As I was preparing to teach a course on Apologetics (the defense of the faith) recently, I realized that I did not have a good definition of “heresy”. A search of the internet also produced nothing that seemed to be exactly right. The terms heresy and heretic are very much abused and mean many different things to different people. Some people label anything that doesn’t agree with their narrow doctrinal position as heresy, while others are reluctant to apply the label to beliefs clearly outside the Christian faith. What a Catholic would regard as heresy is very different to what an Evangelical would regard as heresy and what one Evangelical regards as heresy is different to what another Evangelical would count as such.
As a result, I set about attempting to define this term we all use, mostly with little understanding of the meaning or implications of the word.
The term is derived from the Greek word hairesis, literally meaning a choice, but referring more specifically to a sect, party or division. Luke uses the term in Acts to refer to the sects of the Sadducees (5:17), the Pharisees (15:5; 26:5), and even the Christians – called Nazarenes or the Way (24:5,14; 28:22). When Paul uses the term in 1Corinthians 11:19 and Galatians 5:20, he refers to the divisions and factions which cause strife in the church, while Peter links the term to false prophets and teachers (2Peter 2:1).
Paul uses the term in Titus when he explains how heresy should be dealt with: “Reject a divisive man (Gr: aihretikos, heretic in the KJV) after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned.” (Titus 3:10-11).
The New Testament sense of the word therefore combines two things: A doctrine outside the norm that becomes the basis of a division. However, our modern understanding is slightly different in that the word tends to lay the emphasis on unorthodox doctrine which requires that the heretic be excommunicated.
So here is an attempt at a definition: “Heresy is a teaching or practice which denies and/or adds to one or more essentials of the Christian faith, divides Christians, and deserves condemnation.” John gives a good example of such a doctrine: denying the true nature of the person and work of Jesus Christ (IJohn 4:1-3; 2John 1:7-11).
Note that in the definition I said that it is a teaching or practice that denies and/or adds to an essential of the Faith. The idea of “essentials” comes from a quote by a 17th Century German Theologian who said: “In Essentials unity, In Non-Essentials liberty, in all things charity”. This says then that there are “essentials” and “non-essentials” and the statement, when applied in practice, is generally stated in reverse: “We must divide when the Essentials are violated and maintain the unity when someone has a different view on the Non-essentials”.
Non-essentials are clearly things like whether the hymn book has a blue or green cover, whether the service starts at 10am or 11am etc. The problem is that most Christians struggle to agree on what are Essentials and what are not. Some will elevate things like which translation to use, or whether men should wear neckties to the services, whether Adam had a navel, and a host of other less-important things, to the level of Essentials and will divide on those. (More on this later). Because of this confusion, I felt the need to briefly define what the Essentials are, for my own benefit, and for those of my students:
Generally heresy falls into four main areas:
- A wrong Christology (a wrong view of the person and work of Jesus Christ)
- A wrong Theology (a wrong view of the nature of God)
- A wrong Soteriology (a wrong understanding of salvation)
- A wrong Bibliology (a wrong understanding of the inspiration and authority of Scripture)
While this may seem simple, it is not. As you may appreciate, there are many details and nuances of the above that may, or may not, be defined as heresy. While even agreeing on whether the above four areas are the Essentials is problematic, defining when someone has crossed the line on any of these is even more difficult.
What is clear is that we dare not use straw-man arguments nor extrapolation to “prove” a heresy. It is common to hear that if this or that teaching is taken to its logical conclusion, it is heresy and therefore the teaching (before being extended to its conclusion) is heresy. This is simply not true. For example; because someone believes that God is loving and gracious, if extended to it “conclusion”, could mean that everyone will be saved (Universalism) and therefore those who teach the love and grace of God are all heretics. While an emphasis on grace certainly could lead to heresy, it is not necessarily heresy when it is balanced by a clear understanding of the holiness and righteousness of God. Thus, to take one statement and declare someone a heretic without understanding the balance that person may bring through a counter-balancing doctrine is unrighteous judgment. The fact is that a lot of genuine heresy is simply the overstatement of one truth without bringing the counter-balancing truth into view. Thus overemphasising the three persons of the Trinity is polytheism (worship of many gods) while the over-emphasis of the oneness of God leads to several opposite heresies.
The difference between truth and heresy is often a very fine line and we must be careful before branding someone with such a label without unequivocal evidence, righteously and objectively weighed by those who are skilled to do so.
On the other hand, once heresy has been established, there is no recourse but to excommunicate such a person unless the heretic repents. This procedure is clearly spelt out in Scripture (Titus 3:10) and cannot be done capriciously or at the whim of just anyone.
Finally, there is an opposite form of heresy to the above – those who make non-essentials the basis for division: There are many who will gladly divide on non-essentials even though we may agree on the Essentials. These people are guilty of heresy even though their doctrine on the Essentials may be quite acceptable. Their heresy is that they have turned non-essentials into essentials. Thus those who readily divide on the King James Version Only, whether the bread at the communion is unleavened, or whether baptism is by immersing three times or once, or any of the thousands of other non-essentials on which people divide so easily, are by definition, heretics.
However, unlike the first kind of heretic who must be excommunicated, these people excommunicate themselves by rejecting anyone who does not agree with them and their pet ideas. They are self-destructing in that they typically excommunicate themselves into a corner with one or two others who have an equally critical spirit. Once they have isolated themselves, they begin to turn on each other until they have consumed one another (Galatians 5:15).
Diotrephes is a good example of this kind of behaviour: “… Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church.” (3John 1:9-10).
Even though these people finally destroy or isolate themselves, the damage they cause is still serious because they bring unnecessary divisions and hurt to the body of Christ, disrupt the work of the Gospel, and bring dishonour to the name of Christ among the Gentiles.
Truth and heresy, and maintaining fellowship, are serious matters and should never be a cover for pride, a divisive spirit, or selfish ambition. Heresy and sin must be dealt with justly and decisively, with love. The same applies to those who boast in their exclusiveness, elitism and narrow-mindedness. These attitudes are simply a manifestation of carnality: “… For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?” (1Corinthians 3:3).
“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled ” (Hebrews 12:14-15).