Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
January 7, 1971
NUMBER 34, PAGE 1-3a

Heresy And Heretics

By Keith Sharp

Part I - What Is Heresy?

Since the very beginning of the restoration movement one distinctive plea of churches of Christ has been "We use Bible terms in Bible ways." This is, of course, simply an affirmation that, as Christians, we put into practice the command of I Peter 4:11. We do "speak as the oracles of God." Thus we have always berated denominational people for their misuse of such Bible terms as "pastor" and "church." Yet often brethren find themselves falling into this same mistake — that is, using scriptural terms in unscriptural ways. I believe the word "heresy" is one of these misunderstood terms.

According to the Roman Catholic Church, "heresy" denotes "rejection (denial) of one or more truths of the Catholic faith" (The New Baltimore Catechism and Mass, p.-95). In other words, if someone teaches that which conflicts with Catholic doctrine, he is an heretic. I think most brethren simply look upon heresy as false doctrine. I believe the term was so used in The Gospel Guardian "Special Number" on fellowship by brother Wallace (top left, p. 35). This attitude is derived from Catholic dogma and, I believe, is incorrect.

What, then, is heresy? In this article I will deal with this question by looking at the usage of the Greek word translated "heresy," examining occurrence of this word in the New Testament and by seeing how the term is used in relation to the church. The aim of the study is to dis- [SIC]

The word "heresy" is found four times in the King James Version of the Bible (Acts 24:14; I Corinthians 11:19; Galatians 5:20; and II Peter 2:1). All four times it is an anglicized form of the Greek term "hairesis."

This word "hairesis" is found five more times in the Greek New Testament and is translated in these occurrences by the term "sect." Obviously then, if we can determine what these sects were, we can determine what a heresy is. What were the sects mentioned in the New Testament?

The word first occurs in Acts 5:17, where Luke describes the high priest as being a member of "the sect of the Sadducees." What were the Sadducees? "They were a political party, of priestly and aristocratic tendency. . ." (Isbe. IV, 2659). This party had, as central to its religious doctrine, two tenets which set them off from other sects. They taught that there was no resurrection from the dead and that angels and spirits did not really exist (Matthew 22:23; Acts 23:8). Thus the religious basis for their existence as a separate party was human doctrine which conflicted with the teaching of the Old Covenant.

The word "sect" is next used in Acts 15:5 to describe "the sect of the Pharisees." Who were the Pharisees? The Pharisees were likewise a Jewish party. They were described by Paul as "the most straitest sect of our religion" (Acts 26:5). The Pharisees indeed believed in the law, but they heaped human tradition atop the law (cf. Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13) and thus made the commandment of God of no effect. They were the very essence of hypocrisy, because they professed to keep the letter of the law but did not keep its weightier matters (Luke 11:37-44). They disagreed with the Sadducees in that they did believe in the resurrection and in angels and spirits (Acts 23:8). Thus the Pharisees, like the Sadducees, were a party based upon human doctrine.

"Sect" is next found in Acts 24:5, where Tertullus, a lawyer hired by the Jews to accuse Paul before Felix, calls Paul "a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes." This is the only time in the New Testament that Christians are called Nazarenes, and the speaker was a liar making false accusations. Tertullus was trying to identify Paul as a leader in a renegade Jewish party.

Paul's reply to Tertullus' accusation is found in Acts 24:10-21. In verse 14 he speaks of "the way which they call heresy." This word "heresy" is the same word translated "sect" in verse 5. Paul, in answering Tertullus' charge, is referring to the accusation. He does not admit the church to be a sect or party. Through the ages those who were members of religious sects have, as Tertullus did, accused the church of Christ of being just another such sect. Thus, this lying accusation is as old as the first century.

Next, the term "sect" is found in Acts 26:5, where Paul tells Agrippa that he was once a member of the "sect of the Pharisees.

I believe that three characteristics of sects can be deduced from these occurrences. Jewish sects had, as the basis of their formation, human doctrine and tradition (cf. Matthew 15:1-9). The Jews were not divided by their "interpretations" of Moses' Law. They were divided by the human laws they had added to the divine. Second, in order to provide a sectarian rallying point, these parties selected human names. The names Pharisee, Sadducee, Herodian, Essene, and Zealot were unknown to the Old Covenant and described entities also unknown to the Old Covenant. Third, these parties were jealous. They were so jealous of one another that they were capable of breaking up into howling, fighting mobs against one another (cf. Acts 23:6-10). They were jealous of the truth because it won converts away from their parties (cf. Acts 17:1-5).

