Tom M. Roberts
In the time of the Judges in Israel, forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell to their enemies because they could not speak the language of the Gileadites. "And it was so, that when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, Let me go over, the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an "Ephraimite? If he said, Nay, then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth and he said Sibboleth; for he could not frame to pronounce it right.." (Judges 12:5-6).
How convenient it would be if we could determine so easily today by sibilant sounds whether or not a brother was "orthodox" regarding the faith. Since an Ephraimite could not pronounce the "sh" sound, he was known immediately to be an alien. "Shibboleth" was orthodox; "Sibboleth" was unorthodox and suspicious. While "the faith" (Jude 3) is orthodox and true doctrine, departures into error require more than a sibilant slip to discover them. However, truth does have a "certain sound" that is identifiable, while error will be "unsound" (1 Cor. 14:7-11).
Such is the concept regarding "heresies." "Heresy" is primarily a transliteration of the Greek word, "hairesis." While the word originally meant "the act of choosing," or "a choice," the result of that choosing often resulted in a separation from others: parties, sects. Thus, in Vine: "(a) 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, Gal. 5:20, (marg., parties)" (p. 217). In this vein, "heresy" identified a group of "separatists" who were together because they made the same or similar choices.
It is in this sense that the word is used in Acts 24:14 and 28:22 toward Christians. Paul recognized that non-Christians viewed Christians as a "sect," or as people who had chosen beliefs and practices distinctive from other people. He thought of himself in such manner while still a Jew (Acts 26:5). Likewise the Pharisees (15:5; 26:5), Sadducees (Acts 5:17), and Nazarenes (24:5) were distinctive sects or parties, identifiable by the tenets and practices of their faith. In a broad sense, Christians are as much a "party" or "sect" as denominational people since our "choices" bring us together while driving us apart from those who make disparate choices. It is this framework which allows denominations to think us discriminatory when we refer to them as "sects" while seeing ourselves as "the one true church." Accepting the sectarian idea, they believe that "one denomination is as good as another" or "one choice is as good as another." If all "choices" were equally worthy, they would be right. We must remember, however, that Vines definition of heresy included the element of substituting a "self-willed opinion," in the place of "submission to the power of truth."
Jesus taught, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me" (Jn. 14:6). There are many ways (choices), but only Gods choice is right. Those who follow Jesus are inherently right, not because of the act of choosing, but by virtue of that which is chosen: the truth. The value of choice is not in the act of choosing, but in the value of that chosen! Those who reject Jesus are wrong, not because they have chosen differently from us, but because they have not chosen Jesus. "The Way" (Jesus and his teaching) gives an added dimension to "heresy" in that anything foreign to "the Way" becomes "heretical," or divisive. Since there can be only "one way," any other way (choice, opinion) is wrong, evil. Accepting this fact is the "shibboleth" of sound doctrine (1 Tim. 1:8-11). Heretics cannot "frame to pronounce" sound doctrine by sectarian language and their unsound speech betrays them. Since they are not "of us," they go out "from us" (1 Jn. 2:19). This is the essence of heresy.
It is with this understanding that "heresies" are identified as a "work of the flesh" (Gal. 5:20) and grouped with such evils as "adultery, fornication, idolatry," etc. God sees as much inherent evil in "sects" and "parties" as distinct from "the way," as he does adultery and fornication as distinct from lawful marriage. It is not simply a matter of choice, but a choosing of right over wrong, of truth over self-willed opinions. Thus Peter warns of those "false prophets" who will bring in "destructive (damnable, KJV) heresies" (2 Peter 2:1). Being able to distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy allows Paul to warn Titus to "reject a divisive man (heretic, KJV) after the first and second admonition" (3:10).
It is possible to have "heresies" or "factions" within a local church. The common fellowship that is the result of the "unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3) can be ruptured when "choices" are made contrary to the "one faith" (v. 5). In fact, the party spirit was prevalent within the Corinthian church when some members formed groups that included some while excluding others. This was the sin of partiality, a "choosing" based on privilege, not faith (James 2:1-9). That party spirit corrupted the church and made it impossible to eat the Lords supper (1 Cor. 11:17-21). Their "coming together" actually worked the opposite of fellowship by dividing the congregation into the "haves" and "have nots" (v. 21). Also at Corinth, some followed Paul, some Apollos, some Cephas or Christ (1:12). This would be intra-congregational heresy.
Rightly or wrongly, heresies do extend to inter- and extra-congregational affairs. Those who follow a certain paper, college or prominent preacher "choose" a party to which they belong and from which some are excluded. This is sectarian zeal rather than Godly unity. It is superfluous to argue whether or not the church universal can be divided. In practice, it is so. However much we deplore party-ism and regardless of its sinfulness, there are those who follow this "work of the flesh" by lining brethren up into parties, factions, heresies.
It is a rather common practice to throw the charge of party-ism around, even against those who belong to no one but Christ. The basic "choosing" that underlies heresy is also the "choosing" that identifies faithful Christians, aside from the "self-willed" aspect. Choosing Christ can be, and often is, misconstrued as sectarianism due to the exclusive nature of "the Way." Those who choose to follow Christ may form a group in a local church. They will have little in common with those who are "not of us" (1 Jn. 2:19), but their separateness is not evil; it is required to maintain fellowship with Christ. The faithful "party" may even be cast out of the church by such overlords as Diotrephes (3 Jn.9-10). The fact of corporate identity as followers of Jesus Christ does not, in itself, identify an heretical group. "Those who are spiritual" (Gal. 6:1) are not carnal simply because they find others of "like precious faith" (2 Pet. 1:1). It should come as no surprise that actual heretics will charge faithful Christians as a party. They are able to witness that a "choosing" has taken place without seeing the rightness of that choice. Dont be surprised when "self-willed" people who separate themselves from "The Way" often charge submissive disciples of Christ as being heretics!
Faithful Christians may publish a paper or engage in other activities because they "choose" to associate with others who have made the same choice, individually. Collectively, disciples may choose a congregation because of common beliefs. The choosing itself is not heretical because of the common faith that they share. All people make choices. But only those who choose to follow Jesus in the true sense can rightly escape the rightful condemnation of promoting a work of the flesh.