What Does Heresy Mean?

A heresy is any belief or practice that explicitly undermines the gospel and has been determined to be such by recognized ecclesial authorities, most importantly the decisions of the ecumenical councils.

Marc Cortez
what is heresy

Heresy is any belief or practice that explicitly undermines the gospel and has been determined to be such by recognized ecclesial authorities, most importantly the decisions of the ecumenical councils. 

According to Easton's Bible Dictionary, the word heresy comes from a Greek word, meaning a self-chosen opinion or the sect holding that opinion. Heresies came to be understood as self-chosen doctrines that do not originate from God.  

What Is Heresy?

Referring to a person as a heretic or to an idea as heretical is a powerful claim, one with the ability to destroy. And like all weapons of mass destruction, it should be used with extreme caution. Calling something a heresy when it doesn’t contribute to other serious problems for the church today.

1. It’s not a heresy just because it’s wrong.

I can be wrong about lots of things without undermining the gospel itself. If that wasn’t the case, I’d be undermining the gospel with almost every thought. (I make a lot of mistakes.)

2. It’s not a heresy just because it might undermine the gospel.

There’s a difference between things that clearly undermine the biblical gospel (e.g. denying the deity of Christ) and things that could possibly undermine the gospel depending on how exactly you understand them (e.g. the relationship of faith and works). The church has generally been rather careful about using the label heresy, restricting it to beliefs in the first category, not the second.

3. It’s not a heresy just because one person says so.

People who connect heresy to power and authority are correct to do so. It’s not a heresy just because I say it is, but because recognized authorities in the church have determined it to be so.

That of course leaves open the question of who qualifies as a “recognized authority” in the church. And this is why many Christians rely on the authority of the ecumenical councils, which have a unique status in being accepted by most Christian churches, and whose decisions have stood the test of time.

4. It is indeed a heresy if it explicitly undermines the gospel. 

At the end of the day, the church has been hesitant to call something heresy unless it has been determined by some authoritative body that the belief in question explicitly undermines the gospel itself.

When duly designated ecclesial authorities have determined together that a belief explicitly undermines the truth of the gospel, as the church decided with heresies like Arianism and Pelagianism, we should not shy away from calling them what they are. To do less isn’t humble, it’s irresponsible.

The problem isn’t with the concept of heresy but with the ways that we have misused and abused the concept. While trying to search out errors in the church, we haven’t been as mindful of the fact that the way we use the heresy label can create its own errors, some equally as dangerous as the ones we had in mind, to begin with.

Heresy in the Bible: False Teaching

False Prophets and Teachers ~ 2 Peter 2

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. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority. Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones, whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against them before the Lord. But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! 

Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet's madness. These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: "The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire."

How Did the Early Church Handle Heresy?

Heresy was a problem since the early church. Alister McGrath said this about the early church and its way of handling ideas – even some heretical ones.

“It’s about discernment. And what the early church did was to say that we are under obligation to give the best account of what we find in Scripture. It’s very important to do this properly.”

Bible Verses about Heresy

As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him ~ Titus 3:10

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. ~ 1 John 4:1

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

For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough. ~ 2 Corinthians 11:4

If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting ~ 2 John 1:10

Not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. ~ Galatians 1:7

Marc Cortez is a theology professor at Wheaton College, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general. Visit him at marccortez.com.

This article was adapted from “3 Reasons We Should Stop Calling People Heretics…Unless They Are” by Marc Cortez.

Photo Credit: ©Thinkstock/Deagreez


Originally published December 18, 2020.