Why Public Heresy Needs to Be Exposed Publicly
It seems nowadays that many Christians are fed far more spiritually by national ministries/speakers/authors than by their local church leaders. Researcher, George Barna, recognized this trend as far back as 2005 and discussed some of the reasons for it in his book, Revolution: Worn Out on Church? Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary. This article is NOT a defense of that trend (I see it as largely problematic actually), but it is understandable in many cases and a reality at the very least.
Just a few of the reasons for this (by way of understanding and background) are:
- Constant access to print and digital information around the globe (podcasts, blogs, radio shows, books, magazines, TV broadcasts, videos, etc.). Anytime someone wants to access Christian teaching throughout the week, they can.
- Most local church leaders either do expository verse-by-verse teaching through the Bible, or they do topical sermons they deem relevant. While this gives their listeners (hopefully) a broad range of understanding of the Bible, many topics are often either neglected or barely addressed, such as Family life, marriage, sexuality, parenting, education, economics, finance, government, law, politics, media, entertainment, cultural issues, etc. In other words, people sometimes learn about the doctrines of justification, propitiation, or evangelism from their local church, but they feel a lack when it comes to living out their faith in the everyday aspects of life. (Perhaps if local churches provided more comprehensive teaching on these aspects there wouldn’t be a need for as many parachurch organizations?)
- Many local Bible teachers are not able to teach at the same level as nationally known Bible teachers. I don’t mean this to be offensive, but it’s true. I think the correct illustration of this is to think about sports. If you play neighborhood basketball on courts around the country, you’ll find many skilled players. You may be very impressed with their abilities. But there is usually a reason NBA players have been drafted and draw the crowds they do. They have skills the average streetball player does not possess. So, when people have a choice, they usually pay money to go watch the superstars play, rather than heading to their neighborhood court. The difficulty with this is that Bible-teaching contains content, not merely skill. The fact that someone can razzle-dazzle with their communications and/or stage performance doesn’t make them Biblically qualified to be a Christian leader.
- We are also immersed in celebrity culture. People gravitate towards those who have charisma and once a leader rises to a certain level of prominence, people follow them for the same reasons they follow other celebrities. I know many will decry this phenomenon, and with just reason, but again, it is what it is. Saying it shouldn’t be that way won’t change the fact that Christians have flocked to celebrity preachers since the time of Charles Spurgeon, if not before.
The Reality of Para-Church Ministries
For those reasons and more, we now have a situation where people listen more to, and benefit more from, celebrity preachers than from their own local church teaching staff. Some of those celebrity preachers are on staff leading megachurches (actual local churches), but many have no church at all and are not even pastors.
Many are psychologists, motivational speakers, evangelists, apologists, or average people who developed a social media following through their writing and teaching. Many of these Christian leaders have no attachment to a local church at all, and therefore no elders to whom they submit. Most of these leaders run large non-profit 501-c-3 organizations and while they are required to have a board, many of them stock the board with “yes men,” who are either unaware of what really happens in the personal lives of the leaders or who are enablers and are too shady or cowardly to try to correct errors when they see them. Again, I know many local church pastors are generally opposed to “para-church” organizations either in principle or because of the frequent abuses, but again, being against them will not cause them to cease.
The Early Church Leaders Addressed Public Heresy/Sins Publicly
The Apostle Paul was not shy when it came to calling out, by name, those who had posed a threat to the true gospel, or even those who opposed the work of the true gospel messengers.
“Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (2 Tim. 4:12, ESV).
Alexander was not a believer or a teacher of the Bible, but Paul named him publicly because he was an enemy of the gospel, and the believers needed to be aware.
People who taught heresy in a public context were not dealt with privately (although they may have been confronted privately first – we aren’t told), but they were publicly rebuked because the message was public and had public influence. The people who were impacted by the message needed to be warned.
“Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some (2 Tim. 2:17-18, ESV).
