Division and Heresy

In the last post I discussed baptism in Jesus’ name. I mentioned that those who deny the Trinity are the ones who normally bring this up.

Their belief is that God is only one person. To them, Jesus is the Father, is the Son, and is the Holy Spirit. God is "the Father in creation, the Son in redemption, and the Holy Ghost in the church."

This doctrine—which has been called modalism, Sabellianism, and "Jesus only"—is one of the oldest heresies. Sabellius and Praxeas were excommunicated for holding the doctrine in the early third century, just 150 years after the time of the apostles.

Even more interestingly, Tertullian, writing about the same time that Sabellius and Praxeas were excommunicated, explains that the majority of Christians held to some version of "Jesus only" because they were too simple and uneducated to grasp the concept of "the Trinity in Unity."

The question I want to put before us today is whether we ought to excommunicate modern Sabellians. Should we avoid fellowship with the "Jesus only" churches today?

My answer to that question is yes, but I want to qualify that answer.

Of course we have to reject them. That is the historical position of the church. It is clear that the teaching of the Trinity is what the apostles handed down to the church, and the church really cannot have rebellious members teaching things that are certainly contrary to apostolic teaching.

In this case, I’m referring not only to apostolic teaching, but to a teaching that the apostles considered important.

For us there is but one God, the Father … and one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (1 Cor. 8:6)

That verse can be a bit of a struggle for modern Trinitarians, who don’t hold to exactly the apostolic doctrine of the Trinity, either; however, 1 Cor. 8:6 definitely flies in the face of modalist teaching. (I have a book on the subject.)

It is not just scripturally, but historically, that it is obvious that the modalists contradict apostolic teaching. The very basis of every early church creed was the Trinity!

What About Godly "Jesus Only" Believers I’ve Met?

I’ve met my share of godly modalists. I’ve met my share of hard-nosed, judgmental, critical modalists, too, but it’s not those I’m concerned about. It’s the godly ones, who actually seem to be marked with love that I’m concerned about.

"Everyone that loves is born of God," says the apostle.

Is that true?

I certainly believe that’s true, just as I believe all theological teaching that comes from an apostle. I assume that most of my readers agree because it’s in the Bible (1 Jn. 4:7).

So what about a modalist who by John’s definition is born of God?

My answer is that we attach too much to being born of God.

Being born of God is apart from works. Being born of God means that you have received the Spirit and grace of God so that you are able to obey and follow God. You must still "sow to the Spirit" and "not grow weary in doing good" if you want to reap eternal life (Gal. 6:7-10). I know that’s unthinkable heresy to a lot of people, but that’s the simple Gospel of the early church, and it’s easily justifiable to anyone who is familiar with Scripture.

We cannot ignore Scripture just because a person is born of God. We are supposed to mark those who cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine we have learned. In the modern era, we take that way too far, but we are not taking it too far when we forbid a Christian to teach modalism, a doctrine which has been condemned by the church since it reared its head in rebellion to the apostles’ appointed successors and to their churches 1800 years ago.

Such a person may find mercy at the judgment seat of Christ. A modalist walking in love, as far as I can tell, may well find himself among the sheep who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned. We are not given indication in the Scriptures that people will be judged for misunderstanding the Trinity. We are given indication that they will be judged for ignoring the needy (Matt. 25:31-46).

Nonetheless, we are told to reject heretics after the first or second admonition (Tit. 3:10). Today, that word "heretics" might best be translated as "forcefully opinionated men causing divisions." The fact that they might go to heaven does not give them the freedom to trouble the saints and divide the church.

I’d be curious for any feedback, especially scriptural feedback, that you might have for me on this.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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