Hairesis and Hairetikos

By Mike Willis

In as much as there has been some discussion of the meaning of “factious” in Tit. 3:10 (“Reject a factious man after a first and second warning”), a study of hairetikos and its cognate hairesis seems useful. To illustrate how the “unity-in-diversity” movement is attempting to destroy the clear meaning of another passage which commands fellowship to be broken on doctrinal basis, I insert these, sometimes lengthy, quotations:

“Since the factious man (hairdkos) in the KJV is called a `heretic’ — a word subject to misunderstanding-we should look carefully at what this term denotes. The root from which it comes means ‘to choose,’ and a `heretic’ is one who makes a choice. In the Bible a hairesis is a body of people built around the same choice; hence a sect or party. Although the English word heresy is associated with the one who holds an unorthodox doctrine, this meaning is not found in the Bible. Even in 2 Pet. 2:1 (the only passage in which the RSV used the word) it does not seem to denote unorthodox doctrine.

“The heresies (factions) in 1 Cor. 11:19 result from separatists who do not recognize the inherent oneness of the body. The original word is properly rendered ‘party spirit’ in Gal. 5:20. The Biblical usage emphasizes the evil of dividing the body. Therefore the factious’ man in Tit. 3:10 is one who creates division by the manner in which he holds his theological opinions, even though those opinions may not be actually `heretical’ in the modern sense . . . . So the word at this stage had nothing to do with orthodoxy of teaching” (Integrity, Vol. V, No. 11, pp. 164-165).

“Do our errors make us heretics ? A heretic is a trouble-maker, a factious person. He is one who viciously seeks to build his own party to the destruction of the body of Christ. Such a one is described in Titus 3 as perverted and sinful’ and ‘self-condemned'” (Leroy Garrett, Restoration Review, Vol. VII, No. 6, p. 117).

“1. As the Holy Spirit uses the term, heresy does not refer to any opinion whether true or false. A man might hold any opinion regardless of how wrong it is and might even express that opinion to others and still not be a heretic.

“2. Heresy has no relation to doctrine. It is not something preached or taught and is never employed in direct connection with any word translated preaching’ or `teaching.’

“3. A man may be a heretic even though what he teaches is in perfect harmony with the word of God, for heresy does not relate to that which is taught, but to the motive and attitude of the one who teaches.

“4. The definition of heresy as now exemplified by the various groups designated `The Church of Christ’ is not that of the new covenant scriptures. It has been borrowed from Rome where it was developed to enable an apostate church to enforce her dogmas under penalty of physical death.

“5. In the scriptural sense those who are most frequently rejected in these days as heretics are not such at all, but the term can be justly applied to those who reject them” Mission Messenger, Vol. 23, No. 7, p. 5).

One can see from these quotations that an attempt is being made to discredit using Tit. 3:10 to any of the issues which divide us today. One should notice, however, that these brethren would not classify using mechanical instruments of music in worship as false doctrine even if one could prove that hairesis and hairetikos involved doctrinal errors. However, to those who believe the usage of mechanical instruments of music in worship, sponsoring churches, and institutionalism to be sin, the demonstration that hairesis and hairetikos applies to errors in doctrine will prove one can withdraw fellowship from another on the basis of his teaching false doctrine. Let us, therefore, consider the evidence.

Occurrences in the NT

Acts 5:17-which is the sect of the Sadducees

Acts 15:5-certain of the sect of the Pharisees

Acts 24:5-of the sect of the Nazarenes:

Acts 24:14-the way which they call heresy

Acts 26:5-Straitest sect of our religion

Acts 28:22-for as concerning this sect,

1 Cor. 11:19-there must be also heresies

Gal. 5:20-strife, seditions, heresies,

2 Pet. 2:1-shall bring in damnable heresies,

(The Englishman’s Greek Concordance of the New Testament, p. 17).

You can see that the word is translated by two English words-sect and heresy. Let us now relate the lexicographical information on these words.

Lexicons on “Hairesis”

Arndt and Gingrich: “1. sect, party, school . . . . a. Of the Sadducees Acts 5:17 . . . . Of the Pharisees 15:5 . . . . Of the Christians . . . . b. in the later sense, heretical sect . . . . c. opinion, dogma …. destructive opinions 2 Pet. 2:1. . . .” (p. 23).

Thayer: “1. act of taking, capture . . . . 2. choosing, choice . . . . 3. that which is chosen, a chosen course of thought and action; hence one’s chosen opinion, tenet; acc. to the context, an opinion varying from the true exposition of the Christian faith (heresy): 2 Pet. ii.l. . . . 4. a body of men separating themselves from others and following their own tenets (a sect or party): as the Sadducees, Acts v. 17; the Pharisees, Acts xv. 5; xxvi. 5; the Christians, Acts xxiv. 5, 14. . . . 5. dissensions arising from diversity of opinions and aims: Gal. v. 20; 1 Cor. xi. 19. . . .” (p. 16).

