Distinguishing False Teachers from Imperfect Teachers

How is it that thousands of preachers decade after decade disagree with one another with the Bible sitting on their desks? Does anyone read it? Are most indoctrinated? The differing views throughout “Christendom” show evidently that most are not reading and if they are then they are not reading the Bible as the authority for beliefs and practices. Now, if they are reading the Scriptures as the authority, someone has at least one fallacious assumption attached to their understanding of authority. One thing is apparently true. There are false teachers among the churches, “there arose false prophets also among the people, as among you also there shall be false teachers” (2 Pet. 2:1). At the same time, we must strive to not be the false teacher since as servants of God we are commanded to be able to teach (2 Tim. 2:24).

This subject of teaching falsely, false teachers, and false brethren must be addressed. These concerns are addressed in Scriptures by prophetic prediction. As the Spirit predicted,

“For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables” (2 Tim. 4:3-4),

and

“For I know this, that after my departure grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also men shall arise from your own selves, speaking perverse things in order to draw disciples away after them” (Acts 20:28-29).

Apparently, this is a very important subject. Strangely, some in churches believe their youth should be allowed to listen to those teaching falsely though they “deceive the hearts of the simple” (Rom. 16:18) and are “speaking perverse things in order to draw disciples away after them” (Acts 20:30).

The study of false brethren and false teachers is a controversial one considering the actions that are or more likely are not taken by Christians. These are the days in which many shy away from conflict, and instead they reason and make the plea that they are just accepting and tolerant. On the other hand, there are still some publicly attacking contradicting teachers on every point, and then some attack straw-men and label the good as “heretics” and “false teachers”. Regarding this controversy, there are some questions that if answered could go a long way in aiding Christians on how to handle this situation: (1) Can someone teach falsely and not be a false teacher?, (2) Who are false teachers and false brethren?, (3) How do we know one’s character when they are teaching falsely?, (4) Where are these false brethren who teach another Gospel?, and (5) What do we do about false brethren?

(1) Can someone teach falsely and not be a false teacher? No. If one teaches falsely, they are false teacher. If a teacher does not know something, then they sin in inventing teachings and or rejecting the teaching of Christ. An imperfect teacher may not know everything, but this person does not teach their own opinions and inferences of reason. GOSPEL TEACHERS MUST NOT TEACH ANYTHING WITHOUT THE WORD! Teachers must only teach the oracles of God (1 Pet. 4:11), and these must not invent teaching or reject Christ’s teaching. Teachers will be judged strictly.

It is also true that one can teach incompletely and not be a false brother in Christ. James 3:1-2 states,

“Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment. For in many things we all stumble. If any stumbles not in word, the same is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also.”

Clearly, perfection even in teaching is not possible, but we can teach only the Word, admit our ignorance, and do not invent and or reject Biblical teaching. Anyone considering teaching needs to think twice and have complete confidence in what they are teaching as being God’s Word and so speak the oracles of God (1 Pet. 4:11).

Consider Apollos, who was “mighty in the Scriptures” and he “spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:24-28), he was not so prideful as to dismiss the correction of Priscilla and Aquila, who “expounded unto him the way of God more accurately”. Evidently, Apollos accepted it and became an even better preacher. He did not scoff at the way more accurately accusing Priscilla and Aquila of “legalism” or “liberalism”. Such was the case of Paul and others when they were called “false witnesses” regarding the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:15). Apollos goes to show that one can be sincere, good, and ignorant in teaching not all things. Yet, Apollos was not yet saved until he heard the Gospel, conformed to the Gospel, and he was then saved. Remember that we are to observe all things (Matt. 28:20). This is what teachers must strive to do.

Just as Apollos listened and changed so did a whole congregation, the erring congregation at Corinth. Congregations today err much like the Corinthian church did in the 1st century. The Corinthian church was:

  • divided among themselves,
  • did not discipline the openly sinful person,
  • did not keep themselves pure from fornication,
  • sued one another in the civil courts,
  • caused one another to stumble over food,
  • did not take care of their preachers,
  • did not come together to eat the Lord’s Supper correctly,
  • used their spiritual gifts ostentatiously in the Assembly,
  • perverted their preaching, music, and praying to no edification,
  • conducted the Assembly without decency and order,
  • and had heresies among them like the rejection of the resurrection.

From the Corinthians receiving the 1 Corinthians epistle, the congregation changed from their evil deeds. Paul wrote the Corinthians again and he mentioned their being grieved by their sin unto repentance for salvation and that they were clear on the matter (2 Cor. 7:8-12). These examples of erring brethren show that individuals and congregations may err, but in listening to correction and submitting to the Truth, the authority; they changed their ways unto salvation, but this is not the case with most erring teachers and congregations.

