7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. 8 Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. 9 Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, 11 for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. 12 Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete. 13 The children of your elect sister greet you.
The great theologian Thomas Oden died a couple of months ago. His passing is a great loss. One of the interesting things about Oden is his testimony, a testimony I first heard when he came to lecture at Southwestern Seminary when I was a student there in 1997. Oden’s story was one that saw him go from a Christian upbringing to becoming a radically liberal and skeptical movement theologian to coming back to orthodox, biblical Christianity. As a result, Oden had a deep understanding of the seductive power of heresy and how otherwise faithful Christians can be pulled into it. One of the observations that he made was the perceptive point that modern theological liberalism has simply gotten rid of heresy as a category. In other words, it is impossible to be called a heretic in the modern leftist seminary or university because heresy is simply not seen to exist in that world. Here is how Oden put it:
It seems worth noting that the liberated seminary at its zenith has finally achieved a condition that has never before prevailed in Christian history: Heresy simply does not exist. Christian doctrine and catechesis after long centuries of struggle against heresy, have finally found a way of overcoming heterodoxy altogether, by banishing it as a concept legitimately teachable within the hallowed walls of the inclusive multicultural, doctrinally experimental institution. This is an unexcelled accomplishment in all the annals of Christian history. It seems to give final expression to the quest for the flawless community.
No heresy of any kind any longer exists. You cannot find one anywhere in the liberated seminary – unless, perhaps, you might consider offenses against inclusivism. There is absolutely no corruption of Christian teaching if under the present rules all notions of corruption are radically relativized. Not only is there no concept of heresy, but also there is no way even to raise the question of where the boundaries of legitimate Christian belief lie, when absolute relativism holds sway.
It is like trying to have a baseball game with no rules, no umpire, and no connection with historic baseball. Yet we insist on calling it baseball, because a game by that name is what most people still want to see played.”
That is a terrifying, if accurate, observation. Of course, heresy exists whether we want it to or not. That is, it is possible to hold false beliefs, to teach false teachings, and to invite the wrath of God by perverting the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is certainly the case that the early Christians believed in heresy. Philip Lee makes this point well when he writes:
Is it possible, however, to speak of heresy in our time? Even to utter the word might seem to be a retreat into a darker age. Heresy evokes memories of the Spanish Inquisition, the martyrdoms of Jeanne d’Arc, John Huss and countless other victims of religious tyranny. It also brings into our consciousness ridiculous spectacles of Protestant orthodoxy such as that described in Burns’s “Holy Willie’s Prayer.”
Certainly, there is, in our reluctance to accept the notion of heresy, a legitimate caution. Yes, our divisions in the past have been destructive. Yes, the cruelties and self-contradictions of the Church of Jesus have been a scandal. Yes, our lack of tolerance toward Christians and others has been a disgrace. It is true that within Christianity there should be ample room for diversity. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus himself had occasion to remind the disciples, “He that is not against us is for us.”‘ The Church Fathers were not for the most part an intolerant lot. Even Augustine, who could not be said to suffer error gladly, affirmed the principle salvo jure diversa sentira, that different opinions can be held without the loss of the rights of communion, without disloyalty to the Catholic Church.
There are, however, limits to creative diversity. At some given point, a teaching, an idea or an action which claims to be Christian is so utterly different from the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” that it becomes the opposite of Christianity.
Lee is correct. You simply cannot say that heresy does not exist. The New Testament writers certainly thought it did. John, for instance, in 1 John, launches a broadside against false teachers and calls the Church to right thinking, right living, and right devotion to Jesus. That theme is continued in the short letter of 2 John.
As we consider verses 7-13, let us do so with this question before us: what should be the believer’s reaction to and posture toward heresy?
We must watch ourselves when it comes to heresy.
The first call we receive from John in 2 John is the call to diligence.
7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.
What John writes in 2 John 7 is almost a repetition to what he wrote in 1 John 4.
2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
Marianne Meye Thompson notes that in 1 John the tense of the verb is perfect (“Jesus Christ has come in the flesh”) whereas in 2 John the tense is present (“the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh”). She observes that “[m]any commentators suggest that the present tense lays emphasis on the lasting, permanent union of the two natures of Christ,” but that “[t]he formulations…both use confessional or creedal language and, despite the difference in the form of the verb, surely have the same thrust…The issue is not the permanent relation of the ‘two natures’ of Christ nor the nature of the incarnation itself, but is rather the importance of confessing ‘Jesus Christ Incarnate.’”
