Heresy is defined in number of different ways. Many of the common usages of the term heresy leads to a great misunderstanding of its original intent. It is important that we properly define heresy so that we can understand it from its biblical context. For the Christian, understanding it within its scriptural context is imperative.
First of all, heresy does not carry an inherent negative connotation. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says, “In classical Greek, it may be used either in a good or a bad sense, first, simply for “choice,” then, “a chosen course of procedure,” and afterward of various schools and tendencies.” It also goes on to say, “Polybius refers to those devoting themselves to the study of Greek literature as given to the Hellenikḗ haı́resiš. It was used not simply for a teaching or a course followed, but also for those devoting themselves to such pursuit, namely, a sect, or assembly of those advocating a particular doctrine or mode of life.”
So, heresy is not a dirty word. In its base form it simply refers to those who advocate a particular doctrine or creed. Vincent says, “The word is commonly used in an indifferent sense, as signifying merely a school or party.” Concerning the neutral nature of the word heresy Albert Barnes says it is, “not error of doctrine,” but, “producing division or schism.” Heresy is division: sometimes it is caused by false doctrine, but sometimes it is caused by true doctrine; in either case it is heresy.
Thayer defines heresy as, “dissensions arising from diversity of opinions and aims,” and, “4) a body of men following their own tenets (sect or party) 4a) of the Sadducees 4b) of the Pharisees 4c) of the Christians.” Scripture defines heretics as those who “draw away disciples” (Acts 20:30).
The term heresy is translated by the KJV in the book of Acts as, "sect." There was the sect of the Sadducees (Acts 5:17), the sect of the Pharisees (Acts 15:5; 26:5), the sect of the Nazarenes (Acts 24:5) and the sect of the Christians (Acts 28:22; 24:14). Each of these sects are heresies.
While heresy can refer to a sect that causes division by false doctrine, heresy does not inherently include false doctrine. There are good heresies. Christianity is a heresy, because Christianity is divisive. As the founder of this heresy/sect, Jesus was a heretic; as preachers of this heresy, the Apostles were heretics; as followers of Christ, Christians are heretics. The Apostle Paul gladly accepts the label of heresy.
“But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets:” Acts 24:14 KJV
Some may argue that Paul is not accepting the label of heretic, he is only saying that “they call” it heresy. Just because “they” say it does not mean that it is not true. Christianity was the ultimate example of a heresy, or sect. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown makes the point that Paul is arguing that his new Christianity is a continuation of, and more fully expresses the worship of his ancestors, therefore it is just a different sect of worshipping the one God of his fathers:
“Two arguments are contained here: (1) Our nation is divided into what they call sects - the sect of the Pharisees, and that of the Sadducees - all the difference between them and me is, that I belong to neither of these, but to another sect, or religious section of the nation, which from its Head they call Nazarenes: for this reason, and this alone, am I hated. (2) The Roman law allows every nation to worship its own deities; I claim protection under that law, worshipping the God of my ancestors, even as they, only of a different sect of the common religion.”
Further proof that Paul accepts that he is part of a heresy is in his statement, “I confess” (Acts 24:14). What is he confessing to? He is confessing to the charge that he was “a ringleader in the heresy of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). He plainly confesses that he is a part of the Nazarene heresy, or sect.
“The only charge left was that of being a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. This Paul frankly confesses is true. He uses the word in its full sense. He is “guilty” of that.”
“he admits that he belonged to that sect or class of people. That he was a Christian he neither denied, nor was disposed to deny.”
Christianity is heresy, or source of division, that is a good heresy. But, there are also bad heresies; there are things that cause division within the body of Christ. Heresy is a bad thing when men use their opinions as a tool to segregate from the rest of the body in matters where charity expects tolerance. Heresies, or sects, can be formed over doctrines or personalities that are acceptable.
Heresy is Corinth dividing over Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter) and Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12). You had the Paulian heresy/sect; the Apollonian heresy/sect; the Kephian heresy/sect; and the Christian heresy/sect. There is nothing wrong with Paul, Apollos, Cephas or Christ, but when it becomes a tool to divide the body of Christ, it becomes a heresy.
Heresy is Corinth excluding their fellow Christians over eating meats sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8 & 10). It is perfectly acceptable to either eat, or not eat (Romans 14:6, 21-22; 1 Corinthians 10:31); however, it becomes a heresy when you eat or do not eat to the division of the body of Christ (Romans 14:3).
Based on these briefly alluded to texts, allow me to define heresy. Heresy: "When one side of Christian liberty creates Christian law to the exclusion of the other side of Christian liberty." A heretic is sometimes the person, who based on a permissible concept, isolates himself and his followers into their own sect that judges the rest of the body of Christ. Proverbs describes the heretic perfectly:
“Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. 2 A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” Proverbs 18:1-2 ESV
THE SPIRIT OF HERESY
Proverbs 18:1-2 perfectly identifies the spirit of the heretic. It is not about doctrine, it is about self-promotion. Who better embodies this spirit than Diotrephes?
“I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. 10 Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church.” 3 John 1:9-10 KJV
Heresy is not about doctrine, it is about preeminence!
This is a very short look at what could be a long topic. I hope that this allows you to look at heresy with a fresh perspective. Please feel free to comment.
 International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Retrieved from E-Sword 09.04.11
 Vincent’s Word Studies, Retrieved from E-Sword 09.04.11
 Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Retrieved from E-Sword 09.04.11
 Henry, Joseph H., Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon, Retrieved from E-Sword 09.04.11
 Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary, Retrieved from E-Sword 09.04.11
 Robertson’s Word Pictures, Retrieved from E-Sword 09.04.11
 Albert Barnes Notes on the Bible, Retrieved from E-Sword 09.04.11
 Thank you Shane Cheek for the reference to the ESV on this text.