(2) Who are false teachers and false brethren? Where is the line that must be passed for one to be a false teacher? When does someone go from a teacher who teaches incompletely to being a false teacher? Just as Paul was “astonished”, there is no lack of astonishment today when so many “are so quickly deserting Him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6). Today as then, there are those who “want to distort the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:7), and they are called “false brethren” (Gal. 2:4). Paul repeated himself for emphasis in stating that one preaching a contrary Gospel even an angel or an Apostle is accursed (Gal. 1:8-9). Note that one is not accursed here for bad character apart from teaching, but for the teaching itself. When does one pass the line of becoming a false teacher? It is when they pervert the Gospel of Christ in teaching contrary to God’s revelation. False teachers are those who teach false doctrine. The good teacher who teaches incompletely and teaches only what he knows would not be guilty of this.

It is true that the title “false teachers” occurs only once in 2 Peter 2, and in this passage, the false teacher is described clearly. Recognize that these false teachers are those who had forsaken the right way and went astray (2 Pet. 2:15). These people “follow their sensuality” (v2). They are greedy and exploit with false words (v3). They are those “those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority” (v10). They are “bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones” (v11). False teachers are like “irrational animals, creatures of instinct”, who blaspheme “about matters of which they are ignorant” (v12). They have “eyes full of adultery” and “a heart exercised in covetousness” (v14). They are “children of cursing” (v14). They speak “loud boasts of foolishness“, and “they entice by sensual passions of the flesh” (v18). “They promise freedom” (v19). From all these descriptions, what does one know about false teachers? They have a corrupt character which is not immediately seen.

It is a common teaching that “false teachers” are really “false teachers” not because of false teaching, but solely because of character. This reasoning is wrong. One teaching falsely the traditions of men as from God are false teachers whether their corrupt character is seen or not. The fact that one teaches falsely shows that they have a corrupt character whether seen or not. These are not speaking only as they know the oracles of God (1 Pet. 4:11).

Now apart from “false teachers”, there are those who teach like Apollos. See Apollos taught incompletely, but He did not teach false teachings made by man. Apollos did not extend himself beyond his understanding of Christ as all false teachers do. The sincere person who teaches incompletely is teaching somewhat in error when his disciples cannot observe all things that Christ taught (Matt. 28:20), but because he is a sincere person apart from his incomplete teaching, then he is an honest person, and he may be sinning in teaching incompletely though that one is not a false teacher, and he should be taught otherwise.

While false teachers are flawed in character, their false teaching is the key. A person who is a false teacher has not just a corrupt character but he teaches falsely. Sadly, those rebuking false teachers are often called “intolerant” and are often despised by the corrupt. The rebuking person is labeled the “false teacher” or divisive because his “rebuking” is not a characteristic valued by false brethren thus to them his character is now corrupt.

Now, look at Jude, a book with many similarities to 2 Peter 2. In Jude, the Spirit presents not “false teachers”, but a “certain people” who just like the “false teachers” creep in “unnoticed” (v4), so again their character is not seen. These are “ungodly people” (v5). See, there’s the corrupt character. These “certain people” “pervert the grace of our God” (v5). These people relyon their dreams” and “reject authority” (v8). “These people blaspheme all that they do not understand” and they are like “unreasoning animals” who “understand instinctively” (v10). “These are grumblers, complainers, following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage” (v16).

Are these “ungodly people” also the same as the “super-apostles” of 2 Corinthians 11:5? Those “super-apostles” taught another Jesus, another spirit and, or another Gospel. These “super-apostles” were not like Apollos who was willing to listen to the Truth. See, changing Jesus and the Gospel is a great sin. A person does not have good character when one changes the Gospel of Christ! Must one see the ungodly character of a person before knowing that someone who changes the Gospel is a “false teacher” or “ungodly person”? Certainly not! Even if someone has corrupt character, they may still be teaching the truth. Having corrupt character does not mean that whatever one teaches is wrong, since according to the Spirit, some taught the truth from envy and rivalry (Phil. 1:15).

(3) How do we know the character of those who teach falsely? It has been falsely taught that false teachers are known just by their corrupt character. The corrupt character of false teachers is many times well hidden. How else do they creep in among congregations (Jude 4)? See, what the Spirit revealed through Paul to Timothy about the corruption of teachers,

“If anyone teaches a different doctrine, and does not consent to wholesome words (those of our Lord Jesus Christ), and to the doctrine according to godliness, (4) he is proud, knowing nothing. He is sick concerning doubts and arguments, from which comes envy, strife, evil speakings, evil suspicions, (5) meddling, of men whose minds have been corrupted and deprived of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness” (1 Tim. 6:3-5).

