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What is false doctrine and how is it recognized?

August 17, 2014

It seems as if most churches each with their own "take" on what is real and what is false, believes all the others teach false doctrine. I understand moral laxity, but false doctrine has always been a mystery, at least to me. I know that anything outside the teaching of Jesus Christ is considered false doctrine, but back to the original question, how can I recognize it if each denomination has their own interpretation, and as you said, and I believe to be true, no denomination has perfect doctrine or a perfect understanding of the biblical text?

Response:
Thank you for taking the time to read CH101 and then for taking the time to send what is a very good question. I will use our conversation as a new web page/post - it is a great question and you have done an excellent job of posing it.

Unfortunately, the answer is not easy [most good questions do not call for easy answers]. The problem here is that every sect/denomination/group usually will end up calling whatever disagrees with their doctrine "false." That is a problem as you have suggested in the way you have asked the question.

For me a doctrine or teaching must be clear in the scriptures for it to be considered "true" doctrine. For example, when the Church condemned the teachings of Arius in the fourth century it was because he was stating that Jesus, the Son had not existed from eternity. He said "if the Son is begotten, then there was a time when He was not [in other words, "there was a time when He did not exist"].
While the doctrine of the trinity had not been fully developed yet (indeed Arius and his teachings pushed the Church to develop this doctrine) many of the bishops cited John 1:1 as their main text for why Arius was teaching "false" doctrine:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. v2 He was with God in the beginning. v3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
This text, to me, makes it so clear why Arius' teaching was branded heresy and "false."

Now, compare the Arian controversy, for example, to the debate between Augustine and Pelagius in the fifth century. Augustine was upset by the teachings of Pelagius that mankind is not born with an inherent sin nature, but that each person develops their own propensity for evil, or sin. Through their debates in writing each man took a stronger stance against the other. Augustine held a more prominent place in the church hierarchy and was seen as a greater scholar/authority. His view won the debate and eventually the views of Pelagius were labeled "false" and heretical.

Now look at the debates of the Reformation. The Catholic Church labeled the men pushing for reform as "heretics." The Reformation continued to develop, even having sects branch off other movements. The views of John Calvin became commonly accepted, yet a mere 100 or so years later John Wesley would disagree with double predestination. The Catholic Church never held to double predestination and likely labeled it "false." John Wesley certainly labeled it "false," and Calvinists labeled both Catholics and the Wesleyans "false."
The biblical text is not 100% clear on this particular doctrine.

The easy answer is that any doctrine clearly contradicting the plain text of the NT can typically be called "false." Doctrines not clearly spelled out in the NT and NOT clearly included church tradition, in my opinion, should not be defined as "false." Some might disagree with your particular doctrine, but that alone should not bring the charge of being "false." Having said this, one should not be dogmatic about being "right" if neither the biblical text nor the traditions of the church confirm your belief. Your doctrine MIGHT be correct, but it also might NOT be correct. If it is not in the NT or church traditions it is probably NOT a critical belief.

Typically we only think of doctrines central to the faith as being "true."
I like to point to the Apostles Creed as a guide. The Nicean Creed in addition. IF a doctrine is not in these creeds, perhaps it is NOT significant enough to part ways, or to cease fellowship.

  The Apostles Creed
I believe in God, the Father Almighty
Maker of heaven and earth;

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate
was crucified, dead, and buried.
On the third day he rose from the dead,
He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand
of God, the Father Almighty.
From thence He will come to judge
the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy catholic church,
The communion of the saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And life everlasting.
Amen.
  The Nicean Creed
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and born of the Father before all ages. (God of God), Light of light, True God of True God. Begotten not made, consubstantial to the Father, by whom all things were made. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven. And was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary and was made man; was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried; and the third day rose again according to the Scriptures. And ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of the Father, and shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose Kingdom there shall be no end.

And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father (and the Son), who together with the Father and the Son is to be adored and glorified, who spoke by the Prophets.

And one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We confess one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
Amen.

The Nicean Creed posted here is not the original creed from the first Nicean Council of 325AD.








Reader Reply:
...thank you for an insightful distillation of some of the things or teachings in different denominations that seem to plague many of the members. Each claiming to have a "lock" on the true meaning of so many Biblical passages to the point that if someone does not believe as they do, that person or people are going to hell.

I am a retired Air Force officer, having served for twenty four years as a B-52 Aircraft Commander and Pilot. I am a Vietnam vet with one hundred and fifty combat missions. I also have written a detailed account or memoir about my experiences during that war and that seems to have helped me lift the burden.

...I just wanted to introduce myself. I am moved that you took the time to provide such an in-depth explanation of my question. I imagined the thing or object of "false doctrine" to be something that I could see only a small and hazy part as if looking through a dense fog. I could make out the shape but only partially so. Your explanation has to a large degree lifted some of the fog, and now it is much more clear and vivid.

We should not become "bogged down" with finger pointing and accusations, because it just might be us who espouse the false doctrine. If we can stay with the main doctrinal issues, and allow that we are fallible and the other issues we tend to elevate to the same level of importance perhaps we can agree to disagree as we realize they are not on the same level.

I was raised in a particular denomination, but have not for a long time associated with that church. Not because I don't believe their doctrine, but because of their approach to anyone who does not believe as they do. Every issue and every nuance is of the same importance and must be adhered to without question. Anyone who does not, is looked upon with prejudice and extreme dislike. I know that, as you pointed out, no one has an absolute, and infallibly understanding of what constitutes false doctrine.

...False doctrine. Can we recognize it when we see it? I believe so, if we truly want to. That being the case, we have studied and questioned, taking nothing for granted, but with an open mind. Now comes the hard part. Once we have identified that which is false doctrine and it is our doctrine we have so ardently proclaimed, can we change?

Thanks for listening.
  ~ Wayne

Response: Al Baker
Thank you for replying with personal info. I always like knowing the person on the other end.

I find that as I get older (I am a bit behind you at almost 56 now) there is far more gray areas and less black and white. That does not mean that I do not believe or do not know what I believe, but it does mean that I realize I am wrong about many things...the problem is I do not yet know where I am wrong. I think humility demands that we see this.

As I get older I am less inclined to proclaim who will go to Hell. I am thankful that He has grace.
We can believe all the right things and completely miss His will.
God help me.
Lord have mercy.
Along these lines you might find these things interesting. One is my personal statement of faith
The other is my lecture on Epistemology in my Intro to Philosophy class.

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