They received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.
If you were to poll teenagers in your church and ask them who Sabellius was, how many blank stares do you think you’d receive? Would any of them have a working knowledge of who he was or what he taught? If not, there’s work to be done.
Initially it might seem counterintuitive to teach our teenagers about the heretics throughout Church history, but in order to guard them against the false teachers of today we do well to educate them about the false teachers of yesterday. As others have observed, there are no new heresies, simply old heresies repackaged and renamed. Teach your teens about Sabellius today and they will refute Oneness Pentecostals tomorrow.
Streams of Unity and Separation
A middle school student recently inquired as to our church’s denominational affiliation. He had taken an interest in the differences that had caused the Church to split into various factions. “Were Presbyterians wrong to baptize infants or Baptists wrong not to? Which ones are heretics?” he asked. In addressing these important concerns I’ve found it helpful to borrow the analogy of a river. While our church may swim in a certain branch of the Christian tradition, and a neighboring church another, it doesn’t necessarily mean one is heretical. In fact, if we swim far enough upstream we can find the exact point at which the two streams parted. We can lovingly recognize that we both come from the same greater body of water—the Church catholic—so long as we clarify some non-negotiable doctrines. Say for example, the Trinity.
But if the varying denominations that make up the larger Church catholic can be distinguished as smaller branches of the same river, then what does that make those teachings that have been condemned as heresy? Surely they are something else; and the river tracing back some 2000 years to its source waters, if surveyed briefly, will show where their streams were cut off from the source. The heretics condemned throughout Church history, despite the danger of their doctrines, served the Church by helping to make the banks of the river of orthodoxy more clear.
The Nicene Creed was the Church catholic’s response to three centuries of aberrant doctrine. It’s necessity was spawned as a way to guide Jesus’ sheep toward his voice (Jn. 10:27) amidst the conflicting voices of various wolves (Acts 20:29). In order to guide the next generation of the Church to affirm Nicene Orthodoxy it’s helpful for them to know the historical fires in which the Creed was forged.
In teaching teenagers, my greatest aim is that they will bear “fruit in every good work and increase in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:10). That God, as Scripture teaches, came in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. Arius, one of the early heretics responsible for the circumstances resulting in the Council of Nicea, taught that Jesus was less than God.
To a ninth-grader navigating puberty in public school though, Arius’s teachings might not be suspect at initial inspection, nor would they incite interest. When Arius’s modern equivalent, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, knock on his door, what’s to stop him from becoming a convinced convert? A working knowledge of the Council of Nicea and the cultural context that birthed it would allow him to discern that Jehovah’s Witnesses swim in a stream altogether different from orthodoxy.
When the Creed states:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
it summarizes well the depth and breath of what it means to call Jesus Lord. Because heretics often use our lexicon but not our dictionary, we should equip our teenagers to ask questions like, “what do you mean Jesus is like God? Does that mean he is God?” A well taught teenager can then winsomely reason with a Jehovah’s Witness from both the Scriptures (Acts 17:2) and the unanimous historical cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1) that have understood Jesus to be not simply like God but God in the flesh (Jn. 1:14).
The Trinity is the sine quo non of Christian orthodoxy and we have the heretics to thank for creating the environment in which the true Church would bring clarity to the doctrine. If it were not for them the Apostle’s Creed and the creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon would not have emerged.
A working familiarity with the heterodox doctrine they taught should not just be the aim of scholars and pastors, it’s the duty of every Christian to resist false teaching (Heb. 13:9). We should labor to ensure we set up the next generation to accept this task of guarding against heresy. In order to properly equip them, faithful pastors and leaders should take the time to show them the deficiencies (and nuances!) of false doctrine.
Sabellius Must Swim Elsewhere
I moved in with a youth pastor shortly after I came to Christ. I have a memory of sitting around a camp fire at a youth retreat and the excitement that came with thinking deeply about my Savior. How could God be one (Deut. 6:4) and yet manifest himself in three distinct persons (Mt. 28:19)? In a moment of sincerity—albeit misguided—I excitedly shared with the other teenagers: “perhaps God started as the Father, then became the Son, and is now the Holy Spirit within us!”
My remarks were met with some enthusiastic acceptance and some further pondering. Regrettably, there was no one to say, “what you are proposing is an old heresy called Sabellianism! We know that God is not like that because at Jesus’ baptism you have all three persons of the Trinity represented at the same time!”
By God’s grace, the teens in our church are learning about the historical setting that set the backdrop for the Creeds in the first few centuries of the Church. And yes, they will be learning about the heretics, their destructive teachings, and the Church’s response. Lord willing, when another young Sabellian suggests the Trinity is negotiable, there’ll be a teenager present that can lead him up the stream to see that the deep waters that unite the Church catholic (Eph. 4:5) have banks so thick they prevent the heretics from swimming with us.