7 Steps to Becoming a Heretic

Heretics usually fall into the role. Seldom does a man wake up in the morning, grab a cup of coffee, read the morning newspaper, put on his clothes, and then stare himself in the mirror and say “Today, thou shall become a heretic”. Heretics usually start by staring in the mirror and saying, “Today, thou shall be a difference maker”.

Consider Sabellius. Sabellius became what is now known as a modalist. They were very concerned with maintaining the truth that God is one. They also wanted to maintain that Christ was fully God. Sabellius emphasized these two truths to the neglect of another truth: that God is also three distinct Persons.

Tertullian responded to the modalists. (It is from Tertullian that we have the statement “one substance consisting in three persons”). To our knowledge, this would be the first time that the term Trinity was used. Sabellius and the other modalists were unmoved. Sabellius was eventually condemned a heretic in 220 AD.

His story is not unique. I share it simply because it is the typical pattern of heretics. If you want to become a heretic here is the way to do it:

Step One: Have a desire to be an epic difference maker.

Step Two: Find a truthful doctrine that is being neglected or under emphasized

Step Three: Make your ministry about restoring this precious doctrine.

Step Four: Begin emphasizing this truth to the expense of other equally true doctrines

Step Five: When people begin to question your overemphasis and/or your negating of other truths consider this the price of being an epic difference maker.

Step Six: Continue undeterred. Begin seeing this “other truth” that your opponents are emphasizing as part of the reason why your precious doctrine was under- emphasized. Find ways to minimize this truth, or even show that it is an error.

Step Seven: Emphasize your truth. Totally deny the other truth. Congratulations you are now a heretic that has denied a key doctrine of Scripture.

The above picture is from a great series at The Resurgence on Know Your Heretics.


  1. Dave Miller says

    I’m getting so forgetful. I could have sworn I hit publish on this one about an hour ago. Oh well. Good article, Mike, as always.

  2. Greg Harvey says

    You know, Mike, you’re just a baby step away from pointing out the Big Bang cause of heresy: when we become convinced that God has given us a special perspective on Scripture.

    Pastors ought to be honest here: who isn’t looking for a special word from the Lord for Sunday morning?

    When extensive volumes are produced that are loosely based on Scripture–I’m thinking of Luther’s writings or Calvin’s The Institutes as I write this sentence–the foundation is there for deifying our own special, private views of Scripture. I have yet to meet a single pastor or missionary (or SS teacher) that didn’t have a special subject he/she loved.

    Add to that the confusion between early v. late theology, the RCC view on tradition eclipsing Scripture, various Reformation perspectives, pro- and anti-scholastic views, and there is really not an excellent way to establish a fully orthodox position that can be easily transmitted to new believers.

    A lot of what we personally learned and have taught is on roughly the level of hearsay in a court of law. But we remain faithful to it because we heard it from someone we respect, admire, or love. I won’t say it’s a vicious cycle because it is the only cycle of discipleship we truly have, but the temptation towards heresy is available for any of us to “appropriate”. And the source of all temptation–human pride–is constantly lying to us about how capable we each are.

    I think your simple points are a great schematic for what we need to be careful about. But what we really need is honesty about our own pride and how that results in continuing sin and hubris (BOTH AT THE SAME TIME!! Aren’t we awesome!!)

  3. Frank L. says

    It seems to me that anybody who discusses anything at anything length in regard to spiritual issues is going to tend toward heresy, as Greg points out.

    I have yet to hear any description of God’s nature (Trinity) that did not lean toward modalism–and I’m talking about the really good ones.

    We simply do not possess the possibility of speaking at length on any matter without a “mixture of error.” Even when we read the Scripture, and add nothing else, we are not giving a complete picture of all that is.

    It seems to me that heresy strikes when humility flees.

    • John Fariss says

      “It seems to me that heresy strikes when humility flees.” Frank, that is a classic! Well said; wish I had thought of it . . . and in fact, I may. . . .


  4. Christiane says

    it is important to understand that MANY early Christians struggled to understand the answers to questions about the ‘concept’ of the Holy Trinity, and about the Person of Christ

    The Church acting in Council was able to preserve what was taught by the Apostles and handed down as truth,
    from some of the teachings that came later that veered from that truth and attempted a path away from that truth,
    rather than towards a better understanding of it.

