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Heresy & Heretics: According to the Holy Apostles in the New Testament

Updated: May 5, 2023

By Subdeacon Nektarios, M.A.

Originally Posted at the Orthodox Ethos


As Orthodox Christians, we are notoriously guilty of neglecting our reading of the New Testament scriptures on a daily basis. We hear them in Church during the liturgical readings but frequently outside of that we never set the time aside to sit down, open our Bible at home and absorb what it has to teach us. It is due to this reason that many Orthodox Christians have become numb, indifferent, or ignorant when it comes to heresies being taught among the ranks of our own Orthodox Christian clergymen who have adopted the heretical ideologies (i.e. Ecumenism); and in many cases it is because of this same reason that numerous Orthodox clergymen have adopted heretical ecumenism as they have ignored the basic and fundamental teaching of the holy apostles concerning heretics and heresy.

"Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” - 2 Thessalonians 2:15

Often times I have heard Orthodox Christians, especially from the ranks of the clergy, speak lightly of heresy, often mockingly, as if heresy was not a serious matter. Some have spoken on the subject of heresy as somehow outdated, irrelevant, and no longer something to concern ourselves with. In addition to the dismissive attitude they give towards heresy, they will often misquote various saints on the subject or pit Athonite Saints or those more zealous contemporary saints from other local Orthodox Churches against Russian Saints to make a point that heresy is not a significant issue in order to try to undermine one or the other in an attempt to make us think that both are not saying that heresy is anathema.

As Orthodox Christians, we are consistently the ones who stand up to teach and preach that we are the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. We do as Saint Paul instructs us when he says, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thessalonians 2:15, NKJV) and that we maintain the true faith as it was delivered to us by the holy apostles. However, we must ask ourselves, if we are the true faith and the ones who stand fast to the apostolic teachings of the holy apostles, do we also do this when it comes to the biblical teaching and the Orthodox Christian understanding of heretics and heresies? First we have to closely examine the New Testament scriptures to refresh our memories on what exactly the holy apostles have said within our most sacred texts concerning those heretics who teach heresy and have separated themselves from the truth of the faith and the Body of Christ.

Immediately during the apostolic era when the holy apostles themselves were leaving their footprints in the sands of Jerusalem and throughout the Roman Empire, heretical figures arose to challenge the Christ-called apostles and the teachings which they had received from Jesus Christ himself. Did the apostles make light of these false teachers who were sprouting up and spreading their false doctrines to the infantile Churches or did they rabidly defend the purity of the doctrine they had received from Christ and in turn give us clear warnings by both word and epistle? The answer to this is in the text of the New Testament.

As with all things, we first look to what Christ himself taught us about heresies and those false teachers who he knew would emerge to sow division among his followers. In the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Christ forewarns the apostles about false teachers who would come to sow these divisions:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name? ’And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’ (Matthew 7:15-23, NKJV).

In 55 AD, Saint Paul in his 1st Epistle to the Corinthians writes to the Church in Corinth concerning certain troubles arising regarding factionalisms that were emerging among the Christian Church community there. Saint Paul, knowing the seriousness that these divisions and factions can cause tells the “brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment (1 Corinthians 1:10, NKJV). However, by the time of the writing of the 2nd Epistle to the Corinthians we can see in the biblical text that there were those who came to divide the Church and to slander Saint Paul. These ancient outsiders, who are much reminiscent of the modern heretics, came to disrupt the life of the Church in Corinth, to assert their pseudo-authority over Saint Paul, and to accuse the holy apostle of lacking letters of recommendations, of being an imposter, indecisive, cowardly, cruel, weak and having little knowledge of the Christian life. They did this because of their perceived lack of qualifications of Saint Paul in comparison to their own claims of superiority and personal resumes backed with support by the heterodox.

That, however, did not deter Saint Paul, a true apostle and teacher of the one true faith, from engaging these heretics in a defense of the faith and teaching the Christians of Corinth the apostolic truth. Saint Paul continues in his epistle to the Church of Corinth saying:

Oh, that you would bear with me in a little folly—and indeed you do bear with me. For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it! For I consider that I am not at all inferior to the most eminent apostles. Even though I am untrained in speech, yet I am not in knowledge. But we have been thoroughly manifested among you in all things (2 Corinthians 11:1-6, NKJV).

In Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, he writes to the Christians in Galatia, where he had established numerous Churches in Asia Minor, to express his disappointment that the Church he established there had so soon adopted the Judaizing heresy, which demanded that new Christians from both Jews and Gentiles must be subject to circumcision and adhere to the old Levitical law. Saint Paul writes to the faithful in Galatia in response to their adoption of this false teaching saying:

I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:6-9, NKJV).

In another epistle of Saint Paul, this time writing to the Colossians, he again must address another heresy that has sprouted among the faithful in Colossae. This heresy was a syncretistic heresy — a form of Gnosticism which incorporated Jewish and other ideas imported from the east. Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Colossians in defense of true Orthodoxy, concerning the nature of Christ’s deity, tells the Church:

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving. Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power. In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (Colossians 2:6-14, NKJV).