W. E. Vine: “denotes (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’); such erroneous opinions are frequently the outcome of personal preference or the prospect of advantage; see 2 Pet. 2:1, where `destructive’ (R.V.) signifies leading to ruin; some assign even this to (b); in the papyri the prevalent meaning is ‘choice’ (Moulton and Milligan, Vocab.); (b) a sect; this secondary meaning, resulting from (a), is the dominating significance in the N.T., Acts 5:17; 15:5; 24:5,14; 26:5; 28:11 . . . .” (Vol. II, p. 217).

Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: ‘Hairesis in Classical Usage and Hellenism

“From this there develops in Hellenism the predominate objective use of the term to denote a. `doctrine’ and especially b. `school.’ . . . It thus comes to be the hairesis (teaching) of a particular hairesis (school).

‘Hairesis in the N.T.

“1. The usage in Acts corresponds exactly to that of Josephus and the earlier Rabbis …. In these passages the term has the neutral flavor of ‘school.’

“2. Against this background, it is impossible to solve the problem of the derivation of the special Christian sense of heresy. For the development of the Christian concept is not wholly analogous to that of the Rabbinic min, as though, in the process of the separation of non-orthodox groups, the heterodox practices came to be designated heresy. On the contrary, the word seems to have been suspect in Christianity from the very first, and when it is used as a Christian technical term in conscious or unconscious connection either with the Greek philosophical schools or the Jewish sects it denotes at once societies outside Christianity and the Christian church . . . . schismata are splits in the community caused by personally motivated disputes . . . . In this respect it (hairesis) is distinguished from schisma, and obviously indicates something more serious. The greater seriousness consists in the fact that haireseis effect the foundation of the church in doctrine (2 Pet. 2:1), and that they do so in such a fundamental way as to give rise to anew society alongside the ekklesia. This the church cannot accept, since as the lawful public assembly of the whole people of God the church embraces this people exclusively and comprehensively. By its very nature, however, hairesis is a private magnitude with a limited validity. It is, in fact, a school or party” (pp. 181-183).

Lexicons on “Hairetikos”

Thayer: “1. fitted or able to take or choose a thing …. 2. schismatic, factious, a follower of false doctrine, Tit. iii. 10” (p. 16).

Arndt and Gingrich: “factious, causing divisions perh. heretical Tit. 3:10” (p. 23).

Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: “In Christianity, it seems to have been used technically from the very first, and denotes the ‘adherent of a heresy.’ In the NT it is found in Tit. 3:9f. . . .” (Vol. I, p. 184).

Word Studies

To help us to get even a better grasp of the meaning of this word, although I might be becoming bogged down somewhat, I would like to quote some of the writers who have done some significant word studies.

M. R. Vincent: (This is taken from his comments on 2 Pet. 2:1 because, in his comments on Tit. 3:10, Vincent refers the reader to this comment.) “Damnable heresies (hairesis apoleias), lit., heresies of destruction. Rev., destructive heresies. Heresy is a transcript of hairesis, the primary meaning of which is choice; so that a heresy is, strictly, the choice of an opinion contrary to that usually received; thence transferred to the body of those who profess such opinions, and therefore a sect. So Rev., in margin, sects of perdition. Commonly in this sense in the New Testament (Acts 5:17; 15:5; 28:22), though the Rev. has an odd variety in its marginal renderings. See Acts 24:14; 1 Cor. 11:19; Gal. 5:20. The rendering heretical doctrines seems to agree better with the context; false teachers bringing in sects is awkward” (Word Studies in the New Testament, p. 328).

William Barclays Barclay is frequently quoted from his comments on Tit. 3:10 which say that a heretikos is “a man who has decided that he is right and everybody else is wrong. Paul’s warning is a warning against the man who has made his own ideas the test and standard of all truth” (The Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon, p. 304). However, Barclay commented on the meaning of hairesis in 2 Pet. 2:1, which comment you have yet to see any of the “unity-in-diversity” group quoting. The comment is lengthy but worthwhile. He said: “They insidiously introduce destructive heresies. The Greek word for heresy is hairesis, and it is a word with a very curious and a very interesting history. It comes from the Greek verb haireisthai, which means to choose; and originally it was a perfectly good and honourable word. It simply meant a line of belief and action which a man had chosen for himself. In the New Testament itself we read of the hairesis of the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Nazarenes (Acts 5:17; 15:5; 24:5). It was perfectly possible to speak of the hairesis of Plato, and to mean nothing more than those who were Platonist in their thought and their philosophy. It was perfectly possible to speak of a group of doctors who believed in, and practiced, a certain method of treatment as a hairesis. All that a hairesis meant was a belief which one had personally chosen for oneself, and to which one by choice adhered. But very soon in the Christian Church the word hairesis quite changed its complexion. In Paul’s thought heresies and schisms go together as things to be condemned (1 Corinthians 11:18,19): haireseis (the plural form of the word) are part of the works of the flesh; a man that is a heretic is to be warned, and even given a second chance, and then rejected (Tit. 3:10).