Now, how does all of this apply to heresy as concerns the church? I believe by examining the three passages where "heresy" is used legitimately to describe something which had to do with the church, we can see the application. The three passages under consideration are I Corinthians 11:18-19; Galatians 5:19-21; and II Peter 2:1-3.

In I Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul rebukes the Corinthians for certain abuses in the assembly. In verses 18-19 of this section he gives the first reason for this rebuke:

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.

The household of Chloe had informed Paul of these "divisions" (I Corinthians 1:11-12). This word "division" (schisma) is translated "rent" in Matthew 9:16 to describe a tear in a garment which is still in one piece. Thus the Corinthians had "contentions" among themselves (I Corinthians 1:11), but they still met together in one assembly (I Corinthians 11:18). Thus, when there are dissensions within a body of Christians, but they still maintain fellowship, a state of division (schisma) exists.

But there was a reason Paul had for believing the report. That reason was that "there must be also heresies among you." Divisions develop into heresies. When the contentions reach the level that fellowship can no longer be maintained, then one or more parties are formed. These parties are heresies.

Please notice the strong parallel between heresies (parties, sects) that pull off from the church and the parties that grew up within Judaism. First, these parties are not formed on the basis of New Testament teaching but on the basis of human doctrine and tradition. For instance, I know of a congregation in El Dorado, Arkansas that will not fellowship anyone who uses the Bible class method for teaching the Bible (something which is authorized), yet they will and do support human organizations and societies from the church treasury (something which is unauthorized). Such "straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel" can only be the result of having blindly accepted some human tradition. As long as all follow the New Testament and it alone, harmony and peace, not divisions and parties, will be the natural result.

Second, these parties call themselves by human names in order to provide a sectarian rallying point. In the 1800's those who formed a party over the organ and missionary society, which party later became the Christian Church, identified those who adhered to the party line as "Progressives." Today brethren speak of "Liberals," "Conservatives," "Antis," ad nauseam. We condemn denominations for being "hyphenated Christians," yet brethren speak favorably of "Conservative-Christians," "Conservative-Churches," and "Cooperative-Churches." Brethren, I am neither a "Conservative," a "Liberal," nor an "Anti." I am a Christian. Period! I am not a member of a "Conservative," "Anti," or "Cooperative" Church. I am a member of a local church of Christ. Period! I refuse to be branded with a party. I will continue to oppose vigorously all unscriptural innovations into the work and worship of the church. But I will do this not as a member of a "Conservative" or "Anti" party but simply as a Christian. I serve no party. I serve Jesus Christ.

Third, between parties so formed jealousy grows up which manifest itself in hatred toward other parties and toward those who still espouse truth. This is shown forcefully in Galatians 5:20 where heresies are described as following "hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, sedition." This jealousy is shown in action by Diotrephes who cast people "out of the church" because he loved "to have the preeminence" (111 John 9-10). This party spirit is seen today by those who say "shut up or get out" to all who would differ with their humanly devised standards of fellowship. In churches throughout the land Christians have been faced with the choice of either going along with what the Bible does not authorize (e.g. church support of human organizations) or leaving. Those who thus enforced their human opinions to the breakage of fellowship showed themselves to constitute a heresy. They formed a party led by false teachers (cf. II Peter 2:1-3).

Thus, brethren, when the proper meaning of "heresy" is fully understood and applied, we must view with utmost alarm the tragic but plain application of this concept to the church today. Numerous parties (heresies) have been formed throughout the church with resultant breakage of fellowship between formerly united brethren. These sects were formed on the basis of human opinion (some man's think so) rather than of divine authority (God's say so).

Since these heresies are with us, we are faced with three urgent questions concerning them. What caused these heresies? Knowing the answer to this question perhaps we can help avert them in the future. What should our attitude be toward heresies? A study of this question will tell us how we should view parties already formed. What should our attitude be towards an heretic? In answering this question we can see how to deal with these urgent questions in later articles.

— P. O. Box 447, Rogers, Arkansas 72756