What Exactly is a “Heresy”?

What exactly is a “heresy”? The most general idea is that a heresy is some type of false teaching. But there are many teachings within Christianity. Some teachings contradict one another. Obviously, not all teachings are correct. Of the teachings that are incorrect, which of these errors could be justifiably referred to as “heresy”?

In the Bible the word “heresy”, or a form of it, is found only 5 times. One time as “heresy” (Acts 24:14), 3 times as “heresies” (1 Cor. 11:19, Gal. 5:20, 2 Pet. 2:1), and one time as “heretick” (Titus 3:10).

Obviously, a heretic is one who teaches heresy. But again, what type of false teaching would warrant one as a heretic?

After all, nobody is perfect. No Pastor, preacher, or Bible teacher is perfect. Therefore, all of us who endeavor to teach God’s word will make mistakes from time to time. Over the years, I have tweaked certain things that I’ve taught before. After studying matters out a little more, and gaining more light, I’ve found myself having to make corrections to things I’ve taught from time to time in order to be more in conformity to the Scriptures.

These errors were unintentional. They were sincere mistakes. Nobody that sincerely wishes to edify errs on purpose. All Bible teachers are students still. We all have more learning and growing to do (1 Cor. 13:12). Apollos was mighty in the scriptures but even he needed Aquilla and Priscilla to show him “the way of God more perfectly” (Acts 18:24-26).

Does the fact that I’m not perfect and have therefore not always been 100% accurate in things I’ve taught make me a heretic? If that’s the case, then we would have to conclude that EVERYONE who has ever endeavored to teach the Bible is a heretic, for no one is perfect. No one has ever batted 1000%.

So the question remains, what constitutes a heresy and therefore makes one a heretic?

The Connection between the word “Heresy” and “Sect”

It is interesting and helpful to note that the word which underlies the term “heresy” (αιρεσις/hairesis/hah’-ee-res-is) is also designated in the Bible as “sect”. A sect is a group of people unified around some doctrine (teaching), or doctrines, that distinguishes that group from other groups.

The Bible talks about the “sect of the Sadducees” (Acts 5;17) and the “sect of the Pharisees” (Acts 15:5). These groups were different from one another. They had similar beliefs but it was what they differed in that distinguished them as different groups.

Before his conversion to Christianity, Paul said that he was a member of the “straitest sect” of the Jewish religion, referring to the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the “straitest” sect in the sense that they were the strictest, most fanatical, most literal, and most militant adherents of the Jewish laws and practices. (The Saducees were not so literal in their interpretation.) The Pharisees were set apart from other groups by their particular teachings and interpretations of the law.

The word “sect” can also be synonymous with the word “cult” when a certain group, or sect, is distinguished from others due to an adherence to serious errors which contradict the fundamental doctrines and interpretations of another group. It is in this sense that the word was used when it was said of the Apostle Paul that he was a “ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). In other words, Paul was seen as a leader of the Christian sect. He was a cult leader as far as non-Christian Jews were concerned. Paul was a heretic in the eyes of the Pharisees.

It is also important to note that Paul was accused of being a “mover of sedition among all the Jews throughout the world” in Acts 24:5. In other words, Paul was accused of causing mutiny, chaotic and controversial division, amongst the Jews by his Christian teachings.

In reference to the charges of being a sect leader and causing division, Paul responds in his defense, “But this I confess unto thee, 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 24:14). Notice very carefully that Paul reveals that what the Jews were accusing him of was considered by them to be heresy. Again, what did they accuse Paul of? They accused him of being a seditionist, a leader of a sect, who was stirring up trouble by causing division.

Now keep this in mind as we seek to define what heresy is. Bear in mind the connection between heresy and sedition. And bear in mind that the result of sedition is division.

Something else interesting to note in Paul’s words in Acts 24:14 is how he said that the “way” he worshipped was considered heresy by the unbelieving Jews. Thus, heresy is not only associated with what is taught, but also with what is practiced. Paul was not only accused of heresy in regard to what he taught, but also in regard to the way he worshipped.

How did Paul worship? He exalted the Lord Jesus Christ and operated in His name. This was heresy to the Christ-rejecting Jews.

