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
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
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
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
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
The words "doctrine" and "doctrinal" have become pejorative terms for many -- like
"indoctrinate" or "dogma." (For definitions of these and other words, see the
Glossary accompanying this article.) Even many evangelical Christians, who do
affirm certain doctrines, pay little attention to doctrine beyond a certain minimum.
Of the many objections to Christian doctrine, five may be singled out as especially
influential. Doctrine is often said to be (1) irrelevant, (2) impractical, (3) divisive,
(4) unspiritual, and (5) unknowable. The importance of doctrine can best be shown
by presenting positive answers to these charges.
The Relevance of Doctrine
In popular thought doctrine has to do with insignificant matters that are irrelevant
to most people. Although doctrine can be trivialized, Christian doctrine is extremely
relevant to all people. Christian doctrine (i.e., the teachings of Scripture) answers
the fundamental questions of life -- questions such as who God is, who we are, and
why we are here (Ps. 8:3-8; Heb. 11:6). How we answer these questions decisively
shapes the way we live. To ignore them is to go through life blithely unaware of
what is really important.
Doctrine is particularly important because a sound proclamation of the gospel of
salvation depends on an accurate understanding of what that gospel is, what
salvation is, and how salvation is received (Gal. 1:6-9; 1 Tim. 4:16). Nothing less
than our eternal future depends on it. I do not mean to imply that we must all
become theologians and experts on every fine point of doctrine to be saved. But the
church as a whole must take great care that it faithfully proclaims the true gospel,
and every Christian has a stake in the matter. I will have more to say on this point
a little later.
It is true that some doctrinal issues are less important than others. One of the most
crucial functions of Christian theology, and one of the most neglected, is to sort out
the really important -- the essential -- from the less important and even the
irrelevant (cf. Rom. 14).
Thus, handled properly, doctrine is very relevant to human life, and pursuit of
sound doctrine should therefore be the concern of every person at least to some
The Practicality of Doctrine
It is common in our day to assert that practice is more important than theory --
that orthopraxis (doing right) is more important than orthodoxy (believing
right). But this assertion is itself a theory -- something people think and then say,
and then try to put into practice. The fact is that what we think determines what
we do. Thus, doctrine -- as something we think -- affects what we do, and so has
It should be recognized, of course, that the practical effects of doctrine have limits.
Doctrine does not always or solely determine our actions, since people often act on
desires or concerns contrary to the doctrines they hold. For example, someone may
believe as doctrine that lying is wrong, but selfish or prideful thoughts may take
precedence over doctrinal convictions and lead the person to lie. The practicality of
doctrine is found not in determining our practice, but in informing it -- in giving us
the knowledge with which, by God's grace, we can do the right thing.
The point is that we should regard both knowledge and practice as important.
Ultimately, what is important is that a person truly live in obedient fellowship with
God and experience His love; in that sense, of course practice is more important
than doctrine. But God Himself has made it clear that He uses doctrine to further
that practical goal in our lives (1 Tim. 1:3-7; 2 Tim. 3:15-17).
The practical importance of Christian doctrine, then, is great indeed. Doctrine
enables us to develop a realistic view of the world and of ourselves, without which
we are doomed to ineffectual living (Matt. 22:23-33; Rom. 12:3; 2 Tim. 4:3-4).
Doctrine can protect us from believing falsehoods which upset people's faith or lead
to destructive behavior (1 Tim. 4:1-6; 2 Tim. 2:18; Tit. 1:11). Doctrine also
prepares us to minister to others (Eph. 4:11-12).
The Unity of Doctrine
Perhaps the most common criticism people voice about doctrine is that it divides
people. And indeed, doctrine -- in the history of Christianity as in other religions --
has often been allowed to divide people in reprehensible ways. But in a crucial
sense doctrine is intended to unite people.
While it is true that doctrine inevitably divides people, this is not something that can
be avoided. People think different things, and they do different things on the basis
of their differing beliefs. What is undesirable, however, is that doctrine should
divide people who ought to be together, or that divisions should be expressed in
wrong ways. That is, doctrine should not divide faithful Christians from one
another, preventing them from having fellowship together. Nor should doctrine lead
people to hate or mistreat people who hold different doctrines than they do.