The implication is that these guys had been on the right team at a point, but they departed. They used to be part of the true church but had become heretics (false teachers).
The Apostle John warns against False Teachers
“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2 John 2:7-11, ESV).
John describes a “deceiver,” or an “antichrist,’ as someone who denies the deity of Christ. People can start out good, but “go on ahead and not abide in the teaching of Christ.” We don’t treat these people as being believers. They are wolves.
What is a Heresy?
In 1828, Noah Webster had this to say about the word, “heresy”:
“A fundamental error in religion, or an error of opinion respecting some fundamental doctrine of religion. But in countries where there is an established church, an opinion is deemed heresy when it differs from that of the church. The Scriptures being the standard of faith, any opinion that is repugnant to its doctrines, is heresy; but as men differ in the interpretation of Scripture, an opinion deemed heretical by one body of Christians, may be deemed orthodox by another. In Scripture and primitive usage, heresy meant merely sect, party, or the doctrines of a sect, as we now use denomination or persuasion, implying no reproach.”
Admittedly, there is a subjective element to some of this. It is common for many church people to sling the term “heretic” around and apply it to anyone who disagrees with them on any theological point. We must be very careful not to do that!
The term heresy should not be given to those who disagree or are even in flagrant error on a point of secondary doctrine. It should be reserved for those who deny the essential doctrines of the faith that have always been held by all true confessing Christians throughout the ages (the ancient creeds like the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed are good guides for us on those doctrines). For example, if a teaching denies the deity of Christ, His virgin birth, death, burial, bodily resurrection, or denies the Bible as the inspired, inerrant and infallible word of God, it strikes at the heart of salvation and the gospel and is a heresy.
If someone is wrong on an issue of eschatology (end-times), spiritual gifts and their application for today, modes of baptism, the age of the earth, gender roles in church leadership, etc., they are still wrong, but we dare not call them heretics. I am not saying secondary doctrines aren’t important. They matter and are worth contending for, but they are not essential for eternal salvation. You can be wrong on all of those points and still go to Heaven. Someone may be teaching erroneously on those issues, and that may (or may not) need to be addressed publicly, but we do not speak of that person as someone outside of the faith (as Paul did with Hymenaeus and Philetus who were actively destroying the faith of some).
Local Church Elders Are Mandated to Protect the Flock
In Acts 20, Paul instructs local church elders/overseers to:
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:28-30, ESV).
Local church leaders need to be aware of false teaching that is impacting their local congregations. I recall in the mid-2000s a friend of mine who was doing campus outreach ministry reading extensively on the “Emerging Church Movement,” so he could converse intelligently with the dozens of Christian students he personally knew who were being taken in by its errors. Another friend of ours was a pastor of a very small aging congregation in a rural area. We advised him to not spend a lot of time studying and teaching on that set of errors because it wasn’t relevant to his audience. Many of them believed they were saved simply because they had been baptized in the Catholic church as babies (even though they had never personally professed faith in Christ as Savior and Lord). He had a different battlefront than our college ministry friend.
In Ephesians 5, Paul speaks of people who claim to be Christ-followers but live impure and sexually immoral lives. Paul is not okay with sweeping this under the rug.
“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore, do not become partners with them…Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:6-7, 11, ESV).
We are also told that people who presume to teach will face greater scrutiny:
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1, ESV).
What About Going to Your Brother Privately First?
The Matthew 18 principle is often quoted (going to someone privately) when someone exposes the private sin of a celebrity preacher or publicly speaks against their false teaching. That passage is specifically related to a personal sin or offense a person commits against you personally:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” (vs. 15)
If the person does not respond favorably, we are then instructed to take two or three with us to confront the person, and then, if that doesn’t bring repentance, we should take it to the Church.
This is absolutely the way personal conflict and offenses need to be handled. But this is not the Biblical prescription for dealing with national leaders teaching on a public platform.
