Heresy: What Is Heresy?

Valley of Hinnom, where Gehenna was located, was a symbol of the Lake of Fire in Jesus’ parables

Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in on attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than truth itself.

~ Irenaeus, Against Heresies

In the last post, “Heresy: Introduction, What Is Apostasy?“, I wanted to make it clear what apostasy is in order to differentiate between it and heresy.  They are often used interchangeably, and the difference may to an outsider seem subtle enough, but apostasy at its core means “a falling away”, and the KJV translates it as such in 2Th 2:3, or it can mean “forsake”, as translated in Ac 21:21.  Sometimes, it means “departure” or “defection”.

Now, I want you to notice what the dictionary says of heresy:

her·e·sy  [her-uh-see]  Show IPA

noun, plural her·e·sies.

1. opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, especially of a church or religious system.

2. the maintaining of such an opinion or doctrine.

3. Roman Catholic Church . the willful and persistent rejection of any article of faith by a baptized member of the church.

4. any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs, customs, etc.

~ “heresy“,

Now, how many of us would agree with that definition?  I daresay, not many.  So, what of the etymology of the word?

heresy (n.)

“an opinion of private men different from that of the catholick and orthodox church” [Johnson], c.1200, from Old French heresie (12c.), from Latin hæresis, “school of thought, philosophical sect,” used by Christian writers for “unorthodox sect or doctrine,” from Greek hairesis “a taking or choosing, a choice,” from haireisthai “take, seize,” middle voice of hairein “to choose,” of unknown origin, perhaps from PIE *ser- “to seize” (cf. Hittite saru “booty,” Welsh herw “booty”).

The Greek word was used in the New Testament in reference to the Sadducees, Pharisees, and even the Christians, as sects of Judaism, but in English bibles it usually is translated sect. Meaning “religious belief opposed to the orthodox doctrines of the Church” evolved in Late Latin in the Dark Ages. Transferred (non-religious) use from late 14c.

That definition isn’t much better, is it?  According to the above, Christianity would have been a heresy in contrast to the Pharisees!  Yet, who did Jesus condemn?

“The Greek word” used in the NT is hairesis, Strong’s G139.

1) act of taking, capture: e.g. storming a city
2) choosing, choice
3) that which is chosen
4) a body of men following their own tenets (sect or party)
a) of the Sadducees
b) of the Pharisees
c) of the Christians
5) dissensions arising from diversity of opinions and aims

Notice the emphasis on “choosing”.  Wikipedia says of “Heresy“:

The term heresy is from Greek αἵρεσις originally meant “choice” or “thing chosen”, but it came to mean the “party or school of a man’s choice” and also referred to that process whereby a young person would examine various philosophies to determine how to live. The word “heresy” is usually used within a Christian, Jewish, or Islamic context, and implies slightly different meanings in each. The founder or leader of a heretical movement is called a heresiarch, while individuals who espouse heresy or commit heresy are known as heretics. Heresiology is the study of heresy.

So, its original meaning did not have quite the emotional baggage it does today.  In addition, using the standard definition, those who do not espouse the trinity, the Catholic holy days, worship on Sunday, etc., would be considered “heretics”, as they (or should I say “we”?) are quite out of step with “orthodoxy”.

Not only that, but the world cannot agree upon what “orthodoxy” is.  However, when you view the Church of God organizations scattered about, you realize that not even we can agree upon it.

Then, considering the negative connotation that the word has, when does faulty thinking, false teachings and speculations veer from those designations into heresy?  If deviation from the truth is the yardstick, all of us have blind sides, false ideas to overcome and misinterpretations to deal with.  So, unless there is a qualifier, all of us are heretics, like it or not!

At the same time, if that is our definition, then the word loses any meaning.  However, if we are not vigilant against false teachings, we ourselves can succumb to them, so there must be a bar set.  As Let Us Reason Ministries says about “What is Heresy, and what is a heresy hunter?“:

The Church has moved into areas that are challenging her from without as well as from within. Anything that can be shaken is. Every doctrine the Church practice is being challenged by those who say they want us to be in the truth. What has become the center of concern is within the Church itself. So many have turned inward to polemics for the Church’s protection. It is evident when we find false teaching outside the Church such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, everyone can agree there is a problem. But when false teaching is found inside the Church it becomes a delicate issue and if addressed and exposed it is considered fault finding.

Heresy can be defined as any departure from Christian orthodoxy which is a teaching, doctrine or practice that goes beyond the apostles teachings — the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).Biblical heresy is often a denial of the core beliefs held in the Church that are founded on the Bible. In this sense it applies to groups which reject basic Christian doctrines and separate themselves from the historic church.

It can be defined as the over-emphasis of a neglected truth or a truth elevated to an extreme were it can no longer be recognized as biblical. Heresy can also originate from a new revelation or prophesy, which is often the most dangerous source of all. A divisive teaching or practice from inside the Church can be more destructive to genuine faith than one from the outside. The epistle of Jude warns of this.