    The orthodox doctrine of the Holy Trinity offered a better understanding of the Apostolic tradition handed down to the Church.

    The teachings of those labeled ‘heretics’ took paths away from the Apostolic inheritance.

    The Church protected what it had been given, and preserved and strengthened the understanding of it, and stood strongly against the heretical teachings in this way: the early Creeds.

    If you the wording of the early Creeds, and you know something about the early heresies, it is easy to see how the words of the Creeds fought the heresies, and affirmed Apostolic teachings. In this, it is believed that the working of the Holy Spirit was most certainly in evidence.

  5. Jess Alford says

    Mike Leake,

    Can any of us say that there is no heresy in any of our beliefs?
    I cannot say it. What would be your answer?

    I’m not knocking any demonations, The Church of Christ would say no
    but I disagree with them, Many other demonations would say no but I disagree with them. I also disagree with some of my Baptist brothers
    but I will not bring up any issues.

    • says

      Heresy? I don’t know. I’m not so confident as to say that I have absolutely NO heresy in any of my beliefs. But “heresy” if I’m understanding the term correctly is something that gets you an anathema. (And not just from the church, from the Lord Jesus).

      I’d prefer to say that there is likely error in my beliefs. Of course, I don’t know where that is…or hopefully I’d change it and not believe it.

      I’d also mention that there is a big difference between having bits and pieces of heretical belief and in being a full blown heretic.

      • Frank L. says

        Mike, please outline the point when a person moves from error to heresy, to full blown heretic.

        It seems to me that throughout history the “church” had a sliding scale and many people were tortured for not making the cut.

        It may be like the Supreme Court justice’s opinion on obscenity: “I’ll know it when I see it.”

        • Frank L. says

          One man’s error is another man’s heresy.

          Or, heresy is in the eye of the beholder many times.

        • says

          LOL. It’s probably closer to that Supreme Court justice’s opinion. But we see how helpful that was. So I’ll make an attempt.

          I’d say the difference between error and heresy is in how close to the gospel is the incorrect doctrine already affirmed or denied.

          I’d say at step 4 they move into heresy. Somewhere in step 5-6 is when I think pride has so blinded them on this position that they are slowly becoming a heretic. At point 7 they’ve cast off all restraint and I’d rightly call them a heretic.

          I’d be interested to hear other people answer this question. I think there can be really significant error. And I think at times we are way too quick in throwing out the H-bomb.

    • says

      It depends. We all hold mistaken beliefs – some which might even veer in heretical directions – but the main issue is the degree to which we hold them. For instance, if someone comes out of a Jehovah’s Witness church and is saved, I will expect them to still have a lot of funny ideas, many of which may well be heretical. But if they are willing to learn, to grow, to put off those notions, there is no real problem. The problem is the person who affirms heresy and refuses to back down.

      I see heresy as those views so far outside the bounds of biblical teaching that the very salvation of the person holding the view is questionable. It’s about a willingness to submit to the teaching of the Bible and the core truths of the faith. The person who refuses to do this brings their salvation into question.

  6. says

    “But what we really need is honesty about our own pride and how that results in continuing sin and hubris (BOTH AT THE SAME TIME!! Aren’t we awesome!!)”

    “We simply do not possess the possibility of speaking at length on any matter without a “mixture of error.” Even when we read the Scripture, and add nothing else, we are not giving a complete picture of all that is.”

    I have to agree strongly with these two quotes. Can I say that I think this is what I Cor 8:2 is pointing out? If you think you know, without possibility of error, you’re forgetting (or haven’t yet practically learned) what the two quotes above are saying.

    And I take this excellent post as something of a warning. I tend to harp on I Cor 8:2, because it seems to me that it’s largely ignored, and understanding it and acknowledging it would go a long way towards helping reduce our tendency to fight and argue (instead of having genuine discussion). But pushed too hard, it could easily lead to asserting that no one can be certain of anything at all, certainly a heresy (the truth is closer to one of Dr James Willingham’s ‘mental tensions’, or, as G. K. Chesterton put it “The collision of two passions apparently opposite”. This may be why it tends to be expressed in terms of a paradox.). Handle this wrong, and I could be heading down Mike’s 7 steps. Of course, this would require that in pushing it that far, I would have be ignoring the very message I’m pushing, but that’s not at all unknown in this fallen world.