The Bible commands Christians to divide themselves from false teachers or heretics
on the basis of doctrinal factors (Rom. 16:17; 2 John 9-11). In doing so, they are
to stand together in unity against heresy (Eph. 4:12-13). Thus, taking a stand
against heresy can promote genuine Christian unity.
As Christians mature together in their understanding of biblical doctrine, they
become more united as their thinking becomes shaped more and more along the
same lines (1 Cor. 1:10). Moreover, a balanced understanding of doctrine can help
Christians divided by doctrinal differences to be reconciled as they learn which
points are minor or unsound and which are not (1 Tim. 6:3-5; Tit. 1:9-14). It turns
out that shallow understanding of doctrine easily promotes disunity among
Christians, while deepening understanding of doctrine tends to foster greater
The Spirituality of Doctrine
Although some people regard the pursuit of doctrinal accuracy as an unspiritual
intellectualism, sound doctrine is actually very important to sound spirituality.
Christian doctrine teaches us about God, His purposes and will for our lives, what
we are like spiritually apart from God's grace, how God's grace changes us -- in
short, everything we need to know in order to pursue true spirituality (Rom. 6:17-18; 1 Tim. 1:5, 10; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Doctrine provides external, objective controls
for our inward, subjective experiences so that we may discern genuine spirituality
from fraudulent, artificial, or even demonic spirituality (Col. 2:22-23; 1 John 4:1-3).
In pursuing an accurate understanding of Christian doctrine, we are fulfilling one
aspect of God's greatest commandment -- that we love God with all our minds
(Matt. 22:37). This commandment surely implies that we should take great care and
make every effort to conform our beliefs and convictions to the truth (cf. Rom.
12:2) -- and this means doctrine.
Something should also be said here about the relationship between doctrinal
discernment and spiritual discernment. In 1 Corinthians Paul speaks more than
once about spiritual discernment. The spiritual person discerns all things, including
the things of the Spirit of God, which can only be discerned spiritually (1 Cor. 2:14-15). The members of the congregation were to exercise discernment concerning the
prophecies that were delivered in the church (1 Cor. 14:29). And some Christians
are specially gifted to discern evil spirits from the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:10). On the
basis of these and other passages, some Christians have thought that discernment
never has anything to do with the exercise of the intellect. In their view, one
discerns between good and evil in doctrinal as well as practical matters simply by
listening to the inner voice of the Holy Spirit.
By no means do I wish to disparage the work of the Holy Spirit in giving Christians
discernment. Certainly all Christians must depend on the Holy Spirit to illuminate
their minds that they may clearly see the difference between good and evil, truth
and error. And many Christians who are ill-equipped to study doctrine in depth are
It would be a mistake, however, to pit spiritual discernment against doctrinal
discernment. For one thing, the view that discernment is purely spiritual is itself a
doctrine. Moreover, such a sharp separation of doctrine and spirituality assumes a
dichotomy between the mind and the human spirit. Since this assumption is also a
doctrine, the whole argument is self-defeating. There are also biblical reasons to
reject a dichotomy of mind and spirit (which I will not elaborate here).
For another thing, the Bible also encourages Christians to use their knowledge of
Christian doctrine in discerning truth from error and good from evil. The classic
example of this is 1 John 4:1-3, where John commands us not to believe everyone
claiming to be speaking by God's Spirit, but instead to apply a doctrinal test (belief
in the full humanity of Jesus Christ) to those making such claims. Similarly, in 2
John 9 we are told to watch ourselves and not be deceived by anyone who "does
not remain in the doctrine of Christ." In 1 Corinthians, Paul not only speaks of
spiritual discernment but also presents doctrinal arguments in answer to the
heretical belief that "there is no resurrection of the dead" (1 Cor. 15:12-19).
Rather than pitting spiritual and doctrinal discernment against one another, we
should see them as two sides or aspects of the same activity. True spirituality
includes a submission of the mind to the teachings of the Bible, and sound doctrine
includes the belief that our knowledge of the truth is dependent on the illumination
of the Holy Spirit. Thus in true discernment at its best, the whole Christian draws
upon his God-given knowledge of biblical doctrine in sensitivity to the Holy Spirit.