Heresy Defined

In the book of First Corinthians, Paul the Apostle rebukes the Corinthian church for their lack of unity, amongst other things. In fact, of a myriad of issues Paul dealt with, their lack of unity was the very first issue that Paul addressed in this epistle.

1 Corinthians 1:10-13 “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?”

So there was contention in the church as folks were divided about who they wished to be identified with. Paul later refers to this as a “schism in the body” (1 Cor. 12:25).

Also notice the contention that accompanied the division. Solomon revealed that “Only by pride cometh contention” (Proverbs 13:10). These foolish contentions were rooted in pride. The result was division in the church.

In chapter 11 of this epistle, Paul manifests something else that contributed to the division.

1 Corinthians 11:17-19 “Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse. For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions 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.”

Paul submits that there were heresies causing division in the church at Corinth.

I think by now, after comparing scripture with scripture, it should be evident what the definition of heresy is according to the Bible. Heresy is any false teaching that causes division.

Thus, heresy is not just any error. It is an error that causes contention and division within the body of Christ.

You and I may disagree about whether or not Adam had a belly-button. Perhaps you believe that he did and I believe that he didn’t. But this disagreement is not so serious that you and I would part ways or break fellowship over it.

I don’t mean to trivialize the matter but the point is to demonstrate that not all disagreements over doctrine (teachings) is a matter of dealing with heresy. Concerning whether or not Adam had a belly-button, obviously, one of us is wrong. We cannot both be right. Whoever is wrong, however, is not a heretic because the difference between us on this matter is not significant enough to cause a contention or worse, a separation, amongst us.

There are many things that we as Bible-believing Christians may differ on. But not every difference of opinion is worth causing a division over because not every view that is different than ours is necessarily a heresy.

Damnable Heresies

However, any error that causes contention and ultimately division amongst God’s people is a heresy. It is a serious matter that must be dealt with.

In fact, some heresies are so serious that they are said to be “damnable”.

2 Peter 2:1-3 “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; 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 lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not.”

Peter manifests to us a good example of what is considered a damnable heresy. He says that to deny the Lord that bought us (redemption) would result in swift destruction. A contradiction of the teaching of salvation by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ alone is a good example of what constitutes heresy. Basically any teaching that contradicts the sound doctrines of Christ (His virgin birth, His deity, His atoning death, His resurrection, His second coming, etc), as fundamentally established in God’s word is a damnable heresy (2 John 7-11).

Peter also adds that these false prophets and false teachers (heretics) speak evil of the way of truth. They consistently oppose the truth. It is one thing to respectfully disagree on something that may be a gray matter. But when someone vehemently opposes a plain truth of God’s word by constantly speaking evil of said truth, he is a heretic.

Also notice that “many shall follow their pernicious ways”. How? By speaking evil of the way of truth, they build a following. Their outspokenness attracts unstable souls (2 Pet. 2:14) and deceives the hearts of the simple.

Romans 16:18 “For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.”

Proverbs 14:15 “The simple believeth every word: but the prudent man looketh well to his going.”

Proverbs 22:3 “A prudent man foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself: but the simple pass on, and are punished.”

Heretics Take Advantage of the Weak for Financial Gain

Peter goes on to say that, “through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you.” (1 Peter 2:3)

Heretics find ways to make monetary profit through their false teachings. They write books, make DVDs and films, shirts, coffee mugs, pictures, posters, and all manner of paraphernalia which promote their falsehoods and bring them financial gain. This is much of their agenda. They don’t teach to edify. They teach to see what they may gain, such as money, position, power, fame, a following, etc, from those they teach.

Romans 16:18 “For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly…”

Philippians 3:18-19 “For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.”

Heretics are hirelings and thieves (John 10:10-14), who steal, kill, and destroy God’s sheep. Their motive is not the glory of God nor the edification of the Church. Their motives are self-serving at the expense of others.

Not all who write books, make DVDs, and Christian paraphernalia are heretics and hirelings, obviously. It all depends upon the motive. Some truly seek to edify. But not all.