  7. Jon says

    It’s very hard to hold everything in view at once in a balanced way. Everyone suffers from over or under emphases. Denominationalism is a case in point. The way to overcome this, I think, is to strive toward a more corporate understanding. This means engagement with the past, certainly. It also means listening to voices across the spectrum right now.

  8. says

    If you all think determining heresy is easy, you should do the research I have done in church history, especially as it relates to the Inquisition and to the sects like the Waldensians, Lollards, Anabaptists, and Baptists, to mention a few. You all would be delighted to know about the jail terms, the loss of property, the beatings, drownings, burnings at the stake (auto de fe), torture, etc. The State Church decided whether one was a heretic or not, and then remanded one to the State for execution of the law.

  9. Jon says

    Thanks, Dr. Willingham. We mustn’t go the direction of those in the higher eschalons who grew cocksure. We must maintain liberty of conscience, soul freedom, the priesthood of all believers, and all those other wonderful Baptist distinctives which created a conciliatory attitude and wrought Christian harmony.

  10. Jess Alford says

    Mike Leake,

    To me heresy is a self willed opinion that is substituted for submission
    to the real truth. Jesus said what is truth? Of course Jesus is the real truth.

    Mike you used the term error, I take it to mean to forsake the right path.
    Strong delusion in doctrine or morals, selfwilled.

    With these two definitions being nearly the same, if not the same. I suppose it depends on if one will return to the truth or not.

    I still cannot say that I don’t have some heresy or error in some of my beliefs. No matter how hard I try to be Bibically responsible.

    To put it another way, I can’t say I am right on everything. I will learn new things in God’s word until the day I die. Now I can only see through a glass darkly.

    If any one claims to know all, They have a longer way to go than they ever dreamed. I think we are just scratching the surface of that dark
    glass. We just have the basics. I would like your thoughts please.

    • says

      I take error to mean simply being wrong about something.
      Heresy is when it is pointed out that you are wrong and you still continue with this strong delusion. I think it also depends on what area you are incorrect in. I’d never call someone with a faulty eschatological view a heretic…unless of course they denied that Jesus was returning. But I might say that they are in error.

      • Doug Hibbard says

        I think I have tended to take “heresy” as any belief that, if held, crowds out the ability to believe the Gospel. For example, believing that Jesus was not really crucified but just appeared to have been (good ole Docetism) would be heresy. You cannot be saved and be a heretic.

        Error comes down in magnitude: thinking that everyone brought their lunch to the feeding of the 5000 and it was the miracle of Jesus convincing them all to share. That is, to me, an error. It’s a big error, especially if one then goes on to deny all the miracles of Christ. But one can believe that the sinless Son of God really died for their sins, really rose from the grave, and really went back to heaven and think He didn’t make more bread out of a little bread.

        Then you have questionable beliefs: that is where I would put certain eschatological, ecclesiological, and views on charismatic issues. These are the ones where I think Scripture is plain enough for me to see, but I could, possibly, be wrong. Take ecclesiology: could the Presbyterians be right? Maybe so—but I don’t think so.

        So heresy is the big one: to lob the h-bomb is to declare that someone is not part of the faith.

  11. Christiane says

    I have no doubt that people had a real hunger and thirst for Christ in the days of early Church. It is always possible when finite minds attempt to comprehend the infinite mysteries of God, that people find themselves in water over their heads (excuse the pun). But still people seek answers to questions that have been planted within them because they were formed in the image of God.

    What the Holy Spirit does for them is to give them a sense of awe and a respect for mystery and for the things of paradox that provide insight into another Kingdom where the things of this world have no traction.

  12. Jess Alford says

    So here is the question I was leading up to. Who ever does not believe in
    the BF&M are they a heretic or an errorist?

    • says

      While I don’t know the definitive answer I’d say that it depends on which part of the BF&M. Is it dealing with a Baptist distinctive? Then it’s probably error. If its dealing with a Christian distinctive then it’s heresy.

  13. Jon says

    There is no agreed upon boundary concerning where error leaves off and heresy begins. Neither is there a standard sense of how correct we must be to be considered authentically Christian.

