Ethics of Heresy

May 24, 2021


What is the most used, least understood, theological term? My guess ‘heresy’. Online it’s probably the most pejorative term in use by Christians to speak of other Christians. As one contributor on Facebook noted in a theology thread, “it’s not an interesting theological discussion until ‘heretic’ or ‘heretical’ are thrown around a few times.” While likely an accurate statement. It’s nonetheless a regrettable one. While ‘heretic’ is an epic slam in a homeschooler’s playground rap battle, its proper use has been lost in translation.

Let me back up, first Christians believe words matter. So we should care how we use our words. God created a world that exists independent of the individual self. In light of this,we have the responsibility, to the best of one’s ability, a human should rightly call a thing, what it is. (Gen 2:18-20a). The words we speak should correspond with reality. What we say about a thing should harmonize with what a thing is as created by God. Yes, due to the noetic effects of sin, naming reality is easier said than done. But I digress.

So, what is heresy? When are we morally responsible to call a teaching, heresy? More important. When is it ethical for the church to label someone a heretic? (a question we will look at in another post). Before we answer those questions let’s look at the biblical data on the issue.

Terms and biblical data

As theological terms within Christian tradition, Heresy and orthodoxy are thoroughly Christian words. Irenaeus coined the technical meaning of them both. Orthodox characterize his own teachings, which most other Church Fathers agreed with, and heresy defined the teachings of his adversaries. Even though Irenaeus coined the word as we use it now. The idea extends all the way back to the New Testament and early jewish literature.


We will Trace the development of the concepts behind the terms of heresy and orthodoxy in Scripture.

Heresy in the New Testament
The Greek word from which “heresy” derives (αἵρεσις, hairesis) originally meant “choice” or “opinion.” The word appears nine times in the New Testament, often referring to a religious sect characterized by its distinct opinions or practices (Acts 5:17; 15:5; 24:5; 26:5). Josephus used the term this way in referring to Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. But the term is also used more specifically.

The term “heresy” could also characterize those who departed from acceptable beliefs and conduct (Acts 24:14; 28:22). The word appears twice in Paul’s letters to describe unhealthy divisions that should be avoided (1 Cor 11:19; Gal 5:20). Although Paul instructed believers to limit their fellowship with those who supported such factions, he claimed that the existence of heretical groups helped distinguish the true believers from those who were causing division (1 Cor 11:19).

The early church saw in the word an allusion to the choice made in the Garden. Adam and Eve’s eternally regretable meal choice was worse than three-day old Thai, and twice as intentional. “Heresy” conveyed the idea of autonomy, of choosing for yourself as opposed to receiving from God what He has passed down. The heretic made a choice to rebel against revealed truth and define good and evil on their own terms rather than letting God pass down to them His Truth as they walked together in the cool of the day. Thus to commit heresy was to intentionally reject related truth and choose to define life on your own terms.

“Heresy” eventually came to mean a belief deviating from established doctrine in major areas like the Trinity, Christology, and soteriology. Thus, those who embrace error and rejected the core doctrines encouraging other s to do the same were known as heretics. The term seems to be used this way in 2 Pet 2:1 to describe how false teachers had taken a dangerous departure from sound doctrine by denying Jesus. Early church leaders such as Ignatius (second century ad) used the term “heresy” this way consistently (See, Ignatius’ Epistle to the Trallians 6; Ignatius’ epistle to the Ephesians 6). Also, the word was repeatedly applied to the gnostics during the second and third centuries because, well, it fit! (See, Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 4.7, 22). The term was specifically applied by early church fathers to describe those who had departed from established Christian doctrine (doctrine which is most clearly seen in the articulation of the Apostles’ Creed and later the Nicene Creed; e.g., Origen, Against Celsus, 3.13; Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 10.22). The “heretics” most in question were people convincing (or attempting to convince) others that their viewpoints were correct. For the early church fathers, it seems that heretics could also be received back into the church under certain conditions (see, Canon of the Council in Trullo, XCV).

Orthodoxy in the New Testament
The term “orthodoxy” describes right belief. Although the word derives from Greek terms “straight” (ὀρθός, orthos) and “praise” (δόξα, doxa), the term itself is not found in the New Testament. In the Gospels, the concept of orthodoxy is often represented by the word “truth” (e.g., John 4:23–24; 8:32, 40–46; 14:6). Jesus’ principle ministry involved teaching truth, which He claimed was contained in His words and the Hebrew Scriptures.

