It was one of those moments that scratches itself into your mental furniture as if a bored adolescent with a sharp instrument had been let loose in your brain. I was sitting in a first-year church history lecture, and the lecturer asked us to “Put down your pens, turn to the person beside you, look into their eyes, shake their hand and say, ‘Hello, heretic’”. With embarrassed amusement, we dutifully did as we were told.
The memory of that class has never strayed far from me. The point being made was fair enough; we all had ideas that resembled those falsehoods about the nature of the Trinity and the person of Jesus condemned as heretical by the early church. The exercise was a call to humility, and a challenge to listen to each other and to the great ones of history while, at the same time, thinking hard about the Bible. However, I suspect that my memory of that event is so clear because of something else that I experienced—a strange unease about looking into the eyes of my friend and calling him a heretic. Not to mention that it wasn’t too comfortable being on the receiving end either!
The questions raised by that experience have persisted for me as I read and apply the Bible. For example, given the constant warning that false teaching will come from the midst of God’s people (Matt 7:15, Acts 20:29, 2 Pet 2:1), is it possible to encourage people to watch out for it without Bible study groups turning into police states? Or, in light of the strength of the language used to describe the false teachers in the New Testament, should you ever describe your fellow congregation member as a ‘waterless spring’ or a ‘slave of corruption’ (2 Pet 2:17, 19)? To put it simply, when does somebody’s false beliefs and speech become false teaching? Does sharing your wrong ideas make you a false teacher? And when you discover false teaching or false teachers, what should you do about it?
When is a false teacher?
Let’s start by examining when it’s appropriate to call someone a ‘false teacher’. The first problem you encounter when you read the New Testament is that there is more than one label. The term ‘false teacher’ only occurs once in the New Testament (2 Pet 2:1). But there are false prophets (Matt 7:15), false brothers (Gal 2:4), antichrists (1 John 2:18ff), false apostles (2 Cor 11:13) and wolves (Acts 20:29). Faced with such a myriad of options, how does one go about choosing the appropriate epithet for the situation? Should Athanasius have called Arius a wolf or an antichrist, or both?
Without wanting to argue the point in detail, it does not appear to this reader that the New Testament contains an approved naming scheme for gospel opponents. Paul and Peter appear to favour the ‘false’ language (e.g. 2 Cor 11:13, 11:26, Gal 2:4, 2 Pet 2:1), while John enjoys the potentially spicier ‘antichrist’ (e.g. 1 John 2:18, 2 John 7). But most authors use a variety of words to describe people with essentially the same characteristics—those who are either teaching falsehoods (e.g. 1 John 2:22), living in a way that rejects the lordship of Jesus (e.g. Titus 1:16) or doing both at the same time.
This observation leads naturally to the perennially contentious question of what untruths are untrue enough to warrant sanction. In light of the articles by Tony Payne and Mark Thompson in two (relatively) recent Briefings (#353 and #355), I do not want to take up that question here. But it’s worth remembering that there is plenty of obvious false teaching around. When a bishop tries to explain his homosexual relationship as an expression of Jesus’ love expounded in the gospel, or when a teacher tells you that the doctrine of Jesus’ atoning death in our place is a medieval invention that must be ditched in order to reach a new audience, God’s people generally know that something’s amiss. You don’t always need four years in a theological college to spot a false teacher.
However, as damning as it is to uncover someone believing untruth and acting in ungodliness, these criteria are not sufficient in themselves to warrant the label ‘false teacher’. The prostitute-visiting, temple-worshipping, factious, resurrection-denying Corinthians certainly exhibited enough deviation from the gospel to be considered false teachers (1 Cor 4, 6:12ff, 10:6ff, 15:1-58). However, Paul appealed to them as brothers (albeit immature brothers—1 Cor 3:1). Similarly, I would have thought that Paul’s injunctions against causing division in the body would make Euodia and Syntyche possible candidates for the label, but Paul entreated them as sisters (1 Cor 3, Phil 4:2).
So why did Paul invite the circumcisers in Galatia to “emasculate themselves” (Gal 5:12), but call the Corinthians back to the gospel that he preached to them and on which they took a stand? The answer lies in the history of each group’s relationship to the gospel.
1 Corinthians testifies to the importance of the Corinthians’ initial belief in many places. They heard Paul’s preaching and received the gospel (1 Cor 15:1). Paul called them ‘washed, sanctified and justified’ (1 Cor 6:11). Through Paul, the Corinthians had heard and responded to the gospel in a public manner.1 Therefore, Paul’s first response to their disobedience and false belief was not to label them as false teachers, but to treat them as brothers in need of rebuke and correction. There may have come a point when Paul treated them as false brothers (2 Cor 13:2) or, to use the language of John, when he told them that they were never “of us” (1 John 2:19). But because of the Corinthians’ response to the gospel, this was not Paul’s first response.
In summary, if someone appears in your congregation one Sunday and it becomes apparent that they are intent on spreading untruth, you will deal with them differently to the person starting to go off the rails who was converted in the congregation and who has served on parish council. However, Paul’s warning to the Ephesian elders still holds: the most dangerous wolves are the ones who will arise from among you (Acts 20:30). So our desire to treat those who are “of us” with more care needs to be balanced with the danger that people can use relational ties to cover up false teaching and false living.