There are a number of things in here, so let me pick out a couple to highlight.

The emphasis in the above quote is on “biblical heresy … that are founded on the Bible.”  This must always be our yardstick!  People can talk all they want to about “the historic church”, but I think most of us realize that Jesus’ flock was to be a little church — often scattered, often persecuted and always hated.  It was not to become some large “catholic” (“universal”) church in this age!

Secondly, there is a core set of beliefs which must be maintained to even be able to call one’s self “Christian”.  I have written numerous times about “fundamental beliefs”, so I won’t repeat that here.  However, I would ask you to consider why not believing them is so bad.  It will come up again later.

Finally, it is interesting that mention is made of a pet doctrine that is elevated far above its proper importance.  Sometimes, this is “new truth” being proclaimed by the heretic de jour.  How many of these do we see on the landscape today?  Church governance structure?  The calendar?  Hair length?  Head coverings?  Tassels?  These are nothing less than majoring in the minors.  As HWA used to thunder, “The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things!”

Do you want to know what Let Us Reason says is the antidote to heresy?  Can you guess?

The Bible teaches and encourages us to judge, not to ignore. There are two prominent Greek words translated as “discernment.” One is anakrino, which means to “examine” or “judge closely.” The other is diakrino, which means “to separate out,” “to investigate,” or “to examine.” [bolding mine]

Still, there isn’t yet that feeling of properly defining heresy.  Theopedia says of “Heresy“:

While there is a temptation for Christians to label whatever is not in keeping with sound doctrine as heresy, the Bible seems to make the distinction that heresy is not merely the opposite of orthodoxy. Rather, heresy is a divisive teaching or practice which forces those who call themselves Christians to separate from it or face condemnation for it. John the Apostle gave a prime example of such a doctrine: denying the true nature of the person and work of Jesus Christ (I John 4:1-3; 2 John 1:7-11).

This seems to be getting closer to the mark.  Everything we have been talking about results in division or absolute rejection.  This is something more serious, then, that simply not believing a thing of secondary importance.  It must either impugn the nature of God or Christ, reject a core belief, teach the breaking of the commandments or cause division.

Does the Bible condemn simply making a wrong choice, or is there a qualifier?

17 Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse.

18 For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it.

19 For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.

1Co 11:17-19

Here, we see Paul chastising the Corinthians for their “choosing”, heresy, of division!

19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,

20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,

21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

Gal 5:19-21

Remember, this is the same Paul who stressed to not belittle the brother who did not eat meat (which is a lesson in itself these days)!

What is he really talking about?  Actually, what does the entire Bible address?  What problem extends from the beginning of mankind until even now and until Christ’s return?

2 Every way of a man is right in his own eyes: but the Lord pondereth the hearts.

Pr 21:2

6 In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

Jdg 17:6

It is one thing to be deceived, but it is quite another to choose your own way over God’s!

Still, what’s wrong with a little untruth?  Is heresy such a bad thing?  Again, we are talking about the type of belief that has a result!

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.

2Pe 2:1

It is important to note that the context is false teachers and false prophets.  It is important to understand that heresy at its core is choosing falsehood over truth, perhaps because someone doesn’t want to hear they are wrong or want to change.  However, here Paul says “damnable heresies”.  The Greek apoleiaG684, means destroying or utter destruction.  So, a biblical mandate against heresy is against a teaching that destroys.  It is the same word used at the end of the sentence for “swift destruction“!  Paul stresses that something is destroyed!  In this case, the ones being destroyed are those who teach the heresies and those who follow them.

Think about what this means.  Rejecting core truth can easily result in the ultimate destruction, aka the Lake of Fire!  Division destroys the Church!  Damnable untruths can cause a person to lose their faith and wind up in the Lake of Fire.

Let me repeat part of that last one because this is where it gets very personal!  Damnable untruths can cause a person to lose their faith!

6 But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

7 Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!

8 Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.

9 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.

10 Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.

Mt 18:6-10

This is why heresy is so serious!  Putting a stumblingblock before a believer and causing them to sin is serious!

How many have left the Church over foolish statements and teachings that are not biblical?  How many speculations were held up as doctrine?

I have written over and over about these things, so I’m only going to list these heresies that have caused people to stumble, fall and leave the faith:

  1. Primacy of Peter.
  2. One man in charge.
  3. “One true Church” being equated with a physical organization.
  4. Misuse of the word “Apostle”.
  5. Banning interracial marriage and treating the offspring in a callous, cruel and scandalous manner.
  6. Divorce and remarriage doctrine prior to 1974 which forcibly broke up families, the building block of the Church and the nation.
  7. Adam was white.  Noah was white because he was “pure in his generations”.  I don’t care how you candycoat it; it is heresy, it is racism and it ignores the truth that Adam was probably red.

Yes, those things are heresy.  They are destructive, manipulative and have brought the Church much bad fruit.

The Church needs to repent of the evils done in the name of these doctrines in the name of the living Jesus Christ!