Heretics Seek Disciples of Your People

Paul warned the following:

Acts 20:29-30 “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.”

Heretics are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They have an appearance of Christianity. They appear to be sheep like the rest of the flock. But they are deceivers. Frauds. Charlatans. Undercover devils. They infiltrate the flock of God to draw away disciples after them. They are sheep-stealers.

Be careful with those who send or encourage their minions to cause dissension in other churches through promotion of their false teachings. Be careful with folks who will pass out literature, books, CDs, DVDs, etc without the approval of the God-called Pastor of the church. These are heretics. They are wolves.

Any sincere Christian who has a genuine desire to edify will have no problem whatsoever with confirming the approval of a God-called Pastor before promoting his material. The sincere saint recognizes and respects the God-given authority a Pastor has in relation to the flock (1 Timothy 3:5, Heb. 13:7 & 17). He does not seek to cross a God-called shepherd. This is not a matter of worshipping man and putting a Pastor on a pedestal. It is a matter of ethics. It is a matter of respect and appreciation for someone of whom God has called and ordained to a very serious, important, and challenging task.

True leaders respect other leaders. God’s men recognize and appreciate other men of God. There is no spirit of jealousy or competition among them. If anything, there’s a comraderie.

A sincere Christian appreciates God’s man and will only seek to cooperate with God’s man for the good of the church. Any man who does not respect or appreciate the Pastor’s position, and would not show the courtesy of clearing things with the man God ordained to oversee that flock before propagating his material is a rebel who respects no one and cares for only himself and his agenda. He is void of understanding. He cannot be reasoned with. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is a heretic.

Heretics are Lost

Since we seek to let the Bible define and describe what a heretic is, we must acknowledge everything given within the biblical descriptions. The Apostle Peter also adds something else very interesting about these false prophets. He says

2 Peter 2:1-3 “…their damnation slumbereth not.”

Heretics are not saved. This is why the Apostle John said:

2 John 1:9-11 “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.”

Unsaved heretics are not to be tolerated with in any manner, shape, or form. For this reason, Paul cursed them:

Galatians 1:6-9 “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.”

Real heresy is a very serious matter. It can only be dealt with in the most serious manner.

Heretics are Sent by Satan

Paul warned of seducing spirits and doctrines of devils in the latter times in 1 Timothy 4:1-3. This is characteristic of the apostacy (falling away) that Paul talked about in 2 Thessalonians 2.

In Second Corinthians 11:1-4, Paul warned the Corinthian Christians of those who deceive just as Eve was “beguiled” by the serpent Satan. These beguilers (heretics) preach another Jesus, another gospel, and operate according to another spirit. They have the spirit of Antichrist according to John (1 John 2:18-22, 4:1-6, 2 John 1:7).

Paul further elaborates:

2 Corinthians 11:13-15 “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.”

Notice very carefully that these false ministers are of the devil. They are sent by their master to wreak havoc and division in the body of Christ.

Heretics appear to be ministers of righteousness. Not everything they preach is wrong. They preach a lot of right stuff. But it’s not the 97% of the little rat poison balls that will kill the creature. 97% of that poisoned ball is good food. It’s that 3% that is laced with poison that is deadly. Heretics may stand for a lot of good things but their tongues are full of unruly evil and deadly poison that will eventually affect the church.

For example, when a man who appears to be a minister of righteousness, sends or encourages his followers to try to persuade members of other Bible-believing churches to follow their particular teachings, teachings of which distinguish their group from others, that man is a heretic. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You better mark him. You better eliminate the threat. His actions are Satanic according to 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 and Acts 20:29-30.

Jude said that they creep into the churches “unawares” (Jude 1:4). Many Christians, and even Pastors, are not aware of these spiritual creeps who Satan has planted in their churches in order to cause contention, division, and much harm to the cause of Christ. Peter said that they bring in their damnable heresies “privily” (2 Pet.2:1). They are not so open about their different teachings to begin with. They wish to win your confidence first over matters where they have common ground. They especially do not want God’s shepherd aware of their agenda to draw away disciples.