“Why the change? The whole point is that before the coming of Christianity, and before the coming of Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life, there was no such thing as definite, God-given truth. A man was presented with a number of alternatives any of which he might choose honestly to believe. But with the coming of Jesus, God’s truth came to men, and men had either to accept or to reject that truth. In other words, with the revelation of God in Christ, it is no longer a question of choosing the particular line of belief which happens to appeal to us; it is a question of accepting, or rejecting, the revealed truth of God. A heretic then becomes a man who believes what he wishes to believe instead of accepting the truth of God which he must believe.

“What was happening in the case of Peter’s people was that certain men, who claimed to be prophets, were insidiously persuading men to believe the things they wished to be true rather than the things which God has revealed as true. (Sounds a little like our “unity-in-diversity” brethren, doesn’t it?-MW). They did not set themselves up as opponents of Christianity. Far from it. Rather they set themselves up as the finest fruits of Christian thinking. Insidiously, unconsciously, imperceptible, so gradually and so subtly that they did not even notice it, people were being lured away from God’s truth to men’s private opinions, for that is what heresy is” (The Letters of James and Peter, pp. 373-374).

The Encyclopedias

I perfectly realize that the main purpose of Bible encyclopedias is not to give a word study, although they are attempts to summarize the Bible evidence on any given subject. Therefore, I have chosen to insert what they have to say on the meaning of “heresy.”

Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge: “(hairesis, ‘a selection’) designates in the New Testament a party or school; and the Pharisees (Acts xv. 5, xxvi. 5), the Sadducees (Acts v. 1), and even the Christians (Acts xxiv. 14, xxviii. 22), are called ‘heresies.’ The use of the term, however, in connection with schisms, proves that it did not exclusively designate dissent in the matters of doctrine (1 Cor. xi. 19; Gal. v. 20). At a later period, the term was employed principally in the sense of doctrinal departures from revealed truth, or erroneous views (Tit. iii. 10; 2 Pet. ii.1)” (Vol. II, p. 975).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: “Its application, with censure, is found in 1 Cor. 11:19m; Gal. 5:20m, where it is shown to interfere with the unity of faith and community of interests that belongs to Christians. There being but one standard of truth, and one goal for all Christian life, any arbitrary choice varying from what was common to all believers, becomes an inconsistency and a sin to be warned against . . . . The destructive heresies (RVm, ERVm `sects of perdition’) are those guilty of errors both of doctrine and of life very fully described throughout the entire chapter (2 Pet. 2-MW), and who, in such course, separated themselves from the fellowship of the church.

“In the fixed ecclesiastical sense that it ultimately attained, it indicated not merely any doctrinal error, but ‘the open espousal of fundamental error’ (Ellicott on Tit. 3:10), or, more fully, the persistent obstinate maintenance of an error with respect to the central doctrines of Christianity in the face of all better instruction, combined with aggressive attack upon the common faith of the church, and its defenders” (Vol. III, p. 1377).

McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature: “The word hairesis . . . originally meant simply choice (e.g. of a set of opinions; later, it was applied to the opinions themselves; last of all, to the sect maintaining them . . . . In the historical part of the New Testament, the word denotes a sect or party, whether good or bad (Acts v, 17; xv, 15; xxiv, 5; xxvi, 5; xxviii, 22). In 1 Cor. xi, 19 (there must be heresies among you), he uses it apparently to denote schisms or divisions in the church. In Tit. iii, 10 he comes near to the later sense; the ‘heretical person’ appears to be one given over to a self-chosen and divergent form of belief and practice” (Vol. IV, p. 198).


The quotations could be continued; of the eleven commentaries which I have on Titus, only three believed that doctrinal errors were not involved in the problem mentioned in Tit. 3:10. Practically every source which can be quoted admits that doctrinal error is involved in hairesis and hairetikos, although the problem might be compounded by the wrong attitude. Sometimes the attitude seems to be primarily what is condemned (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:19; Gal. 5:20, although this is not altogether certain; a schisma possibly might be a division caused by personality clashes and hairesis one which is caused by doctrinal differences). However, although some commentators (namely, William Barclay who is most generally quoted) say that haireikos in Tit. 3:10 refers to the wrong attitude, the overwhelming weight of evidence is that hairetikos has basically the same meaning as our English ward “heretic”-” one who holds to a doctrine or opinion contrary to the fundamental doctrine or creed of any particular church.” You can rest assured that Tit. 3:10, along with many other passages, supports the idea that fellowship can be broken because of doctrinal differences.

Truth Magazine XVIII: 4, pp. 57-59
November 28, 1974