  1. Finally, it is interesting that mention is made of a pet doctrine that is elevated far above its proper importance. Sometimes, this is “new truth” being proclaimed by the heretic de jour. How many of these do we see on the landscape today? Church governance structure? The calendar? Hair length? Head coverings? Tassels? These are nothing less than majoring in the minors. As HWA used to thunder, “The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things!”

    John, I really typically like your writing, but I’d be careful with assigning things as “minors” if I were you. According to Christ, even the minor things are to be done (Matthew 23:23).

    The minor things are the things we should have no trouble understanding, like gathering/buying food on the Sabbath being wrong, and yet look at how Israel has always failed that test, from Exodus 16, to Nehemiah 10, 13, up to today.

    Even the calendar should be a very basic thing that we have no trouble with, because it is the foundation of when we come together to worship God at HIS appointed times. Is it possible that Israel has failed this test over time as well? It sure seems so, from the time of Jeroboam adding a feast during the 8th month on the 15th day (likely another Feast of Tabernacles), and there is something God hated about their new moon observance in Isaiah 1:14. Is it possible that the Church could be failing this today? I sure think it’s possible, at least!

    Hair length, that’s sure debatable. It isn’t nailed down. That’s what I would call a “minor” quibble that doesn’t even exist in the Bible.

    But when it comes to bigger things, we need to be sure! We all have changed our lives to obey God and worship on the correct day of the week — the Sabbath. We understand that it isn’t pleasing to God to worship Him on other days. Isn’t this also the case with the Holy Days? They are HIS appointed times, after all, right?

    I just finished a not-incredibly-long paper on this subject, maybe it will be of some use to you. I won’t link to it, but if you click on my name above, you’ll see it as the latest post on my site.

    I hope you have a wonderful rest of the Sabbath today, John.

    • @Alex: By your own admission, the calendar should be an easy thing. By your own admission, the purpose of setting the dates is for everyone to come together and worship God. Yet, by rejecting the dates the Church has determined, you undermine that very purpose and ensure people are meeting on different days.

      The calendar isn’t just a minor thing, rather it is a very minor thing. It is the corban teaching of this age. By insisting upon a different day, you violate the very purpose God intended the holy days to be for, just as the Pharisees violated God’s intent by allowing the corban rule, of which Jesus chastised them over. I bet corban sounded good theologically, though, and it probably made them feel more righteous than the others.

      It has been proven numerous times that the Jews backed up observation with a calculated month, which allowed them to discredit false witnesses and fight the actions of the Samaritans, who wanted to sabotage the worship of the Jews. This took place even before Jesus was born.

      Even Noah kept a calculated calendar, just as people in the Place of Safety will be forced to. You cannot observe the sun, moon and stars when the sun is darkened, the moon is apparently knocked off its orbit and the heavens open up like a scroll.

  2. John, that’s a pretty strong rebuke! I’m sure you’ve seen many such papers in your time, but I don’t know if you know that WCG actually believed the same way I do very early on. My paper provides quotes and references to support this, from the 1953 and 1957 Good News, articles written by Kenneth C. Herrmann. They used to believe that visible sighting the new moon was correct, and they also believed that is what the Jews did, and they also believed the calendar was fully revealed in the Bible and was a simple matter to follow it. But, in the late 60s, things changed drastically… the same man, Kenneth Herrmann, wrote to a member in 1969 that it was impossible to figure all this out from the Bible and that we had to look to the Jews to understand it. Even though this exact same man had written 12 years before in 1957 in the Good News about how it was all revealed in the Bible!

    I hope you will give the paper a read and see some of these things — I link to scans of the magazines in question and many other resources.

    To answer some of your questions, it is up to each of us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, and that includes proving all things — including whether the Jews actually have authority over the calendar, and whether anyone has authority to untie the month from the new moon. Technically, it is God’s sign, and they are His appointed times. That is the way I view it, and I have not proposed something new here with my paper, it was just the study that resulted from me proving the things I’ve come to believe in the last 7 months.

    You mentioned that the Jews backed up observation with calculation — fine, but that is ignoring the core point that their calculation does not even try to calculate when the new moon can be observed anymore, and hasn’t for over 1650 years, because it has been based on the conjunction (the molad, the average time of the moon’s orbit).

    It is not a great idea to compare the Pharisees’ attempts to make null the law of God with trying to worship Him on the days He has appointed.

    Again, I hope you’ll ask God for extra discernment, even if you end up disagreeing, and give the paper a read, if only to see other arguments that people like me have in support of literally seeing the new moon crescent as the beginning of the month. I think that the new moon/new man chadash/chodesh renewal comparison is something new that we haven’t seen before, that biblically supports the visibility of the new moon being required.

    Please understand, I’m not here attacking you, I’m just like you in that I want to prove all things and serve God’s people. Teaching the truth has always been divisive, and has always caused persecution down through time. Is persecution proof that truth is being preached? Obviously not, I’m not saying that.

    Have a good day.

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