Most people today would define heresy as any idea or teaching that is contrary to the particular religious ideology or belief structure that they hold as true. Therefore, any other ideology or belief that is in opposition to theirs is heresy, and the person that believes or teaches it is a heretic.
Because the words 'heresy', 'heresies', and 'heretic' are used in the New Testament to define concepts concerning wrong attitudes and behaviors that must be eliminated within the congregations of God, it is necessary to clearly understand what constitutes heresy and who is to be considered a heretic.
The word 'heresy' is borrowed from the Greek language. A literal translation of the word 'heresy' is simply 'a choice', but in the Septuagint, heresy is translated as 'a free choice'. In later classical Greek literature, heresy takes on the meaning of a philosophical school or sect of one's choosing. The Jewish historian Josephus, uses the word 'heresy' to denote a religious body. Today, the word 'heresy' is mostly used to convey a sense of condemnation for a particular belief or opinion.
Although the early technical meaning of heresy referred to making a choice or belonging to a religious sect, the scriptures where the words heresy, heresies, and heretic are used, show that, with the establishment of the early church and the introduction of an expanded understanding of God's plan for the salvation of humanity through Jesus Christ, the word heresy and heretic took on a completely different meaning when used in reference to the truth of God.
The words 'heresy', 'heresies', and 'heretic' as used by the writers of the New Testament have meanings that embrace the concept of being in opposition and hostile toward God's truth or holding or teaching doctrines that are in opposition to his truth. Moreover, these words connote the condemnation of those who believe or teach things that are in opposition to established truth.
"Then the high priest rose up and all they that were with him which is the sect [heresies] of the Sadducees and were filled with indignation" (Acts 5:l7 KJV).
Here, the Greek word 'heresies' was translated into the English word 'sect' to denote a certain group of people who held certain beliefs concerning the laws and teachings of the God of the Jews.
The Heresy of Circumcision
The Book of Acts shows that the apostles and elders of the early church held a conference in Jerusalem in order to decide certain doctrinal issues, one of which was the doctrine of circumcision:
"There arose up certain of the sect [heresies] of the Pharisees, which believed, saying, it is necessary to circumcise them [Gentile Christians] and command them to keep the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5 KJV).
Here, it is clearly shown that the word 'heresies' refers to those who hold certain opinions concerning the law of circumcision and the law of Moses and their application to Gentile converts. During this conference, these subjects were discussed and both sides presented their opinions concerning these issues.
Paul goes Before Felix
"For we have found this man a pestilent fellow. . . a ringleader of the sect [heresies] of the Nazarenes. . .But this I confess to you, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets" (Acts 24:5, 14 KJV).
Tertullus accuses Paul of being a trouble maker and leader of those who are called Nazarenes and Paul confirms that he does believe in the way called heresy. When Acts 24:1-14 is reviewed, it becomes clear that the word 'sect' (heresy) is used to criticize the religious group that Paul was associated with. These are the first indications in the New Testament of the word heresy being used as a condemnation of a system of beliefs.
Although the Greek meaning of heresy appears to have originally been a neutral term used to indicate a difference of opinion rather than a strong condemnation, Acts 24 verses 5 and 14 clearly show that heresy took on a new meaning within the religious community.
Paul in Rome
After Paul arrived in Rome to make his appeal to Caesar about the accusations that the Jews had made against him, he called for the leaders of the Jews to meet with him so that he could explain why he had appealed to Caesar:
"For this cause therefore have I called for you, to see you, and to speak with you: because that for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain. And they said to him, We neither received letters out of Judea concerning you, neither any of the brethren that came showed or spoke any harm of you. But we desire to hear of you what you think: for as concerning this sect [heresies], we know that everywhere it is spoken against. And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the Kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses and out of the prophets, from morning till evening" (Acts 28:19-23 KJV).
Here, there is no condemnation denoted by the use of the word 'sect' (heresies), although the followers of Christ were condemned by the Jews who lived in Judea.
