During our investigations into the works of the flesh, we discussed divisions, and discussed the term and how it is applicable within the Lord’s Church. It was said that while this term could apply to other groups, such as denominations, such are better considered under the work of the flesh known as “sects” (translated as “parties” in the ASV below; translated also as “heresies”) in Galatians 5:19-20:
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties…
The word translated in various versions as “sects,” “parties,” and the like is the Greek word hairesis, from which our English word “heresy” derives. Thayer defines the term as:
1) act of taking, capture: e.g. storming a city
2) choosing, choice
3) that which is chosen
4) a body of men following their own tenets (sect or party)
5) dissensions arising from diversity of opinions and aims
The term is used in Acts 5:17, Acts 26:5, and Acts 28:22 to refer to various “sects” within a larger body (the Sadducees and Pharisees within Judaism; also the belief expressed by the Jews in the first century that Christianity was just another Jewish sect). The term is also defined as “factions” in 1 Corinthians 11:19 and “heresies” in 2 Peter 2:1:
For there must be also factions among you, that they that are approved may be made manifest among you.
But there arose false prophets also among the people, as among you also there shall be false teachers, who shall privily bring in destructive heresies, denying even the Master that bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.
We see, therefore, that the New Testament usage of hairesis denotes the fourth and fifth definitions as expressed by Thayer, either a sect or party within a larger group or one bringing forth a message contrary to that which had already been given, or a combination of both.
We can see from the usage of the term hairesis that it is very similar to the term for “divisions;” both incorporate the ideas of dissension and disagreement over doctrines and practices, yet it seems apparent that Paul uses “division” to denote more of the disagreements and divisions that occur within the Lord’s Body; the term “sect” seems to be used more generally to describe any group that would remove itself from the Church of Christ. This is especially apparent in our world today with the proliferation of denominations and a denominational spirit– when divisions on the basis of doctrines and practices is hailed as “diversity.” Therefore, a blended version of the definitions given by Thayer for hairesis— a sect or party following after doctrines that are in disagreement with the doctrines of others– we shall use for our examination of this work of the flesh.
We may see an unfortunate tendency in the world of so-called “Christendom” that is an attempt to reconcile the obvious Scriptural difficulties with “denominational” or “sectarian” groups all claiming to be Christians in good standing with our Lord. The result has been ecumenism, a most extreme form of “unity-in-diversity,” the belief that the differences in doctrines and practices between various denominations are not a roadblock to unity, that different denominations can recognize the “diversity” within “various Christian tradition” and can respect these differences, and therefore that all these Christian denominations, despite the differences in doctrine and practice, are all valid portions of the Body of Christ and their members are true Christians. While their goal is most admirable– unity in faith, as Jesus desired in John 17– we may see that their methodology is not in harmony with the Scriptures. Unity in the Scriptures is not based simply on “agreement to disagree,” although we have seen that sometimes this attitude may be expressed concerning a liberty, as long as no one is compelled to sin– but the unity is based on unity in the truth of our Lord Jesus. Examine the following Scriptures from 2 Timothy 3:16-17, 1 Timothy 3:15, Galatians 1:6-9, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, and Ephesians 4:4-6:
But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how men ought to behave themselves in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.
Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness. That the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work.
I marvel that ye are so quickly removing from him that called you in the grace of Christ unto a different gospel; which is not another gospel only there are some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach unto you any gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema. As we have said before, so say I now again, if any man preacheth unto you any gospel other than that which ye received, let him be anathema.
Which is a manifest token of the righteous judgment of God; to the end that ye may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which ye also suffer: if so be that it is righteous thing with God to recompense affliction to them that afflict you, and to you that are afflicted rest with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of his power in flaming fire, rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus: who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be marvelled at in all them that believed (because our testimony unto you was believed) in that day.
There is one body, and one Spirit, even as also ye were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all.
Are we given the ability to conclude from these verses that we may establish a form of unity based on divergent practice and doctrine? By no means! We see in these passages the clear truth of God: There is one God, one faith, and one truth. There is one true collective, the Church, that is the pillar and support of that truth, and those who represent that collective obey the message of the Scriptures and seek the Scriptural answer for all things that they may do.
We may even see from the attitude of the denominations the difficulty of their mindset: they have no desire to achieve unity through an agreement on the fundamental doctrines and practices of Christianity, but seek to achieve some form of unity while holding on closely to their traditions, unwilling to examine the Scriptures and to humble themselves to accept the one truth of God and not the varieties of error that abound. We may see that in the case of the denominations today, unfortunately, it has happened truly according to the Scripture in 2 Timothy 4:3-4:
For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables.
