If you went to college with me, you probably know that the H-word was unfortunately one of my favorites to throw around. And no, i’m not talking about “H-E-double hockey sticks.” I’m talking about a much more sinister word. I’m talking about the word we carelessly throw out when someone disagrees with us about some point of Christian doctrine. Heretic.
Webster’s dictionary defines a heretic as, “a person who differs in opinion from established religious dogma.”
On another site, one belonging to a Christian theologian with whom i am honored to interact with almost daily in a Facebook group, we read, “Heresy is a potent word. It has a pretty specific historical definition. Generally speaking: Heresy is an obstinate commitment to, particularly if you are teaching it to others, a position that has been declared by the Church to be wrong AND that endangers one’s salvation” (italics added; bold in original).
With this understanding it is not right to call someone who holds to a different view of Eschatology a heretic. It is not right to call someone who holds to a different view of Creation a heretic. It is not right to call someone who holds to a different view of Soteriology a heretic, provided they believe that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
So building from here, it is safe to say that most of the time we are extremely careless when we call people heretics. And in so doing, what we are actually doing is saying, “You’re going to hell.”
But with all that in mind, i must point something out. The only time the word “heresy” is shown in action in the New Testament is in 1 Corinthians 11:19. There, Paul writes, “There must, indeed, be factions [heresies] among you, so that those who are approved may be recognized among you.” This occurs in the larger context of Paul’s discussion about the proper way to practice the Lord’s Supper. 1 Corinthians 11:17-22 says,
Now in giving the following instruction I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For to begin with, I hear that when you come together as a church there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. There must, indeed, be factions among you, so that those who are approved may be recognized among you. Therefore, when you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For at the meal, each one eats his own supper ahead of others. So one person is hungry while another gets drunk! Don’t you have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you look down on the church of God and embarrass those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I praise you? I do not praise you for this! (emphasis added for focus verse).
(If i’m being completely honest, the word “heresies” also occurs in Acts 5:17, 15:5, 24:5, 24:14, 26:5, 28:22; Galatians 5:20, and 2 Peter 2:1. However, in all of the Acts passages, the word refers to “sects”, whether Pharisees or the new Christian religion. In Galatians, Paul is referring to divisions much like our text today. In 2 Peter, Peter is describing heresy more along the lines in which it is historically understood, but i do believe there is a necessary comparison for my point today. I get away with calling 1 Corinthians 11:19 “the only time . . . ‘heresy’ is shown in action” is because nowhere else is a specific action called heresy.)
As i wrote in a paper for my undergrad degree, “The fact that Paul uses [‘heresies’] in 1 Corinthians 11:19, with the fact that it is the only defined use of the word apart from ‘the sect of the Pharisees’ or similar usages in the New Testament, would argue that the only true heresy in Christianity is a lack of love.”
You see, if the Bible is the ultimate authority, then we must understand how the Bible uses words and adopt that definition for ourselves.
Paul says that the reason heresies exist in the Corinthian church is “so that those who are approved may be recognized among you.” Paul is basically saying, in a modern way of phrasing it, “Ya’ll are dividing and causing heresy because you wanna be noticed. Cut it out!”
In Galatians 5:20, the word “heresies” occurs in the list of “the fruits of the flesh.” That is, this is a sin that Paul describes as being in total power over us before Christ–that was responsible for earning us hell–a sin that still rises up after our justification–that we are called to put to death by the Holy Spirit (cf. Romans 8:13 and Galatians 5:17).
In 2 Peter 2:1, Peter writes, “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, and will bring swift destruction on themselves” (emphasis added). I find it interesting that he describes them as “destructive.” There is nothing more destructive than a lack of unity in a local church body, and this is what “heresies” ultimately cause.
And if the greatest commandment (not to even mention Christ’s new commandment) is to love God, love others, and ultimately to be unified (with believers), then heresies are incredibly destructive because they cause divisions.
In addition, what is the underlying cause for most of the historical heresies (as defined in paragraph 3 above)? Someone wants to be noticed. They want people to follow them. They come up with something new, and then they walk away from the truth and the church (1 John 2:19).
So my plea with you today is that you would not be a heretic. I’m not talking about your specific theological beliefs. I trust that if you’ve even read this far you either hold to a biblical form of Christianity, or that God is currently drawing you towards a biblical form of Christianity. If your theological beliefs are heretical, though, please reassess them!
Don’t be a heretic! Don’t poison the love in your church! Don’t be divisive! Don’t try to be noticed! Jesus said, “Whoever is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and whoever is unrighteous in very little is also unrighteous in much” (Luke 16:10). If you’re faithful when no one pays attention to you, that will eventually be rewarded according to Jesus here, even if said reward isn’t granted until heaven.
Love people well. Love them even when it hurts. Never depart from the plain teaching of Scripture. Preach the Gospel!
Perhaps you’re reading and you want to know Christ. He came to earth, lived a perfect life, died on the cross, and rose from the dead 2,000 years ago to be in a relationship with you. Confess your faith in Him and come into His family, which should be a heresy-free (love-full) zone. Trust Him now!
Soli Deo Gloria