How To Identify A Heretic (And What To Do About It)

Recently, Francis Chan has been doing some… concerning things. He has apparently (that’s important) endorsed some prosperity ‘gospel’ preachers, and is getting concerningly close to them. I’m not saying he’s a heretic, I’ll leave that to crazy YouTube channels who call everyone a HERETIC in ALL CAPS, because REASONS. I saw one of those already, from a person who already said the same of John MacArthur and Justin Peters, amongst others. Instead, I’m going to lay out a pattern for proper discernment of heresy, so we don’t end up as all-caps-ing crazy people. Note, this mostly applies to pastors who otherwise seem solid, like Francis Chan, not left-field wackadoodles like Benny Hinn or Joel Osteen.

First, though, it would be nice to know what heresy is. That would be helpful. Heresy is the addition of alien (not the chestbursting variety) doctrines on top of, or in place of, crucial biblical doctrine. This is different from apostasy (as Tim Challies explains) in that apostasy is jettisoning crucial biblical doctrine. This list should work for both.

First, a belief must contradict clear biblical teaching, especially in the areas of sin, the nature of God, the deity of Christ, salvation, and the like, in order to be heretical. The crucial areas of scripture are super clear. A disagreement over something unclear and of a secondary or tertiary importance, like whether or not women must wear head coverings in church, does not constitute heresy. If someone adds something to the crucial issues, for example someone who adds doing good works to salvation (like the Roman Catholic Church), they are a heretic.

Second, a heretic holds to their beliefs in spite of correction. A new Christian, studying on their own may accidentally confess a heretical doctrine, only to give it up when a more mature Christian corrects them. A genuine heretic will dig in their heels when corrected.

Now that we know what a heretic is, what do we do when we think we see one?

The number one priority is to not overreact. Things aren’t always as they seem. Let’s put away the gasoline and marshmallows, and exercise some discernment.

People, even pastors, misspeak and get take out of context. We don’t want to call out a good preacher as a heretic if they’re not. That causes unnecessary scandal, division, and makes you look like a knucklehead. When you think you hear heresy from a pastor you thought was reliable, make sure to get the context. This includes the background of the preacher in question. A pastor who has taught faithfully for decades is not likely to suddenly go heretic. They could have misspoken or you might have misheard. This is especially true if said preacher keeps preaching and doesn’t say anything else that sounds heretical, which leads to my second point, observation.

Don’t immediately jump on a pastor who say something that sounds off, especially if he has a strong record of faithful preaching. Stay calm and watch. What else does he say on the subject? Does he say things that directly contradict the would-be heresy? Observe the pattern of his preaching for the next few months, if you’re really concerned. If no heresy pops up, then he’s fine with 99% certainty.

With your own pastor, you can also ask questions. You don’t always need to do this. If it’s pretty obvious he just misspoke or had a slip of the tongue, you don’t need to say anything. Pastors have a lot of crap to deal with without people taking them to task for innocent mistakes. However, if you’re not sure it was a mistake, it’s fine to ask. The important thing here is to ask respectfully and lovingly. You should not come out of nowhere and start asking adversarial questions like the Spanish Inquisition (because nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition). Rather, invite him out for coffee or something, and make sure he knows you were confused by something he said in the sermon. This way you don’t come across as confrontational, and he can explain what he said. Hopefully, it’s just a big misunderstanding and everything’s fine.

With a renowned preacher like John MacArthur or Francis Chan, we can’t sit down with them and ask them to explain. In a case like this, it’s perfectly fine, and certainly wise, to ask your pastor about what’s troubling you. Don’t assume that just because some watchblogger or ‘discernment ministry’ says someone is a heretic, that they are.

Now, sometimes, it’s not anything they said, but who they associate with that raises hackles. This can be a danger sign, but isn’t necessarily one. Being related to a heretic doesn’t make someone a heretic. (Duh.) Attending the same conference as a heretic isn’t necessarily a danger sign, depending on the conference. If John MacArthur and T. D. Jakes (a heretic) are both at a Christian broadcasting conference, MacArthur is not endorsing a heretic. It’s not a conference about doctrine, it’s about broadcasting.

Even being friends with a heretic isn’t necessarily a danger sign, for a pastor with a solid record, he could be trying to witness to the heretic, out of our sight. The danger comes when a pastor is endorsing heretics. This doesn’t automatically make him a heretic, but he’s balanced on a knife’s edge. If he’s not teaching heresy, but he’s endorsing a heretic, a pastor is being very foolish, but not heretical.

Finally, if, after all of your gracious questions and clarification, you find a pastor truly is a heretic, you need to take action. In a properly structured church, you tell the elders. It’s the elders’ job to correct or remove a heretical pastor. If they don’t, leave. Don’t make a big fuss, just find another church ASAP.

A heresy charge is a serious thing, not to be lobbed about lightly and carelessly. It should also not be withheld in a case of true heresy. Wisdom, discernment, and patience are crucial in determining heresy, and we cannot sacrifice them to make a catchy YouTube video.

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