Before we finish this section, there is one more distinction worth pointing out. Although the New Testament doesn’t explain it in detail, it is possible to distinguish between false believers and false teachers. Some people live falsely among the community of believers, but I am not sure that Paul would call them false teachers. The man in 1 Corinthians 5 who was sleeping with his father’s wife represents a danger to the Christian congregation (“a little leaven leavens the whole lump”—1 Cor 5:6). But the problem doesn’t seem to be that he was telling others to act like him, and he was not the same as the Corinthian super-apostles who were calling people to a different gospel (2 Cor 11:1-6). This may be the reason for Paul’s injunction to avoid the person who won’t obey apostolic teaching while not regarding him as an enemy (2 Thess 3:14-15).
In summary, the New Testament doesn’t present us with a detailed taxonomy for spotting and labelling false teachers. Instead, it gives us the facts: false belief and false living exist, and some people actively promote these things among Christians. Then it calls us to respond seriously to these realities. There is a distinction between false believers (brothers and sisters who are slowly fading away from Christianity) and false teachers (those who are actively promoting their false ideas). But both, in the end, present a threat to genuine Christianity.
How should we respond?
Having thought a little about when to call someone a ‘false teacher’, what does the New Testament say about how we should respond to them? As far as I can see, there are four key responses in the New Testament: rebuke them, name them, avoid them and silence them.
But here we get into particular difficulty. When it comes to thinking about Christian conflict and disagreement, many Christians tend to think in terms of the paradigm set out in Matthew 18:15-20: go to the one you disagree with on your own, and try to sort it out. If that fails, go to your brother with two or three witness. And if he still won’t repent, tell it to the church and treat him like a tax collector. It’s a healthy and helpful starting point—one that seems to lie behind Paul’s instructions to Titus on how to deal with divisive people and Paul’s pattern of relationship with the Corinthians (Titus 3:10, 2 Cor 13:2).
Taken in isolation, this position seems to indicate that naming, silencing and avoiding false teachers must always be preceded by private rebuke. But I am not convinced that this is so. John’s encouragement to his followers to refuse hospitality to false teachers does not seem to involve long and drawn out private examinations of those teachers (2 John 10-11). There are times when a false teacher and his teaching is public enough and false enough that we don’t start with a private word of exhortation. Instead, the false teacher and his teaching are to be met with public rebuke and rigorous opposition.
However, the rebuke should be delivered with a wise heart and a clear conscience. The aim of rebuke is never to puff ourselves up (Gal 6:1-5), but rather to bring about change in the person in question—even when that person is obviously an enemy of the gospel (e.g. 1 Tim 1:20, 2 Tim 2:25). If we aren’t praying for change and for God to be honoured, we should think twice before issuing the rebuke. Let those of an argumentative disposition take particular heed.
But rebuking is not the only appropriate response. The apostles were willing to name certain adversaries in an effort to encourage people to avoid them (1 Tim 1:20, 2 Tim 2:17, 4:14, Rom 16:17-18, 2 Tim 3:5). Both of these ideas feel a little uncomfortable to us. We live in a culture that likes to differentiate between people and their ideas; it’s acceptable to attack an idea, but not a person. But evil ideas go with sinful people, and the New Testament tells us to identify and deal with both. 2 Timothy 2:22-26 is particularly instructive in this regard. Paul begins by encouraging the young Timothy to avoid foolish and ignorant controversies (v. 23), but within two verses, he’s encouraging Timothy to correct his opponents (v. 25). Ideas and people are connected, or, to put it better, truth and falsehood and people are connected.
We need to be encouraged to see that there is a time and place for naming false teachers and pointing out their false teaching. And we need to be reminded that mature Christianity involves a healthy avoidance of false teaching. In my own experience, I have seen the effects of supposed ‘open-mindedness’ too often: some people feel the need to keep reading opinions from every viewpoint in order to avoid being brainwashed, but at the same time, their minds are being poisoned against scriptural truth. I am not advocating isolationism, or encouraging people to avoid all alternative viewpoints. But there is a difference between being injected with a small and controlled sample of a disease to increase your immunity and walking headlong into a disease-ravaged country in the vain hope that if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger. Christians need to be encouraged that it is wise and not narrow-minded to limit your diet of false teaching.
However, avoidance is not just about avoiding the teaching; there are clear examples in the New Testament where the avoidance is relational (2 Tim 3:5, Rom 16:17, 2 John 10-11). When our fellowship is likely to be perceived by the false teacher or by the congregation as a sign that the false teaching is acceptable, it’s time to make clear that we are not both part of Christ’s body. Obviously, this is awful, and it should never be done lightly. But is it something we would never do because it feels so wrong?
