Orthodoxy, as a general theological term, refers to the systemetized teaching of Christianity which was established in the earliest creeds of the Church. It is that body of beliefs which has consistently described the nature of God, the nature of man, and the reconciliation of God and man in Jesus Christ.
This theological term is not to be confused with the capitalized spelling "Orthodoxy," which refers to the teaching and organization of the Eastern Orthodox Church in particular.
Opposed to orthodoxy is heterodoxy, or heresy. These are teachings which arise within the Church but which are not held by the Church in general. It may be easier to say what is not orthodox than what is.
In my book, Heresy Hunters: Character Assassination in the Church, (Huntington House, 1993, I attempted to define the term heresy. The following is from pages 43-48:
One of the first things you discover when searching for a precise definition of the word heresy is that no commonly accepted definition exists. The word is used only a very few times in the Bible and the original meaning of the word was not particularly negative, it simply expressed the idea of "choosing." Matthew employs the Greek word for heresy when he writes of the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry. In describing the miracles attesting to Jesus' anointing he says (quoting Isaiah):
Behold my servant, whom I have chosen; my beloved, in whom my soul is well pleased: I will put my spirit upon him, and he shall show judgment to the Gentiles. (Matt. 12:18)
Heresy often simply meant a chosen party or position. Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes were parties or sects within Judaism. Although these parties took very different positions on many issues, they saw each other as parts of the one nation of Israel-God's chosen people. In the early years of the Church, while Christianity was beginning to emerge out of Judaism, new believers in Christ often remained in one of its sects. It was not yet clear that Christianity was to be a distinct religion from Judaism:
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party (literally heresy) of the Pharisees stood up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses." (Acts 15:5 NIV)
Nevertheless, before the close of the New Testament, the term heresy began to define division within the Church, not simply diversity. By the end of the ministry of the Apostle Paul, the Jewish majority was calling the sect of Nazarenes a "heresy" or "party" in a way which clearly indicated that they saw Christianity as a separate and wrong sect. When Paul was brought before the Judean governor, Felix, for trial, the charge was religious sedition:
For we have found this man a pestilent fellow, and a mover of sedition among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect (heresy) of the Nazarenes. (Acts 24:5)
Paul, however, denied he was a heretic. In his defense he said, "They cannot prove the things they accuse me of:"
But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets:
And have hope toward God, which they themselves also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust. (Acts 24:14-15)
THE ESSENCE OF HERESY
Heresy came to describe ideas which were so different that they struck at the basic unity of the Body of Christ. In the early centuries A.D., heretics were those who professed those destructive spiritual ideas. The early councils of the Church met to decide which ideas were so far wrong as to be considered damning. Those great councils hammered out definitions which have stood the test of time.
The early councils of the Church and their definitions of such important doctrines as the Trinity continue to guide us today, as yardsticks by which we can judge novel theology. But still, theologians understand that spiritual truth is often elusive. Christians throughout history have recognized that it is impossible to know a man's heart simply by listening to his recitation of a catechism; some wonderful Christians have very primitive theology, on the other hand, some great theologians are far from having a personal relationship with Jesus. They know about Him, but they don't know Him.
One concept continues to surface in any search for a definition of heresy; heretical ideas destroy the Church by dividing it. Division is the fruit of heresy.
We can't underestimate the seriousness of division. According to the Bible, one of our first duties as members of the Body of Christ is to understand that our relationship is not only with Jesus, but with other Christians. Our fellowship within the Church is often called our communion. With time we understand that our communion is not only the joyous fruit of our salvation, it is also the vital force which ensures the ongoing health of the Body of Christ. Our loving communion enlarges and perpetuates the Body by displaying Christ to the unsaved; it is how they know we are Christians. (John 13:34-35)
Essential to our communion is that we must have the ability to recognize our brothers and sisters in Christ, to be able to "discern the Lord's body." (1Cor. 11:29-30) If we don't, we are in danger of excluding genuine Christians from our communion. In so doing, we strike a devastating blow to the work of God.
Our unity is so important, Jesus' priestly prayer admonishes us to "be one."(John 17:22) Likewise, we not only must recognize the Body of Christ, we are charged with preserving it:
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling;
One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Eph. 4:1-6)
THE DEFINITION OF HERESY
Theologian Harold O. J. Brown suggests heresy must have at least two primary components:
·First, it designates a doctrine or teaching which is clearly wrong.
·Second, heresy must be an important issue.
Brown, in his book Heresies, says:
In Christian usage the term "heresy" refers to a false doctrine, i.e. one that is simply not true and that is, in addition, so important that those who believe it, who the church calls heretics, must be considered to have abandoned the faith.
THE SOURCE OF HERESY
As I wrestle to understand the heresy/heretic controversy one thing is clear to me-heresy originates with false prophets. The Apostle Peter says it this way:
For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.
And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. (2Pet. 1:21-2:2)
Paul says something similar when he tells us that false brethren have an agenda:
For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.
Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. (Acts 20:29-30)
False prophets introduce bad ideas into the Church because they are false prophets! Something in their carnal nature not only refuses to submit to the law of God, but invents foolishness in its place. The source of heresy is rebellion to God.
We get another look at this aspect of heresy from the Apostle John. Writing in the fourth book of I John (verses 1-6) he describes the relationship between what he calls "the spirit of Antichrist" and the doctrine produced by it. The Antichrist spirit, he says, always produces a refusal to confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. This false teaching derives from a terribly wrong-headed spirit. Without discussing the exact meaning of this doctrine (or confession), we need to see that there is a vital connection between the spirit and the confession. He suggests that this ungodliness comes from false prophets which "have gone out into the world."
Further, in the second chapter of the same book, John identifies the source from which these false prophets come. He also reveals their essential nature:
Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. (1John 2:18-19)
Heresy consists of these two elements, heresy and heretic, which pursue each other in circular orbits. Genuine heretics possessed of bad hearts devise damnable heresies. These bad ideas in turn destroy the faith of some, or at least prevent them from coming to wholesome faith. In the second generation, those infected with the bad teaching pass it on to others.
While I believe the healthy Church has the responsibility to seek out, challenge, and expose both heretics and heresy, it is at this point that the heresy hunters miss a vital truth: While all heretical doctrine needs to be destroyed, not all those who bear that doctrine do. This is a subtle point and easily missed. It simply means that when we discover people possessed of a heretical doctrine, we must not conclude that he is an irreconcilable heretic.
What will better guide the sincere heresy hunters, is the notion that they need to hunt the heresy, not the heretic. If the genuine apologist remembers that his primary job is to restore all men-both to bring the unsaved to life in Christ and to bring the erring brother back into the fold-he will be a better servant of the Lord. This approach will allow him to consider that the man who speaks heresy may not yet be totally divided from the Body. It is sometimes true that those who speak heresy have not yet imbibed it and can be turned:
Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20 )