I recently read a story about one follower of Christ calling another follower of Christ a heretic because they disagreed over certain aspects of teaching. I’m sure that many of us have heard similar stories, and perhaps some of us have even been called “heretics”.
The “H” bomb is dropped to separate the speaker from the “heretic” or “heresy”. It is used as stronger language than “disagree” or “different”. It is used to question the person’s devotion to and possibly position with God. To the person dropping the “H” bomb, the “heretic” may be sincere, but certainly sincerely wrong when compared with the bombardier.
Looking through various definitions of the word “heretic”, you’ll find that a “heretic” (in English) is a person who holds a position that is different from standard or accepted church beliefs. Thus, in English, “heresy” can only be defined from the perspective of a certain set of beliefs. So, someone can be a “heretic” from the point of view of the Roman Catholic Church, but that same person may not be a “heretic” from the point of view of the Anglican Church.
Similarly, looking through various definitions of the word “heresy”, you’ll find that a “heresy” (again, in English) is any teaching, belief, or opinion that is different from standard or accepted church beliefs. Once again, “heresy” is a valid term on from the perspective of a certain set of beliefs.
From these modern definitions, every Baptist is a heretic to every Presbyterian. Every Anglican teaches heresy from the perspective of every Charismatic. From the point of view of Methodists, everyone in the Vineyard church is a heretic. These terms have lost any meaning, but they continue to be used with force and vehemence.
Perhaps, instead of looking at the modern definitions of “heresy” and “heretic” it would be helpful to consider the source of these words, and to consider how Scripture uses these words. Also, instead of comparing someone’s opinions and beliefs to the standard beliefs of a given church, perhaps it would be better to compare that person’s opinions and beliefs to Scripture.
Of course, even before we think about the source of the words “heresy” and “heretic”, we are immediately faced with the reality that different people interpret Scripture in different ways. Does this mean that our terms “heretic” and “heresy” are completely useless? No. It means that we must humbly admit that brothers and sisters in Christ disagree concerning the meaning of Scripture. We must also humbly admit that disagreement, in and of itself, does not constitute heresy. I may disagree with someone, and neither one of us may be heretics. However, according to the modern definitions of the words “heresy” and “heretic”, if two people disagree, one of them must be a heretic.
The terms “heresy” and “heretic” are scriptural words. The noun form αἵρεσις (hairesis) is used five times in the New Testament, and is usually translated “sect”, “division”, “opinion”, or “schism”. The Pharisees and Sadducees are called “sects” (“heresies”) of Judaism (Acts 5:17; 15:5; 26:5). Christians are called a “sect” (“heresy”) of Judaism (Acts 24:5; 24:14; 28:22). Finally, there are said to be “divisions” or “dissensions” (“heresies”) among groups of Christians (1 Cor 11:19; Gal 5:20; 2 Pet 2:1). It is this last category that should interest us.
Scripture warns us about “heresies” among believers. But, in context, what are these passages telling us? In 1 Corinthians 11:19, Paul mentions “factions”. These are probably similar to the divisions mentioned in 1 Corinthians 1-4. The danger is not found in disagreements between believers, but in separation. The groups were separating from one another and treating one another differently based on their affiliations.
In Galatians 5:20, “heresies” or “divisions” or “factions” are mentioned again along with “disputes”, “dissensions”, and “envy”. All of these are listed as “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19-21), practiced by those who “will not inherit the kingdom of God”. This is contrasted against the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22-23) which will be evident in the lives of God’s children. Since the fruit of the Spirit includes characteristics such as patience, gentleness, and self-control, we can assume that these are demonstrated in the context of disagreements, not in the absence of them. Again, this says nothing about disagreement being “heresy”.
In 2 Peter 2:1, Peter warns that false prophets and false teachers will bring “destructive heresies” with them. These false prophets and false teachers will not be known for disagreeing with other believers, but instead they will be known for “denying the Lord” (2 Pet 2:1), “sensuality” (2 Pet 2:2), “covetousness” (2 Pet 2:3). Thus, these false prophets and false teachers are not ones who simply disagree with other Christians, but those who deny that Christ is Lord, and live a life that demonstrates that they are not children of God.
Perhaps, from this connection of “heresy” with false prophets and false teachers in 2 Peter 2:1, we should also recognize why these people are called “false prophets” and “false teachers”. Perhaps one of the most important passages to help us understand what it means to be a “false teacher” is 1 Timothy 1:3-11. Here, those who teach “other doctrines” are those who teach contrary to the gospel (1 Tim 1:11). In many other passages, the authors of Scripture encourage their readers to teach and live in accordance to the gospel of Jesus Christ – that is, the good news that God has provided a way for all people to accepted as his children.
So, according to Scripture, who are the true “heretics”? Heretics are those who deny the gospel of Jesus Christ. Heretics are also those who live in a manner contrary to the gospel – that is, according to the flesh, not according to the Spirit. Similarly, heretics are those who cause and encourage divisions and dissensions among the followers of Jesus Christ.
When Person A calls Person B a “heretic” for a teaching that Person A disagrees with, but which is not contrary to the gospel, and when Person A refuses to fellowship with Person B because of that teaching, then, according to Scripture, Person A is actually the “heretic”. Person A is the one causing division among the followers of Christ and is thus promoting true heresy.
So, let’s be careful, thoughtful, and prayerful before we drop the “H” Bomb. It could be that we are the true “heretics”, not necessarily because our opinion is “wrong”, but because our words and actions are divisive – and this is the type of heresy that Scripture warns us about.