We have been hard on our friends in the denominational world, but rebuke rightly, considering that the sectarian spirit that abounds within these groups surely are manifestations of hairesis within them. We must recognize, however, that this message is not confined merely to those in the denominational world; we ourselves in the Body of the Lord are just as prone to sectarian spirits and heretical doctrines and practices, and we may heed well the warning concerning those people that would bring in such spirits and doctrines and practices in 2 Peter 2:1 quoted above. We see that the acceptance of these types of persons fosters divisions and sects, as seen in the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 11:19 demonstrates. How, then, are we to avoid ourselves being tempted to have a spirit of hairesis?
The Scriptures teach us that the only way to avoid sectarianism and heresy is to study the Scriptures, obey their principles, and be able to objectively analyze one’s beliefs and compare them with the message of the Word of God. These things are found in 2 Timothy 2:15, Romans 6:16-17, and 2 Corinthians 13:5-7:
Give diligence to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, handling aright the word of truth.
Know ye not, that to whom ye present yourselves as servants unto obedience, his servants ye are whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? But thanks be to God, that, whereas ye were servants of sin, ye became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered; and being made free from sin, ye became servants of righteousness.
Try your own selves, whether ye are in the faith; prove your own selves. Or know ye not as to your own selves, that Jesus Christ is in you? unless indeed ye be reprobate. But I hope that ye shall know that we are not reprobate. Now we pray to God that ye do no evil; not that we may appear approved, but that ye may do that which is honorable, though we be as reprobate.
Before we finish our examination of hairesis, sectarianism and heresy, we must respond to many who wish to teach that those who desire to obey the Scriptures are the ones who are sectarian and not the ones who wish to bring innovations within the church of our Lord. The accusation is generally that those who would deny the innovations are “legalists,” impugning the “grace of God.” To this charge we might examine Galatians 1:6-9 (quoted above) and Romans 14:16-17:
Let not then your good be evil spoken of: for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
We may see in the Galatian letter that any different Gospel– no matter who preached it or how, and no matter how little difference it might have with the true Gospel– is no gospel at all, and in fact is anathema. We can see in Romans 14:16-17 that Paul makes a delineation between issues that are of grave concern and the issues that are of liberty: the Kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, and the rest is liberty. If a deed or belief is not in accordance with righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, and is not contained within or in any way allowed by the Gospel preached in the New Testament, then such a deed or belief is NOT a matter of “interpretation” nor is it impugning the grace of God to reject it outright, but a matter of necessity: such things must be false, and we may see an example of such things in 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15:
And if any man obeyeth not our word by this epistle, note that man, that ye have no company with him, to the end that he may be ashamed. And yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.
It is true, however, that if the deed or belief is not necessarily a matter of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, it is a matter of liberty. This concession, however, is not absolute, for the guidelines of the Scriptures in Romans 14:23 and Romans 14:13,15,21:
But he that doubteth is condemned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith; and whatsoever is not of faith is sin.
Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge ye this rather, that no man put a stumbling block in his brother’s way, or an occasion of falling…For if because of meat thy brother is grieved, thou walkest no longer in love. Destroy not with thy meat him for whom Christ died…It is good not to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor to do anything whereby thy brother stumbleth.
As long as the one who believes in the liberty recognizes as much and does not attempt to compel or coerce those who do not believe in the liberty to practice it, then such things are of “eating and drinking” and not necessarily of the Kingdom of God. If, however, there is compulsion to perform the practice or leave to find another church or to create another church, then the peace of the Kingdom of God has been disruptive and a sectarian spirit is present. Yet we must ask, according to the Scriptures, the following: what group is most guilty of the sectarian spirit, hairesis? The group compelling another to sin against their consciences, or the group compelled to leave so that they may not sin? This entire difficulty is caused by a complete neglect of the Scriptures and a rejection of Paul’s message in Philippians 2:1-4:
If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassions, make full my joy, that ye be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself; not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.
We may see, therefore, that the sectarian spirit generally rests with those who would compel their brethren to either accept a practice they find no authority for or to find another congregation. This spirit is no more justifiable than the sectarian spirit in denominations, and neither is the “unity-in-diversity” pretense devised to attempt to justify their practices.
We have seen that the term hairesis is truly aimed at the spirit of sectarianism through heresy, the introduction of doctrines not in harmony with the truth of God that leads to division and denominationalism. Let us continually examine the Scriptures and bring our beliefs and practices into harmony with them, with all humility counting one another greater than ourselves and in all ways attempting to facilitate the edification of one another and helping one another avoid sin than to tempt one another to do so, that by all means we shall avoid the condemnation described by Jesus in Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not every one that saith unto me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father who is in heaven.
Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works?’
And then will I profess unto them, ‘I never knew you: depart from Me, ye that work iniquity.'”