Dramatic Cross“Heretic.” It's a favorite word that many Christians have no problem dropping on the heads of their fellow sisters and brothers.

In common parlance, the term is used to describe any person who disagrees with "orthodox Christian teaching." The problem, of course, is that there are different perspectives on what exactly constitutes “orthodox Christian teaching.”

Some claim this for Calvinism, while others claim this for Arminianism, or for Roman Catholicism, or for Eastern Orthodoxy.

And we must not forget the many Fundamentalist groups who reserve the term “orthodox” only for people who agree with every one of their distinctive beliefs and/or practices.

2,000 years down the church history pike and the body of Christ is sliced and diced into over 33,000 fragments, some of which pull the heresy lever at everyone else without blinking.

In this essay, we are definitely not going to suggest that false teaching doesn't exist. It existed at the time of Jesus and Paul, and it exists today.

What we are going to suggest is that many people are using the word “heretic” in ways that are not biblical and/or that do not align with its use in church tradition. And this, we believe, brings disrepute on the body of Christ.

Let's start by looking at the word "heresy" and "heretical" more closely and ask two key questions:

1. What does "heresy" mean in the New Testament?

2. What did "heresy" mean in early church history?

Heresy According to the New Testament Authors - Whenever we tell people how the New Testament authors understood the term “heresy,” they are shocked.

First, heresy wasn't the equivalent of false doctrine. Heresy was a specific practice, and a fleshly one at that.

According to Paul of Tarsus, to be a heretic meant that you formed a schism within a local body of believers. Thus, what qualified someone to be considered a heretic wasn't what they believed, but how they acted with their beliefs.

If a person divided a genuine church, they were guilty of heresy. Consequently, a person could be a heretic with the truth!

A Look at the Greek - According to Vine's Expository Dictionary, the Greek word hairesis denotes a choosing. The choice, says Vine, is an opinion that leads to a division or formation of a sect. "[It] properly denotes a predilection either for a particular truth or for a perversion of one,” he notes, “generally with the expectation of personal advantage."

F.F. Bruce in his commentary on 1 Corinthians points out that hairesis in 1 Corinthians 11:19 and schismata in 1 Corinthians 11:18 are synonymous. Both words simply mean "divisions" or "factions." Thus a heretic is a person who causes divisions, dissensions, or factions.

If you think that dividing an authentic church isn't serious, think again. In 1 Corinthians 1:13a, Paul used the image of slicing Jesus Christ into pieces to depict how serious it is to divide an authentic church.

In Titus 3:10, Paul says to "warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them."

Paul uses the word hairetikos in this passage and it means “a heretic.” But it doesn’t refer to a person who holds wrong beliefs. According to BDAG (Bauer and Dank’s Greek-English Lexicon), it “pertains to [one] causing divisions, factious, division-making, a division-maker.” 

As we should expect, modern versions of the Bible translate it as, “anyone who causes divisions” (NRSV), “divisive man” (NKJV), “divisive person” (NIV), “factious man” (ASV; “NASB), “person who stirs up division” (ESV), “someone who causes arguments” (NCV), and “troublemakers” (CEV).

Not surprisingly, Paul lists hairesis (heresies or factions) as one of the works of the “flesh” (Galatians 5:20). A person who walks in the Spirit will always seek to build unity in the church. But a person who causes division walks in the flesh. Note that it's not the person’s belief that is a "work of the flesh." It’s their divisiveness.

As Ben Witherington notes in his social-rhetorical commentary on Galatians, hairesis (heresies) and dichostasiai (dissensions) in Galatians 5:20 both have in view those who “sever the body of Christ” and “use differences as an excuse to create factions.

So, in the New Testament sense of the word, “heresy” was the creation of a division, a sect, a faction, or a party. For this reason, the author of Acts uses the word to describe the different sects within Judaism (Acts 5:17; 15:5; 24:5; 14; 26:5; 28:22).

"Heresy” involved the dividing of a local assembly, not the rightness or wrongness of what the dividing party believed.