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How error enters the church

Unsplash/Tasha Lyn
Unsplash/Tasha Lyn

The disagreement centered around a single letter in a single word. You can’t get more subtle than that.

All Arius (AD ca. 250 - 336) wanted was for the Church to say Jesus’ was homoiousion but not homoousion when it came to Christ’s relationship to God. That single letter addition to the word meant Jesus was “of like substance” when it came to God but not “of the same substance.”

And to any thinking Christian, that won’t do. Such a claim is no mere exercise in semantics.

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Arius’ position became clearer when he said, “The Father existed before the Son. There was a time when the Son did not exist. Therefore, the Son was created by the Father. Therefore, although the Son was the highest of all creatures, he was not of the essence of God.” Arius himself was a very winsome guy and argued his case with those outside church leadership, even going so far as to compose catchy songs to help them remember his position.

That’s how clever and persistent error can be when it comes to penetrating the Church and saturating it with lies. Chuck Colson wrote, “I have spoken of the frontal assaults and the sneak attacks. There is something worse … the enemy is in our midst. He has so infiltrated our camp that many simply can no longer tell an enemy from a friend, truth from heresy.”

Maybe this is why, 2,000 years ago, Jesus’ half-brother Jude felt the need to strongly warn us about false teaching.

Breaking news

Writing his short letter not long after Jesus’ crucifixion, Jude evidently intended to compose one message but then was interrupted by the Holy Spirit to write something entirely different.

He says:

“Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Jude 3-4)

What started out as a dispatch about salvation in general turned into a plea for his readers to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints”. The word Jude starts off with is epagōnizoma, which is where we get our term for “agonize.”  Its meaning also includes the idea of exerting intense effort because of a rivalry, which is appropriate in this case.

Jude saw that something false was competing with God’s truth and he wanted to call it out. Paul was likely feeling the same angst when he wrote, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Gal. 1:8).

It’s interesting to note that 26 of the 27 books in the New Testament warn about heresy, and when you see that kind of repetition in Scripture, it’s doubly meaningful. And the reason, in this case, is simple: because eternity is an awfully long time to be wrong.  

Describing how error enters the Church (“crept in”), Jude uses a curious term that’s only used here in the New Testament: pareisdyō. It literally means “to slip in sideways” in a stealthy and sneaky way, being hard to detect. In extra-biblical Greek, the word describes the cunning craftiness of a lawyer who, through shrewd argumentation, infiltrated the minds of courtroom officials and corrupted their thinking.

A. W. Tozer puts the kind of process and falsehood Jude describes like this: “So skilled is error at imitating truth, that the two are constantly being mistaken for each other. It takes a sharp eye these days to know which brother is Cain and which is Abel.”   

Unmasking error

Fortunately, Jude tells us how to unmask heretical teaching when he says that false teachers are those “who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”

In the same way, the Bible says believers are “prepared beforehand” (Eph. 2:10) for good works, Jude reveals heretics are literally “ordained to this condemnation”. He then says we can recognize them in three ways – by their (1) character; (2) conduct; (3) creed.

Their character, Jude says, is “ungodly."  Jesus put it like this: “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matt. 7:16-17).

Jude then says their conduct turns “the grace of our God into licentiousness,” the last word (also only being used in the book of Jude) meaning a self-abandonment of all constraint into physical indulgence. In this case, Jude might have had an eye on the practices of the Gnostics who taught nothing a person did with their physical body had any bearing on the spiritual side. The same was true of the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6), which early second century sources such as Irenaeus say started with the ‘Nicolas’ who is identified as a proselyte from Antioch (Acts 6:5).

Finally, Jude states that heretics deny Jesus in some fashion. This could take the form of outright denial of who Jesus is (e.g., Arius) or Jude may have had in mind something mentioned by Paul about false believers who, “profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him” (Titus 1:16).

As Jesus Himself said, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).

Putting error in its place  

There’s no doubt that recognizing a particularly subtle and deadly error that’s trying to breach church doors can sometimes be difficult because of how it first appears on the surface. Author Dave Hunt, writing in his book The Seduction of Christianity, said, “If a witch doctor came dancing down the aisles of your church in his paint and feathers and fetishes and rattles, you would throw him out, or you would at least try to convert him. But you wouldn’t let him teach your congregation. But when the witch doctor has put on a business suit and a tie, and he is using Christian words but he is teaching you the same thing underneath the cover of these Christian words, unfortunately, it isn’t recognized.”

Thankfully, all true believers have been granted the ability by God to eventually sniff out error. Jesus describes it this way: “the sheep hear his [the true Shepherd’s] voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out….and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:3-5).

John Calvin said this ability extends even to the youngest of believers. Writing in his Institutes, he used the analogy of a baby who instinctively knows the difference between sour and sweet. Those with saving faith may not fully grasp the reason why a teaching initially strikes them as ‘sour,’ but they’ll eventually reject it nonetheless.

So what happened with Arius? He was opposed at the Council of Nicaea and by the church father Athanasius. Putting error in its place, Arius’ refutation is recorded in the formal Council of Nicaea decision on Christ, which says:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father”

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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