I am often accused of being “unChristlike” because I take a vocal stand against Mormonism. I recognize heresy in Mormon teachings and stand against it for two reasons. One is the call in Scripture for followers of Christ to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The other, also found in Scripture, is the call for “the Lord’s servant…to teach…correcting his [spiritual] opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Whatever one thinks of my position in regards to Mormonism, these two mandates from Scripture compel me to confront what I understand to be false teachings.
This confrontation of heresy is nothing new. It is present in the pages of Scripture, coming from the apostles and Christ Himself. It is present in the early church, such accounts preserved for us by those early church leaders and historians. Some years ago when I read Eusebius’ Church History, I was struck by the strong language and public denunciations Christian leaders employed against false teachers. It should have come as no surprise since I was familiar with Jude’s description of the heretical “hidden reefs” of his day:
“These are…waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever…
“These are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage.”
“In the time of Anicetus, he [Polycarp] visited Rome and converted many among these heretics to the church of God, proclaiming that the one and only truth he had received from the apostles was that transmitted by the church. And there are those who heard him tell how John, the Lord’s disciple, went to take a bath at Ephesus, but, seeing Cerinthus inside, he rushed out of the bathhouse without bathing, crying, ‘Let’s get out of here lest the place fall in: Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is inside!’ Polycarp himself, when Marcion once met him and asked, ‘Don’t you recognize me?’ replied, ‘I do indeed: I recognize the firstborn of Satan!’ So careful were the apostles and their disciples not even to converse with any mutilators of the truth, as Paul also said, ‘After a first and second admonition, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions, since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned’ [Titus 3:10-11].” (Eusebius: The Church History, translated by Paul L. Maier, page 146)
The first time I read this, the picture that formed in my mind of the apostle John running from the bathhouse while warning everyone to flee seemed almost comical. It made me laugh. But in truth, heresy is no laughing matter. John was serious in his warning to the people at the baths in Ephesus. And he was serious when he warned believers in what is now known as 1 and 2 John. Some believe it was this same heretic (Cerinthus) that John referred to as an “antichrist,” a “liar,” and a “false prophet” who “tr[ied] to deceive” followers of Christ.
The early church did not remain quiet in the face of false teaching and false teachers. Church leaders did not subscribe to the ancient advice of Gamaliel, who said under different circumstances, “…I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail” (Acts 5:38). In the early church, believers spoke out–clearly and loudly–against heresies. Apologists for the true faith wrote and circulated books to expose false teaching and confirm sound doctrine. In the preface to one such book, Irenaeus’, Against Heresies, Irenaeus explained:
“Inasmuch as certain men have set the truth aside, and bring in lying words and vain genealogies, which, as the apostle says, ‘minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in faith,’ and by means of their craftily-constructed plausibilities draw away the minds of the inexperienced and take them captive, [I have felt constrained, my dear friend, to compose the following treatise in order to expose and counteract their machinations.] These men falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretence of [superior] knowledge, from Him who rounded and adorned the universe; as if, forsooth, they had something more excellent and sublime to reveal, than that God who created the heaven and the earth, and all things that are therein.”
Followers of Christ are to have this same attitude – expose error; never for the sake of winning an argument, but always for the sake of truth and for the love of others (see Philippians 2:3-5). This was further reflected by Irenaeus:
I…have spared no pains, not only to make these doctrines known to you, but also to furnish the means of showing their falsity; so shall you, according to the grace given to you by the Lord, prove an earnest and efficient minister to others, that men may no longer be drawn away by the plausible system of these heretics…”
This is my hope and my prayer.