Divisions in the Early Church

It did not take long for serious divisions to threaten the unity of the Church. St. Paul lamented the “divisions” in the Church in Corinth (1 Cor. 11:18) — and he feared that legitimate differences were producing illegitimate factions. To depart, in any way, from the apostolic teaching about Jesus Christ was to preach or worship a different Christ. It was a form of idolatry, and so it was the most loathsome of sins. Heresy — the word is now a technical term that denotes the denial of revealed truth, the adherence to a religious opinion that contradicts Christian dogma. St. Pe­ter warned against it in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:1).

This article is from the Catholic Viewer’s Guide to AD: The Bible Continues (airs Sundays at 9/8c). Read more of this fascinating history in Ministers and Martyrs.

The apostolic age saw many threats to Christian unity. They were not alternative forms of Christianity, equally as valid as the Apostles’ preaching. They were counter­feits, as worthless, false, and destructive as phony currency. Most of the heresies that would arise in later centuries were simply variations on themes that had already been evident in the apostolic age. A few examples follow.

Simony is the idea that spiritual goods can be bought or sold. It is named for Simon of Samaria, a strange figure in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8:9-24). A magician, he made great claims for himself. Hearing the Gospel, however, he accepted Christ and was baptized; but, seeing the Apostles’ evident power, he was filled with envy, and offered them money if they would share their power with him. Peter cursed Si­mon for his blasphemous proposal, and Simon was subdued by fear. But there is some evidence that Simon persisted in false teaching and eventually established himself as a teacher in Rome.

Judaizing: in his letter to the Gala­tians, St. Paul refuted the idea that Gentiles must first submit to Jewish law before they could be admitted to the Church. Judaizers in Galatia were requiring Gentile converts to undergo circumcision and keep a kosher diet. Paul insisted that these ritual laws had been rendered obsolete by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The Apostles meeting in council also condemned the practices of the Judaizers (Acts 15). The problem would continue to resurface throughout the early centuries of the Church, but the movements always remained small.

Docetism: the name was coined later to describe a heresy already evident in the time of the Apostles. It describes those who denied Jesus’ true humanity, teaching instead that He only seemed to be a man. (The Greek word for “to seem” is dokeo.) The letters of St. John deal repeatedly with the problem and prescribe excommuni­cation as its solution (2 John 1:7-11; see also 1 John 4:2-3).

Gnosticism is the name given by later Fathers to the elitist heresies that empha­sized esoteric “knowledge” (Greek gnosis) over faith and love. St. Paul may have been combating these ideas when he warned the Corinthians: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. If any one imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if one loves God, one is known by him” (1 Cor. 8:1-3).

Editor’s note: This article is the tenth part in a 12-part series exploring the Catholic background behind NBC’s A.D. The Bible Continues (watch on Sundays at 9/8c).Check back each Friday for a new entry. As well, you can get The Catholic Viewers Guide for A.D. as well as Ministers and Martyrs, or order both as a set to save 25%.

Mike Aquilina


Mike Aquilina is the award-winning author of more than forty books on Catholic history, doctrine, and devotion. His works have been translated into many languages. He has hosted nine television series and several documentary films and is a frequent guest on Catholic radio.

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  • kaysandee

    Why do we call Protestants our “separated brothers and sisters in Christ” and also call Protestantism heresy? If Luther was excommunicated it was for heretical teaching and lack of submission to the Magisterium, correct?

