightest as a heretic. In short, most believers seem to think either that there are almost no heretics or that almost everybody outside their own little group is a heretic.

The cause of doctrinal discernment, then, is in serious jeopardy. Although anticult and discernment ministries are mushrooming everywhere, many of them operate on the basis of an excessively narrow understanding of orthodoxy. Consequently, such groups are charged deservedly with "heresy hunting" and discredit the practice of doctrinal discernment. At the other extreme -- and often overreacting to such heresy hunters -- are those within the Christian community who reject any warnings of heresy among professing Christians.

In this two-part article I will attempt to set forth a balanced approach to the issue of doctrinal heresy. In this first part I will present a biblical case for the practice of discerning orthodox from heretical doctrines. In the second part I will offer guidelines for doctrinal discernment.

In order to make this article as useful as possible, I will avoid making references to specific heretical or suborthodox groups, doctrines, and practices. This is so it may be read without conflict by persons in religious groups which discourage reading literature that criticizes their beliefs. In addition, I will avoid quoting and citing sources other than the Bible so that what I say can stand as much as possible on its own. A bibliography of recommended reading will be provided at the end of Part Two.

My own theological convictions are those of Protestant evangelicalism. Most of what I have to say in this article, however, is compatible with other Christian traditions as well. -------------------------------------------------------------------

Glossary of Key Terms

aberrational: Off-center or in error in some important way, such that the doctrine or practice should be rejected and those who accept it held to be sinning, even though they may very well be Christian. Also called aberrant.

apostasy: A falling away or departure from a previously maintained orthodox position (as in certain denominations which once held to orthodoxy but have rejected it). Adj.: apostate.

biblical: Agreeing with or faithful to the teaching of the Bible. Whatever is contrary to its teaching is unbiblical, though this word is usually used only when the biblical teaching violated is clear and of vital importance.

cult: A religious group originating as a heretical sect and maintaining fervent commitment to heresy. Adj.: cultic (may be used with reference to tendencies as well as full cult status).

denomination: A religious body originating as a Christian movement or sect and generally classified as a Christian body regardless of its doctrinal orthodoxy.

discern: Identify the true nature of a spirit, doctrine, practice, or group; distinguish truth from error, extreme error from slight error, the divine from the human and the demonic.

doctrine: Content of teaching intended to be accepted and believed as truth.

dogma: Doctrine which a church or sect expects all its members to accept in order to remain in good standing; or, one which a church or sect expects its members to accept simply on the church's or sect's authority. Adj.: dogmatic.

excommunication: A church disciplinary action in which a person who refuses to repent of promoting heretical views, or of engaging in gross sin, is no longer accepted as a member of the church. Such a person may not participate in the ordinances of the church, may not teach or minister in any way, and in extreme cases may be asked to refrain from attending church meetings.

heresy: Doctrine which is erroneous in such a way that Christians must divide themselves as a church from all who teach or accept it; those adhering to heresy are assumed to be lost, although Christians are unable to make definitive judgments on this matter. The opposite of orthodoxy. Adj.: heretical.

heterodox: Differing from orthodox teaching in some significant way; may occur in varying degrees.

orthodoxy: The body of essential biblical teachings. Those who embrace them should be accepted as Christians. The opposite of heresy. Adj.: orthodox.

orthopraxis: Correct practice required of anyone who would be regarded as a Christian.

schism: A division within a religious group, especially one which divides Christians from one another. Adj.: schismatic.

sect: A religious group formed as the result of schism, especially one which is fairly small and of relatively recent origin. Adj.: sectarian.

sound: Agreeing with and faithful to biblical teaching and to orthodoxy beyond a bare minimum, such that Christians may be encouraged to continue in this way. Contrasted with aberrational, which refers to orthodox teaching or practice which is only barely so. Its opposite, unsound, may be used to express degrees of deficiency in soundness.

suborthodox: Less than orthodox, yet not explicitly contrary to orthodoxy.

unorthodox: Departing from orthodoxy in some measure, though not necessarily embracing explicit heresy. ---------------------------------------------------------------

THE NECESSITY OF DOCTRINE