A matter that has been on my mind for some time now is the issue of false teachers and how to approach them and their teaching. That false teachers will exist is essentially a given in the pages of Scripture; simply see 1 John 4:1 (“for many false prophets have gone out into the world”) and 2 Peter 2:1 (“there will be false teachers among you”) as representative examples.
As we look through the Bible’s teaching on the topic, we see that there exists for every Christian a responsibility to be on guard against false teaching and to test doctrine. This same responsibility is especially laid upon the shepherds, that they would guard their flocks from any infiltration of false doctrine. Guarding against false teaching therefore indicates that the teaching must be refuted and, oftentimes, that false teachers be called out. With these things in mind, I would like to survey how the Bible speaks to each of these matters.
Responsibility of Every Christian
The Scriptural expectation for all Christians is that they would hold fast to the true gospel and be on guard against false teachings. They are not to support false teachers and they are to reject false doctrine. See the following passages:
1 John 4:1-3 — 1Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
The epistle of 1 John is written to a general audience, meaning that all Christians are in view as John warns all believers against false teaching. Part of the reason John writing this epistle seems to be to warn the recipients against a teaching known as Docetism, a teaching that denied that Jesus truly came in the flesh and that he only appeared to be incarnated (the name coming from the Greek word dokeo (δοκέω), meaning “to seem” or “to appear”). Thus, as John writes, he calls on each recipient to be on guard against this false teaching and to test whether a teaching is actually in accord with the gospel, providing his readers a litmus test to see what is true doctrine and what is not. The responsibility for guarding against the false teaching did not lie with only John but also with all those believers who may encounter it.
Romans 16:17-19 — 17I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. 19For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.
Paul’s epistle to the Romans is addressed to the Roman church at large, hence its admonitions, such as those quoted above, would apply equally to all members of the church. Each Christian in this regard again has the responsibility to be on guard against false teachers and to avoid them.
Galatians 1:6-9 — 6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.
Paul’s rebuke upon the Galatians falls upon all, not merely the leadership of the church. The failure of the Galatian church to be faithful to the gospel message was a failure of the whole congregation. In application, the doctrinal purity of the church is thus a corporate matter and the whole congregation is to ensure that false teachers and false gospels are not tolerated.
Colossians 2:8 — 8See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
Paul again addresses the church as a whole. He puts it upon the whole congregation to ensure that they are not led away by false teaching by rather being rooted in the doctrines of Christ. Each person is responsible for himself.
2 John 8-11 — 8Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. 9Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, 11for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.
Now there is some debate over to whom the epistle of 2 John is addressed, with some holding a straightforward understanding of “the elect lady and her children” and some considering this to be a euphemism for a church (the lady) and its members (the children). Regardless of understanding, the letter is still addressed to ordinary believers and does not presuppose the addressees to be in a position of authority in the church. While not receiving someone into your house may seem strange, what is in view here is providing this person support by housing him. In this sense, John is telling the recipients to be sure they are not providing any endorsement or any support to a false teacher.
Jude 3-4 — 3Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. 4For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Jude felt it necessary to here warn the believers against the false teachers that had infiltrated the church. In light of this, he wants the believers to fight for the true faith, the true doctrine, that had been delivered to them.
Responsibility of the Shepherds
In addition to the general expectation laid out for all believers, there is an added element of responsibility laid upon the shepherds of a church (elders/pastors). It is their duty to watch over the congregation and they are to refute false teaching as part of their defense. Shepherd is quite an apropos term to apply to the leaders of a church, for in addition to gently leading the flock, it is their responsibility to guard it against wolves.
Acts 20:28-31 — 28Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.
The context of this passage is Paul addressing the Ephesian elders for the final time as he is returning to Jerusalem. Note who made these men overseers of the church and who the church belongs to: the Holy Spirit made them overseers and the church belongs to God. These elders have been given a sacred responsibility to guard the doctrinal purity of the church over and above the general members of the church. In keeping with the imagery of shepherds protecting their sheep from wolves, lions, and other predators that would seek to do it harm, shepherds (elders/pastors) have the responsibility to ward off the “wolves” of false doctrine that would seek to harm the flock.
Titus 1:9-11 — 9He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. 10For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.
As Paul gives Titus instructions on the qualifications for elders, he explains the purpose for why they must be doctrinally sound: not only is it so that they may be able to teach, but so that they can also refute false doctrine. This is part of the particular responsibility given to shepherds, for the shepherd guards the flock by demonstrating why false teaching is indeed false.
Addressing False Teaching
How is one then to address false teaching? Do we simply address the doctrine or do we name names when it comes to the teachers?
The epistles would seem to give us a good model for addressing doctrinal error in the church. In fact, the occasions for many of them would appear to be to address some false teaching or doctrinal error that had been troubling the particular church. These letters were written to correct the error, so that the church could either course correct or be aware that this teaching (or practice) was wrong. Generally speaking, the correction was done by addressing only the false doctrine and correcting it. Now while the correction was general, it is quite likely that the words used would have brought specific teachers to mind. The Apostles were not shy about correcting false teaching; they did not consider it impolite to use direct and strong language. The goal was not to guard the feelings and sensibilities of the listeners and readers, but to call attention to the false teaching and provide correction for it. Consider these examples, in addition to the above:
2 Corinthians 11:3-4, 12-15 — 3But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. 4For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough… 12And what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. 13For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.
