WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN APOSTASY AND HERESY?
by Shawn Brasseaux
These are terms frequently used in religious contexts so we must be sure to define them as the Holy Bible does. “For what saith the Scriptures?”
We shall deal with the subject of apostasy first. Scripture makes two references to “apostasy.” While the English word itself does not appear, the Greek form does: “apostasia” transliterated yields our English term. The Greek prefix “apo–” means “away from;” the word “stasis” is defined as “standing.” Imagine someone standing in one camp of doctrine suddenly walking over to stand in another camp of doctrine. This is a simple illustration of apostasy. Now, we turn to the actual verses to see that concept borne out.
Acts 21:21: “And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs.” The word “forsake” is the Greek “apostasia.” Paul the Apostle is falsely accused of encouraging all Jews everywhere to abandon the Law of Moses. While he told his converts that they were under grace not law (Romans 6:14-15), never did he tell this to the Jews who had trusted Christ before him. Paul did not encourage Israel’s Little Flock to turn away from the Law, for law was their operating system (see Matthew 5:18-20). What Paul did teach is that members (Jews and Gentiles) of the Church the Body of Christ were not under the Law of Moses (read the Book of Galatians). God had changed the program, from law to grace (see Ephesians 3:2). That did not change the doctrine previously given to the Little Flock, Israel’s believing remnant. They were to remain with their revelation, just as Paul’s converts were to remain with his revelation.
Second Thessalonians 2:3: “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;….” Here, “apostasia” has been rendered “falling away.” The only way Israel can embrace the Antichrist is if they first far remove themselves from God’s Word. Had they believed on His Son (Jesus Christ) when He showed up in their midst 20 centuries ago, had they not crucified Him in unbelief, there would be no Antichrist. Jesus said, “I am come in my Father’s name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive” (John 5:43). Antichrist will use a false religious system to deceive the masses in Israel, but the believing Jews will not be fooled. In 2 Thessalonians chapter 2, we can see the apostasy leading up to the Antichrist: “ And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.  And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie:  That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”
There is an interesting concept put forth in Galatians chapter 1, where Paul is warning the Galatians who have just left God’s grace to be legalistic: “ I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel:  Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.  But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.  As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” They have been “removed” (apostatized) from God’s grace that Paul preached to them. Now, they are works-oriented, law-oriented. False teachers have slipped into their midst, and they did not guard themselves. How deceived they are! (And millions of Christians are just as deceived today—anti-grace and pro-law!!)
In one succinct statement, let us summarize what we have said thus far. Apostasy, if we use the English Bible with the Greek Bible, is the moving from one doctrinal position to another. One teaching has been abandoned in favor of another teaching. More specifically, it is a renouncing of the truth in order to embrace false doctrine. If you want to see examples and imagery of apostasy in Scripture, consider the “rebellion” in Joshua 22:22 and Jeremiah 29:32, the “casting away” (throwing out) of God’s holy vessels in 2 Chronicles 29:19, and the “forsaking” of the LORD in Jeremiah 2:19. Apostasy is always a downgrade; never is it an improvement. Spiritual harm is the inevitable outcome of apostasy, and never forget it! We can study the Bible, we can appeal to church history and secular history, and see that brought to pass many times over.
As the English term “apostasy” is from Greek, so is our English word “heresy.” The Greek is “hairesis,” appearing nine times in the Textus Receptus. In our English Bible, the word has been transliterated four times (“heresy”). The remaining instances have been rendered “sect.” Again, we let the Bible speak for itself:
- Acts 5:17: “Then the high priest rose up, and all they that were with him, (which is the sect [hairesis] of the Sadducees,) and were filled with indignation,….”
- Acts 15:5: “But there rose up certain of the sect [hairesis] of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.”
- Acts 24:5: “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 [hairesis] of the Nazarenes:….”
- Acts 24:14: “But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy [hairesis], so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets:….”
- Acts 26:5: “Which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect [hairesis] of our religion I lived a Pharisee.”
- Acts 28:22: “But we desire to hear of thee what thou thinkest: for as concerning this sect [hairesis], we know that every where it is spoken against.”
- 1 Corinthians 11:19: “For there must be also heresies [hairesis] among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.”
- Galatians 5:20: “Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies [hairesis],….”
- 2 Peter 2:1: “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 [hairesis], even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.”