Besides the fact that the Bible doesn’t tell us to handle such matters that way and the fact that the Apostles confronted public sin/heresy in a public format, there are practical considerations. A pastor in Podunk, Iowa probably won’t get a private audience with a celebrity TV preacher to rebuke him privately for his false teaching. Most of those people have a proverbial “firewall” around them to keep people from having personal access. While I won’t say someone shouldn’t try to reach them personally before addressing their error publicly, in most cases it’s just not possible.
Confronting a TV Preacher Privately
I remember hearing a story about a Christian musician calling a TV preacher after the preacher said on a national TV interview that he didn’t know if homosexuality was a sin. They had never met and the singer had to leave a message with a ministry secretary, but since the singer was known by the preacher (in a public sense), the TV dude called him back and they chatted. The TV preacher agreed to read some books sent by the singer and I think the issue died there. That TV preacher still preaches a false gospel, but I think he has tried to stay off the homosexual topic in recent years, and even once said the Bible seemed to indicate it was a sin, so there is at least one example where such an approach may have had some positive result. Who knows? The fact is though, most people would never get a callback.
Confronting a Radio Host Publicly
One other story that comes to mind is one where a national Christian expert on “Topic A,” ventured into “Topic B” on his radio show. He landed on the wrong side of that issue from a Biblical standpoint. A nationally known expert on “Topic B” slammed “Expert A” in a newsletter to hundreds of thousands of people and called him a “Biblical compromiser” (which he was). However, “Expert A” was, I believe, a sincere Jesus follower who loved God and the Bible. He had just bought into a liberal hermeneutic (interpretation of the Bible) espoused by people he trusted and admired. It wasn’t his field of study and he probably should have stayed out of it. He was personally hurt by the attack on his character (the insinuation that he didn’t take the Bible seriously or regard it as the inspired Word of God).
Years later, a friend of mine tried to talk to “Expert A” about that topic, with the hopes of convincing him of the truth. He wasn’t open and admitted he wasn’t solid on the topic when he first raised it on his radio show, but after being attacked, he just wrote off anyone who held to the opposing view and stopped desiring to hear any more about it.
There may have been a different outcome if “Expert B” had taken a more personal approach, and had not attacked the man by name, questioning his Christian integrity.
Because of the multitude of false teachers filling the airwaves and blogospheres, some Christians have created “discernment blogs” or “discernment ministries” to help Christians identify false teachers. I see the validity of this kind of ministry in theory and I believe works like Kingdom of the Cults by Dr. Walter Martin have been very helpful for exposing the teachings of cults and erroneous religious sects.
However, what tends to happen is if you give some people a sword, they may just go rogue and start slashing at anything that moves. Many of these sites play fast and loose with the facts and seem willing to take down just about any Christian leader or ministry. I believe much of this is rooted in pride and self-exaltation. I have shared my concerns about many of these sites/leaders here and here.
On the scale of things, I believe it is a far greater sin to slander a fellow Christian servant than it is to remain silent about a false teacher. To malign the legitimate work of the Lord or attribute their work to the devil (as the Pharisees did to Jesus in Matthew 12:24) is a fearful thing that will surely incur God’s judgment, so we must be very careful not to judge hastily or wrongly on such matters.
If it is possible for you to access a Christian leader personally and privately about an issue, by all means, please do. I have done this before with people I know or have some connection to, and people have done it with me. It is amazing how often someone can simply be confused about the facts and false rumors can be spread needlessly (and harmfully).
After speaking at one conference a woman posted straight-up lies about what I had taught in a social media group, who then spread it to other groups. I was banned from these groups as a “false teacher” so I couldn’t defend myself in those private groups. This happened so quickly I was still at the same conference when a different woman came up and told me about it and asked me if I had said what I was being accused of. I asked her if she was in my keynote presentation (she was) and if she heard me say those things (she hadn’t). I asked her to purchase a copy of the recording and encourage others to do the same since it was publicly available. She listened back to the recording and told as many people as possible online that I hadn’t said anything like what I was being accused of, but many didn’t care to listen. They just wanted to get caught up in the mob frenzy of the Christian version of the “cancel culture.” A simple conversation with me, and a relisten to the recording, cleared up the issue, at least for one person who cared to fact check.
