Recently I had another unsettling conversation in a crowded public space with a now angry man. The conversation was overheard by others, and his ire was directed toward me personally. Several months earlier we had talked about religion in a more amicable way.1 On this most recent occasion, he began, abruptly and rather confrontationally,
"Do you believe in Hell?"
"Where do you go to church?"
"Is that what they teach you there?"
"No; I assume that virtually all members of my church believe in Hell."
The conversation continued apace and then he left the area, returning momentarily to assert:
"You know what you are? You are an apostate. Do you know what that is?"
"Yes; and you seem a very angry man."
The conversation continued briefly in another room where I told him, "the term 'apostate' is not correct; in the past some have called me 'heretic," which is likely more appropriate." After a moment he said, "The reason you write those newspaper articles is to call attention to yourself."
Here are the definitions of the terms. Apostasy is "renunciation of a religious faith." With respect to the conversation above the accusation was that I had renounced the Christian faith. There is a passage in the New Testament that describes the circumstance of the one who commits apostasy: Hebrews 6:1-6 (using in Heb 6:6 the Greek word parapesontas, falling away, making a defection). In the view of the author of Hebrews, those who defect from the faith cannot be renewed again to faith. The actual word "apostasy" is used in Acts 21:21, where Paul is accused of teaching apostasia (apostasy, making a defection) from Moses; that is, Paul was accused of teaching that Jews should not circumcise their children and follow other Jewish traditions. It appears also in the deutero-Pauline letter, Second Thessalonians, where the "man of lawlessness" is revealed in the apostasia (the rebellion or defection, 2 Thess 2:3).
Heresy, on the other hand, is "adherence to a religious opinion contrary to church dogma; or dissent or deviation from a dominant theory, opinion or practice." Hence a heretic is "one who dissents from some accepted belief or doctrine." The word "heresy" (αἳρεσις; transliterated hairesis) is translated by the word "sect" in Acts 24:14, "factions" in 1 Cor 11:19, "party spirit" in Gal 5:20, and "heresies" in 2 Pet 2:1.The word is used to identify various factions in a given religious body, as for example in Acts 26:5 where Paul refers to the Pharisees as "the strictest party of our religion (compare also Acts 5:17; 15:5; 24:5; 28:22). The word "factious" (or it could be translated sectarian) is used to translate the Greek hairetikon in Tit 3:10.
It appears then that heretics are regarded as erring members of the faith community, and apostates, on the other hand, are no longer members of the faith community but have completely given up the faith.
There were in the early period no generally accepted standards for judging Christian beliefs, until in the fourth and fifth centuries one group from among the early competing factions in the Jesus gatherings achieved an ascendency in the ancient world. The ascendant group called themselves "the Orthodox." They adopted a canon (our current Bible more or less3) and creeds (the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed4). Then they judged others by the beliefs they developed for their own religious communities, and called those in other Jesus gatherings who had different views, "heretics." Of course those that the Orthodox declared to be heretical had a name for the orthodox—it was "heretic." In the game of right belief and wrong belief with respect to religion, the correct answer depends on whose argument one finds most persuasive.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1 See Hedrick, "Did Jesus Believe in the Christian Hell?" Wry Guy Blog, September 9, 2017.
2 See Hedrick, "Does Hell Exist," Wry Guy Blog, August 29, 2015.
3 See Hedrick, "When did the Bible become the Word of God?" Wry Guy Blog, January 26, 2015.
4 See Bettenson and Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church (3rd ed.; Oxford, 1999), 25-29.