Heresy, Apostasy, and Discernment

by Mike Ratliff

10 Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, 11 knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned. (Titus 3:10-11 NASB)

True Biblical discernment is crucial for the spiritual health of the Body of Christ because there has and always will be a plague of false teaching and teachers upon it until our Lord’s return. I am sure most of you have noticed the recent outrage over the increased security measures by the TSA in the USA that involve full body scans and “pat down” searches at our airports. One of the articles I read today compared what the TSA does with what is done is Israel at their airports, which is, instead of relying on “technology” based systems, passengers are interviewed by experts trained in what specifically to look for. They know their enemy and they know how to flush him or her out via their own interview process. Notice that since they have gone to this system that they have had no breakdown in their security. My point is that they know their enemy. They know their enemy’s tactics. They know this enemy’s goal. They do not waste time and resources with those who are no threat. In the Truth War that is upon us in the Church, we have many enemies trying to come in “unawares.” They try to infiltrate, appearing as “Orthodox” but their teaching is deceitful, degrading, and damnable (2 Peter 2:1). Those of us who have been gifted by God with spiritual discernment are, therefore, also given the job of flushing these people out. Part of this job is  knowing who our enemies really are. Are they apostates or are they simply holding to some heresy that doesn’t fall into the range of “deceitful, degrading, or damnable?” 

Before we go any further let’s make one thing perfectly clear. There is a difference between apostasy and heresy. Apostasy is seen most clearly in “cults.” It is a departure from Christian truth in general. Those in these cults profess to be Christian, but they are actually in denial of true Orthodox Christianity. This denial of Biblical truth might consist of all Christian truth or just a single truth such as the deity of Christ or justification by faith, or the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. These denials of truth results in the destruction of all biblical truth. Therefore, an apostate is not a Christian. Arius was an apostate. He was a 4th Century parish priest in Alexandria who taught that Jesus was a created being, and, therefore, was not coequal with God. The “cult” that came from his teach was called Arianism and has existed in various forms ever since.

The English word “heresy” is a transliterated word from the Greek word αἵρεσις or hairesis. In Classical Greek, it means, “seizure, taking, acquisition, choice, desire for something, and purposeful decision.” Later it came to denote “the teaching or the school of a particular philosopher with which a person identifies himself by his choice.” The Septuagint in Leviticus 22:18, 21 translates the Hebrew נְדָבָה nedâbâh (“freewill offering”). So what does this tell us? This is our context and if we look at the New Testament usage of αἵρεσις we see that it follows this very same meaning. Heresy is a choice, a deliberate decision to “seize” upon a paricular teaching that is not orthodox. Two New Testament examples are below.

17 But the high priest rose up, along with all his associates (that is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy. (Acts 5:17 NASB)

17 Ἀναστὰς δὲ ὁ ἀρχιερεὺς καὶ πάντες οἱ σὺν αὐτῷ, ἡ οὖσα αἵρεσις τῶν Σαδδουκαίων, ἐπλήσθησαν ζήλου (Acts 5:17 NA28)

5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5 NASB)

5 Ἐξανέστησαν δέ τινες τῶν ἀπὸ τῆς αἱρέσεως τῶν Φαρισαίων πεπιστευκότες λέγοντες ὅτι δεῖ περιτέμνειν αὐτοὺς παραγγέλλειν τε τηρεῖν τὸν νόμον Μωϋσέως. (Acts 15:5 NA28)

In Acts 15:5 we have αἱρέσεως, which is the Genitive, singular form of αἵρεσις. All that means is that it is modifying the head noun which is Φαρισαίων making sure that we understand that the “sect” is indeed that “of the Pharisees.” In the first example the Sadducees were a Jewish faction that denied the doctrine of the resurrection. What about the Pharisees? Paul’s example was referring to the Judaizers, who taught salvation by works, such as adding circumcision as a requirement.

As I stated above, we must know our enemies. We must not waste time on apostates outside of the Church when we are focusing on those who are infiltrating the Church with false teaching hoping to ensnare people into heresies. Here is 2 Peter 2:1.

1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. (2 Peter 2:1 NASB)

Notice that these false teachers are deceitful. They secretly bring in their teachings by smuggling them in. These teachings are degrading in that they they deny the Lord and His Work in one way or another and so doing degrade and blaspheme Him. This could also take the form of an attack on the veracity of God’s Word. Lastly, false teaching is destructive or damnable. It not only destroys right doctrine and the lives of its victims, but it also destroys the propagators themselves.