I believe Thompson is correct: the point is belief in the incarnation and what it signifies. In Christ, God has taken on flesh and come among us to redeem us. The false teachers against which John was writing were denying this. Craig Keener argues that “[t]he secessionists’ inadequate view of Christ was either a compromise with synagogue pressure…or a relativization of Jesus to allow more compromise with paganism.” He continues:
For the secessionists, Jesus was a great prophet like John the Baptist and their own leaders, but was not the supreme Lord I the flesh…They may have been affiliated with or forerunners of Cerinthus (who distinguished the divine Christ and the human Jesus, like some modern theologians) or the Docetists (who claimed that Jesus only seemed to be human). All these compromises helped the heretics better adapt to their culture’s values what remained of Christianity after their adjustments, but led them away from the truth proclaimed by the eyewitnesses who hadknown Jesus firsthand.
This was one of the heresies that the early Church was facing. There were others, just as our Church age faces a myriad of heresies. John next moves to his caution.
8 Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. 9 Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.
We are to watch ourselves. That phrase, “watch yourselves,” is the Greek phrase blepete heautous, which, A.T. Robertson tells us, is “like our ‘look out.’” “There are heresies out there…look out!!” The reason why you and I specifically must look out for ourselves is because heresies can be very subtle. I doubt very few people wake up and say, “I think I will adopt a heresy today!” For instance, the poet T.S. Eliot, in his book Christianity and Culture, said this of heresy:
Heresy is often defined as an insistence upon one half of the truth; it can also be an attempt to simplify the truth, by reducing it to limits of our ordinary understanding, instead of enlarging our reason to the apprehension of truth.
Meaning, there might actually be noble motivations for heresy, at least initially. We might think we are doing something good by simplifying a truth or trying to make it more accessible, but we may be doing great damage in the way we do so. We may, in our efforts to remove complexity, actually remove the truth!
Soren Kierkegaard said that we can fall into heresy by seeking to make the demands of Christianity lest stringent.
The apostasy from Christianity will not come about openly by everybody renouncing Christianity; no, but slyly, cunningly, knavishly, by everybody assuming the name of being Christian, thinking that in this way all were most securely secured against…Christianity, the Christianity of the New Testament, which people are afraid of, and therefore industrial priests have invented under the name of Christianity a sweetmeat which has a delicious taste, for which men hand out their money with delight.
Watch yourselves! See to it that you do not whittle away at the faith and thereby inch yourself into heresy. Be careful! Watch what you read. Watch what your real motivations for this or that action is. Watch what you allow into your life! Watch yourself!
We must be fastidious is separating ourselves from heresy.
And we must be fastidious. We must be very, very careful not to entertain heretics.
10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, 11 for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. 12 Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete. 13 The children of your elect sister greet you.
John says there are two things that we should not do with a heretic: (1) receive him into your house or (2) give him any greeting. This will perhaps sound unduly harsh in our pluralistic and latitudinarian society, but there are some important qualifying matters we must keep in mind.
First, John is talking about trouble-making heretics. He is also talking about people who are disruptive to the Church and whose teachings, if given a foothold, could cause very real damage. This is important to understand. He is not saying not to greet or welcome a brother with whom you may have a disagreement on some non-essential item. There are indeed numerous aspects of the faith that believers may disagree on and still not be compromising the core of the faith, the gospel. But the gospel itself, including the person and work of Jesus, cannot be compromised on.
Second, the prohibition against greeting or receiving such a person is speaking of a certain kind of interaction not every type of interaction. Presumably he is speaking of entering into an unguarded relationship in which a person with false beliefs would have the opportunity to corrupt your faith. I do not wish to soften what John is saying. This is, indeed, a jarring statement. But there are indeed rank heretics who should be met with a closed door. There are troublemakers whose phone call should not be taken.
Even then, however, let us remember that such a person does fall beneath the focus of the great commission. This is why I say that even this passage does not forbid all interaction. It certainly does not forbid evangelistic interaction. Such heretics are not to be treated as brothers and sisters, but they are to be approached as lost people. To such people we should go as directed by the words of Jesus in Matthew 28.
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Such should be our posture towards those who would corrupt the faith.
Do not allow such troublemakers access to your heart and mind.
Take an evangelistic posture towards such people and not a posture of brother or sister that puts a false veneer over a very real problem.
Be a faithful steward of the gospel! Never turn to another! I close with Paul’s warning to the Galatians from Galatians 1.
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Amen, and amen.
 Thomas C. Oden, Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), p.46-47.
 Philip J. Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics. Kindle Edition. 276-284.
 Marianne Meye Thompson, 1-3 John. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Ed., Grant R. Osborne. Vol. 19 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ), p.154-155.
 Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p.748.
 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. VI (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1960), p.253.
 T.S. Eliot. Christianity and Culture. (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1977), p.41.
 Soren Kierkegaard. Attack Upon Christendom. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), p.46-47.