The Use of the Term "Heretic"

The following is an excerpt from The Non-Orthodox....

Finally, a brief word on the use of a term that unfortunately has acquired quite a pejorative reputation. Fr. Seraphim Rose once wrote the following in a letter to a woman who was interested in becoming Orthodox but who was concerned about how some in the Church (usually converts) related to those outside of Her:

I was happy to receive your letter—happy not because you are confused about the question that troubles you, but because your attitude reveals that in the truth of Orthodoxy to which you are drawn you wish to find room also for a loving, compassionate attitude to those outside the Orthodox Faith.

I firmly believe that this is indeed what Orthodoxy teaches... .

The word "heretic" ... is indeed used too frequently nowadays. It has a definite meaning and function, to distinguish new teachings from the Orthodox teaching; but few of the non-Orthodox Christians today are consciously "heretics," and it really does no good to call them that.

In the end, I think, Father Dimitry Dudko’s attitude is the correct one: We should view the non-Orthodox as people to whom Orthodoxy has not yet been revealed, as people who are potentially Orthodox (if only we ourselves would give them a better example!). There is no reason why we cannot call them Christians and be on good terms with them, recognize that we have at least our faith in Christ in common, and live in peace especially with our own families. St. Innocent’s attitude to the Roman Catholics in California is a good example for us. A harsh, polemical attitude is called for only when the non-Orthodox are trying to take away our flocks or change our teachings. [1]

We live in a culture of extreme atheistic relativism, where the only dogma tolerated is that we should be intolerant of those who actually believe there are dogmas reflecting absolute truth. Combine this with popular attitudes reflecting sensitivity to "multi-cultural diversity" and "politically correct language" and the terms "heretic" and "heresy" end up seeming harsh and "unloving." Yet these Traditional terms, found often in the writings of the Fathers, should not be viewed by informed and sober-minded people in such an emotionally negative way.

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... [T]hese 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 Church ... [2]

Western Christians should keep in mind that the position of the Church against heretics and heretical teachingmost forcefully stated in Her various anathemas—has arisen, and will continue to arise as long as She contends in this world for pastoral reasons (e.g. to guard the flock and awaken those in error), not to harshly condemn others. As Archbishop Chrysostomos points out:

[W]e must realize that the Orthodox Church is "catholic." It is meant for everyone. When, therefore, we seek to protect those within the Church from the bacterium of non-Orthodox belief, we must be constantly aware that this is for the purpose also of preserving Orthodoxy as a pure standard for all those who confess Christ (if not for all of those who are not, in fact, confessors of the Christian Faith). We wish to preserve perfectly and in full force the bread of salvation taught to us by the Prophets, the Savior, the Apostles, and the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, lest we offer stones in the name of Orthodoxy. Our exclusivity, our apparent disdain for the religious observances of others, and our fear of the relativism of even the best-intentioned ecumenists are things that ultimately derive from pure and true ecumenism, which is expressed in the missionary spirit of desiring with the whole heart and soul to bring all mankind to Orthodoxy. We must remember this. And if we do remember it, then we will be very careful not to hurt, to insult, or to humiliate non-Orthodox. All spiritual actions are, of course, meant to benefit our own souls; but, at the same time, they are aimed at the salvation of our fellow man. [3]

Furthermore, to lovingly help a heterodox Christian see the errors in the teachings that they hold, and that they are outside of the Church and in need of being ingrafted to Her, is an act of love. One should not be fooled by the "love" that ecumenists typically exhibit for the heterodox. For it is one that is typically born of dogmatic minimalism and religious syncretism—in short, one that fails to speak the truth and thus merely confirms the heterodox in their errors. This passage from the writings of Saint Maximus the Confessor illustrates the spirit of "true ecumenism":

I write these things not wishing to cause distress to the heretics or to rejoice in their illtreatment—God forbid; but, rather, rejoicing and being gladdened at their return. For what is more pleasing to the Faithful than to see the scattered children of God gathered again as one? Neither do I exhort you to place harshness above the love of men. May I not be so mad! I beseech you to do and to carry out good to all men with care and assiduity, becoming all things to all men, as the need of each is shown to you; I want and pray you to be wholly harsh and implacable with the heretics only in regard to cooperating with them or in any way whatever supporting their deranged belief. For I reckon it misanthropy and a departure from Divine love to lend support to error, that those previously seized by it might be even more greatly corrupted. [4]

In short, I do think it is best to be extremely careful when using the terms "heresy" and "heretic." They are unfortunately loaded with many negative connotations, perhaps making them an unwise choice of words depending upon the recipient. When not in the hands of a person who is "wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove" (St. Matt. 10:16), they could be misconstrued as a statement about one’s sincerity or love for God—which may be real and profound—or about their eternal destiny. Though a use of these terms is clearly warranted by Holy Tradition and the example of the God-bearing Fathers, it can also be an occasion for abuse, especially by those who do not "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15).


1. Christensen, 757-758.

2. "What Is Heresy?," St. Nectarios Education Series No. 63.

3. Orthodox Tradition, Vol. IV, No. 3, 20. Though this is more applicable to the determination of heresy in a member of the Church, it is worth repeating here:

[W]hen the Church issues statements against a heresy, it is readily cognizant of its responsibility to exercise ‘economy’ in the case of those who unknowingly fall to misbelief, and it never issues its condemnations with the intention of destroying souls, but of awakening those in the dark sleep of error and bringing them to repentance. ( "The True Nature of Heresy," 76-77)

4. Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 91 col. 465c; as cited in The Panheresy of Ecumenism, by Metropolitan Cyprian of Orpos and Fili (Etna, CA: The Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1995), 32.