  14. Jon says

    And I don’t think instituting too many boundaries is desirable. After all, who would decide those boundaries and who is to say they would be correct? I think a minimalist stance is the best way to go. That’s one of the things that’s endeared me to Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

    • Christiane says

      the heart of Christ can be understood by a small child . . . I think that tells us something about how much the great doctrinal complexities really matter in the scheme of things

      • Dave Miller says

        Apples and oranges. We are to have a childlike faith, but we are to grow and mature as well, according to Paul. Jesus did not oppose truth or sound doctrine.

          • Joe Blackmon says

            And Jesus, who is “the doctrine”, told the woman at the well that people must worship God in spirit and in truth. (John 4:24) Therefore, correct doctrine matters and growing in faith and knowledge of that doctrine matters, just like Dave said.

      • says

        There’s a balance – the Gospel is simple enough for a young child to understand, yet there’s enough complexity that it ought to entirely humble the smartest intellectual (not that the latter happens often enough).

      • Max says

        Amen Christiane! It’s amazing to me how some of the greatest intellects on the planet miss Truth entirely. But, after all, education doesn’t produce one ounce of revelation. God often reveals Truth to babes who “get it”, while brilliant intellects are still veiled. Childlike faith is a powerful thing … it’s the first step toward growth and maturity in Christ and sound doctrine. God builds his Church on revealed Truth.

  15. says

    I think Al Mohler’s Theological triage method is helpful concerning this subject and that the denial of a first-order doctrine would constitute heresy while being wrong on a second- or third-order matter would be error. I think if you look historically at groups that have departed into heresy, by the time step 7 as described in the post is reached there are often denials of a plurality of essential doctrines. I don’t think heresies stay isolated on one point but tend to multiply. For example, many groups that have a heretical Christology also don’t understand the atonement. Many who don’t understand the atonement don’t understand we are saved by faith alone.

  16. says

    Heresy certainly can come as you say, with an emphasis on one truth to the exclusion of another truth. But it can also come quietly and without much fuss, like rust on metal. The former may come by pride and obsession, but the latter may come by negligence and changing attitudes toward truth and Scripture. Important truths are rarely attacked with a frontal assault; they are most often eroded by a light but steady flow of compromise.

    It seems to me that your seven steps can be accurately applied to some potential heretics, but they can also be misapplied to those who are indeed called to restore some important doctrine (such as inerrancy of Scripture or justification by faith)—misapplied by the group under the sway of error and looking to label as a heretic the one calling them back to the truth.

    • says

      So long as you don’t do this: “Totally deny the other truth. Congratulations you are now a heretic that has denied a key doctrine of Scripture.” You’ll be okay.

  17. Max says

    “Find a truthful doctrine that is being neglected or under emphasized.”

    Someone once said something similar “Heresy is an over-emphasis of a long-neglected truth.” According to a post on Christianity Today, there are approximately 41,000 Christian denominations and organizations in the world. In my vicinity, I have counted at least 20 different flavors of Baptists! Makes a guy wonder, does any denomination have a corner on the Truth (the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth)?!

    During my Southern Baptist experience, I have applied the error litmus test Dave notes in an above comment “Do you agree with ‘me’, or not?” I formerly considered that test for other denominations … but now find myself challenged to explore that amongst sects within the SBC. Do any of us have a corner on the Truth? Are we allowing the teachings and traditions of men to supplant the commandments of God? Jesus advised us not to do that.

  18. says

    Mike, great article. I mostly agree.

    My only concern is that you’ve largely described Martin Luther in your 7 Steps, as far as the church of his day was concerned (The Catholic Church). Maybe you could write an article as well on the subtle difference between a heretic and a Reformer? They’re eerily similar; one is biblical, one isn’t.

    • says


      I’d argue that this doesn’t describe Luther. #1 doesn’t apply to him. Neither does #3. Nor do I see Luther emphasizing the sola’s at the expense of other precious doctrines. Yes, I believe that Luther was in error in a few areas (as I’d say I am as well) but he wasn’t denying biblical truths. The Catholic Church didn’t even really accuse him of that. They accused him of defying the papal tradition. Big difference.

      I do acknowledge that most heretics assume they are reformers and most reformers are called heretics by somebody. And every heretic believes he’s being biblical. I’ve written this article to highlight that fine line and subtle difference.