Is There Any “Heresy”?

By Mike Willis

The April 13, 1996 issue of The Indianapolis Star reported on a snag in the “heresy trial” of Episcopal Bishop Walter Righter. Righter has had charges of heresy brought against him by several “conservative bishops” because he ordained a non-celibate gay man. On February 27, the ecclesiastical court convened but soon became “hung up” on whether the bishop violated “church doctrine” or “church discipline.”

The Episcopal bishop’s lawyer, Edward Rehill, has argued that “doctrine consists only of church creeds relating to humans’ fundamental relationship to God  such as its teachings on salvation or the trinity.” In contrast “interactions between human beings are matters of discipline” and cannot therefore be called “heresy.”

This conflict was resolved among the Episcopalians by dropping the charges of heresy against Righter. While the heresy trial was in progress, Thomas C. Oden, professor of theology and ethics from Drew University, made the following observations in Christianity Today (March 4, 1996, 12):

The Greek word behind heresy means the act of choosing: the self-willing choice that departs from apostolic teaching. Marcion, Montanus, and Arius were all convinced that they had a clearer picture. The current error does not proclaim a better truth, but that all truths are equal and none is superior. The old-time heretic had excessive regard for his own “truth.” Nevertheless, the modem relativist may be every bit as willful in considering all truth “valid.” Thus the difficulty for someone who wants to discuss heresy.

I have had the dubious honor of being tagged a heresy-hunter. I first considered calling myself a victim, an abused truth-seeker. In-stead I have embraced heresy-hunter in an ironic sense: I am looking for some church discussion, even a bull session, in which heresy exists, at least in theory.

Today, the archheresiarch is the one who hints that some distinction might be needed between truth and falsehood, right and wrong. This is often treated incredulously by a relativist majority.

Oldline Protestantism at its tolerant and vulnerable zenith finally achieved what inquisitors and crusaders could not: the eradication of heresy. No heresy of any kind any longer exists within this pliable, smiling ethos  except, perhaps, for offenses against inclusivism.

Who can read what is happening among the mainline Protestant de-nominations without appreciating what Oden has written? Is there any doctrine that Protestant denominationalism can unequivocally say, “If someone believes and practices , he is a heretic”?

The Spirit of the Age

So long as I can remember, Protestant denominational-ism has been drifting further and further toward relativisim, the belief that there is no absolute truth. The spirit of ecumenism has been one of the primary points of emphasis among Protestant churches. The ecumenical movement was based on a gospel/doctrine distinction that allowed fellow-ship with one another based on common consent to the “core gospel” while allowing great freedom in doctrinal differences. As the years passed, what constituted the “core gospel” became smaller and less definite. The result is that one can believe just about anything and practice whatever he pleases while holding membership in most Protestant denominations.

The churches of Christ have not been insulated from the influence of this movement in Protestant denominational-ism. The “ecumenical movement” has been given a different, unique twist when it is preached among us, but that it has been preached cannot be questioned. The late Carl Ketcherside and his associate Leroy Garrett used their influence to promote the major tenets of the ecumenical movement. Before brother Ketcherside’s spiritual journey was ended, he was able to worship with those in most Protestant denominations, along with all of the groups of the restoration movement (including, among those who used instruments of music in worship, the Disciples of Christ). Brother Garrett wrote a series of articles in his Restoration Review some years back in which he visited area denominations and wrote glowing reports about the strong points he saw in each fellowship. His visit with a homosexual church was the only report that had significant negative criticism.

The fundamental premise of the Garrett/Ketcherside unity movement was “unity-in-diversity.” These brethren believe that the churches of Christ/Christian Churches should have fellowship with each other in spite of doctrinal disagreements over such things as mechanical instruments of music in worship, church support of human institutions (colleges, orphan homes, old folks homes, etc.), differences over the role of women (whether they can be used for song leaders, making announcements, preaching, serving as deaconesses, etc.), the inspiration of the Bible, and such like things. Many among the churches of Christ have accepted the fundamental presuppositions of the “unity-in-diversity” approach to unity. The movement has been aided and abetted by such journals as Image, Integrity, Mission, Wineskins, and several others among our liberal brethren. In the early 1970s, a significant group of men among us began parroting the “unity-in-diversity” concepts. Among those were Edward Fudge, Arnold Hardin, Bruce Edwards, Mark Nitz, and several others.

What Is A Heretic/False Teacher?

