What Is Heresy?

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Most religious groups define heresy as teaching something in opposition or which contradicts what they have decided is the truth of God. Such firmly held beliefs are usually codified in the group's statement of beliefs or in the founding documents of the organization. A heretic is someone who, as commonly used by religious groups and outreaches, teaches, and practices things that are heresy (as seen from their point of view).

The English word "heresy" or its plural appears only four times in the King James Bible translation. It is derived from the Greek word hairesis which means disunion or someone who causes division. The New Testament warns Christians to be watchful against those who teach lies for the express purpose of pulling believers apart.

For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you. (1Corinthians 11:19, KJV).

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies . . . (Galatians 5:19 - 20, KJV).

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. (2Peter 2:1, KJV).

I am astonished that you are so quickly being turned away from Him Who called you into the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, Which in reality is not another gospel; but there are some who are troubling you and are desiring to pervert the gospel of Christ (with heresy or false teachings, Galatians 1:6 - 7).

Paul Causing Division?

Surprisingly, the Apostle Paul was accused, by those who wanted him dead, of causing division among the Jews for preaching the truth!

But I confess to you that according to the way which they call heresy, so I serve the God of my fathers, believing all things that are written in the Law and the Prophets (Acts 24:14, HBFV).

Note that the New Testament does not unilaterally condemn a person who believes, even on a variety of subjects, something different (what could be labeled heresy) than what is stated in a fellowship's statement of beliefs. It also does not use the label 'heretic' on those people who maintain differing opinions.

What the Bible does consider true heresy, however, is a set of beliefs used for the purpose of dividing a local fellowship or church. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, states that people who gather to worship God can have different understandings regarding a range of topics.

Receive the one who is weak in the faith, but not for divisive arguments . . . Therefore, we should no longer judge one another, but judge this instead: Do not put an occasion of stumbling or a cause of offense before your brother (Romans 14:1, 13).

Today, when church leaders define someone as a heretic, they usually mean the person in question has rejected one or more tenets deemed foundational to the group. The person is considered to believe heresy and will be (usually) asked to keep such beliefs to themselves and / or told not to attend the group any longer. Such rejection may even take the form of being forcibly thrown out and officially disfellowshipped from the church they attended.

List of All Terms in
Dictionary of Biblical Words

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