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What Is Heresy? Bible Meaning and 4 Examples Alive Today

heresy, heresies, heretic, heresy today

Most heretics come from an attempt to tie together paradoxes in the Scriptures.

After reports had been published that Mark Twain had died, the still-living author wrote in to the New York Journal with this quip: “The report of my death was an exaggeration”. I wonder if we could say the same about some of the early heresies — because they aren’t quite dead yet.

Definition of Heresy

According to dictionary.com, the following is a breakdown of the common definition of "heresy":

  1. opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, especially of a church or religious system.
  2. the maintaining of such an opinion or doctrine.
  3. the willful and persistent rejection of any article of faith by a baptized member of the church.
  4. any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs, customs, etc.

Meaning of Heresy

  • Heresy is not the same as error.
  • Heresy is the choice to abandon the widely accepted teaching on an essential doctrine and embrace one’s own view.
  • Heresy is to “preach another gospel”, as Paul stated in Galatians 1:9: "As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed."
  • Technically speaking something is not a heresy just because the church deemed it so. It is heretical because it is a teaching which has abandoned the “pattern of sound teaching”.

Here are four heresies which aren't quite dead yet:

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1. The Heresy of Judaizers: "Good deeds or efforts contribute to salvation."

One of the first group of heretics were the Judaizers. Most heretics come from an attempt to tie together paradoxes in the Scriptures. They begin well-meaningly but take things further than they ought to go. The Judaizers began by asking the right question about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. When uncircumcised Gentiles began following Christ and claiming the promises to Israel, these life-long Jews wondered how the Old Testament laws applied to non-Jewish followers of Jesus. Did they have to become circumcised and follow Jewish customs in order to be equal members with the Jewish Christians?

This well-meaning question was addressed in Acts 15 by the Jerusalem Council. The answer was that Christ had fulfilled the Old Testament and was setting aside the old categories. As Paul summarized in Ephesians 2:15 God was “abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace…” It was union with Christ and not works of the law that qualified a person for the promises of God. The Judaizers did not accept this answer and gave Paul issues in all of his missionary travels.

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The fundamental problem of this heresy:

The fundamental problem of this heresy:

Their fundamental problem was that they held that something other than union with Christ was necessary for salvation. According to a recent study by Lifeway and Ligonier, 36% of self-identified evangelicals believed that “by the good deeds that I do, I partly contribute to earning my place in heaven”. This is the same belief as the Judaizers held. Any belief which holds that our good deeds or efforts contribute to salvation is firmly in the same stream as the Judaizers.

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1. The Heresy of Docetism/Gnosticism: “Christ only appeared to be human.”

1. The Heresy of Docetism/Gnosticism: “Christ only appeared to be human.”

Another early heresy was Gnosticism. Though Gnosticism had various forms one of the most pernicious—and one that is still present today—is Docetism. Docetism was an early Christological heresy which taught that Christ only appeared to be human. The foundation of Gnostic philosophy was that all physical matter was evil and all things spiritual were good. Therefore it was unthinkable that God would actually take upon human flesh. This belief also led to either severe asceticism (punishing the flesh) or licentiousness (since they physical had no connection with the eternal).

Most believe the apostle John had a docetic form of Gnosticism in his sights in the writing of 1 John. The Bible is clear, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”

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Spiritual and Physical Importance

Spiritual and Physical Importance

In our day it’s likely more common for people to deny the deity of Jesus than his humanity. Yet the dualism of Gnosticism/Docetism is alive and well. Christian Science and New Age have a strong bent towards Docetism, but the truth is, anytime we exalt the spiritual above the physical we too are falling prey to the dualism of these philosophies. Our bodies matter. This world matters. To deny this is to agree more with early Gnostics than the Bible.

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3. Prosperity Gospel Heresy

3. Prosperity Gospel Heresy

The ancient form of this modern heresy didn’t really have a name, but it appears in 1 Corinthians 4:8-13. In this text Paul speaks tongue in cheek about those in Corinth who have “already become kings”. The Corinthians believed that they were living in the blessings that are reserved for the future. To steal a popular phrase the Corinthians believed that they were to begin living their best life now. They believed true things but applied them at the wrong time. They wished to acquire on earth what should be sought in heaven.

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Thinking that’s only true in the age to come.

Thinking that’s only true in the age to come.

This quote from prosperity gospel teacher Kenneth Hagin would have been right at home with the Corinthians:

“I believe that it is the plan of God our Father that no believer should ever be sick…It is not—I state boldly—it is not the will of God my Father that we should suffer with cancer and other dread diseases which bring pain and anguish. No! It is God’s will that we be healed.”

The problem, as Paul taught the Corinthians, is that such thinking is only true in the age to come. There is no crown without a cross. This modern iteration of an ancient heresy is deadly. It harms those who are suffering, it detracts from the gospel and breeds cynicism when promises which God never made do not come true.

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4. The Heresy of Pelagianism: “God responds to us and not the other way around.”

4. The Heresy of Pelagianism: “God responds to us and not the other way around.”

“Look at that innocent baby”? I doubt we realize we are affirming heresy when we say such a thing. Likewise when 83% of evangelicals affirmed the statement, “A person obtains peace with God by first taking the initiative to seek God and then God responds with grace”, I doubt they intended to affirm heresy. But it’s true. Pelagianism is a heresy from the time of Augustine (and it’s other form Semi-Pelagianism) which refuses to die.

Pelagius was bothered by a quote by Augustine who said, ““Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire.” Pelagius believed that such teaching was leading to immorality. He believed Augustine was so exalting divine sovereignty that he was denying human responsibility.

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The Flawed Logic of Pelagius

The Flawed Logic of Pelagius

Pelagius’ logic was that if God commanded something then humans must have the ability to carry it out. He further taught there is no such thing as original sin. We are born with a clean slate, according to Pelagius.

Augustine did not deny that humans were created with freedom of will. Humans can do exactly what they desire. Yet, because of the fall of humanity, apart from grace, will always desire evil. Augustine turned to Philippians 2:12-13 to defend his view of grace. It is God who is at work in us “both to will and to accomplish”.

It wasn’t grace, per se, that Pelagius had a hard time with. It was necessary grace that he could not swallow. Therefore, Pelagius firmly believed that God responds to us and not the other way around. Apparently, 83% of professing evangelicals agree.

Mike Leake is the Lead Pastor at FBC Marionville in Marionville, Missouri. He is currently pursuing his M.Div. at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mike is married to Nikki, and they have two children, Isaiah and Hannah. You can follow him on Twitter @MikeLeake.

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This article is part of our larger resource library of terms important to the Christian faith. From heaven and hell, to communion and baptism, we want to provide easy to read and understand articles that answer your questions about theological terms and their meaning. 

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The Holy Spirit



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