  • kirk

    This comes from asking Google the question about the relationship between Catholics and Protestants:
    Full Question:
    “What relationship does the Catholic Church perceive to exist between itself and various Protestants (the baptized ones who still accept their faith)? ”

    “Validly baptized Protestants are regarded as true Christian brothers and sisters who are in imperfect relationship with the Church. The nature of the imperfections is as varied as Protestantism itself. The idea at work here is that the faith is an incarnational thing, not just a “spiritual” (disembodied) thing—just like Jesus himself. Thus, it is possible to be out of union with the Church “bodily” (structurally, sacramentally, liturgically), yet still have a spiritual unity with the Church. Likewise, it is possible to be “bodily” united to the Church yet cease to be in communion with her spiritually (as an apostate Catholic is if he keeps going to Communion yet rejects the creed or continues unrepentant in grave sin). The latter form of disunity with Church is more serious than the former.”
    As a former Protestant myself, I can vouch for the total commitment to their Christian message, both in belief and practice. This includes baptism, repentance, and holy living – though without calling them “Sacraments” in the full sense.. Can you imagine a God who would anathematize individuals who love God and believe in Jesus with all their heart, mind and soul, yet for generations have been taught Protestant precepts for nearly 500 years? I was raised by and know many wonderful Protestant Christian people who know their faith and Bible far better than many Catholics know theirs.
    I hope this answers your question, both by the Church’s teaching and by my less technical words. For further study, read the CCC (Catechism of the Catholic Church).

  • kaysandee

    Thanks Kirk. I appreciate and agree with your points as I was once a Protestant myself. But it still leaves a few unresolved issues. No, I cannot imagine an anathematizing God, but I don’t want to idealize God either especially in light of what happened to Dathan and Abiram and others. I have read the Catechism, but the question still remains – Was Luther’s “new religion” heresy? Pelagianism, the opposite of Protestantism, was considered heresy. and at the time of the Reformation, Protestantism was also considered error, if not out and out heresy. Just my thoughts. I still have family that is Protestant, thus the concern. If Luther’s view was considered heresy, then it has only grown in a more or less destructive manner considering the number of splits it has spawned.

  • noelfitz

    In many ways Luther’s beliefs remained Catholic, for example he always believed in the real presence.

  • Anthony Zarrella

    Yes, kaysandee, Luther’s teachings (and those of later Protestant leaders) were and are heresy. I’m sympathetic to your concerns, as my in-laws are Protestant as well (and very faith-filled people, at that).

    When you speak of “an anathematizing God”, however, I suspect you’re missing the distinction between “formal” heresy and “material” heresy (I don’t blame you – I’ve only been clear on the difference for about a year).

    “Material” heresy is simply when a person holds or professes beliefs that are in fact contrary to the teachings of the Church. Every Protestant is a material heretic, but so is a Catholic who believes something the Church denies (or vice versa) without realizing that his belief is in conflict with the Church. However, mere material heresy is “non-culpable” in most cases (that is, it’s not a sin, because the person isn’t truly responsible for it).

    “Formal” heresy, on the other hand, occurs when a person, knowing that the Church has Magisterial authority, nonetheless knowingly teaches something contrary to Church teaching. Formal heresy is a mortal sin, and (for Catholics) usually leads to excommunication.

    So, Luther was a formal heretic, as are the so-called Catholic “womenpriests” and (probably though not definitely) Nancy Pelosi (among others). The average Protestant, who grew up Protestant and never had any reason to believe in the truths of the Catholic faith is not – they are “separated brethren” who are innocently misled. The fault lies with their “false shepherds” (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc.) for leading them astray.

    This does not mean that non-Catholics can be secure in their salvation without coming into union with the Church – we should still pray for them and make every effort to draw them home! But it does mean that they are not actively sinning merely by failing to be Catholic (and that they are still “connected” in a sense to the Body of Christ, even if not perfectly united, so they have a chance at salvation – but that’s a whole can of worms, so I’ll leave it for another time).

  • kaysandee

    Precise explanation that actually answers my question! Thank you so much. My hope is renewed for my family members, even those on the Catholic side who disagree with Church teaching and don’t mind saying so. Thank you again!

  • Anthony Zarrella

    No problem! Glad to help!

  • noelfitz

    This is a great and consoling article, reminding us heresy is not of recent origin, and consoling us in this age of rampant heresies.