The Corinthian Problem
Paul's letter to the Corinthians gives us more insight into the word 'heresy' as it is used to denote something objectionable among the elect of God:
"For first of all, when you come together in the church, I hear there are divisions [schisms] among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you" (1.Cor.11:18-19 KJV).
There are several things that are important to understand concerning the choices that the Corinthians were making concerning their spiritual behavior. There were major differences of opinion among them concerning many spiritual issues, and because of these various opinions, the church was not unified in their worship of God.
Paul clearly reprimands some of the Corinthians for making wrong choices about the things that they had come to believe concerning God's laws, precepts, and principles. He says that because of this division, those who understand the spiritual intent of God's laws, precepts, and principles are revealed, which implies that those who did not truly understand these things were either not part of the elect or were weak in their understanding of spiritual things.
"Now the works of the flesh are certainly revealed, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lustfulness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, fighting, jealousy, wrath, strife, division, heresy, envy, murders, drunkenness, wild parties, and things like these; of which I tell you beforehand, as I have said before, that the ones which do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God" (Gal.5:19-21 Para.).
In Paul's very critical assessment of the kind of choices that were being made by some of the Galatians, heresy is listed as one of the works of the flesh and it clearly denotes something that is in opposition to God's laws, precepts, and principles. Notice that those who make these wrong choices concerning their beliefs and behaviors will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
In the context of verses 19-20, heresy involves more than just making a choice or having a difference of opinion. There is something very wrong with the choices and opinions that are being made, because they are spiritually life threatening and will cause the loss of one's salvation. All of these things that Paul mentions have to do with unrighteous lifestyles, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. These are all things that are wrong from God's perspective and are condemned because their practice will lead a person to eternal death in the Lake of Fire.
In verses 19-20, the word `heresy' is not used in the purely technical sense; it is used to convey the thought that these choices and opinions are clearly to be viewed as sinful and must be avoided by the elect of God
Avoid the Heretic
Many people have been ostracized from religious organizations because their lifestyles, personal choices, opinions, or beliefs are in opposition to the beliefs of their spiritual leaders. During the Catholic inquisition of the middle ages, many people were branded as heretics and put to death for their lifestyle choices and opinions. Since the demise of the early church, many of the elect have also set their own criteria for branding a person a heretic, and used their own reasoning instead of the truth of God as a basis for removing people from their fellowship.
It is not within the authority of the elect of God to set the standards for what is heresy or who is a heretic, because these standards have already been set by God the Father and Jesus Christ. However, it is the responsibility of each child of God to know and understand what these standards are:
"Stay away from foolish questions, and genealogies, and arguments, and quarrels of the law, for they are unprofitable and vain. After the first and second warning, avoid a man of heresy, knowing that such a person has been perverted, and sins, being self-condemned" (Tit.3:9-11 Para.). See also Tit.1:10-11.
Notice that Paul instructs Titus to warn the person who has caused division within the congregation with their foolish questions and arguments about the law. It is important to note that Paul does not say not to study these topics; he is referring to a specific type of individual who creates argument and causes divisions in order to harm the elect of God.
After this person was warned twice that what he was doing is in opposition to God and his truth, this person was to be avoided by the entire church, because he had a perverted perspective of God's laws, precepts, and principles and was living in sin. It is also important to note that a person's heresy itself will reveal him to be a heretic to those who have a solid spiritual foundation.
Although Paul does not specifically instruct Titus to put the heretic out of the congregation, it is very clear that a heretic and his untrue beliefs and teachings should be avoided. It is also clear that, if a person is excluded from fellowship, that person essentially has been separated from the congregation.
People are not to be rejected from fellowship or put out of the congregation of God for making choices or holding opinions that are not in opposition to God's laws, precepts, and principles. However, it is important to understand that there is a body of truth that is clearly empirical and unalterable that must be believed, taught, and observed by all who serve God the Father and Jesus Christ. When a person is in opposition to these foundational truths of God and believes or teaches things that are in opposition to these truths, they must be considered a heretic.