The Knowability of Doctrine
Some people avoid studying Christian doctrine because they are convinced it is too
difficult or complex to grasp. While small children, the mentally retarded, and
certain others may be admitted to be incapable of understanding doctrinal matters,
the vast majority of adults -- young and old -- are able to understand much more
than they have bothered to learn. Every individual is responsible to acquire
doctrinal knowledge as their mental faculties, educational level, and opportunities
Scripture commands all Christians to learn doctrine. Generally, removable spiritual
impediments -- not irremovable intellectual ones -- prevent Christians from
advancing in doctrinal understanding (Heb. 5:11-14). Christ has given teachers to
the church to assist believers in learning doctrine (Eph. 4:11). Obviously such
teachers must master doctrine on a level beyond most other Christians, but they do
so for the purpose of imparting as much truth as possible to the rest of the
members of the body of Christ.
Sound doctrine is difficult enough to require honesty and discipline, yet easy
enough that -- with the exceptions mentioned previously -- all who seek God's
grace and commit themselves to the task can learn it (2 Pet. 3:16-18).
Doctrine and Salvation
In discussing the relevance of doctrine, I mentioned that a person's salvation can
depend to some extent on doctrinal understanding. Since this point is so often
contested in our day, it deserves closer attention.
Almost everybody who acknowledges Jesus Christ in some way will agree that those
who completely and explicitly reject Jesus Christ are lost. Many people find it
difficult, however, to believe that some might sincerely think themselves to be
following Jesus Christ and yet, due to heretical belief, be lost. Jesus Himself
promised, "Seek, and you shall find" (Matt. 7:7); should not those who seek for
Christ find Him? And do not many sincere members of groups which evangelicals
label heretical truly want to find Christ? They may read the Bible more studiously
than many an evangelical church member; they may express an ardent desire to
know God and obey Him; they may zealously proclaim the message of Christ as
they have been taught it. Are they not, therefore, seeking Christ, and will they not,
then, in accordance with His promise, find Christ? And if so, how can salvation
depend on doctrinal beliefs?
These questions may be answered by keeping the following biblical principles in
(1) Not everyone who acknowledges Jesus as Lord will be saved. This
follows directly from Jesus' own words in Matthew 7:21: Simply acknowledging that
Jesus is Lord does not guarantee a person's salvation. The acknowledgment might
be mere lip service, as demonstrated by refusal to obey Him as Lord (Luke 6:46).
Or someone might call Jesus "Lord" and not mean the same thing as what the Bible
means by it. This leads me to a second principle.
(2) Many who claim to acknowledge Jesus actually believe in "another
Jesus," and are either deceived or deceiving. This follows directly from 2
Corinthians 11:4. Many who speak of faith in "Jesus" have an understanding of who
and what Jesus is that differs so much from reality that in truth they do not have
faith in the real Jesus at all. If a person thought Buddha was another name for
Moses, we would not normally consider him a Buddhist, no matter how piously and
moralistically he lived out his belief in "Buddha." Similarly, someone who denies the
biblical view of Christ should not be identified as a Christian, no matter how
religiously he follows his belief.
Some people who believe in "another Jesus" are no doubt insincere, and Paul warns
of "deceitful workers who disguise themselves as apostles of Christ" (2 Cor. 11:13).
I like to think the best of people, even people with whom I have serious
disagreements. But I have become acquainted with a few persons about whom I
have had to conclude, reluctantly, that they are simply liars. These people know on
a conscious level that the message they proclaim is false.
On the other hand, some people, even members of Christian churches, can be "led
astray" (2 Cor. 11:3b) by such deceivers. Thus, it is possible for sincere people,
even people who were part of the fellowship of true Christians, to be deceived into
following "another Jesus." Not that such people are perfectly innocent -- rather,
they are like Eve who, though deceived by the serpent (2 Cor. 11:3a), was guilty of
sin and held accountable by God (Gen. 3:1-6, 13-16).
(3) Those who are zealous in religious matters are not necessarily saved.