Public is a Relative Concept
Suppose you have a guest speaker at your church who says something that is theologically erroneous. The elders of the church should have a conversation to see if there was a misunderstanding, or if the person can be shown the error of his ways. If the issue is resolved, there is no need to go to Twitter with it. Even though it was a public teaching, it may have been contained in a small local area.
One example that comes to mind is years ago after speaking at an event a man approached me and asked, “What did you mean when you used the term ‘prehistoric’ in your message (referring to dinosaurs or something)?” I replied that I didn’t believe I had used that term as I didn’t believe it was an accurate term and it had evolutionary implications that I didn’t accept. He assured me that I had used the term (someone else confirmed it), and they were concerned because they thought it revealed something about my worldview. I did not recall using the term but told them it was apparently a mental lapse and a poor choice of words on my part. I assured them I did not hold to an evolutionary worldview and apologized for the confusion. I encouraged them to please feel free to correct the misspeak with their group and apologize on my behalf. Thankfully, the gaffe stayed local and no one slandered me all over social media for a mistake on my part.
Again, asking for clarification helped to resolve the issue and alleviate confusion. When possible, this is always preferable to simply spreading negative information about someone online.
Dealing with Rogue “Christian” Leaders
In an ideal world, I believe all Christian leaders should be members of local churches and under the authority of their local church elders. False teaching, or personal sin, would be addressed at that level and someone who isn’t faithful to the Scriptures, or continues in unrepentant sin, should be removed from their position of leadership.
Since we don’t have Apostles today (in the same way the first century did) who oversee the growth and development of all the true churches across a vast geographical span, it is much more difficult to deal with errors or scandals in non-profit ministries, especially when those leaders aren’t even connected to local churches, or don’t have anyone to whom they are truly accountable.
It is my view in such a scenario that people who disciple others need to address relevant doctrinal error and heresy when it impacts those they are leading. Often, the error itself can be addressed without naming specific leaders by name. I did that in this very article as I merely needed examples and have no desire to stir up more contention between brethren by flaming situations that don’t need to be flamed. But sometimes it is necessary to call people out by name and warn God’s people about them when their teaching and influence are public.
“For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tim. 4:10a, ESV).
“You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes” (2 Tim. 1:15, ESV).
Paul didn’t mention these people for their benefit. He mentioned them for the sake of those who used to trust them. There is a time for calling people out and exposing their error and unfaithfulness so the uninformed don’t continue to send them money, buy their teaching materials, promote them to friends, invite them to speak at their church, etc. This may not be the work of many or most Christians, but it needs to be the work of leaders as they shepherd those entrusted to them.
Often people say we shouldn’t speak of public sins or even false teaching in a public format because it is gossip. Apparently, the Apostles didn’t agree. However, there are scenarios where discretion is a wise decision. Suppose a Christian leader and his wife have entered marriage counseling to help them get through a rough patch in their marriage. That’s not something that needs to be shared publicly, even for “prayer.” They need their space and privacy as all married couples do. If such decisions are shamed, it will prevent others from seeking help in the future. That would just be passing on personal gossip. Nothing about that disqualifies a man from Christian leadership or is a danger to those who follow that person. While 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 give steep requirements for church elders, perfection is not expected of anyone. There is a difference between humanity and flagrant immorality.
The Purpose of Warning
The goal of alerting other Christians to potential danger is never to destroy legitimate Christian work, but rather to remove cancerous tumors of error and deception so the whole Body of Christ can be healthy. There should always be a redemptive intent.
This Christian motto from the 17th century is instructive for us:
“In essentials unity. In non-essentials liberty. In all things charity.”
Our goal is to do as Paul says in Colossians 2: “And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ” (v.6-8, NLT).