Yes, we should be opposed to hate (Jas. 2:1-9) and hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11-13), but members of the early church had a healthy concern for what is arguably our greatest danger: heresy. Impure doctrine can often be a cause of hatred, hypocrisy, and a host of other problems. In the end, all wrong behaviors stem from wrong beliefs.
One place where Paul warns against heresy is Philippians 3:17-19.
Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things.
Paul gives two facts about heretics: 1) they are enemies of Jesus Christ, and 2) their end is destruction. What I want to briefly examine, through, are what he points out next: the three habits displayed by heretics.
1. Their belly is their god.
A person’s functional god is whatever he or she obeys most readily. He who constantly refuses to consider the opinions of others and he who can’t move without the approval of others are both serving a functional god.
Here, the heretic is described as following the dictates of his belly. The word “belly” might be better translated as “heart.” In other words, heretics are swayed by their feelings more than anything else. They go with what they feel is true and right and good.
It’s easy for this to happen. The “follow your heart” mantra is everywhere in our society, including the church. Accordingly, heretics make many of their appeals based on the subjective and emotional. They encourage us to be true to ourselves and to follow where our own hearts lead. True happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction can only come from following the god in our gut. It’s a deadly lie that heretics love to live out loud (Rom. 16:18).
2. Their glory is in their shame.
People who follow their hearts don’t stop seeking to do what is right. They just do what is right in their own eyes. And therein lies the problem: evaluating what is right and wrong with their own eyes. The Bible specifically mentions this tendency, and never with approval. For example, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise” (Pr. 12:15). (See also Deut. 12:8; Jud. 17:6, 21:25; Pr. 21:2.)
When heretics in the church treat their hearts as the ultimate moral compass, they come to accept or even promote those things which are shameful. Evil is called good and good evil. Love is called hate and hate love. Vice is called virtue and virtue vice.
Heretics are like the early American slaveholders: boldly professing Christianity while making a case for culturally acceptable, yet grossly unbiblical, practices. They take pleasure in falsehood, not realizing that they have learned to enjoy dark deeds even in broad daylight (2 Pet. 2:13).
3. They set their mind on earthly things.
That is, “all they think about is this life here on earth” (NLT). Or, “this world is the limit of their horizon” (Phil). This truth is made even clearer in the next verse, which says true Christians recognize they are citizens of another world—i.e., heaven.
Being concerned with earthly things is not sinful in and of itself; what is dangerous is to be so caught up in earthly pursuits that you act like a citizen of earth instead of an ambassador from a faraway—and countercultural—land.
To quote C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. . . . [T]he English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade [and many others] all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.” If this statement is true for lukewarm Christians, it is even more true for heretics.
1) If we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge that the seeds of heresy lie in every human heart. We are all capable of the above three habits. Realistically, we have all at least dabbled with them. Heresy is dangerous—and even deadly—but if our pointing fingers never feel our own spiritual pulses from time to time, something is wrong.
2) The proper response to heresy is not gloating. It is grief. The heretic is, ultimately, an enemy of God—even if he speaks behind a pulpit and publishes bestselling books. Thus, his destination is destruction. This news should be sobering, not a cause for salivating.
Let us weep along with the Apostle Paul that there are those in the church—professing Christ with their lips!—who are living their lives as enemies God—crucifying Christ again by their actions (Heb. 6:6). May we display God’s grace by experiencing painful sorrow rather than pleasurable self-righteousness over the heresies that threaten to stain and sully Christ’s bride.