Summary: What is heresy, and what do we do about it?
The Root of Heresy
“And ye shall be as gods; knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:5b
The word “heresy” and the related word “heretic” are pejorative terms. This means that they stir up emotion, especially anger. These create an “us versus them” mentality. We can look into the history of the church and see the devastating effects of heresy. We think of one groups of “Christians” burning another set of people who also consider themselves “Christian.” Heresy is an ugly word which has had a violent history.
I would suppose that it would be good to define what “heresy” is, before we go further. Heresy is closely related to schism with which it is inseparably yoked. The first heresy in the Bible goes back to the Book of Genesis. Satan tempts Eve by first questioning whether God should have the final say on everything. Should God be taken at His word is what the serpent was intimating Eve. “Should you not investigate further? You need to know everything from good to evil.” The idea of opposites in Hebrew includes every shade between good and evil. If Even and Adam would only eat of this fruit, they would have the knowledge necessary to make their own moral decisions.
The first heresy caused a schism between God and man and brought a curse on all humankind. The effects of this curse can be seen everywhere in history to the present as the human race tries to autonomously make its own path apart from God. Man was thrown out of the garden, and without the restraining grace of God would already have destroyed himself. This is the first realm of heresy, one that only God can fix. Man could no longer love God, but railed against God and cursed Him.
Heresy is also a covenantal term. We don’t call those who are totally different “heretics.” It is a term used within a faith group or national group. We see the effects of the Fall early on. Man becomes estranged from the woman and disharmony results. This is a split in the family. Then Cain kills his brother Abel. The twelve tribes of Israel split over Rehoboam and proceeded to anathematize each other. Even Paul and Barnabas split over whether John Mark should accompany them. I could cite examples ad nauseum, but these examples demonstrate sufficiently the family nature of schism. The term of heresy was used to describe sectarian difference between the Sadducees and Pharisees. Each claimed the prerogative of being the true representation of Israel. Of course, they each had to exclude the other.
The Christian church has by no means been a stranger to heresy and schism. Paul writes to a Corinthian Church that was wracked with division. Some followed after the teaching of Paul, others, Apollos, others in perhaps less than a genuine siprit Jesus and others Cephas. What here is broadly defined as schism and usually not heresy as it was dividing the unity of the church. But the unity of the church is a doctrine and therefore the divisions in the church could also be defined as heresy. There were divisions there at the Lord’s Supper in which the believers ate it at several seatings according to social rank which Paul strongly condemns. He even suggests that the judgment of the Lord in making some sick even to death was upon them for not correctly discerning the body of Christ. Paul actually uses the word “heresy” in I Corinthians 11:19 to describe the sectarian spirit. God would use it though to bring out the genuine believers. And just who are the genuine believers? Of course, those who agree with our position, many would say, are the true believers. But we need to think this over carefully before we give an answer to this question. This idea of a church which is united under its head Jesus Christ is not a suggestion of secondary importance. Again, we need to prayerfully and thoughtfully ponder the idea of “Who is my brother?” This question led to the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
The early church was wracked by several serious theological disputations. One was the relationship between Jew and Gentile. God did not paper over this issue with a simple “Can’t we just get along.” The debate over this question was hot and heated. It is always harder to unite under a common faith which has content than an empty faith devoid of any content or meaning such as we have today. This is a problem with the ecumenical movement today that just wants to unite in a common faith in a possible and nebulous god who nobody knows other than this god, if it has any personality at all, is an ooey-gooey fresh baked cookies and milk god of love. It is a faith which needs to be earnestly contended for.