The concept of orthodoxy in Paul’s writings is best captured by his use of the phrases “sound teaching” (1 Tim 1:10; 2 Tim 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1), “sound words” (1 Tim 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13), and “sound faith” (Titus 1:13; 2:2). The foundation for this teaching was established by the New Testament apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20; 3:5) and handed down from one generation of believers to the next (Luke 1:2; 2 Tim 2:2; 3:14–15; 1 John 1:5; Jude 1:3). The contents of orthodox belief, according to Paul, must be guarded by those to whom they are entrusted (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:13–14; Titus 1:9) so that Christians remain pure in their doctrine (Titus 2:7).

Paul cautions Christians who wish to retain their orthodox standards to keep their distance from those who depart from the apostolic instructions regarding belief and conduct (2 Thess 3:6, 14). He also states that those whose teachings are contrary to apostolic orthodoxy should be refuted and silenced from speaking in the church (Titus 1:9–10; see also 1 Tim 6:3–4).

Heresies quick overview

1. Heresy as deviant ethical or theological teaching (Heb 13:9 cp. Gal 1:6-7; 2 Ti 4:3-4)

2. The origins of heresy
        a. Erroneous human teaching Col 2:8 cp. Eph 4:14; Col 2:20-22
        b. Deceitful demonic power 1Ti 4:1 cp. 1Jn 4:2-3,6

5. Christian opposition to heresy
        a. Heresy warned against 2 Pe 3:17 cp. 1 Ti 4:7; Tit 1:10-14
        b. Heresy condemned 2 Pe 2:3 cp. Gal 1:8-9; 2Pe 2:17-22

A little more nuance
Well, What do most people think is heresy?
a number of possible solutions (Yet these are not adequate definitions)

* The Council Answer: Heresy is whatever one of the seven ecumenical councils said it was. (Greek Orthodox)
* The Power Struggle: Heresy is just the label for the “loser” in the debate. (Post-modern)
* The “Other” Answer: Heresy is an exclusionary process used to establish the identity of some group. (Proud-estant Liberalism)
* Poop in My Coffee: Heresy is whatever corrupts the essence of Christianity - anything unlike what I was taught is heresy. Not Pre-Trib rapture, your a heretic, a “dammmmmmnable” hieratic (2 Peter 3:1 JKV) (Fun-da-mentalist).
* Really Not Really equivocation: Heresy is never really to be used. It is a bad word. No, I don't study theology! No, I will not define my terms! Can't we just be accepting. No one is sure about hell and judgment and all that. Love wins! Right? (Shallow “Christain”?)
* Zip it or I kill you: Heresy is rejecting church authority. (Catholic or any absolutist group)

From the evidence in our first section, here are some points that are necessarily true of heresy in general

1. Heresy requires an exercise of authority.
Today, determining, "what is heresy?" can not be a purely individualistic affair. I can’t determine by myself what “heresy” is, though I can certainly offer opinions as to if an idea is heresy and if a group should be declared to be heretical.

2. Heresy necessarily involves power and exclusion.
Today, both ideas are understood in negative terms. Yet, their is nothing necessarily wrong with either of these, when properly administrated. In and of themselves, neither power nor exclusion are bad. Church leaders sometimes need to use both for the benefit of the body For example: exercising authority (power) in excluding a dangerous person from a children’s ministry.

In an age of spin, and rash judgements tweeted in seconds leaders need to press the pause button, take a moment to remember the power of labels. Leaders should always be aware that when they use the label “heresy” they are wielding the power to exclude. My fear is that if we don’t make this explicit, we’ll wield the power without being aware that we’re doing so. And, that is exceptionally dangerous. It’s like giving someone a box and not bothering to mention that there’s dynamite inside. We can’t wield carefully what we don’t know that we’re wielding.

3. Heresy undermines the Gospel.
The idea of "heresy" is at its core something that undermines the essence of Christianity. (1) Heresy is about essential, rather than peripheral, matters. Granted, it’s not always easy to tell the difference given the interconnect nature of Christian theology. (2) Heresy almost always comes from within. We make a mistake when we see heresy as something that attacks Christianity from without. Instead, we must realize that heresy is always something that arises from within the body and must be dealt with as such.

