Sound Doctrine, Heresy, and Theological Divisions


The blogosphere has been buzzing recently with charges of heresy. But what is heresy? Is it a question of one’s theology? And is that theology something worth dividing over? I addressed these questions in a chapter for the book, Simple Church: Unity Within Diversity. What follows is an excerpt from my chapter, adapted with permission for this blog post.

When believers separate over theology, it is usually because one or both sides think the other’s theology is so badly wrong that they cannot remain in fellowship. As justification for this divisive behavior, they often appeal to verses that talk about “sound doctrine” or “heresy.” Of course, both groups pridefully imagine that they are protectors of sound doctrine but that the other group promotes heresy. This approach has caused the majority of schisms and persecutions throughout church history. It also reveals a misunderstanding of both sound doctrine and heresy as spoken of in the Bible.

The term sound doctrine, when used today, typically refers to correct theology. And the word heresy, in today’s language, usually refers to a dangerously wrong theology that goes against standard Christian teaching. So when we read such terms in the Bible, we tend to assume they refer to correct or incorrect theology. In reality, these biblical terms have little to do with theology at all.

The Greek behind sound doctrine literally means “healthy teaching.” While such teaching can potentially include theology, it is primarily used to prescribe actions. Thus Paul’s list of things “contrary to sound teaching” is composed entirely of immoral lifestyles—not one is a false theological concept (1 Timothy 1:9–10, NET). And again, in Paul’s qualifications for an overseer, “so that he will be able to give exhortation in such healthy teaching and correct those who speak against it,” every item is a matter of lifestyle, not theological accuracy (Titus 1:7–9, NET).

As for heresy, it comes from the Greek hairesis, which means a “division.” Similarly, the word for heretic means a “divisive person.” So when Paul instructed Titus to reject a heretic, he meant to reject anyone set on creating disunity. Even then, the heretic was to be given two chances to repent from his divisive ways (Titus 3:10). Heresy, as biblically defined, is not a matter of wrong theology. Even correct theology can be heresy when used divisively. Division itself is the heresy warned about in the Bible. (Click to tweet!) And sound doctrine—though very important—is a matter of how we live, not what we believe.

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The Bible never allows for division among believers over matters of theology. However, it does instruct us to separate from false teachers (who are not true believers at all).

If we are to be thoroughly biblical, we must limit our criteria for false teachers to that which the Bible explicitly condemns. They are to be identified primarily by their lifestyles (see Matthew 7:15–20 and 2 Peter 2:14–19); however, they may also be revealed as false teachers by proclaiming a different Jesus. The Bible does state that a few theological belief statements are non-negotiable components of the gospel and thus worth separating over. By my count, there are only five of them:

  • Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (Matthew 16:16–18; John 20:31; 1 John 2:22–24; 5:1).
  • Jesus came to earth in the flesh (1 John 4:1–3).
  • Jesus is a descendant of David (2 Timothy 2:8).
  • Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and was raised on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:1–4).
  • Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; Philippians 2:11).

All five points, stated multiple times throughout the New Testament, are summarized and labeled as the “gospel” in the beginning of Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

This gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, concerning his Son who was a descendant of David with reference to the flesh, who was appointed the Son-of-God-in-power according to the Holy Spirit by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 1:2–4, NET)

Of this gospel, Paul wrote that “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8–9, ESV). So yes, we should distance ourselves from those who claim the name of Jesus while teaching a false gospel. But such people are not truly believers—thus our unity is not compromised. Furthermore, if some individuals misunderstand the gospel while not teaching others likewise, there is ample room to simply show them from Scripture what they have missed.

While this may make a provision to separate from some people, it is actually far more inclusive toward fellow believers than any “statement of faith” I’m aware of. Most belief statements serve only to cause division over secondary matters of interpretation and opinion. But in the Bible, I can find no beliefs that justify division apart from these five. We have been commanded to remain united, regardless of what some of us may believe about Scripture, creation, salvation, justification, baptism, spiritual gifts, God’s sovereignty, man’s free will, end times, heaven, hell, or any other pedantic excuse for separation.