What to Do with Heretics

1. Admonish Them

Titus 3:9-10 “But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain. A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject”

When a man is in error, go ahead and try to correct him (Titus 1:9-16). Not everyone who is wrong is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Some have been misguided. Some are sincere though sincerely wrong. If the individual is sincere, he will react just as Apollos did when Aquilla and Priscilla expounded unto him a more perfect way.

Everyone deserves a chance to become sound in the faith. Once God’s man has thoroughly reasoned with him, if the errant one continues to promote his fallacy, and especially if he is obstinate and persistent, not even showing God’s man the courtesy nor respect of acknowledging his instructions, there is no more room for toleration. He is to be rejected. That is the instruction of the Scriptures. If we do not immediately and firmly deal with these heretics, they will do much damage to the church.

Titus 1:10-11 “For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision: Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake.”

2. Mark Them

Romans 16:17-18 “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.”

Heretics must be identified. They must be marked that all may know who these wolves are, otherwise these Satanic infiltrators will gain an upper hand (at the expense of YOUR people, dear Pastor). 1 Timothy 5:20 “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.”

Identify them by name, just as Paul did.

1 Timothy 1:18-20 “This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare; Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck: Of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.”

I am disappointed with many Pastors today who are opposed to naming names from the pulpit. Yes, I understand what the Bible says about charity, kindness, patience, not striving, etc. And as said before, not everyone in error is to be treated as a heretic. But the Bible is clear that these virtues do not apply when dealing with a proven heretic, especially after the heretic has already been admonished. If you do not expose these wolves for what they are, do not complain when they have succeeded in drawing away disciples after themselves and causing confusion, contention, and division in your church.

3. Avoid Them

Again, see Romans 16:17-18. Heretics must be avoided. Quit buying their books, DVDs, and other material. Don’t allow their material in your church. Warn your people of their poisonous material. Make it very clear who these heretics are, and what their material is, that they may be avoided at all costs.

There should be no fellowship with heretics according to 2 John 1:10-11 which say, “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.”

4. Eliminate Them

Revelation 2:2 “I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars”

Revelation 2:20 “Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.”

Don’t suffer them. Do not permit them to do what they want to do and to carry out their agenda. Avoiding them may also mean removing them. If you are a Pastor, it is part of your job description to protect the flock. What type of shepherd would allow wolves to run with his flock?

5. Prepare Your People That They May Become Capable of Dealing With Wolves

Ephesians 4:11-16 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.

The reason why so many wolves thrive is because too many Pastors have failed in their duty to equip their people that they might be able to identify the wolves for themselves. This is a shame.

Too many Fundamental churches have become shallow. Instead of expounding sound doctrine the emphasis today has become almost exclusively about numbers, meeting quotas, filling a bus, filling the building, etc.

There’s nothing wrong with filling the pews and packing the house that more may hear the message. But that’s just the problem. Folks come and instead of becoming grounded in sound doctrine they are fed nothing but milk. Not even whole milk. It’s like 2% milk. It’s very watered down. Not much substance at all. No meat, resulting is a deficiency of protein which is needed for maturity and strength.

Their steady diet is a verse taken out of context, used only as a launching pad to make 3 alliterated but shallow points, and perhaps a neat little poem at the end for good measure, with very little actual expounding of the scriptures. They throw in a tear-jerking story or 2 and send them home with a warm, fuzzy feeling but shallow concerning Bible doctrine.

Meanwhile, the people are so malnourished spiritually that when the winds of false doctrine blow they are reeds shaken in the wind. They are flimsy and weak. They have no stability and no depth. They are vulnerable. Satan, as a roaring lion, takes advantage of these weak sheep. His heretical minions do his dirty work. God’s people fall prey to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils. Churches are divided and diminished. The cause of Christ is harmed.

In Conclusion

We need a revival today in the hearts of God’s men, those called to be shepherds, that would bring us back to our knees first, and then back to our studies, diligently mining the riches of God’s word that we may commit these truths to our people.

We must become valiant! There is no room for cowardice behind the sacred desk. Heretics must be dealt with, immediately and firmly. No tolerance whatsoever. Wolves must be eliminated. It’s part of the pastor’s job description.


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