One tenet of the unity-in-diversity movement is that a person who is good, honest, and sincere is not a false teacher even if what he is teaching is false. Leroy Garrett wrote a series entitled “The Word Abused” in 1976. In the April 1976 issue of Restoration Review he wrote on 2 Peter 2:1 (“But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.”). His discussion centered on “who is a false teacher.” He wrote,

I may shock some of my more staid readers with the thesis I now set forth as to the identity of a false teacher. I do not believe, as I was always taught in the sect in which I grew up, that “denominational preachers” are necessarily false teachers, which is the view still urged upon us by many within Christian Churches-Churches of Christ. I have long since discarded the notion that “our” men are the truth teachers while “their” men are the false teachers (262).

According to Garrett, one cannot properly be called a false teacher unless he is intentionally dishonest; so long as he is ignorant of the truth, he cannot be called a false teacher.

It is unthinkable that such a characterization as this should be laid upon any sincere, well-meaning, God-loving person, however misled he may be on some ideas. One may even be caught up in the clutches of an insidious system and still not be a pseudo-didaskalos (false teacher, mw). The nun that marches her girls in front of you as you wait at the light does not necessarily deserve the epithet of false, whatever judgment you make of Romanism. She may well be more devoted to God than yourself, even if wrong about some things, and she may be a kalos didaskalos (teacher of good), as in Tit. 2:3, in that she is teaching those girls “to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited” (264).

Garrett continued to explain that a false teacher is one who is unscrupulous, who acts deceptively and maliciously.

The word pseudo is the key to our understanding the true character of the false teacher, and its meaning be-comes evident when we see it used as a prefix to numerous other words. 2 Cor. 11:13 refers to the pseudo-apostles and Mt. 24:24 mentions both pseudo-Christs and pseudo-prophets. Mt. 26:60 tells how pseudo-witnesses testified against Jesus before Caiaphas.

In each of these cases you have a bad egg, an unscrupulous person who acts deceptively and maliciously so as to satisfy his perverted ego. So Paul described the false apostles as “deceitful workmen, disguising them-selves.” Those who testified falsely against Jesus were malicious liars. That is our word, pseudo is a lie. A false teacher is a liar, and he knows he’s a liar; or he is so corrupt of mind and heart that he no longer distinguishes between right and wrong. He has “rejected his own con-science,” as the apostle describes him (264).

This was the concept that Leroy Garrett used to redefine what a “false teacher” is. He did not think it was right to label those who believed, taught, and practiced differently from others on instrumental music, water baptism, and such like things as “false teachers.” Consequently, he worked to redefine what a false teacher was: he was an ungodly, immoral, unscrupulous man, not the sincerely mistaken man who happened to err on instrumental music, institutional-ism, or water baptism. Not believing that those in the Christian Church were false teachers, he could extend the hands of fellowship to those who were sincerely mistaken.

Garrett’s Concept Spreads Among Us

I do not wish to imply that the following men whose writings I quote have accepted every aspect of the “unity in-diversity” movement, although some have obviously made more statements that parallel the writings of Ketcherside and Garrett than many realize. I simply wish to demonstrate that several among us have accepted the loose teaching that a false teacher is one who is unscrupulous and immoral, not one who teaches something that is untrue that leads to a violation of God’s divine law.

W. Frank Walton’s lecture in the 1995 Florida College Lectures, Overcoming With the Lamb, develops the same point. He concludes by writing,

Hence, in the Biblical usage of the term, a sincerebrother who teaches error on some point is not a false teacher. Biblically, there is no such thing as a sincere, honest false teacher. Rather, he is a mistaken teacher at that point. Everyone who proclaims the Bible message bears responsibility for what he teaches (Jas. 3:1) and should take correction when shown to be wrong on a doctrinal point (Acts 18:25ff) or conduct unbecoming a Christian (Gal. 2:11). Jesus lovingly rebuked all deviations from His will in five of the seven churches of Asia, but He did not immediately remove their lampstand. He gave them time to repent (Rev. 2:4ff; 3:1ff). Yet, to be in the same league as the false prophet in Revelation, a brother’s disposition must be shown to be rotten and rebellious to Christ as is his erroneous position. Doctrinal differences among good, sincere brethren in applications of Bible principles demand patience and a due process of brotherly love and study. A brother’s true disposition will be exposed in the process over time, as well as the Biblical accuracy of the position under question (“The Divine Warrior,” 181-182).

