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What is heresy?


By Spencer D Gear PhD

I was blogging on Christianity Board on the topic, “Heresy?” where the person asked:

“Every denomination has some teaching or doctrine that we would not agree with.
How would you explain the difference between an incorrect teaching and
a heretical teaching…?
IOW,,,when does an incorrect teaching become heretical? Thanks.”[1]

In the Septuagint (LXX) – the Greek translation of the Old Testament – hairesis is found occasionally as meaning free choice or voluntarily (e.g. Gen 49:5; Lev 22:18).[2]

Like hairesis in Josephus, [the word] denoted in the first instance the trends and parties within Judaism. But soon, when certain minim separated themselves from the orthodox Rabbinic tradition, it came to be used only of trends within Judaism opposed by the Rabbis. . . . The term thus stigmatised certain groups as “heretical.” This sense is found in Rabbinic writings belonging to the end of the 1st and early part of 2nd century A.D. . . . At the end of the 2nd century the term acquired a new meaning, being applied not so much to the members of a sect within Judaism as to the adherents of other faiths and esp. Christians and Gnostics.[3]

New Testament and heresy

For the Christian who takes the Bible seriously, heresy is based on the Greek noun, hairesis. The Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich Lexicon gives the foundational meaning as “sect, party, school” (BAG, 1957, p. 23).

It was used to describe the “party of the Sadducees” in Acts 5:17; the Pharisees in Acts 26:5 were described as “the strictest sect of our religion.” In the secular literature of the first century, it meant “heretical sect.”

In a later sense they were called “a dissension, a faction” (1 Cor 11:19; Gal 5:20). They also were called an “opinion, dogma . . . a way of thinking” (2 Pet 2:1).

clip_image004Schlier considers heresy must be understood ‘against the Hellenistic and Jewish background. The usage in Acts corresponds exactly to that of Josephus and the earlier Rabbis [Ac 5:17; 15:5; 24:5, 14; 28:22]. . . . In these passages the term has the neutral flavour of “school.”’[4]

Schlier concludes:

“Against this background, it is impossible to solve the problem of the derivation of the special Christian sense of heresy. . . . The separation of non-orthodox groups, the heterdox parties, came to be designated heresy. . . . The basis of the Christian concept of hairesis is to be found in the new situation created by the introduction of the Christian ekklesia. Ekklesia and hairesis are material opposites. The latter cannot accept the former; the former excludes the latter. This may be clearly seen in Gal 5:10 where hairesis is reckoned among “he works of the flesh, along with [sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition]. Yet neither here nor else in the NT does hairesis have a technical sense. In 1 Cor. 11:18f we see even more clearly the impossibility of hairesis within Christianity.[5]

Heresy in the early church

In the age which followed NT hairesis, it

was still understood as an eschatologically threatening magnitude essentially opposed to the ekklesia. . . . Within Christianity hairesis always denotes hostile societies and there is always consciousness of an inner relationship between heretics and the secular philosophical schools or Jewish sects . . . which they also describe by the term hairesis. What the Church usually has in view is Gnosticism. As seen by the Church, the Gnostics form schools.[6]

So anything that was taught that was contrary to that for the early church – opposing Scripture – was called heresy.

So, this gives a wide field for relevance and challenge, especially in light of how denominations add to Scripture in topics such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, allegorical interpretation of Scripture, etc.


To sum up: A heresy in today’s understanding is a sect whose way of thinking is dogma that promotes theology contrary to biblical Christianity – an heretical sect. This includes infant baptism, the Lord’s Supper as Real Presence, Covenant Theology, Once-Saved-Always-Saved, and worship of Mary.

An example would be the Jehovah’s Witnesses today who do not believe Jesus is God and they reject human beings as having an immortal soul. Mormonism fits the same category as heresy.

From a Christian perspective, Islam is heretical as it does not promote the Trinitarian God. Islam rejects Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.


(Burning of heretics during Spanish Inquisition)

Works consulted

Arndt, William F. and F. Wilbur Gingrich, tr. & adapt. of Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-Deutsches Worterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der übrigen urchristlichen Literatur, 4th and aug edn 1957. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (limited edn licensed to Zondervan Publishing House for sale only in the United States of America).

Schlier, Heinrich 1964. In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol 1. Ed by Gerhard Kittel, tr & ed Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.


[1] Christianity Board, “Heresy?” November 21, 2021. Available at: https://www.christianityboard.com/threads/heresy.44320/ (Accessed 7 February 2022).

[2] Heinrich Schlier 1964. vol. 1, hairesis, p. 181

[3] Schlier, 182.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 182-193.

[6] Ibid., 183,

Copyright © 2022 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 07 February 2022.