What Is Heresy?
There are not a few
Orthodox who are confused about the place of their Church ln the
20th century and the religious milieu through which She is
passing. Part of their concern (i.e., those who think seriously
about their religion) of the question of what ought to be our
relationship with the non-Orthodox. For such a long time, the
Church was friendly towards but not ever intimate with the
various Christian denominations. But now many Orthodox bishops
and priests are saying and doing things which some of us do not
understand and, some of us, do not wish to hear and see.
No longer are the Orthodox told
that their Church is the true Church the Catholic Church, the
Church of the Prophets, Apostles and Fathers. And indeed, we are
no longer given the advice,
"Keep away from all
heretics and schismatics, neither pray with them nor attend
their religious meetings and services." 
There appears to be a
contradiction here. Beliefs which have been held to be true and
unchangeable are now suddenly being challenged by those sworn to
uphold them. New ideas seem to be entering a Church which had
always boasted that She had never added to nor subtracted from
the Apostolic Faith.
In part, our present confusion is
the result of worldly temptations, but more unhappily it is the
consequence of ignorance: the Orthodox do not know what the
Church is nor what Her relationship with non-Orthodox ought to
be. Many of us do not know that the Church the Lord established
is One, because God is One and there is but one Messiah; Her
Faith is one, because Christ did not leave humanity numerous and
conflicting sets of belief; and there is but one Baptism, because
there is but one Church into which a man is incorporated.
Of course, there are those who
insist they are members of the Church of Christ despite the fact
that, if their claim were true, the Church would no longer be
trustworthy nor worthy of obedience. Why obey what cannot be
trusted? Why believe what is doubtful? Why belong to a fellowship
which could mislead us? To be sure, if the teachings of the
Church are wrong, then, why not find "my own truth?"
But Jesus Christ did render His Church incapable of error and He
gave Her the Holy Spirit to that end (John 15: 26). It follows,
then, that all those who disagree with the religious teachings of
Orthodoxy are "heretics" and their false ideas
This language may "turn
off" some people, but it is only because they do not know
what is meant by the terms "heretic" and
"heresy" and the necessity for them. The explanation
above is only partial; perhaps, a few more details will help us
to understand why these words have been in the theological
glossary of the Orthodox Church from the beginning.
A "heretic" is simply
one who maintains a "heretical doctrine." The sincerity
and good will of the "heretic" is not in question.
Nevertheless, "heresy" is evil, because it is a
powerful means by which the Devil seeks to "prevail"
against the Churchsomething he will not do, according to the
Lord's promise (Matt. 16: 18). It must be distinguished from
"splitting" (echiamos), "factions" (eritheiai),
and "disputes" (dichostasai) which occur within
the Church (Gal. 5:20). Heresy, at first, is a
"leaving" or "falling away" from the Church (apostasia)
and eventually hardens into a "sect" (hairesis).
One may also be expelled from the community of believers on
account of false teachings. The Scriptures call
"heretics" "false teachers," "denying
the Master," "deceivers." 
Listen to what Saint Ambrose of
Milan says about "heresy" and "heretics":
"Or, like same dread and
monstrous Scylla, divided into many shapes of unbelief,
heresy displays, as a mask to her guile, the pretense of
being a Christian sect, but those wretched men who she finds
tossed to and fro on the waves of her unhallowed strait, amid
the wreckage of their faith, she, girt with beastly monster,
rends them with cruel fang on her blasphemous doctrine" 
And St. Cyril of Jerusalem says:
"For men have fallen
away from the right Faith... And formerly the heretics were
manifest, but now the Church is filled with heretics in
disguise, for men have turned from the truth and have itching
ears (II Tim. 4: 3)." 
In other words, heretics are
those who cling to false doctrines. They have always existed and
always will (Matt. 17: 7). Some have left the Church and formed a
"sect." The "sect" becomes a historical
entity which propagates itself, standing aa a rival to the
Church. The Church takes names"catholic,"
"orthodox," "true," "apostolic"
etc.in order to dintinguish Herself from them. She generally
gives those "sects" the name of their leader or first
principle (e.g., the Arians after Arlus, the Nestorians after
Nestorius, the Iconoclasts after Iconoclasm, Papists after the
followers of the Pope, Calvinism after John Calvin, Lutheranism
after Martin Luther, etc.) "Protestantism" is the
collective name of those "sects" which emerged from
Papism in the 16th century.
There are, too, heretics who not
as if they were members of the Church, the Orthodox Church, while
in fact they are not. They are wolves in sheep's clothing,"
"tares among the wheat'" heretics in disguise."