On the other hand, heresy as it is used today is somewhat broader and can be committed by a true Christian without him or her becoming an apostate. This occurs when, while holding to the foundational doctrines of Scripture, one deviates on a particular doctrine. One example of this would the use of images. The early church did not use them whatsoever because God forbid it. However, they slowly came into use through emblems such as the dove, fish, anchor, vine, and lamb. Gradually this increased through paintings, sculptures, and jewelry that depicted biblical events, items, saints, martyrs, and even Christ Himself.

This next statement may get me some hate mail, but such practices are actually heresy. They violate a very specific command of God to make no images (Exodus 20:3-5; cf Matthew 22:36-38).

Here are a few more. There is the heretical teaching that God demands poverty from Christians, as well as the other extreme, “prosperity teaching,” that God returns our “investment” and makes us rich. The “seeker-sensitive” movement that appeals to people’s “felt needs” to lure them into the church is heresy; the NT nowhere teaches that approach. The spirit of “tolerance” in the church today is heretical, because God commands that we discern truth from error and strongly condemn false teaching in no uncertain terms.

Soli Deo Gloria!

3 thoughts on “Heresy, Apostasy, and Discernment

  1. Those with spiritual discernment, OUT OF LOVE, warn the brethren of error and false teaching/teachers and yet it is perceived as being divisive. 1 John 2:20, “But ye have an UNCTION from the Holy One, and ye know all things.” Clearly, true spiritual discernment is a gift that is to be shared within the body of Christ just like the other gifts of the Spirit. 1 Pet. 4:10, “As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” Also, Romans 12, the service of love to all. Rarely, if at all, will you hear, “Thank you for the warning; I will take it to the Lord and will search out the Scriptures.” Instead, it is absolute defiance as the hearer reacts with having been offended. If this were not such a big problem within the church, it would not be discussed and addressed as much as it is now. But it is and is continuing to be a growing problem. Why is there so much defiance within the body of Christ (rhetorical question)? Scripture, very clearly, lays out (reveals) truth to those who truly seek truth. Being led by the “traditions of men” as opposed to the leading of the Holy Spirit is certainly problematic. 2 Tim. 3:1-7. 7) “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” May we ALL be found faithful and obedient at His soon coming!


  2. Your blog has been an encouragement to my husband and I as we seek to know God’s Word, submit to it, and glorify Jesus. Thank you for speaking truth boldly and teaching us.

    We’ve had an ongoing discussion about the images in our family. One child has staunchly taken the position of no images at all. (We had a Jesus movie that our son took issue with even though it was presenting the gospel and had a caveat that the person representing Jesus was doing so humbly.) We’ve wanted to respect convictions in our children while also guiding them. Our position is that images that are prayed to or revered are wrong; however, a depiction of an angel or lamb, etc. is not sinful, based on the following:

    1. The commandment not to have any images is in the context of worshipping the Lord only and not idols (Ex. 20:3-5, Lev. 26:1)

    2. The Lord commanded the use of images in making priestly garments (pomegranates), the veil of the temple (cherubim), and Ark of Covenant (cherubim). (Ex. 28:33, Ex. 26:31, Ex. 25:22)

    (Incidental) I’ve also had people raise their Bible to the status of a revered item. I was scolded for writing in the margin of my Bible an amazing truth and listing corresponding verses. Their position is that it is God’s word, you must never set it on the floor, you must never write in it. While I teach my children respect and taking care of their Bibles, it is not a mystical item. The message is the treasured word of God. What I am holding is paper….though treasured.

    Because of angel worship and angel craze, we shy away from images of angels; but I wouldn’t declare all angel artwork sinful.

    This has been our discussion. I am interested on your take of the scriptural reasons laid out above, if your time permits. Thank you for your article on apostasy v. heresy. There have been teachings that I have held to that the Lord has faithfully convicted me of and turned me away from. I pray He will give me His wisdom and discernment to not only recognize false teaching but to think clearly to speak the truth of the Scripture through His Holy Spirit.
    (No need to put this on your site. Most of your posts are much deeper than our discussion on images.) 🙂


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