Paul appears to have in mind specific people who are troubling the Corinthian church and who are trying to undermine Paul’s ministry. Though he does not name names, the context would seem to indicate that Corinthians would be well aware of whom Paul was referring to. In this instance, Paul very emphatically calls these people out and uses rather strong language in referring to them; to call someone a servant of Satan is no small matter. These were people who the Corinthians church needed warned about because of what they were purveying.
Colossians 2:16-19 — 16Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
Remember that Colossians is a letter to be read corporately to the church. The Colossians had false teachers that were moving actively among them. In this passage here, Paul would have been adopting their language and calling them out quite openly. There would have been no doubt who Paul was addressing in the Colossian mind.
1 Timothy 19b-20 — 19By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.
2 Timothy 2:16-18 — 16But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, 17and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.
2 Timothy 4:14-15 — 14Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. 15Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message.
It is interesting to note the progression that we see in Hymenaeus. In Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, Hymenaeus would appear to have apostatized and wandered away from the faith. By the time of the second epistle, he seems to have become an outright enemy of the church, openly teaching false doctrine. This is a teacher that Paul specifically warns Timothy about, and, by proxy, the church at Ephesus where Timothy was serving.
An objection could be that Hymenaeus and Alexander are specifically mentioned in these two epistles because they are personal in nature. After all, they likely are named because they were people known to both Paul and Timothy, and who had probably both been fellow workers for the gospel at one point in time. Would this then indicate these sorts of rebukes should only be done privately? I believe there are several defeaters to suggesting that the epistles to Timothy are only intended for Timothy. 1) Both 1 and 2 Timothy close with a benediction of “grace be with you” (Ἡ χάρις μεθ’ ὑμῶν) wherein which the “you” (ὑμῶν) is plural, indicating that Paul expected these letters to be read to the church. Along the same lines, his epistle to Titus, also a personal pastoral letter, closes with a benediction of “grace be with you all,” showing that this was also not private. 2) By virtue of the fact that 1 and 2 Timothy are in our canon and were used by the early church, these letters would hardly seem to be merely personal if they were used widely as authoritative for the church.
2 John 10-11 — 10If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, 11for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.
While the word “anyone” may be general when presented in theory, it becomes very specific when put into practical application. The recipients of John’s letter need to be able to recognize someone who is a false teacher and purposely not lend any support or credence to that false teacher.
Galatians 2:11-14 — 11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
This instance between Peter and Paul presents an interesting case to consider, for one could hardly call Peter a false teacher. However, in this case, Peter was being influenced by the Judaizers and was implicitly lending support to them by his actions. Because Peter’s actions were out of step with the gospel, Paul called him out publicly because he was compromising the faith of others (Barnabas and the rest of the Jews). This would seem to indicate that some instances of calling out false teaching involve brothers or sisters in Christ and calling them to repentance for their compromise.
I believe the implications for these principles may be rather far reaching with the rise of the internet and the spread of many teachers’ influence far beyond their local sphere. Since it is every Christian’s responsibility to be on guard against false teaching, they need to be aware of what teaching they are allowing to influence them or to whom they appear to lend their support (2 John 8-11). Consider whether it is wise to share that quote from that teacher or whether to recommend that book. These are ways that we implicitly approve of people who may be false teachers. I’m not saying to be scared of anyone who is doctrinally unsound, but rather be aware of what message you may be sending in regards to certain people and be sure that they are not approached uncritically. There is simply much more room in the present time to allow false teachers to easily influence us than there was in time past.
Remember that shepherds especially have a particular responsibility to combat false teaching. They have been entrusted with the care of the church of God, and part of that care is preventing false teaching from creeping in. As we have seen, part of the reason that elders are to be doctrinally sound and able to teach is so that they are able to rebuke incorrect teaching. They are on the front lines of guarding their flocks against the infiltration of false doctrine.
A point for consideration: in light of the principles above, the type of false teaching and its general influence should likely drive the manner in which false teaching is dealt with. For example, suppose I hear of some obscure teaching that is being peddled by two or three guys in the next town, I likely do not need to address this since probably nobody in my congregation is being influenced by this or has ever heard of it. If that teaching, however, starts making inroads into my congregation, then I am then obligated to act against it as part of keeping watch over the flock. Those teachings that specifically threaten my congregation or the church at large will merit more specific refutations. Many times, this will involve specifically calling out false teachers by name or refuting their teaching using their language so that those who are unaware may be warned that danger lurks in that person’s teaching. The point being, we should not be running around trying to find all false teachings, but focus should be given only to those that are a direct threat and potential influence in our contexts.
I present this survey on false teaching here as my rationale for why I will address false teaching on this site. There are specific streams that I consider to be large threats to the church, and so in the spirit of warning against the dangers and in the spirit of refuting false doctrine, I will write about them to specifically point out their errors. My primary mode for this will be to deal with the teachings of real people, not just hypothetical “people” somewhere out there that teach wrong doctrine. By engaging with actual people by name, this accomplishes two goals: 1) I identify an actual source for the false teaching; and 2) I give name recognition that this is someone to beware of. I will not engage with minor figures or the guy down the street, but only with those whose teachings influence literally millions of Christians and who have put their ideas and false doctrine into the public sphere, which I will address publicly.
As a final point of application for those reading, my encouragement to you would be to take doctrine seriously. Study the Word. Be rooted in the gospel. See to it that you are not taken captive by false teaching.
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