Categories of Groups and Errors in Theology
Categories of Theological Camps
Having that foundation (see How To Deal with So Many Opposing Views), let’s actually look at some categories that we can frame our thinking by. These categories are not final, and there are many additions that could be made. But they should give us a good footing as we apply what has gone before.
The first and broadest distinction is whether one is saved or lost. This will determine how accurately he can handle the truth, since the difference is between having the mind of Christ and being utterly blind.
Such blindness results in a seemingly numberless set of beliefs, which we call religions. A religion is a set of theological beliefs that determines the lifestyle of its adherent. Christians face several types of religions. If we can grasp these different types to narrow our sphere of assessment, filtering through their faults becomes much easier.
- Firstly then, we have to face non-Christian religions, such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the thousands of tribal religions. The blindness of these religions should make clear to us how invalid they are.
- We also have to face apostate religions that masquerade as Christian, such as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Oneness Pentecostalism. These had a form of truth initially, but they departed from Biblical orthodoxy at some point.
- Then we have religious cults to deal with. They never had the truth and follow a false teacher but still claim the Bible to be authoritative. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, and Christian Science fall into this category.
- Finally, there are secular religions, such as atheism and agnosticism, as well as other philosophies. Though secular, these are indeed religions, because they have a set of beliefs about God, and those beliefs determine the lifestyle of their adherents.
Assuming a conviction of Christianity, let us move on to categorizing differences within it. These categories allow us to efficiently sort through the many groups and claims that come up as we study theology.
Theology Distinctions. Whether broader than or more specific than denominational boundaries, there are several key doctrines or approaches by which people define themselves. Some are liberal with their theology, while some are conservative. Some identify as Calvinist, some as Arminian, and some as being in between. Some are continuationists (they believe in tongues, healing, and such), while some are cessasionists (they believe the sign gifts have ceased). Some are dispensational, while some are covenantal. Some are strictly evangelical; some are ecumenical (find no problem mingling with Roman Catholicism and similar false systems). When filtering through theological claims, these distinctions serve as helpful dividing lines between truth and error, while bringing needed conviction on a wide range of issues.
Broad Denominational Distinctions. Examples of these are Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist/Wesleyan, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Anglican/Episcopalian, and non-denominational. Of course, there are more examples than these.
Trans-Denominational Distinctions. Within broad denominational headings, there are more specific denominational headings. For instance, Baptists can be divided into southern Baptist, independent Baptist, reformed Baptist, etc. Or with Wesleyan churches, there exist the Salvation Army, Free Methodists, the Church of the Nazarene, etc.
Congregational Distinctions. Even with a common building name, there will always be differences from church to church, mainly in methodology, administration, and spirituality.
Personal Distinctions. But even within the same congregation, there exist personal beliefs that will never be identical to another set of personal beliefs.
Categories of Departure from the Truth
In dealing with these differences, we must understand the different levels of departure from God’s truth. Not every error is extreme, and not every disagreement is pivotal. However, many times they can be. A suggestive list of categories may help us in distinguishing the extremity of certain views. To understand this list will help us to assess and interact with different movements claiming to be “religious” in any sense of the word. It will be our obligation to define which category each issue falls into and interact with it accordingly.
- The first level of difference is Christian Liberty. This category deals with personal convictions, which may vary from person to person. When two disagree on personal conviction concerning which Scripture hasn’t given a clear principle, neither are necessarily right nor wrong. Rather in this case, their conscience is their guide and the glory of God their goal. Believers can have full fellowship even in disagreement on these things. But they must be careful not to offend or criticize the other regarding his convictions. (See Romans 14).
- On the second level, something more weighty presents itself, that is, Interpretation Differences. Some may see a Scripture passage as meaning one thing, while others see it as meaning another thing. For instance, some disagree on whether the Eternal State is described in the whole of Revelation 21-22 or just in the first eight verses of chapter 21. Since there will be right and wrong in this case, this disagreement is more significant than with Christian Liberty. Even so, such a disagreement does not need to hinder fellowship on any level.
- On the third level, there is Wrong Doctrine. This is a false understanding of Scripture’s teaching on a more foundational level than differing interpretations. This is where fellowship can start to be hindered since it concerns a broad range of Biblical subjects, as well as what is taught publicly in an assembly. While it may or may not be a sin to hold wrong doctrine, it does tend toward further error. (Error generally multiplies). For instance, whether one is amillennial or premillennial will affect his theology in other areas, like a Christian’s relationship to political activism. Romans 15:14b provides a solution to this: “You also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another.”
- The fourth level—more extreme still—is Sin. This is a departure from truth in one’s walk. For instance, idolatry, though not a belief per se, does stem from false or missing belief surrounding the preeminence of Christ. Fellowship, depending on the greatness of the sin, may be hindered even further than with wrong doctrine. At times, the assembly will have to take public action, as laid out in 1 Corinthians 5 and other places. Certainly, fellowship with God is hindered (1 John 1).
- Fifth we find a very extreme form of error, Heresy. This is not simply a misunderstanding of Scripture, but a departure from one of its major truths. For instance, a heresy would include the idea that Christ atoned for sins in Hades or that Hell ends in annihilation. These ideas have consequences that diminish the pure gospel and must be addressed, as Paul showed by writing Galatians. Fellowship and correction are the goals of addressing the issue: superficial unity cannot be achieved by overlooking it.
- Sixth, there is what we could call Damnable Heresy. This is a departure from a foundational truth of Scripture. One cannot be a saved person while embracing a damnable heresy. This kind of heresy includes a denial of Christ’s deity or humanity or a denial of justification by faith, among other things. When one believes such things, he should be considered a heretic and fully avoided. “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them” (Romans 16:17). “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves” (2 Peter 2:1).
- Finally, and most extremely, there is Apostasy. This is full and final separation from Christianity after being enlightened to it and being part of its professing community. Apostates were never saved, nor can they be saved after committing to their apostasy. That is what Hebrews 6 and Jude teach, especially about Jews returning to Judaism from Christ. Now, there are two categories in dealing with this: full apostates and borderline-apostates. We must avoid apostates and respond by contending for the faith (Jude 3-4). We must fearfully approach borderline apostates—approached because they need to be saved, and fearfully approached because we could easily be drawn into their snares. “And have mercy on some, who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh” (Jude 22-23).