DIVISIONS AND SCHISMS
"I plead with you, brothers, to take note of those who cause division and stumbling contrary to the teaching which you have learned, and turn away from them. For these people do not serve the Lord Jesus, but serve their own belly; and by their smooth flattering words, they deceive the hearts of the innocent" (Rom.16:17-18 Para.).
Paul warns the church in Rome to take note of those who questioned the truths that they were taught, and those who caused some to believe things that were in opposition to the truth of God. Paul says that these people must be avoided because they do not serve Jesus Christ, but they serve themselves and deceive those who are not well grounded in foundational truth.
"Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no schisms [divisions] among you; but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1.Cor.l:l0 Para.)
Here, Paul appeals to the Corinthians to eliminate differences of opinions that they had concerning the truths of God and become unified in doctrine so that there would be harmony among them.
Unity of the Faith
"And he [Christ] made some apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the Father's elect children, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the Body of Christ: Until we all come in the unity of faith, and knowledge of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. That we no more be children who are tossed here and there, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the craftiness of men, with which they lie in wait to deceive; but speak the truth in love, that you may attain the stature of Christ in all things" (Eph.4:11-15 Para.).
One of the primary purposes of the eldership is to help the elect reach spiritual maturity and perfection, and it is the responsibility of each of the elect to strive to know and understand the difference between spiritual truth and spiritual error. This knowledge will enable the elect to not be easily deceived by heretical teachings, but if one cannot determine the difference between the truth and a lie, one will never reach spiritual maturity.
There are obviously going to be differences of opinion concerning many subjects within the scriptures; however, there should be no difference of opinion concerning foundational truths pertaining to the Father, Jesus Christ, and how people are expected to conduct their lives to obtain salvation.
Heretics and Damnable Heresies
The apostle Peter gives a serious warning to be aware of heretics and heresies, and he shows that the end result of a heretic's beliefs and teachings is eternal destruction. A heretic receives no call to repentance, which seems to indicate that once a child of God has set their mind to believe and teach things that are in opposition to God's truths (i.e., heresies), a fatal mistake that cannot be reversed has been made.
2.Peter 2:1-22 Paraphrased
"But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privately shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them. And many shall follow their pernicious ways [i.e., that which causes ruin, or loss]; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingers not, and their damnation slumbers not" (vs.1-3).
Peter says to be wary of those in the congregations who sneak around in private and teach things that are untrue concerning things of the spirit. Notice that the things these people teach are things that will cause them to lose their salvation. Without exception, people who teach things that are in opposition to God's truth deny Jesus and his teachings concerning himself, his Father, and his Father's good news message of salvation. In the next few verses, Peter leaves no doubt as to the intent of those who teach heresy and the punishment that they will receive for their heresies:
"For if God did not spare the angels that sinned, but cast them into prison, an delivered them into chains of darkness, there to be reserved for judgement; and did not spare the old world, but saved Noah the eighth preacher of righteousness, and brought the flood upon the world of the ungodly; and turned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes. . . making them an example to those who after them will live in an ungodly way: and he delivered just Lot who was vexed by the filthy conversation of the wicked;. . . the Lord knows how to deliver the Godly out of temptations, and reserve the unjust to the day of judgement to be punished" (vs.4-9).
Those within the congregations of God who teach things that are in opposition to God's truth are in the same category as the wicked angels and the most wicked of humanity, because they are attempting to subvert and destroy those whom the Father has called to become his first born sons. It is extremely clear that God will have no mercy on those who teach heresies.