I do not disagree with everything that brother Walton wrote, such as his statement that patience and a due process of brotherly love and study are demanded when brethren disagree, but his statement that “there is no such thing as a sincere, honest false teacher” is identical with the teaching of brother Garrett.

Bob Owen, former president of Florida College, has been preaching a series of lessons on fellowship in churches around the country. In his March 28, 1996 presentation at the Temple Terrace church in Tampa, Florida (across the street from Florida College), he developed as a major part of his lesson the concept that a false teacher was one who was dishonest and insincere, not a brother who teaches what is false. As he brought this portion of his sermon to a conclusion, he summarized,

… What’s Paul describing? Is he describing some-body that just differs on some issue? Or is he describing people who are unruly, vain talkers and deceitful, who are laboring for filthy lucre’s sake, whose very character is described as abominable and disobedient and who are unto every good word reprobate? Those were people to be warned against. They were false teachers… .

Would it be fair in light of the biblical use of the term to say everybody that teaches something that I differ with or we differ with on all of those issues, bear the label, “He’s a false teacher”? Brethren, there’s a world of difference in a conscientious, godly person reaching a different conclusion from a careful and prayerful study of a passage than I’ve reached, there’s a world of difference in that and the description that Peter has given. Now if somebody else listens to that it may sound like I have just joined Carl Ketcherside, and I’m not saying that we ought to just throw the blanket of kindness and love over everybody and there ought to be no problem with just accepting anybody that believes anything. I know you know in advance that I don’t believe that. And I hope you know that I know the Scriptures don’t teach that.

Obviously, we agree that not every difference between brethren involves sin and heresy (see 1 Cor. 8:8), but according to brother Owen, no error a man teaches can make him a false teacher unless we can show his character’s corrupt.

I have included more than was necessary in brother Owen’s sermon in order to include his disclaimer about agreeing with Ketcherside. I do not want to misrepresent him in any way, for I love him as my brother. However, with reference to what is necessary to be a false teacher, they are agreed, although in application they differ. (In respect to application, brother Ketcherside is more consistent than brother Owen.) In private conversation brother Owen has stated that he believes a man who is honest and sincere (such as Oral Roberts and Billy Graham) can be described as a false teacher, although this appears to contradict what he stated in his sermon. In his presentation of this material in North Carolina in March 1995, brother Owen used this material to justify asking brother Halley to preach in the church of which he is a member, although he believes him to be teaching that which is untrue about divorce and remarriage. He believes it is a misuse of Scripture to describe brother Halley as a “false teacher.”

In 1988, brother Ed Harrell, one of the five editors of Christianity Magazine, wrote an article entitled “Homer Halley: False Teacher?” He was reacting to the published reviews of what brother Hailey had been teaching on divorce and remarriage. In his article he argued,

Finally, I find particularly offensive the easy use of the label “false teacher” with reference to Homer Hailey. As I have already noted, the presumption that one be-comes a “false teacher” on the basis of holding one doctrine that I judge to be erroneous is loaded with con-sequences that none of us would accept. A false teacher is surely one whose dishonest motives and/or ignorance distinguish him from the sincere brother who has reached an erroneous conclusion. If that is not the case, then I am surrounded by false teachers. I have come to know my fellow editors on this paper well enough to reveal that I disagree with them about some matters of biblical consequence. Are they all false teachers? Or, perish the thought, am I? That is nonsense (Christianity Magazine [November 1988], 9).

Again, with brother Harrell, I want to be careful not to misrepresent him. I do not wish to imply that he accepts all of the tenets of the unity-in-diversity movement. His application of what he believes is different from that of Ketcherside and Garrett. However, brother Harrell did make application of his view to men who teach, in sermons aroundthe country and in printed form, what he believes is wrong on the subject of divorce and remarriage. If the principle applies to one sinful practice, why not to others?


The purpose of this article has been to identify what is a significant movement that is occurring in brethren’s thinking. Brother Leroy Garrett acknowledged the change in his thinking from believing that those who taught what was false was a “false teacher” to accept the position that false teachers are unscrupulous deceivers without regard to the content of their message. As one brother said, “Biblically, there is no such thing as a sincere, honest false teacher.” This change is beginning to occur or already has occurred in the thinking of many brethren. In subsequent articles, I wish to examine just who is a “false teacher.”(More next issue.)

Guardian of Truth XL: No. 15, p. 2
August 1, 1996