In Romans 10:2 Paul says of his Jewish brethren who rejected Jesus, "They have a
zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge." Zeal, of course, implies
sincerity -- that is, the mental state of believing that what one is promoting is
based on truth. The Jews who rejected Jesus were for the most part zealous, and
therefore sincere in this sense -- but they were still lost (Rom. 9:1-3; 10:1). Their
zeal was, in particular, for a right standing with God -- but they sought it on the
basis of their own works, as if salvation was by works, rather than receiving the
righteousness which was available in Christ through faith (Rom. 9:30--10:4).
Matthew 23:15 addresses zeal of another kind -- zeal in seeking converts. The
Pharisees were extremely zealous in missionary work, but all they succeeded in
doing was leading more people into their error. Zeal in witnessing or evangelizing
does not indicate that a religious group is God's people.
(4) No human being truly seeks for God unless God's Spirit draws that
person; therefore, those that appear to seek for God but do not come in
God's way are not seeking for God at all. In Romans 3:11 Paul quotes Psalm
14:2 to the effect that "there is none who seeks for God." Sin has so perverted the
desires of all human beings that none of us, by our own natural wishes, is looking
for God. This is because "the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God" (Rom.
8:7). Of course, some people do seek for God, otherwise God would not call upon
us to seek Him (Isa. 55:6, etc.). But when people seek God, it is only because God
has first "sought" them and drawn them toward Him by His grace (Luke 19:10;
John 6:44; 15:16).
When people therefore appear to be "seeking God" -- when they study the Bible (2
Pet. 3:16), attend meetings, pray, change their lifestyles, attempt to obey the
commandments, even speak of their love for God and Christ -- yet persist in
worshipping a false God, or honoring a false Christ, or following a false gospel (Gal.
1:7-9; 2 Cor. 11:4), we must conclude that they were not really seeking God.
Rather, they may have been seeking spiritual power, or security, or peace of mind,
or warm relationships, or knowledge, or excitement, or anything other than simply
God. And in saying this, I am not claiming that all genuine Christians on the other
hand have sought purely and simply after God. No, our testimony as Christians
must be that we were also following our own divergent path when God sought us,
stopped us in our way, and led us up a new and narrow path leading to salvation in
Jesus Christ (Matt. 7:13).
(5) Anyone who truly desires to know the truth about God and His way of
salvation above all else can and will be saved. This is the other side of the
coin from the previous point. Jesus promised that "the one who comes to Me I will
certainly not cast out" (John 6:37). However, we must come to the true Jesus on
His terms. Judas came to the true Jesus, at least outwardly (actually, Judas did not
know who Jesus really was), but he did not come on Jesus' terms and was
consequently lost (John 17:12). The cost of abandoning heresy is usually great --
the loss of friends, the embarrassment of admitting error, the threat of the
heretical teachers that all who leave their teaching will be lost. But salvation is
available for anyone who by God's grace puts truth (and the One who is truth)
above these things.
DEFINING HERESY AND ORTHODOXY
So far I have argued that we ought to distinguish between truth and error in
doctrine. Now I wish to address the question of orthodoxy and heresy more
directly. What is orthodox doctrine, what is heretical doctrine, and what's the
It is tempting to say that whatever doctrine is biblical is orthodox and whatever
doctrine is not biblical is not orthodox. But this is too simplistic. For example,
assuming that only one of the several views (there are at least four) on the Rapture
is biblical, it does not follow that the views that are not biblical are therefore
heretical. There are some doctrines which, while not in agreement with the Bible,
are not so wide of the mark that they must be regarded as heretical.
Another approach that has been taken is to measure doctrines by the doctrinal
confessions of some particular denomination. This is fine so long as what is being
determined is not orthodoxy but confessional fidelity. That is, if someone wishes to
be an ordained minister of a particular denomination, that denomination is within
its rights to ask that such a person agree with its doctrines. If someone does not
(e.g., if someone disagrees with the denomination's position on speaking in tongues
or predestination), then that person should not expect to be ordained in such a
denomination. Given the present diversity of denominations, this should be
On the other hand, it is lamentable that the church has allowed itself to be divided
over nonessential issues. Thus, adherence to a denomination's particular
distinctives should not necessarily be made the test of Christian orthodoxy. Of
course, some of the doctrinal stands taken by a denomination may be basic to
orthodoxy (e.g., a confession of the deity of Jesus Christ). In such cases, the
denomination's confession and orthodoxy coincide.
