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What is Heresy?

The word, “heresy” itself, only appears in the King James translation one time in Acts 24:14. It’s plural form, “heresies” occurs another three times in 1 Corinthians 11:19, Galatians 5:20, and 2 Peter 2:1. All the other occurrences of this same Greek word (“hairesis”) are translated as “sect”. (The NASB, another ‘formal translation’ follows the KJV closely, with only two verses translating the word as “factions” instead)(feel free to ask about the difference between formally equivalent and dynamically equivalent translations)

The Strong’s Concordance uses the following words in defining this greek word: “choice”, “a party”, “disunion”. Finally, Merriam Webster defines this generically as, “dissent or deviation from a dominant theory, opinion, or practice”.

Taking this all into account at a high level, “heresy” would be any deviation from an accepted doctrine. Admittedly, this generic definition does not take into account human reality. That reality, and real world application, is that people disagree and not all those disagreements need be called “heresy”, nor are they worth fighting about. Your views, by mere definition of the term, may be heretical to me; however, mine could also heretical to you. So who’s right? And how do we decide? Sadly, our sinful condition, and pride, cause a lot of disagreement where none actually need be. We’ll deal with that more in the ‘Long Answer’.

Heresy then, would be any teaching and/or practice that deviates from a proper interpretation of the Bible. This presumes of course the existence of absolute, objective, and transcendent truth, that has been communicated by our Creator to us, and is able to be understood. This heresy could also come from within or without the Christian community.


Taking then from the definition we’re working from, let’s talk about this more in depth. Heresy again, would be any teaching and/or practice that deviates from a proper interpretation of the Bible.

This then begs many questions. Whose interpretation is correct? Who is qualified to decide? How much can we disagree? Is every disagreement heresy?

Proper Interpretation, It’s Hard Work

The first thing we must say is that properly interpreting can be hard work. To me, it is very annoying to hear someone say, “it’s clear in the Bible that”, or the classic, “it says what it says”. Well, it DOES say what it says; however, many times those verses require work, minus hidden agendas, pride, and presumptions, to get to the proper interpretation. I admit that some verses are easier to interpret; however, there are others that good people disagree on. There are verses that Holy Spirit filled believers disagree on. People may also disagree on which verses are easier to interpret (“clearer”) and which are not. So then, let us be patient with one another, remain teachable, and be willing to acknowledge that we could be wrong.

Secondly, Doctrine Matters

Do a search on all the times the word “doctrine” (teaching, and proper interpretation) is used in the Bible (please do this and read the verses). You’ll soon find that the Bible writers considered a right doctrine an extremely important thing. Indeed, how we live, and our Christian practices will flow from the doctrines we hold to. A right doctrine also brings light on to what is wrong doctrine, or “heresy”.

Exercise Wisdom

While doctrine is very important, but so is loving the brethren. We must then take special care to put at attitude of love and patience at the forefront of any doctrinal discussions. We also MUST be careful not to part fellowship over issues that are not dependent on salvation.

I have been literally yelled at because I do not believe in a pre-tribulation rapture event. I believe disagreement on that issue is not a reason for anyone to get upset with anyone else. If a person is truly saved, the timing of the rapture should be a secondary issue.

I would like to think that with enough study, and enough debate, we could one day reach a day when everyone agreed, and every was right. Since it is unlikely that day will come, we must deal in love and patience, and pray for wisdom.

I have seen churches that emphasize love, and shy away from doctrine. I have also seen churches that are obsessed with doctrine and turn away those that would dare to disagree on even the smallest points. Please notice that this is not an ‘either-or’ issue, it is ‘both-and’. In other words, doctrine AND love must be balanced carefully, and one not forsaken for the other.

When to Part Ways and What to do About It

The Bible does indeed encourage separation on certain things. We are not to accept anything and everything that comes to us in the name of Christ or the Bible. So where do we draw the line? When do we call it heresy?

I believe the first line that must be drawn salvation. The Bible states that there is a way to be saved and have eternal life. If the Bible says we must repent and believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ (his finished work), then that issue is not in debate. Thus, if someone comes along and says that Islam also leads to eternal life, that view must be called heresy. You might know someone who is Muslim, and they might be a nice person, and they should be treated with the respect you should show any other human being; however, their beliefs are NOT to influence ours as Christians. Groups or denominations that add works to salvation are also to be challenged.

So what about non-salvation issues? What other lines should be drawn? This is where Holy Spirit guidance and wisdom is key. Here I cannot give you a cookie-cutter, one size fits all, solution. Here, you’ll have to do your homework, put in the time, and make a prayed up decision.

For example, there is an interpretation of some verses put forth by some in the “Word-Faith Movement” that I personally qualify as heretical. On the other hand, I know some people who hold those views that claim to have put faith in Christ, and I believe they are real Christians. What do I do? Do I break off fellowship and contact? Or stay friends?

Each situation has its’ own context. Each situation contains its’ own individual, unique qualities. The Lord may lead me to have patience towards someone with these views, until they come to certain knowledge on their own. The Lord may also lead me to rebuke someone with these views, because they’re being hardheaded. Only the Lord knows which one of those things is the right one in each particular situation.

The question was asked, “what is heresy?” I then proceeded to go a bit past that and talk about how it works in real life. I like to get right to the point of an issue, it’s how my mind works. I believe heresy is easy to define, and hard work out in real time. That is why I spent time on that.

Please also remember that you could be wrong, I could be wrong. How would I want someone to treat me? I can tell you I’ve been wrong about things. I might be wrong about my belief on the rapture and not realize it. Ever heard the phrase, “you don’t know, what you don’t know”? That is why doctrine, love, and patience must all work together in identifying heresy, and dealing then with it.

Answer to this question was written and provided by John Lowe



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