Matthew 18 and Heresy in the Public Arena

DA CARSONDr. D. A. Carson go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Several years ago I wrote a fairly restrained critique of the emerging church movement as it then existed, before it morphed into its present diverse configurations.1 That little book earned me some of the angriest, bitterness-laced emails I have ever received—to say nothing, of course, of the blog posts. There were other responses, of course—some approving and grateful, some thoughtful and wanting to dialogue. But the ones that displayed the greatest intensity were those whose indignation was white hot because I had not first approached privately those whose positions I had criticized in the book. What a hypocrite I was—criticizing my brothers on ostensible biblical grounds when I myself was not following the Bible’s mandate to observe a certain procedure nicely laid out in Matt 18:15–17.

Doubtless this sort of charge is becoming more common. It is regularly linked to the “Gotcha!” mentality that many bloggers and their respondents seem to foster. Person A writes a book criticizing some element or other of historic Christian confessionalism. A few bloggers respond with more heat than light. Person B writes a blog with some substance, responding to Person A. The blogosphere lights up with attacks on Person B, many of them asking Person B rather accusingly, “Did you communicate with Person A in private first? If not, aren’t you guilty of violating what Jesus taught us in Matthew 18?” This pattern of counter-attack, with minor variations, is flourishing.

To which at least three things must be said:

(1) The sin described in the context of Matt 18:15–17 takes place on the small scale of what transpires in a local church (which is certainly what is envisaged in the words “tell it to the church”). It is not talking about a widely circulated publication designed to turn large numbers of people in many parts of the world away from historic confessionalism. This latter sort of sin is very public and is already doing damage; it needs to be confronted and its damage undone in an equally public way. This is quite different from, say, the situation where a believer discovers that a brother has been breaking his marriage vows by sleeping with someone other than his wife, and goes to him privately, then with one other, in the hope of bringing about genuine repentance and contrition, and only then brings the matter to the church.

To put the matter differently, the impression one derives from reading Matt 18 is that the sin in question is not, at first, publicly noticed (unlike the publication of a foolish but influential book). It is relatively private, noticed by one or two believers, yet serious enough to be brought to the attention of the church if the offender refuses to turn away from it. By contrast, when NT writers have to deal with false teaching, another note is struck: the godly elder “must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9 NIV). Continue reading

Heresy and Heretics

the “Bible Answer Man, ” in his recent book Christianity in Crisis. Hanegraaff’s Charge resulted in a radical outburst of indignant cries directed not at Hinn but at Hanegraaff.

It seems that the only real and intolerable heresy today is the despicable act of calling someone a heretic. If the one accused is guilty of heresy, he or she will probably elicit more sympathy than his accuser. Anyone who cries “Heretic!” today risks being identified as a native of Salem, Massachusetts.

After Hanegraaff made his charge in print, a couple of things happened. One is that Hinn recanted his own teaching that there are nine persons in the Trinity and apologized to his hearers for that teaching. Such recantations are rare in church history, and it is gratifying that at least in this case on that point Hinn repented of his false teaching.

The second interesting footnote to the Hanegraaff-Hinn saga was the appearance of an editorial by the editor of a leading charismatic magazine in which Hanegraaff was castigated for calling Hinn a heretic. At the 1993 Christian Booksellers Association convention, I was present for and witness to a discussion between Hanegraaff and the magazine editor. I asked the editor a few questions. The first was, “Is there such a thing as heresy?” The editor acknowledged that there was. My second question was, “Is heresy a serious matter?” Again he agreed that it was. My next question was obvious. “Then why are you criticizing Hanegraaff for saying that Hinn was teaching heresy when even Hinn admits it now?”

The editor expressed concern about tolerance, charity, the unity of Christians, and matters of that sort. He expressed a concern about witch hunts in the evangelical church. My sentiments about that are clear. We don’t need to hunt witches in the evangelical world. There is no need to hunt what is not hiding. The “witches” are in plain view, every day on national television, teaching blatant heresy without fear of censure.

Consider the case of Jimmy Swaggart. For years Swaggart has publicly repudiated the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Swaggart was not challenged (to my knowledge) by his church for his heresy. He was censured for sexual immorality but not heresy. I guess this church regards romping with prostitutes in private a more serious offense than denying the Trinity before the watching world.

As I documented in The Agony of Deceit, Paul Crouch teaches heresy. So do Kenneth Copeland and Kenneth Hagin. These men seem to teach their heresies with impunity.

But what do we mean by heresy? Is every theological error a heresy? In a broad sense, every departure from biblical truth may be regarded as a heresy. But in the currency of Christian thought, the term heresy has usually been reserved for gross and heinous distortions of biblical truth, for errors so grave that they threaten either the essence (esse) of the Christian faith or the well-being (bene esse) of the Christian church.

Luther was excommunicated by Rome and declared a heretic for teaching justification by faith alone. Luther replied that the church had embraced a heretical view of salvation. The issue still burns as to who the heretic is.