What, then, should be the standard of orthodoxy? And how should it be
determined? Perhaps most troublesome: Who should determine the standard?
Certainly I do not claim to have any particular authority to determine by what
standard orthodoxy shall be judged. I claim no special anointing beyond that which
all Christians have (1 John 2:20, 27). I make no claims to apostolic or prophetic
authority. I am not even an ordained minister. Who, then, am I to judge who is
and is not orthodox? Who am I to call anyone a heretic?
My answer to these questions is twofold. First, I am a Christian, and as such have
a responsibility to avoid heresy. I can hardly do so if I do not have some idea as to
what heresy is. Second, I am a teacher, called by God to the ministry of teaching
my fellow Christians sound doctrine. That gives me no special authority or mantle
of divine sanction, and I would not want anyone to assume that whatever I say is
true. But it does mean that God has given me a special responsibility, and if I am
faithful He will use me to guide other believers into a more complete and accurate
understanding of His truth. If I am truly faithful, those who are open to God's truth
will know that what I say is true -- not because I say it, but simply because I have
led them to see what has always been in God's Word, the Bible.
What, then, is orthodoxy, and what is heresy? First of all, I wish to point out that
the term "orthodoxy" is not in the Bible. That does not mean that the concept itself
is unbiblical, but that we cannot read off its meaning from biblical texts.
The words "heresy" and "heretic" are in the Bible, and are used in somewhat
varying senses. The Jews called Christianity a "heresy" (Acts 24:14), probably
meaning they considered it a sect under God's condemnation. But Paul referred to
the various factions among the Corinthian Christians as "heresies," that is,
"divisions" (1 Cor. 11:19). Here he seems to regard some of these divisions as
distinguishing true believers from false believers, but other divisions as simply
unfortunate expressions of sinful disunity among Christians, without suggesting
that all who belonged to these different factions were lost. Elsewhere, though, Paul
referred to "heresies" or divisions as works of the flesh (Gal. 5:20) and said that a
"heretic" -- a man causing divisions in the church -- is perverted and self-condemned (Tit. 3:10-11). Finally, Peter speaks of destructive "heresies" in the
sense of doctrines which deny Christ the Lord (2 Pet. 2:1).
From this survey it is evident that a "heresy" in biblical terminology could be merely
an unfortunate division among Christians, but in a stricter sense is a divisive
teaching or practice destructive of genuine faith and deserving of condemnation.
The looser sense corresponds roughly to our modern denominations, while the
stricter sense applies most clearly to groups which reject basic Christian doctrines
and set themselves apart from the historic church in its many forms. But a "heresy"
in the latter sense can have its start, at least, within the church. Whenever heresies
in this strict sense arise, Christians are called to separate themselves from those
who persist in holding them.
We may therefore define "heresy" in the strict sense as a teaching or practice
which compels true Christians to divide themselves from those who hold
it. Note the difference here: a "faction" or heresy in the looser sense is an
unfortunate division separating Christians from one another, and Christians are
called to do whatever they can to overcome these divisions (1 Cor. 1:10). But a
heresy in the stricter sense is a division separating Christians from non-Christians
(or, at best, from Christians who are persisting in grave error), and Christians are
called to draw the line and refuse to have spiritual fellowship with those who cross
over it. This is not to say that Christians should not show genuine love, compassion,
and personal respect for heretics; too often in church history "heretic" has been a
How, then, should we define "orthodox"? We might define it as whatever
teachings and practices are sufficiently faithful to Christian principles that
Christians should accept as fellow-Christians those who adhere to them.
To put it simply, whatever religious teachings and practices are not heretical are
orthodox, and vice versa.
Notice that we have not said that all members of churches which teach heresy are
lost. This is no more true than saying that all who are members of churches which
teach orthodoxy are saved. In saying that people are heretics, or that they are
following heresy, we are not pronouncing judgment on their eternal souls. We are
saying that if they follow those heresies consistently, they will certainly be lost.