"But chiefly these walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and despise governments. They are presumptuous, self-willed, and not afraid to speak evil of dignities. Whereas angels, who are greater in power and might, do not bring railing accusations against them before the Lord. But these, are as natural brute beasts, that are made to be taken and destroyed, these speak evil of the things that they do not understand; and they shall utterly perish in their own corruption. And shall receive the wages of unrighteousness, as they that count it pleasure to riot in the day time. Spots they are and blemishes, sporting themselves with their deceiving while they feast with you" (vs.10-13).
Peter shows that the true priority of a heretic is physical rather than spiritual, and in the eyes of God, their existence is of no more value that of an animal whose thought process is totally inward. Notice that Peter calls heretics spots and blemishes that contaminate the sanctity of God's people.
"Having eyes full of adulteries and never ceasing from sin, alluring unstable souls: having a heart busied with covetous practices; cursed children: Which have forsaken the straight path, they went astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the way of unrighteousness; but was rebuked for his iniquity: the dumb ass speaking with man's voice held back the madness of the prophet. These are springs without water, clouds being driven by a tempest; for whom the blackness of darkness is reserved forever" (vs.14-15).
A heretic is one of the Father's children who, for whatever reason, has gone astray and forsaken the path of righteousness. The heretic is self deceived and has lost the ability to discern between truth and lies. Their spiritual life-force has dried up; they can give nothing of spiritual value, because they have nothing of true value to give.
"For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, by the lusts of the flesh, by unbridled lusts of the flesh, they allure those who were escaping the ones who live in error. While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the slaves of corruption; for by whom anyone is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage. For if after they have escaped the pollution of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and the Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandments delivered to them. But it is happened to them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire" (vs.16-22).
The apostles Paul and Peter have defined what heresy is and who a heretic is for us. A heretic's beliefs and teachings are extremely dangerous to the elect of God who are diligently seeking to please the Father and mature spiritually, because the heretic believes and teaches things that are spiritually life threatening. Heretical teachings are not just opinions and choices on some small, minor point of Christian living that are without consequence; heretical teachings lead to the denial of the Father and Jesus Christ and their teachings.
This is why Paul tells Titus to:
"Stay away from foolish questions, and genealogies, and arguments, and quarrels of the law, for they are unprofitable and vain. And that after the first and second warning, avoid the heretic, knowing that such a person has been perverted, and sins, being self-condemned" (Tit.3:9-11 Para.).
The scriptures instruct the elect to deeply love and respect each other and watch for each other's spiritual safety. Therefore, each of the elect should continually be on guard for heretics and heretical teachings. And because it is clearly by the opinions that people have and the choices that they make concerning God's truth that they are recognized as children of God or heretics. The key to not being seduced by a heretic's teaching is to be well grounded in the foundational truths concerning God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the things pertaining to one's salvation.
When a person continually espouses things that are inconsistent with foundational truths of God, and continually attempts to persuade others to believe these things, this person is in one of the following spiritual conditions:
1. The person has not been called of God and cannot understand the spiritual things of God in the same way as one who has God's spirit.
2. The person is either new to the faith or has not taken the time and made the effort to diligently search the scriptures in order to be well grounded in foundational truths.
3. The person has been sent by the evil demonic world to subvert and destroy the elect of God.
4. For whatever reason, the person has strayed from the path of righteousness and become a heretic who opposes the truth of God and has denied Jesus Christ and his right to rule their life.
Jesus' warning about false prophets can also be applied to heretics and their beliefs and teachings, because no good can come from accepting them:
"Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but are in reality dangerous wolves . By their fruits you shall know them, Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs from thistles? So every good tree produces good fruits; but the corrupt tree produces evil fruits. A good tree cannot produce evil fruits, nor a corrupt tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not produce good fruits is to be cut down and thrown into the fire. Then surely from their fruits you shall know them" (Matt.7:15-19 KJV).
The instruction from the word of God is to be continually alert to the danger of heretics and their beliefs and teachings, and to not encourage or tolerate people, beliefs, or teachings that are inconsistent with the pure word of God.
By B.L Cocherell, file b8w6