Clarifying Addendum:
1. Recognize the difficulty: it needs to make the appeal to authority/power more explicit. Rather than simply presume that heresy is self-evident, we need to recognize that sifting heresy from orthodoxy is a difficult process that will often require a final decision to be made by those entrusted with the authority to do so.
2. Realize heresy is both in beliefs and behavior (Titus and Jude attest to this). Bad teaching bares Fruit (behavior/ethics positions promoted) that drastically deviate from biblical boundaries of behavior. we need to realize that the “essence” of Christianity is more than a set of beliefs. Commonly held Beliefs shape the ethics all views a community holds and if their ethics are "hinky" - then something is up with their Beliefs. For Example: Oneida Community . This kind of test is what Jesus meant when he taught you will know them by their fruit. Also remember the flip side, He is a hypocrite and maybe an unbeliever but not a heretic, who, while keeping the outward appearance of Christian religion, devises or follows false opinions for a desire for human approval, earthly reward, or worldly pleasures"
3. The idea of Christianity’s “essence” is far too vague. Heresy is better defined as something that undermines the Gospel itself. I realize that gets us into a discussion of what the Gospel is.

My working definitions of heresy:

Heresy is any form of Christianity (in practice and belief) that undermines the Gospel (explicitly or implicitly) and is determined to be not in agreement with the Scriptures by a reasoning argument, and by comparison with the shape of basic traditional orthodoxy.

Thus, A heretic is one who obstinately holds to and publicly teaches, heresy, despite the Christian communities opposition and after private and public censure has been exercised, and continues to do so.

Craig Blomberg article on heresy some years ago in The Journal of evangelical theology is a fitting word on this word "heresy".

     The collection of false teaching and immoral behavior that NT authors most strongly oppose is an interesting one. A strong insistence on both the full deity and the full humanity of Christ naturally appears. Salvation by grace through faith, countering all forms of legalism, nomism, and ethnocentrism, proves central, but one must submit to the resurrected Jesus as total Master (Rom 10:9–10) and exhibit the fruit befitting repentance. The only absolutely crucial eschatological tenet is the fact of Christ’s still future, visible return. With respect to what systematicians usually include under “sanctification” appears an insistence on keeping security and perseverance in balance, and on avoiding the twin errors of defeatism and triumphalism, including in its extreme forms perfectionism. After that, one is hard pressed to find further absolutely central theological tenets for which NT writers strongly contend.
      At least as crucial as correct theology is correct behavior. The NT strongly opposes antinomianism, immorality more generally (especially in its twin, opposing manifestations of asceticism and hedonism), and a factious or a divisive spirit. It insists that stewardship of one’s material possessions functions as “exhibit A” of the good works that must necessarily flow from the life of one truly redeemed. It consistently places morality above ritual, an observation that should address us loudly in the current evangelical “worship wars”!
Our inspired authors clearly oppose non-Christian religions and their practitioners, but their dominant strategy is to call them to repentance via making the gospel as winsome as possible. The harshest rhetoric is almost always reserved for the ultraconservative religious insider who transgresses key boundaries, especially leaders who should certainly know better. By way of contrast, the last century of American evangelicalism has majored on creating extensive doctrinal statements to separate itself from outsiders, usually adding numerous adiaphora(1) to more central matters. The ETS is a rare exception but, paradoxically, our doctrinal statement lacks any requirement for salvation. And when evangelical “lifestyle” statements have addressed ethical concerns, the lists have often proved quite different from NT vice and virtue lists.
       In short, our tendency has been to fight our fiercest battles at the theological periphery of evangelicalism, where we believe the limits of tolerance have been exceeded. We rarely ask who in our midst may be equally misguided (and possibly even more dangerous) because they have drawn the boundaries too narrowly rather than too broadly. As Arland Hultgren’s survey of the earliest eras of Church history reminds us, one can become heretical by being either too broad-minded or too narrow-minded.(2)


(1) adiaphora are matters not regarded as essential to faith but nevertheless as permissible for Christians or allowed in the church.

(2) Craig Blomberg, The New Testament Definition of Heresy (Or when Do Jesus and the Apostles really Get Mad?) JETS 45/1 (March 2002) 71–72. The pdf can be found at HERE



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