Pharisees, religious Jews known for their meticulous observance of the Mosaic Law and reverence for oral tradition, were a special group or “sect” (Acts 5:17; Acts 15:5). Paul the Apostle, a former Pharisee himself (Acts 26:5), was seen as promoting a “sect” (same word as “heresy” in Greek, remember). This is the critics’ title for Christianity (see Acts 24:5,14; Acts 28:22). It is seen as a “branch of Judaism,” as Christians identify with the God of Israel.
The last three occurrences of “hairesis” deserve particular attention. Paul’s converts in Corinth have aligned themselves with various and sundry ideas and practices—heathen philosophy, sexual deviance, idolatry, drunkenness, gluttony, among other dreadful errors. These diverse “pet” views have resulted in splinter groups or denominations.
First Corinthians chapter 1: “ Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions [Greek, “schisma”—as in “schism”] among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.  For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you.  Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ.”
As we saw, chapter 11 and verse 19 spoke of the “heresies” or sects that exist among fellow members of the Body of Christ in Corinth. Instead of all following Paul as he follows Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1), the Corinthians are adhering to numerous religious leaders (see 1 Corinthians 4:14-16). One of the “works of the flesh” (sin nature) is “heresies” (Galatians 5:19-20). The Corinthians are “carnal” or fleshly Christians, driven by sin instead of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). Hence, they are divided. They have no unity in sound Bible doctrine because they have accepted false doctrine! Instead of relying on God’s viewpoint, they are depending on man’s viewpoint (see chapters 1-3)!
Heresy is one of Satan’s most effective tools in splitting Israel too (just as he uses it to divide the Body of Christ). The Apostle Peter, in 2 Peter 1:19-21, referred to God’s prophets or spokesmen. He opens chapter 2 with, “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.” Heresy is designed to oppose the truth by counterfeiting and (ultimately) replacing it. New information is introduced in order to form a new system. Someone seeks to start a following, a new denomination, or a cult. Fame is sought, fortune is sought, but truth is not on the agenda. The Lord Jesus Christ is not at the heart of the heretic’s plans because the Lord Jesus Christ has been pushed aside.
We find one reference to the “heretick” in the King James Bible (the spelling variation need not distract you). Titus chapter 3: “ But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain.  A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject;  Knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.” Concentrate on verse 9. The heretic uses these techniques to introduce his or her false teaching into a preexisting local church or ministry. Silly questions, profitless questions are presented. Personalities and people (“Dr. So-and-So,” “Reverend So-and-So,” et cetera) are exalted while doctrine is ignored. Arguments and fights break out. Wars based on legalistic issues overwhelm and discourage. The Bible declares this is “unprofitable” and “vain.” It is empty and worthless, accomplishing nothing for God’s glory.
The Bible says the “heretick” should be warned twice of his or her errors (Titus 3:10). If after the second time he or she continues down that path of false teaching, the Bible says to “reject” that person. Heretics should not be given public platforms to spread their nonsense. They are not to be allowed to address local churches or speak at Bible conferences. Souls are at stake, and it is the pastor’s job to make sure his people are not listening to heretics!! God commands him to guard his pulpit without apology!!
Listen to the Apostle Paul’s advice to the church elders of the Ephesians in Acts chapter 20: “ Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.  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.  Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.  And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.”
Did you see how the heretics introduce false teaching for the sake of forming new groups, “to draw away disciples after them” (verse 30)? These resulting sects or cults are inherently flawed. They cannot be purged. They must be abandoned entirely. Heretics cannot be reformed if they have willfully gone down that path. It is not our job to risk our ministries for the sake of salvaging someone (even a Christian) if it will damage our testimony and corrupt our souls and the people we reach. We must be on guard, we must be on guard—especially in grace circles!!! It bears repeating over and over and over and over and over and over.
Apostasy is the abandoning of truth for the sake of embracing error. It is moving one’s spiritual feet from one doctrinal position so as to stand in another doctrinal faction. Heresy is the introduction of new doctrine for the sake of dividing believers and forming new groups (sects, denominations, cults).
Whereas “apostasy” underscores the activity of moving from one doctrinal position to another, “heresy” emphasizes the division that false teaching produces. Apostasy can lead to heresy (someone can switch doctrinal positions and wind up forming a new group, that new group adopting a special set of beliefs). Heresy can lead to apostasy (upon learning and embracing a heretical doctrine, one grows apostate). Leaving the truth gives rise to new groups and new groups give rise to further departures from the truth. See 2 Timothy 2:14-18.
Brethren, our only hope in not growing apostate and/or heretical is to fervently maintain and believe the word of God’s grace—Paul’s Gospel and his epistles, Romans through Philemon. Acts 20:32: “And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.”