A few weeks ago we started in our first of our ‘Theology Thursday’ series. We kicked off with the topic of judging and discernment. In part one I spelled out how a contextual understanding of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1 should lead us to the proper conclusion that Jesus does not mean for his people to ‘not judge’ but rather ‘be discerning in their judgements’. Recently Sam Storms blogged on the same issue over at the Resurgence Blog. It’s worth reading as well.
In part two we’ll address the issue of False Teachers – who they are and whether or not Christians should call them out.
The New Testament is littered with passages concerning false teachers:
[2:1] But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.  And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.  And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Peter 2:1-3 ESV)
 If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness,  he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions,  and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:3-5 ESV)
 For 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 1:4 ESV)
 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15-20 ESV)
There’s just a few of the passages.
Now when we consider the nature and power of the gospel, then it makes sense that there are constant warnings against false teachers. If you can’t destroy the people and message, which Jesus himself promises would never happen (Matt 16:18), then the next best thing is to muddy the message and try to bring down as many on the inside as possible.
But the tricky thing about false teachers is that they can be hard to spot. From the above passages though there are some defining features:
- They will teach different doctrine and destructive heresies. Today it’s a heresy to say something is heresy – but that’s the nature of the false teacher. What they teach will lead people away from Christ-centred, cross exalting, God glorifying holiness and godliness. And that is what makes their teaching destructive.
- False Teachers will be popular. The may even have the largest churches. Why is this? The New Testament says that they will gather to themselves people with ‘itching ears’ – following after these teachers because they will be presenting what they want to hear. The fact that they will say something right every now and again is more a testament to the fact that Satan comes as an angel of light. They have a way of creeping onto the scene unnoticed.
- False Teachers will tend to be wealthy. Wealth is not an all-encompassing hallmark of a false teacher, but it strikes me as not coincidental that the false prosperity gospel is driven by people who are clearly wealthier than their congregants and present themselves as models of their teaching.
- Because of their followers, Jesus (the way of truth) will be blasphemed. People will question what sort of religion Christianity is when they see and listen to the followers of false teachers, as well as seeing the teachers themselves. They will question God’s character and goodness.
- You will recognise them by their fruits. By their life, by their teaching, and by their followers. Like an off apple, they might look good on the outside but inwardly they are rotten. At some point it will eventually make its way to the surface for some or all to see.
The false teacher is a dangerous person for not only do they condemn themselves by their teaching, but they will drag people down with them. False teaching is a matter of eternal life and death.
And because of how serious false teaching is, Paul is willing to name and shame some in his time.
By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith,  among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. (1 Timothy 1:19-20 ESV)
To name and shame is a pretty serious act. My conclusions about this particular instance are that 1) Paul intends to shock his audience, listening to Timothy read out this letter, into action; 2) that the act of ‘handing them over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme’ is in some ways a temporary judgement with hope of repentance and restoration; and 3) that the church is so fragile at this stage in redemptive history that Paul will defend her in ways the 21st century established church is unfamiliar/uncomfortable with.
Let me address now two final points.
Should we call out false teachers in our day and age?
My answer is a cautious yes. To call someone out is, in some ways, to bring judgement upon their teaching and lives. So caution must be exercised. This is not to say then that caution will be an eternal straight jacket on the discernment of God’s people, but it does mean we should be very careful in labelling someone a false teacher. We should not throw the label around simply because we disagree with an interpretation of a minor/secondary-to-the-gospel issue, or personally dislike the person. Jesus says we will recognise false teachers by the fruits plural – not a single fruit. So a teacher might say something about a minor issue you disagree with, but that doesn’t make everything they say wrong.
The final point flows from this.
How should we call out false teachers?
Here’s where the answer is tricky. Pastorally if there is a false teacher (a person with or claiming authority) in the congregation they need to be approached personally, then with some other witnesses, then they need to be called out in front of the congregation. This is pretty harsh, but we don’t want to dance around the issue when we’re concerned about the eternal destiny of impressionable sheep.
In light of this humility needs to be carefully exercised as well. To call someone out as false teacher is a fairly decisive judgement – a judgement that Jesus isn’t necessarily against in Matthew 7 but one which requires humble, take-the-log-out-of-your-eye discernment.
I’ve known very few cases of a false teacher being present among a congregation. What is much more common is the false teacher with their own congregation who fellow Christians listen to or read via books/radio/television. Here’s where I’d suggest the act of naming and shaming does not necessarily require direct pastoral confrontation of the false teacher.
Public figures who publish material for public consumption should expect public interaction, criticism or rebuke. I’ve seen modelled in godly ways some Christians who have sent private messages of concern/rebuke directly to authors before publically publishing their criticisms. I think this is a humble way of pointing out the sin/error of your brother while also giving them opportunity to respond.
But I’d suggest that for the known false teacher who has been around for a while and who continues to proclaim a false gospel, well I’d be spending my energy on warning friends against listening to their teaching than on trying to convince the false teacher of their error. This even more so depending on how much distance (physically and relationally) is between myself and the teacher. For ongoing unrepentance ongoing public criticism and critical interaction is needed.
At the end of the day we don’t want to end up in a slanging match, nor do we want to pour all our energy simply to calling out the many and various false teachers. There is so much more gospel work to be done. But we have to be realistic that in doing this work false teachers will be there to steal sheep away. I hope what’s been shared here will be a start for how we can grapple with this issue.
Following the last post I was asked a few questions. Here are my responses:
Is it sinful to plead ignorance and not confront the issues of possible false teachings?
Not in the first instance. It matters more what you do afterwards. For instance, you may be invited to hear some guest speaker from out of town and there may be little to no information about them readily available to you. You go because large swathes of your church, or youth group, are attending. While listening to the teacher you recognise faulty, unbiblical, unthoughtful or plain false teaching and now you have to confront it – either directly or with your group members afterwards.
Humility, again, is necessary in any confrontation. But the key is that either before or after the fact, false teaching cannot be allowed to remain unaddressed by God’s shepherds – lest one of God’s sheep be led astray and you be complicit with your silence.
If our judgement is tainted with some pride (and it’s easy to take a position of superiority) is it better not to judge?
This is a clear example of the ‘log in the eye’ issue. If you have a log in your eye this does not mean you should remain silent. Jesus says to take it out first, then take out the speck from your brother’s eye.
Biblical Discernment will help you figure out if what you’re seeing is merely a speck or a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And we shouldn’t confuse the two.
Humility in this situation means taking the log out – admitting and confessing your pride – then airing your concerns.