The Meaning of Heresy in Christianity

A Catholic priest holds a Bible and rosary

Tom Le Goff / Getty Images

In the Christian church, heresy is a departure from the truth. According to Tyndale Bible Dictionary, the Greek word hairesis, meaning "choice," designates a sect or faction. The Sadducees and Pharisees were sects within Judaism. Sadducees denied the resurrection of the dead as well as an afterlife, saying the soul ceased to exist after death. The Pharisees believed in life after death, the resurrection of the body, the importance of keeping rituals, and the need to convert Gentiles.

Understanding the Concept

The term heresy came to designate divisions, schisms, and factions which held divergent opinions within the early church. As Christianity grew and developed, the church established the basic teachings of the faith. Those basics can be found in the Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed. Over the centuries, however, theologians and religious figures have proposed doctrines that contradict established Christian beliefs. To keep those beliefs pure, the church singled out people who taught or believed ideas considered a threat to Christianity.

It wasn't long before so-called heretics were branded not only as enemies of the church but also as enemies of the state. Persecution became widespread as popes authorized inquisitions. Those investigations often resulted in torture and execution of innocent victims. Thousands of people were imprisoned and burned at the stake.

Today, the word heresy expresses any teaching that might cause a believer to break away from orthodoxy or the accepted views of the community of faith. Most heresy proposes views of Jesus Christ and God that are contrary to what is found in the Bible. Heresies include Gnosticism, modalism (the idea that God is one person in three modes), and tritheism (the idea that the Trinity is actually three separate gods).

The New Testament

In the following New Testament passages, the word heresy is translated "divisions":

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. (1 Corinthians 11:18–19 (ESV)
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19–21, ESV)

Titus and 2 Peter speak of people who are heretics:

As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, (Titus 3:10, ESV)
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. (2 Peter 2:1, ESV)


Judaizers promoted a heresy that said Gentiles had to become Jews before they could become Christians.


  • The Bible Almanac, edited by J.I. Packer, Merrill C. Tenney, and William White Jr.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Zavada, Jack. "The Meaning of Heresy in Christianity." Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, Zavada, Jack. (2020, August 25). The Meaning of Heresy in Christianity. Retrieved from Zavada, Jack. "The Meaning of Heresy in Christianity." Learn Religions. (accessed March 22, 2023).