These are most common in an age of social, political and
theological turmoil (e.g., during the 4th century merger of the
Church with the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Turkish
domination, the Bolshevik Revolution, post-World War I and II,
etc.). In our own day, we have "ecumenists" who have
denied that the Orthodox Church is the Church of Christ. Although
they masquerade as bishops and priests (and laymen), they are
really no longer members of the Church. They can be recognized by
thelr conduct contrary to the canons and an attitude contrary to
the spirit of the Fathers. They have not departed of been
expelled, because they are deceived and deceiving.
Now that we have learned, in very
general terms, what "heresy" and "heretics"
are what specifically is their crime their Cyprian
compares heretlcs to "the sons of Aaron, who placed strange
fire (heresy) upon the Altar of God," that is,
"despising God's Tradition, seek after strange doctrines and
bring in teachings of human appointment". 
Similarly, St. Irenaeus
says that heretics do not follow the Apostolic Tradition,
Christ's teachings "derived from the Apostles" and
delivered "to our time by means of the succession of
bishops".  And, indeed, there are no bishops without
that Tradition and no Traditlon without bishops.
What is the Tradition of the
Apostles? It is the religious truth revealed by God to the
Prophets which foretold Jesus Christ; and when He came,
fulfilling the prophetic types and beliefs, the Lord taught the
fullnes of truth to His Apostles. They gave that truth to the
Church. The Fathers witnessed to it, the Councils formulated it,
the Liturgy embodied it for worship the bishops taught it and the
Faithful defended lt. The Apostolic Tradition is, then, "the
faith of Jesus Christ" handed over, continuously and
unchanged, from one generation of Orthodox Christians to another,
the Holy Spirit guiding its transmission and protecting its
contentsdespite the malice of Satan and the weakness of men.
Again, departure from the
Apostolic Tradition is "heresy" and, therefore, along
with the ancient "sects," the Orthodox Church counts
Papists and Protestants as "heretics"the recent
declaration of some Orthodox "ecumenists"
notwithstanding. One need only read the sermons and treatises of
Orthodox theologians from St. Photius to St. Mark of Ephesus.
Likewise, the rejection of Lutheranism by The Three Answers of
Patriarch Jeremiah II (1567) or the condemnation of "all
Western innovations" by the Councils of Jassy (1642) and
Jerusalem (1672). The Orthodox Councils of the 18th and 19th
century make it clear that Protestants and Papists are heretics
as do the encyclicals of the Eastern Patriarchs (1848, 1895). In 1904, the Holy Russian Synod urged
Western Christians to come to the Orthodox Church, "the Ark
of Salvation." Two years before, the famous Joachim II, the
Ecumenical Patriarch declared, "Our desire is that all the
heterodox (heretics) shall come into the bosom of the Orthodox
Church of Christ which alone is able to give them
salvation." Until very recently, the Church has made the
same statements at WCC meetings (e.g., Oberlin).
To summarize, then,
"heresy" is an error in theological teachings, a
turning away from the Apostolic Tradition, and involves a loss of
membership in the Church of Christ whether by "falling
away" or "expulsion. Heretics usually form
"sects" which become historically competitive to the
Church. From these "sects" others may or may not
emerge. "Heresy" must be distinguished from
"schism" or internal disputes, factions or groups
within the Church which have seceded from the lawful government
of the Church. "Heresy" and "heretics" have
existed from the time of the Apostles and exist today whether as
"sects" outside the Church or "heretics in
disguise" within the Church (or so it appears). Yet, to use
the words of St. Ambrose, both "apostates" and
"sectarians'' are veritatis inimici (inimical to the
truth) and impugnatores fides (assailers of the faith).
They are not just those who leave the Church, but those who are
born in heresy long after the first dissenter departed with his
private theological opinions.
St. Nectarios Educational Series No. 63
1. The 4th Commandment of the
Eastern Orthodox Church as stated in The Prayer Book for
Eastern Orthodox Christians, compiled by the Rev. Peter H.
Horton-Billard and the Rev. Vasile Hategan; translated and edited
by the Very Rev. Michael G. H. Gelsinger. New York, 1944, p. 15.
This collection of Orthodox prayers and devotions was distributed
to the Orthodox in the Armed Forces of the United States during
World War II.
2. On "heresy" and
"heretics", see Tit. 3: 10; Gal. 1: 8-9; Heb. 13: 9; II
Peter 2:1; II John 7; Jude 4.
3. On the Christian
Faith, book I, chapter 6, 46.
4. Catech. Lectures XV, 9.
5. On the Unity of the Church,
6. Against Her. III,