Word Study #186 — Heresy and Division

I had a college friend – a brother deeply devoted to the Lord – who, some years ago, broke with the denomination for which he had been a “minister”, and affiliated with a “non-denominational” group that he considered “more Scriptural.” I was therefore startled to hear him say that he “needed to learn a whole new theology”, and when encountering an unfamiliar teaching, he needed to submit it to a person in authority to find out whether it was “heresy”! He then proceeded to warn me of the dangers of being “led astray”, when I wondered if it would not be more appropriate to check it out in the Scripture itself! And we had taken the same Greek class, with a professor who was a stickler for linguistic accuracy! That encounter has troubled me ever since.

I was reminded of that incident when our brother Jim, in an excellent message about the unity for which Jesus prayed, made reference to the account in I Corinthians of the dissension centering upon certain individuals in that group (I Cor.1:10 and 11:18-19), where Paul appears to connect divisions in the brotherhood with “heresies”. Although the association of those two concepts is not common in contemporary thought, it fits very well with the lexical meaning of hairesis, the word from which our English term “heresy” is derived.
Historically, hairesis had nothing whatever to do with the truth or falsehood of a statement, “doctrine”, or claim. L/S lists “the taking of a town by a conqueror, acquisition of power, the election of magistrates, a purpose or course of action, any system of philosophical principles or those who profess it: a sect, school, or religious or political party.” The verb, haireo, likewise indicates “to take or seize, to assume power, to win or gain, to catch (as in hunting), to join a party or adopt an opinion.” The middle or passive haireomai (to be chosen or elected), and the related verb, hairetizo (to choose) also carry no indication whether the “choice” is for good or ill.

How does this bear out in New Testament usage?
Hairesis is actually translated “sect” in the majority of its appearances (Ac. 5:17, 15:5, 24:5, 26:5, 28:22), and has neither positive nor negative connotation: it simply identifies a defined group: Pharisees, Sadducees, (both of whom wielded both religious and political power, often in competition with one another), and even “Nazarenes” or “followers of the Way”. Traditional translators used “heresy” in the latter reference, but the word is the same. The verbs are consistently rendered “choose” (hairetizo in Mt.12:18, and haireomai in Phil.1:22, II Thes.2:13, Heb.11:25), and are uniformly positive in tone.
The references with negative overtones are few, but significant. None, however, are overtly connected with what a person thinks or “believes” about any particular subject.
Paul’s concern about the situation in Corinth is not “doctrinal”, but concerns divisions – rivalry – in the brotherhood. Please refer to the treatment of schisma, schismata in #127. Divisions can be a good thing – for example, when referring to a “division” in the crowds among those who paid attention to Jesus and his message, and those who rejected him (Jn.7:43, 9:16, 10:19; Ac.14:4, 23:7) – but within a brotherhood, it is completely unacceptable. I Cor.1:10-17 deals with different factions promoting and following different leaders / teachers. “Church politics,” anyone? Remember that hairesis started out as a political concept – a conqueror and his deputies, or even “democratically elected”officials!
I Cor.11:18—19 addresses an even more egregious violation of the brotherhood: status-tripping and abuse of the needy at an event intended to express and teach mutuality of love and care! This is reinforced in Paul’s eloquent treatise on the Body of Christ in the next chapter – especially v.25. See also chapter 7 of Citizens of the Kingdom.

In this context, and in view of the lexical meaning of hairesis, it becomes clear that Paul’s reference traditionally translated “heresy” in 11:19 is a challenging question , not a statement encouraging the sorting of who is “in” or “out.”

The list of “deeds of the human nature [flesh]” in Gal.5:19-21, likewise, by including hairesis in the company of echthrai (hostility), eris (strife), zelos (jealousy), thumoi (rage), eritheiai (factionalism), and dichostasiai (divisions), and followed by phthonoi (murders), places it clearly in the realm of active jockeying for power, and not theoretical theological speculation!

The context is also the key to realizing that Peter (II Pet.2:1) is talking about the advocacy of licentious behavior. Read the whole paragraph, not just a couple phrases out of the first “verse”, for a description of what traditional translators labeled “damnable heresies”!

The only other appearance of any of these terms is in Paul’s letter to Titus (3:10), where he is giving instructions for dealing with a trouble-maker in the congregation. Traditional translators call him “a man who is an heretic” – but again, attention to the whole paragraph requires consideration that the reference may be to a person who prefers “foolish arguments, genealogies, strife, and legal battles” (v.9) to “being careful to keep practicing good deeds [behavior]!” (v.8). Such a person is to be duly confronted – twice – but then avoided if he refuses correction.

So how did hairesis morph from the idea of political strife and power-grabbing into obsession with theoretical details of “doctrine”? The first recorded use of the English word (according to Webster) is in the thirteenth century.. I submit that this must have happened as the “church” itself morphed from a persecuted brotherhood of mutuality into a power structure with the ability to do its own persecuting of any who challenged the powerful. Jesus had forbidden titles of honor and positions of prestige (Mt.23:1-12), and Paul strongly opposed divisive leadership, as we have seen. Please also see chapters 6 and 8 of Citizens of the Kingdom.

But as powerful people emerged and began to define “correct doctrine” – having long since abandoned the idea of mutuality, and its focus on godly behavior in the brotherhood – the very patterns against which Paul had warned Titus became institutionalized. “Heresy” became anything that challenged the grip of the powerful, or their prerogative to include and exclude people from the ranks of the “chosen”, and to revise the “rules” in order to maintain their own dominance.

This – not a deviation from even the most cherished of theoretical “doctrines” codified by these same powerful people, but the very existence of a power structure at all, and its consequent divisions led by competitors with a heavy political agenda – is the ultimate heresy!


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