A brief reflection today off the back of an enjoyable conversation in the gardens of Tyndale House, Cambridge, this morning. Nothing new or profound, but nonetheless pause for thought.
So many heretical teachings are so poisonous because they are so close to helpful truth. Time and again the New Testament warns against false teachers who creep in like wolves in sheep’s clothing. Mixing truth with deadly falsehood they corrupt the good and lead otherwise faithful believers away from the saving Gospel truth. Be on your guard, warns Scripture time and again, lest you be taken in. (Eg. Matt 24:4-5; 2 Peter 2:1-3; Acts 20:28-31; Jude 1:3-4 etc…)
One such teaching that developed in the centuries following the writing of the New Testament was Arianism. This is a heresy named after the priest, Arius, who first propagated this teaching in Alexandria in the late third century. Simply put, Arius taught that the Son was created by and thus eternally subordinate to the Father. This teaching creates a hierarchical relationship within the triune Godhead, and has huge christological implications. The teaching was so divisive that contemporary writers recorded violent fighting in the streets of Alexandria, as Arians and non-Arian believers contended for doctrinal supremacy. The heresy spread widely, and famous events such as the Council of Nicaea were part of attempts to stamp out this false teaching.
My conversation this morning included a few musings on this nature of heresy, and led to my interlocutor making the astute observation that such teachings are dangerous precisely because they are so close to the truth, and this means we can end up believing them even unintentionally.
If you were to ask each member of your congregation whether Jesus is God, I expect you would get a wide range of answers. From believers answering ‘yes’, to unbelieving visitors offering up a ‘no’, to anything in between. Perhaps a common one might be ‘Yes, but he is the Son of God.’ If you made the question more direct, you might find more startling answers. ‘Is Jesus the Son of God subordinate to the Father?’ Once again, a wide range of answers would be received, but it is not at all inconceivable that many godly believers have not worked through the implications of answering along the lines of ‘Well, he is the Son, so I suppose he must be subordinate to the Father.’
For some such an answer is merely the garbled opening gambit to an explanation that would reveal a solid grasp on the triune nature of our God, but to some it may well expose a subtle and unknowing acceptance of Arianism. This is a misunderstanding of the very God we worship, the God who saved us, transforms us, and has won us for eternity. What might seem like muddled or sloppy thinking has the possibility to be deeply dangerous. The onus is on church leaders to teach well what it means for Christ to be the Son of God, the implications of Christ’s submission to the Father’s will, and the eternal relationship of our triune Godhead. Pastors and preachers must guard the flock from wandering into untruth.
Heresy is so dangerous because it often appears so so close to wonderful truth. It can be unwittingly accepted when we don’t teach clearly and consistently on some of the hardest parts of Christian doctrine and belief. I am not saying that we hope in a Gospel that is too complex to be understood by everyone who calls themselves a Christian (I take great comfort and joy in the simplicity of the Gospel – that even a young child can understand and accept it!) but we must guard one another against slipping into dangerously unhelpful beliefs simply because we do not work at deepening our understanding of the God in whom we hope.
Lord willing there are no intentional Arians in the pews of your church, but such unhelpful ideas have a long history of creeping into the hearts and minds of faithful churches and believers. As iron sharpens iron let us encourage one another in the truth so that no one might themselves believe, even (and perhaps especially) by accident or negligence, in a heretical teaching that is so near yet so far from the saving truth of the Gospel. Guard your own heart, and seek to encourage the hearts and beliefs of those in your own church family.