In Luther’s response to Erasmus’ Diatribe, he acknowledged that many of the points at issue were trifles. They did not warrant rupturing the unity of the church. They could be “covered” by the love and forbearance that covers a multitude of sins. When it came to justification, however, Luther sang a different tune. He called justification the article upon which the church stands or falls, a doctrine so vital that it touches the very heart of the Gospel. A church that rejects justification by faith alone (and anathematizes it as a deadly heresy) is nolonger an orthodox church. Luther wasn’t shadow boxing on that issue; nor was the Reformation a mere misunderstanding between warring factions in the church. No teapot was big enough to contain the tempest it provoked.

In graduate school in Holland, it was the custom of my tutor, Professor G.C. Berkouwer, to lecture on one doctrine per year. In 1965 he departed from his normal policy and lectured on “The History of Heresy in the Christian Church.”

Berkouwer canvassed the most important struggles the church faced against heresy. It was Marcion’s heretical canon that made it necessary for the church to formalize the contents of the true canon of sacred Scripture. It was Arius’s adoptionism that necessitated the conciliar decrees of Nicaea. It was the heresies of Eutyches (monophysitism) and Nestorius that provoked the watershed ecumenical council of Chalcedon in 451. The heresies of Sabellius, Apollinarius, the Socinians, and others have driven the church through the ages to define the limits of orthodoxy.

One of the major points in Berkouwer’s study was the historical tendency for heresies to beget other heresies, particularly heresies in the opposite direction. For example, efforts to defend the true humanity of Jesus often led to the denial of His deity. Zeal to defend the deity of Christ often led to a denial of His humanity. Likewise the zeal for the unity of the Godhead and monotheism have led to the denial of the personal distinctions in the being of God, whereas zeal for personal distinctives have led to tritheism and a denial of the essential unity of God. Likewise, efforts to correct the heresy of legalism have produced the antinomian heresy and vice versa.

We live in a climate where heresy is embraced and proclaimed with the greatest of ease. I can’t think of any of these major heresies that I haven’t heard repeatedly and openly on national tv by so-called “evangelical preachers” such as Hinn, Crouch, and the like. Where our fathers saw these issues as matters of life and death, indeed of eternal life and death, we have so surrendered to relativism and pluralism that we simply don’t care about serious doctrinal error. We prefer peace to truth and accuse the orthodox of being divisive when they call a heretic a heretic. It is the heretic who divides the church and disrupts the unity of the body of Christ.

Taking Error Seriously

EdenJohn J. Murray C. H. Spurgeon concluded: ‘Modern criticism, like modern theology, is like the sirocco that blasts and burns; it is without dew or suction, it proves itself to be unblest of God and unblessing to men’. What can be said of the situation today?



There was a day when men believed there was such a thing as objective truth and believed that the truth could be stated in propositions, using human language and comprehensible to human minds. A sea-change has taken place in Western intellectual life. It is now argued that we can no longer speak of objective truth. Truth and falsehood have been replaced by what is ‘true for me’ or ‘true for you’. This has infiltrated the church, as has shown in David Wells’ book No Place For Truth, a work which charts the demise of evangelical theology in the United States. He said: ‘The emptiness of evangelical faith without theology echoes the emptiness of modern life’.


How can we profess to love God without loving his truth? Truth is the revelation of his nature, character and works. Horatius Bonar warned in his day:

The spirit of the age which makes light of error, as if it were not sin. Even some who call themselves Christians, have lost their dread of error, and are hurrying on from opinion to opinion, exulting in their freedom from old fetters and trammels, reckoning themselves peculiarly honest and unprejudiced. Alas for truth in such a case! How can it be reached? Alas for the love of truth! How can it exist where there is no fear of error?


Ministers and elders can hold the most outrageous views and no action is taken against them. Trials for heresy seem to have become a thing of the past. We are living in a day when such matters have ceased to concern the evangelical church. Professor Thomas C. Oden has said: ‘The very thought about asking about heresy has itself become the new heresy. The archheresiarch is the one who hints that some distinction might be needed between truth and falsehood, between right and wrong’.



Naming Names

Exposing heretics and those who are working in opposition is sometimes seen as an unbiblical activity. To some, it even seems to be a very unloving thing to do, especially when names are mentioned. Yet a vital function of a true shepherd is to protect the sheep from wolves, rather than allowing them open and unrestricted access to the sheep pen.

The Apostle Paul felt it necessary to point out those he wished his readers to be made aware of and avoid. Here is a list of six people named in 2 Timothy:

1) Phygellus (2 Tim 1:15)
2) Hermogenes (2 Tim 1:15)
3) Hymenaeus (2 Tim 2:17)
4) Philetus (2 Tim 2:17)
5) Demas 4:10 (apostate) (2 Tim 4:10)
6) Alexander the Coppersmith (2 Tim 4:14)

Referring back to Old Testament times, he names the two men who most stood in opposition to the ministry of Moses:

7) Jannes (2 Tim 3:8)
8) Jambres (2 Tim 3:8)