What Is Heresy and Is It Something We Should Be Worried About?

Published May 10, 2024
What Is Heresy and Is It Something We Should Be Worried About?

As people who believe the Bible is our inerrant, infallible authority, we trust its words to tell us the truth about salvation, eternal life, and what it means to live pleasing to God in this world. Our standard isn’t popular opinion or cultural norms, but the truth we find in the Word of God. Any deviation from the truth found in the Bible is considered heresy.

The word “heresy” is understood in the English language to mean a deviation from what is generally accepted to be true, and is not necessarily confined to religious tenets. For example, one could say it is “heresy” to eat your French fries with mayonnaise instead of ketchup in America. In this case, it’s nothing to worry about, and in some places around the world, mayonnaise is the preferred condiment!

For a follower of Jesus, however, heresy is surely something we should take seriously. As people who believe the Bible is our inerrant, infallible authority, we trust its words to tell us the truth about salvation, eternal life, and what it means to live pleasing to God in this world. Our standard isn’t popular opinion or cultural norms, but the truth we find in the Word of God. Any deviation from the truth found in the Bible is considered heresy.

In the New Testament, the word “heresy” is from the Greek word airesis. It’s also translated as “sect,” meaning the belief system of different groups such as Sadducees (Acts 5:17), Pharisees (Acts 15:5), and Orthodox Jews (Acts 26:5). Paul even used this word to describe what others called his faith in Christ (Acts 24:14), as the acceptance of Jesus as the promised Messiah was seen by many to be contrary to the Old Testament teachings. Airesis speaks of choice. Vines Dictionary defines it as “’a choosing, choice’ (from haireomai, ‘to choose’); then, ‘that which is chosen,’ and hence, ‘an opinion,’ especially a self-willed opinion, which is substituted for submission to the power of truth, and leads to division and the formation of sects.”

What Does the Bible Teach Us about Heresy? Why Is It So Serious?

Differences of opinion on matters of preference shouldn’t be a cause for concern among believers. We don’t need to be divided over the color of the carpet or whether the worship pastor chooses traditional hymns or a more contemporary style of music. And the Bible gives us wisdom and guidance in settling lesser matters in a way that glorifies God.

But heresy in our doctrine should be taken very seriously. Ultimately, wrong teaching can keep us from obtaining eternal life. We can miss heaven if we choose to align our thinking and belief systems with teaching that is opposed to the truth of God’s Word.

Paul warned the believers against airesis, equating the false teaching of factions or sects with immorality, sorcery, and the like.

“Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions [heresies], envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21, emphasis added).

Peter also warns of the dangers of false teachers, whose words will lead us to destruction.

“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. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep” (2 Peter 2:1-3, emphasis added).

Just before this, Peter reminds us of where we can find the truth: “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21). My husband likes to say, “There are many applications in Scripture, but there is only one interpretation.” That interpretation is the original intent of the Author, God.

Jesus had very strong words for His disciples, warning against the heresy of false teachers and prophets that keep us from entering heaven.

“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. … Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter” (Matthew 7:15-16a, 21).

What did Jesus mean when He referred to the will of the Father? He tells us plainly, connecting His Father’s will to His own claim to be God’s Son, sent to be the Savior of the world.

“For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40).

Later, Jesus warns of the prevalence and boldness of false teachers who will lead many astray in the last days by enticing them to believe in someone other than Himself for salvation.

“And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in My name, saying “I am the Christ,” and will mislead many. … Then if anyone says to you, “Behold, here is the Christ,” or “There He is,” do not believe him. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead if possible, even the elect’” (Matthew 24:4-5, 24).

As we all grow in knowledge and faith at different rates, we may find areas where we can agree to disagree. For example, many godly Bible scholars have a different view of end-times prophecy, and these aren’t inherently heretical. But there are several non-negotiable, foundational truths upon which the Christian faith is built. Straying from these does constitute heresy, and it important to know what the Bible says, and believe and live accordingly.

What Are Some of the Non-Negotiables of the Christian Faith?

Religious organizations compile and publish what is called a “statement of faith” that defines the non-negotiables of their belief system. This is a good exercise for individuals as well. It is dangerous to be illiterate about what it is we say we believe.

Faith in Jesus is more than an affiliation with a certain church or denomination. It is a commitment to be a disciple of the teachings of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. A personal statement of faith can strengthen our belief system and keep us far away from any heresy that would dishonor Him or diminish the power of His Word.

Here are a few important areas which need to be defined in your statement of faith, using God’s Word as the foundation and source of truth.

What does the Bible say about…

…the Scriptures?

…God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)?


…grace and works?

…the Church (both local and universal)?

…sharing the gospel?

…our relationship with the culture?

What Are Some Warning Signs That We May Be Straying into Heresy?

C.H. Spurgeon said, “It is a remarkable fact that all the heresies which have arisen in the Christian Church have had a decided tendency to dishonor God and to flatter man.” Whenever we find ourselves lowering our view of God and elevating our view of self, we should stop and examine our beliefs.

Here are just three examples of dangerous deceptions that can lead to embracing a heretical faith, and some verses from Scripture that refute the heresy.

1. We Can Know God but Deny Jesus

The first step towards heresy is denying who Jesus is, the perfect, sinless Son of God who took on flesh, being born of a virgin, lived a life without sin, and willingly gave His own life on the cross to pay for the sins of the world. Heretics reject the deity of Jesus.

“Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:22-23).

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world” (1 John 4:1-3).

2. We Can Obtain Eternal Life by Our Own Righteousness

Heretics deny that Jesus is the only way of salvation. One of the great deceptions of today is that all faiths are the same, just different ways to God, and that man can earn his way to heaven if he practices enough good deeds. The Bible teaches that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and granted solely on the work of Christ as a gift. No one can do enough good deeds to merit salvation, for in the sight of God, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).

“The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son. And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (1 John 5:10-12).

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

“And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

3. We Can Sin without Worry or Regret Because We Live under Grace, Not Law

If we deny the deity of Jesus and believe we can balance out our sin with enough good deeds, we will soon make excuses for our ungodly actions. Followers of Jesus still sin, even after salvation, as we live in imperfect, fleshly bodies. However, God’s grace isn’t to be taken for granted and presumed upon. It is heresy to believe that God excuses our willful disobedience. If we truly belong to Him, we will suffer His discipline, and if we feel no conviction for our sin, we should question if we know Him at all.

“Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:3-4).

“If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. … By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 John 1:6; 2:3-6).

The antidote to heresy will always be to ask ourselves, “What does the Bible say?” Let us be true disciples, who hear and believe the words of Jesus.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Fiordaliso

Author Sheila Alewine is a pastor’s wife, mother, and grandmother of five. She and her husband lead Around The Corner Ministries, which serves to equip Christ-followers to share the gospel where they live, work and play. She has written seven devotionals including Just Pray: God’s Not Done With You YetGrace & Glory: 50 Days in the Purpose & Plan of God, and her newest one, Give Me A Faith Like That, as well as Going Around The Corner, a Bible study for small groups who desire to reach their communities for Christ. Their ministry also offers disciple-making resources like One-To-One Disciple-Making in partnership with Multiplication Ministries. Sheila has a passion for God’s Word and shares what God is teaching her on her blog, The Way of The Word. Connect with her on her blogFacebook, and Instagram.