The final New Testament response is to silence the false teacher and their teaching (Titus 1:11). Paul isn’t encouraging pastors to carry pre-cut pieces of gaffer tape to plaster over offending mouths at the first sign of trouble. Instead, he wants them to preach against untruth and guard the pulpit carefully. In any congregation, the teaching platform is vital for the health of the congregation. It is not a place to be given to anyone who would like to speak, and it’s not for presenting every viewpoint in order to appear progressive and in touch with the world. We need to encourage our preachers to not be afraid to silence false teaching by teaching negatively—by pointing out error and warning us against it vigorously. The alternative is seeing households destroyed and the faith of God’s people crushed and abandoned (Titus 1:11). To be silent is to stop people from hearing the truth and knowing the living God who gave his Son for their salvation. Can we know God and be silent about false teaching?
A crisis of confidence
But if false teaching is so serious, why do we struggle to respond appropriately to it? Let me share a few observations.
Firstly, our Christian intuition leads many to be rightly tentative and careful about throwing around accusations of false teaching. Anyone who has understood the gospel has grasped the grace of God that refuses to treat us as we deserve. If we have been forgiven, why should we hold the errors of others over their heads? Should we not be ready to forgive others as God has forgiven us? When we read the New Testament, we see that godliness is defined by things like grace, peace, kindness, gentleness and love (e.g. Gal 5:22). To refute false teaching seems to run counter to the things we hold dear.
Secondly, this reticence to deal with false teaching and false living is further fed by the persistent reminder from some quarters that Christian unity is essential for evangelism. If we stand up and publicly rebuke or correct someone who calls themselves Christian, it will bring the gospel into disrepute and stop non-Christians listening to the words of life.
Thirdly (and this is not so much a new point as a continuation of the previous one), we have a righteous desire to be all things to all men so that some might be saved (1 Cor 9:22). Whether or not it is true, the worldly perception of religion as the cause of war and strife means that our desire to be united for the cause of the gospel fits neatly with the world’s prejudice that religion should be about ‘nice’ things. So in order to participate in the conversation so that our neighbours can hear the gospel, we bind ourselves to their rules (e.g. there is no absolute truth, and tolerance means saying every opponent is right in their own way).
An essential part of these rules is the atomization of truth. Truth is not a universal and interconnected whole; it is found in allowing a range of contradictory perspectives to be heard. The direct result is that we can always find something to praise in the thinking of another, while ignoring the devastating impact that their teaching, taken as a whole, might have on the Christian worldview.
Finally, the ethical imperative of pain prevents us from responding appropriately to false teaching. In a world without God, if something involves pain, it must be bad. We abort children with disabilities instead of giving birth to them and sentencing them and their families to a life of suffering. We pursue embryonic stem cell research because if we don’t, we won’t be able to cure people in pain. We must have euthanasia because asking someone to live with their pain is not fair. The avoidance of pain is one of the central desires of modern society, and Christians are not immune.
When faced with false teaching, the options are to stay silent or speak up. Given that silence appeals to our non-Christian neighbours, that it can be justified by godly principles, and that it results in greater personal comfort, it’s not surprising that silence is the option we often prefer.
The solution to false teaching
The New Testament is full of warnings against false teaching and false teachers because the gospel is about truth as well as love. It’s about justice and grace held together, not grace at the expense of justice. Christians have something to say to our world—not because we can accept the world’s presuppositions and argue better than they can on their terms, but because God has spoken something to us that nobody can understand apart from his revelation. Unity is never for unity’s sake; rather, it’s a result of sharing in the exclusive truth of God’s gospel—that Jesus is the only way to life and relationship with God.
Only by returning again and again to the gospel in all its fullness will we be persuaded of the need to tackle false teaching and given the spiritual backbone required to speak against it. It’s also the gospel that will keep us from conducting witch-hunts about unimportant issues.
But what is the bottom line? Let me suggest that it depends on who you are. Ask yourself these questions: how do you feel when your pastor, the conference speaker or the blog you read speaks against falsehood? Is your instant reaction to retreat, step back and distance yourself from them? Do you hate conflict? Do you automatically reject any condemnation of false teaching? If so, you need to remind yourself of the importance of the truth of the gospel and the destructive nature of false teaching.
On the flip side, if you rejoiced upon reading that last paragraph and you possess the ability to sniff out a heretic at a hundred paces, maybe you need to think about the distinctions the New Testament makes between false teachers and false believers. It may also be worth asking yourself whether your delight in dealing with false teaching comes from God’s truth being exposed or from pride and arrogance. Remember, the gospel demands that we deal with false teaching in light of the grace and truth found in Christ.
- Do you think that false teachers and false teaching are dealt with well in your church? Why/why not? What could be done better?
- What does your natural disposition lead you to—conflict or avoidance? What will the particular struggles for you be as you approach the subject of dealing with false teachers and false teaching?
- What are some of the false teachings threatening the church in your part of the world? Where would you go in the Bible to refute them?
- Ask God to work in the leaders and preachers in your church to give them the courage, clarity and wisdom to refute false teaching and hold onto the gospel.
- Ask God to work in you by his word and Spirit so that you will become more discerning.
- Pray about your answer to question 2, and ask God to help you with your particular temptations in dealing with false teaching.
- I would suggest that baptism was a part of that public response (e.g. 1 Cor 6:11; cf. Acts 22:16. See also Rom 6:3-4 and Gal 3:27). ↩