Saint Paul was not indifferent to heresy! He did not take these matters of false doctrine, which he considered another gospel entirely, with a grain of salt. He did not tell the Christians of these Churches which were becoming infected with the bacterium of syncretistic heresy to obey the bishops, priest, or laymen of these local churches who were preaching heresy or to tolerate their preaching of false doctrine, as many laity are mistakenly so doing today out of false piety and blind obedience. What the holy apostle did say to these Christians whose Churches were becoming infected with these soul-destroying heresies was, “we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6, NKJV).

"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits." - Matthew 7:15-23

Saint Paul who received the doctrine of our Orthodox faith from Christ himself warns us, as Christ himself warned us, that “in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy having their own conscience seared with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:1, NKJV). The holy apostles tells Christians to withdraw from those who have abandoned the faith which was delivered by Christ and the Apostles; not to make excuses for and offer blind obedience to those clergy who have fallen into heresy. However, on the other hand Saint Paul extols the faithful and especially the clergy of the Church to maintain sound doctrine and preach the truth of the faith saying:

For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer. If you instruct the brethren in these things, you will be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have carefully followed. But reject profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise yourself toward godliness. For bodily exercise profits a little, but the godliness is profitable for all things, having promised of the life that now is and of that which is to come. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance. For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe. These things command and teach (1 Timothy 4:4-11, NKJV).

Again, Saint Paul tells the Christian faithful, “Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines,” (Hebrews 13:9, NKJV) even if these things are taught by the so-called leaders of the Churches, but “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith […] but as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine” (Titus 1:13; 2:1, NKJV). As we can see from the many epistles written by the Holy Apostle Paul, the concern of heresy being taught among the Churches and among those who were charged with caring for these Churches was a very important matter. However, Saint Paul was not the only apostle who gave these very clear warnings about the soul-destroying nature of heresy and he was most certainly not the only apostle to dedicate a scriptural epistle to this subject. Saint John the Apostle in his second epistle that bears his name, which was written sometime between 90-95 AD, warns the Church saying:

For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we work for, but that we may receive a full reward. Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds (2 John 1: 7-11, NJKV).

Saint Peter, the Chief of the Apostles in his most sobering second epistle that also bears his name writes concerning false teachers (heretics) and heresies that:

There were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgement has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber. For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but saved Noah, one of eight people, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood on the world of the ungodly; and turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly; and delivered righteous Lot, who was oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked (for that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds) — then the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust under punishment for the day of judgment, and especially those who walk according to the flesh in the lust of uncleanness and despise authority.

They are presumptuous, self-willed. They are not afraid to speak evil of dignitaries, whereas angels, who are greater in power and might, do not bring a reviling accusation against them before the Lord [...]. They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he was rebuked for his iniquity: a dumb donkey speaking with a man’s voice restrained the madness of the prophet. These are wells without water, clouds carried by a tempest, for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever. For when they speak great swelling words of emptiness, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped from those who live in error. While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage. (2 Peter 2:1-19, NKJV).

Lastly, in the Epistle of Saint Jude, the final epistle in the New Testament before the Apocalypse of Saint John, Saint Jude warns us that even in his time “certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ […] they are clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever” (Jude 4; 12-13, NKJV).

"There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies." - 2 Peter 2:1-19

As the holy apostles have shown in their epistles, the rising threat of heretics and the threat of doctrinal heresy is not something that is new to the Orthodox Church but is something that existed even while the apostles were walking the earth. We have seen that Christ and the Holy Apostles themselves forewarned us about these false teachers; they have shown us the attributes of these heretics who offer us another gospel — a polluted gospel that is not of Christ. When we look to the present-day state of affairs in the Church we can see the reflection of these ancient heretics in the image of modern ecumenists, for example, who offer this same ancient and polluted gospel that is not of Christ. The question we have to answer is how do we resist these modernist and heretical innovators who are promulgating this soul-destroying heresy among the faithful?

Saint Jude in the closing of his epistle against these ancient false teachers gives us the answer to this very question saying:

But you, beloved, remember the words which were spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ: how they told you that there would be mockers in the last time who would walk according to their own ungodly lusts. These are sensual persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.

Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, And to present you faultless Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, To God our Savior, Who alone is wise, Be glory and majesty, Dominion and power, Both now and forever. Amen (Jude 17-25, NKJV).


New Testament Biblical References

[1]. 2nd Epistle to the Thessalonians 2:15, NKJV.

[2]. Gospel of St Matthew 7:15-23, NKJV.

[3]. 1st Epistle to the Corinthians 1:10, NKJV.

[4]. 2nd Epistle to the Corinthians 11:1-6, NKJV.

[5]. Epistle to the Galatians 1:6-9, NKJV.

[6]. 2nd Epistle to the Thessalonians 3:6, NKJV.

[7]. 1st Epistle to Timothy 4:1, NKJV.

[8]. 1st Epistle to Timothy 4:4-11, NKJV.

[9]. Epistle to the Hebrews 13:9, NKJV.

[10]. Epistle to Titus 1:13; 2:1, NKJV.

[11]. 2nd Epistle of St John 1: 7-11, NKJV.

[12]. 2nd Epistle of St Peter 2:1-19, NKJV.

[13]. Epistle of St Jude 4, NKJV.

[14]. Epistle of St Jude12-13, NKJV.

[15]. Epistle of St Jude 17-25, NKJV.


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