Conversely, in saying that someone is orthodox we are not saying that they are
necessarily true Christians with the assurance of eternal life. We are saying that if
they follow orthodox doctrine as the basis of their life (and thus trust in Christ alone
for right standing before God) they will be saved.
It might seem that doctrinal discernment should be a fairly cut-and-dried procedure
of determining whether a doctrine is orthodox or heretical. After all, we have
defined orthodoxy and heresy in such a way that they cover all possibilities. Either a
doctrine is such that those who hold it should be accepted as Christians (in which
case it is orthodox), or it is not (in which case it is heretical). This might seem to
imply a black-or-white approach in which all doctrine is either completely orthodox
or completely heretical.
Although doctrinal discernment would be a lot neater and simpler if this were the
case, unfortunately things are more complicated -- in at least two distinct ways.
First, a single doctrine is never held in isolation from other doctrines, but rather is
always part of a system or network of beliefs held by a person or group. And
sometimes that system of beliefs includes many doctrines which are orthodox as
well as some which are heretical. For example, a religious group might hold that the
Bible is the Word of God, that there is only one God, that Jesus was born of a virgin
and rose from the dead, and yet deny the deity of Jesus Christ. Such a group's
belief system is heretical, even though it contains many true beliefs. Moreover, a
group's heretical beliefs generally lead them to misunderstand or misapply even
those true beliefs they do confess, since the beliefs tend to be interdependent and
thus mutually affect one another. Thus, one of the tasks of doctrinal discernment is
to sort out which beliefs in a heretical system are actually heretical, which are not,
and how the nonheretical beliefs are misapplied because of the heretical system in
which they are held.
The second sort of complication to be noticed is that people often hold conflicting
beliefs. Because people are often inconsistent, in some cases they may hold to
orthodox beliefs but also hold to beliefs that undermine or contradict their orthodox
beliefs. The difficulty presented in such cases is to sort out whether the belief
system is basically orthodox or not.
For example, many professing Christian groups today confess belief in one God, but
also speak of human beings (usually Christians in particular) as being in some
sense "gods." This verbal contradiction may or may not betray a real contradiction
in the substance of their beliefs. Making matters even more difficult is the fact that
these different groups mean vastly different things by calling believers "gods." In
some cases it is evident that they really do not believe in one God at all. In other
cases it is clear that they are using the word "gods" of believers in a figurative
sense such that their confession of one God is not contradicted at all. In still other
cases a real tension exists, and it is difficult to avoid concluding that the group in
question holds conflicting views.
In order to accommodate this phenomenon, it is helpful to speak of religious
doctrines which undermine or are in tension with a group's orthodox beliefs as
aberrational. Holding such aberrational views is a serious problem, and those who
do so must be considered as being in serious sin and should be treated accordingly.
Specifically, those advocating such errors should not be allowed to teach or minister
in the church, and those refusing to keep such aberrant views to themselves should
The charge that a person or group's beliefs are aberrational is a serious one that
cannot be made easily. It is arguable that at one level any incorrect belief is at
tension with or undermines orthodox beliefs. By aberrational, however, I am
referring only to false beliefs which do serious damage to the integrity of an
orthodox confession of faith.
The sum of the matter is that doctrinal discernment is a difficult task -- one which
requires sensitivity, a sense of proportion and balance, and a deep understanding
of what is essential and what is not. New heresies and aberrations are constantly
arising, as well as new insights into biblical truth, and discernment is needed to tell
the difference. Thus, the task of doctrinal discernment is an ongoing necessity in
the Christian church.
Having shown that doctrinal discernment is necessary, I have yet to say very much
at all about how it is to be done. That will be the focus of Part Two of this article.
About the Author:
Rob Bowman is now working with the Atlanta Christian Apologetics Project, Post Office Box 450068,
Atlanta, GA 31145; (404) 482-2227.
Copyright 1994 by the Christian Research Institute. (P.O. Box 7000 Rancho Santa Margarita,
California 92688-7000 ) "A Biblical Guide To Orthodoxy And Heresy. Part One: The Case For Doctrinal
Discernment." Taken from the Christian Research Journal, Summer 1990, page 28. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.
Faith and Reason Forum would like to thank
The Creation Research Institute for allowing
us to make this article available to our readers