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Defining Heresy as “Damnable Error”

“Heresy” is one of those words that some Christians misapply.

Defining Heresy as “Damnable Error”

Occasionally, I’ll see a social media post about a Christian leader who is referred to as a “heretic” and who teaches “heresy.” But in reality, the Christian leader mentioned is not one who teaches heresy, but someone with whom the person who made the post has significant differences on secondary theological issues. In other words, anyone who makes this kind of social media post misunderstands what heresy means.

What is heresy? The best definition I’ve heard so far derives from Michael D. Williams, one of my Systematic Theology professors in seminary. He has a way of cutting through all the nonsense and getting straight to the point. And his definition of heresy is two words: “Damnable error.”

Damnable error. That’s heresy.

This definition is helpful. It provides a framework to help you evaluate whether the teaching you don’t like is from a sheep that you disagree with or a wolf who needs to be ignored or rebuked or both.

Let’s break down the definition a little more.

1. Damnable. This means teaching so erroneous that it could send you to hell upon death. So, arminianism, egalitarianism, and continuationism do not classify as heresy. Why? Because believing in these doctrines does not damn you. You might disagree with those who hold these convictions. You may even divide (divide as in not do ministry together in the same church, not divide as in shut off all communication with the person) because of it.

But labeling someone as a heretic when their teachings are not damnable is one way to diminish your credibility. It’s also wrong and mean. You can potentially do damage to someone’s reputation by speaking of them as a heretic when in fact they are not. Those who are quick to throw up the heresy card for every Christian teacher in which there are differences in issues that are not damnable are not showing the rest of us how much they know about theology, but how little.

Many of the actual heresies have to do with the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and a proper understanding of the afterlife. So that means some real heresies are: not believing that Jesus Christ is fully God; not believing that the God of the Bible, the one true God, is one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; not believing that there is a real, conscious, unending place of torment after death for all who do not repent of their sin and believe in Jesus Christ. And so on.

You probably know many of the heresies. Or maybe you don’t. It might be a good exercise to learn more about heretical teachings to help you discern the truth from the counterfeit. And it’s always helpful to ask: “Does this teaching by Person X damn you to hell if you believe in it?” If not, then you shouldn’t label them as a heretic.

2. Error. Not just a disagreement or something that is off-putting to you. Not just someone who preaches topical sermons and leads an attractional church that doesn’t count church membership. But a biblical or theological error that is so serious it affects where you go after you die.

Yes, we should despise false teaching. But not every person who runs in a different Christian circle outside of yours is a false teacher. We must differentiate between primary doctrines and secondary issues, things which we all must agree upon, and things where there is room for disagreement. Most of all, we need to understand what heresy is and what heresy is not. Doing so will help us to properly treat sheep like sheep and wolves like wolves.

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About David Qaoud

David Qaoud (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is associate pastor of Bethesda Evangelical Church in St. Louis, Missouri, and founder of gospelrelevance.com. His work has appeared on The Gospel Coalition, For the Church, and Banner of Truth. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and son. Learn more.