Heretics and Heresies

“Regarding a heretical man, after one or two admonishments, refuse him knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned.”

(Titus 3:10-11)

In the Christian community, there is a great deal of misunderstanding as to what a heretic is or as to what constitutes heresy. Literally, the word αἱρετικός (harietikos) is an adjective that refers to one who causes divisions that create factions of a group. Thayer defines it as one who is schismatic. Liddel and Scott observe that as the word comes from the root αἱρετίζω (hairetizo), which essentially means “to choose,” that this schism is not something that happens accidentally, but is actively chosen by the person in question.

While the word αἱρετικός (harietikos) is only found here in this very, the noun from which it is based, αἵρεσις (hairesis) is found nine times in the New Testament. Six of those cases are found in the book of Acts  (5:17; 15:5; 24:5; 24:14; 26:5; 28:22) and in each of these cases, it is used to refer to a sect within Judaism. Yet, Paul uses this term twice (1 Corinthians 11:19; Galatians 5:20) in the negative, warning the church against such things. Peter goes one step further, speaking of such things that bring ruin to the church and which are typically brought in secretly.

When one puts these uses together, recognizing the importance of Christianity being one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God (Ephesians 4:4-6), we should be able to see that sectarianism, by its very nature is incompatible with Christianity. Were Christianity but a philosophy of life, we might expect that the language might be different…allowing for adjectives to prefix one’s Christianity…people saying things like, “I am a Pauline-Christian” or “I am a Petrine-Christian”, etc… Yet, Biblically, this is not something that is permitted (in principle, the phrase “Christian Sect” is an oxymoron). We are bound together as one body in Christ, nourished by one Holy Spirit and if separated from this living body of faith, we will wither and perish.

The natural objection is easily anticipated. “Wait one minute! Are there not Presbyterians and Baptists and Lutherans, and Methodists that all claim the name of Christ?” Further, “Have not the Lutherans and the Calvinists and the Wesleyans often been bitter foes in the history of the church?” And, “If unity in Christ were genuine and true, why did the Eastern and Western churches split in 1054 AD in what is called “The Great Schism”? And, “Why did the Reformation take place at all — do not all involved claim the name of Christ?”

To be honest, oceans of ink have been spilled on this matter. In short, though, there is no question that there are fractures in the Church of Christ — to our discredit and shame in some cases. I have seen churches split for reasons they ought never to have split. And, while human sin does not invalidate the truth of the Christian scriptures, it is sin nonetheless and in many cases, people have been driven away from the church of Jesus Christ because of the way professing Christians behave.

That being said, there is a time to split and separate from the body of the church…in this case, when the church has ceased to be the church of Jesus Christ. In the case of the Reformation, for example, Rome had become so corrupt and perverted in their theology and practice that Bible-believing Christians could not remain in that church; yet, it was not the Bible-believing Christians that truly split off. By their actions, the Roman church had left the true faith; the Reformation simply articulated why.

Even within protestantism, we are surrounded by churches that claim the name of Christ, but their theology is unrecognizable to the Bible. These churches, like the Romish churches, have apostatized, they have chosen to become heretical, divided from the true Body of Christ as an arm or leg which has been amputated. At the same time, there are also many Christian churches that are truly Christian, but who disagree (as brothers) with one another about a particular reading or idea found in the Scriptures. In this case, it is not so much a division as it is a disagreement — not amputated from the body, but functioning as a different part of the body, just as a kidney functions differently than a stomach. What defines the difference? The answer is their commitment to the scriptures as their authority for doctrine and practice. When a church or denomination forsakes the Word of God, treating it as the words of men, then it becomes heretical — dangerous to the body and separate from it without the life of Christ within.

And such as these, Paul writes, are both sinful and perverted. Sinful in that they do not obey God’s word and perverted because they create their own standards, placing them over God’s standards. When we warn them (from the Scriptures, not by intimidation) one or two times, yet they persist in their error, we are “to refuse them” — recognizing they are not part of the body of Christ. Like Simon Magus, they have condemned themselves based on their own theological positions.

Churches, how careful we must be to stand faithfully on the Word of God. Christians, how careful we must be in seeking out such churches and standing with them in a culture and world that prefers the ideas and follies of men.

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