Heresy and Apostasy

by Mike Ratliff

As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (Titus 3:10-11 ESV)

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 in 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. 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.

But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy (Acts 5:17 ESV)

Αναστὰς δὲ ὁ ἀρχιερεὺς καὶ πάντες οἱ σὺν αὐτῷ, ἡ οὖσα αἵρεσις τῶν Σαδδουκαίων, ἐπλήσθησαν ζήλου

But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5 ESV)

ἐξανέστησαν δέ τινες τῶν ἀπὸ τῆς αἱρέσεως τῶν Φαρισαίων πεπιστευκότες, λέγοντες ὅτι δεῖ περιτέμνειν αὐτοὺς παραγγέλλειν τε τηρεῖν τὸν νόμον Μωϋσέως.

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.

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

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!