Apparently, the corrupt character is not always clearly seen, but the false teaching is heard confirming corruption. Otherwise, why would Paul have written that those teaching a different doctrine are corrupt when it could have been easily seen by their apparent corruption? Unless, the corrupt character is not always seen.

The fact of the matter is that “those making divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine” which has been learned are corrupt. How is this known? It is known by their false teaching (1 Tim. 6:3-5). Also see Romans 16:17-18, which states,

“And I exhort you, brothers, to watch those making divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which you have learned, and avoid them. For they who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches they deceive the hearts of the simple.”

Those who are divisive and make offenses do so “by good words and fair speeches”, and this speech is contrary to the doctrine learned from Apostles and prophets. These false teachers are great speakers and able to entice the ignorant. As this passage teaches, it is clear from speaking false doctrine that they serve “their own belly”, and that these divisive and offensive teachers “do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ”. Add to this that those who are divisive are repetitive in teaching error and causing division (Tit. 3:10). Jesus taught very plainly regarding false prophets in the Sermon on the Mount, that they can be known by their fruits (Matt. 7:16, 20). These fruits are their actions, even teaching false doctrine.

(4) Where are the false brethren who teach another Gospel? Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7:15 shows that these ravening wolves will “come to you in sheep’s clothing”. These deceivers will first deceive in appearance of their character to be among the saved. On this same picture, Paul warned the bishops of Ephesus to feed the flock for there will be wolves who will not spare the flock. Again the wolves are among the flock (Acts 20:28-29). Second Peter 2 reminds that “false teachers” will “secretly bring in destructive heresies” not even as great as denying Christ. The point is they will “bring in”. False teachers can be found among the Church, and these people got there secretly as Jude 4 also refers to these “certain people” who “crept in secretly”. These erring teachers are to be found among the congregations and among the members themselves.

Look at Acts 20:30 that states, “Also men shall arise from your own selves, speaking perverse things in order to draw disciples away after them.” In drawing members after them, these teachers also go out from among the Church. First John 2:19 says,

“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

Hopefully, false teachers will leave the Church as soon as they become corrupt, but such is not always the case. They covet a following. In fact, many false teachers are the result of whole congregations. Note that many Christians,

“will not endure sound doctrine, but they will heap up teachers to themselves according to their own lusts, tickling the ear. (4) And they will turn away their ears from the truth and will be turned to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).

(5) Now with these things affirmed, how are Christians to handle such people? Watch and avoid them (Rom. 16:17-18). Warn them twice and then upon the third offense have nothing to do with him (Titus 3:10). First, be kind and correcting other opponents with gentleness so that they will repent (2 Tim. 2:24-25), and if need be, silence those who teach what ought not to be taught and rebuke them sharply (Titus 1:10-13, cf. “Is Rebuking a Sin?“). Keep away from those who do not keep the traditions of God (2 Thes. 3:6, 14). Do not receive into one’s house or greet false teachers (2 John 10-11). Do not take part with them but expose their evil deeds (Eph. 5:11). Do not eat or associate with a so-called brother who is in open sin; and purge them from the congregation in the Assembly gathered in the Lord’s name (1 Cor. 5).

In review, there are five affirmed truths in recognizing false teachers. First, there are teachers who may teach incompletely while not being “false teachers” in that when they are rebuked, they change. Second, “false teachers” and “false brethren” are known by their fruits referring to teaching and character. A “false teacher” is one that repetitively teaches falsely even after being rebuked. Third, these false teachers are known to have corrupt character by their false teaching as Titus 1:16 states, “They profess that they know God; but by their works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate” (cf. 1 John 2:4). Fourth, these false teachers are everywhere. They are often secretly among congregations, while other false teachers come from the Church and then leave from the congregation after gathering disciples from the members. Still, there are those who are of corrupted congregations that will heap up their own teachers to meet their desires. The truth of the matter is that “evil men and seducers will go forward to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13). Therefore, avoid, mark, and note false teachers. Do not fellowship even in eating with such a person. Rebuke them publicly and sometimes sharply.

About Scott J Shifferd

Minister, church of Christ in Jacksonville, FL. Husband and father of four. Email: ScottJon82[at]yahoo.com
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10 Responses to Distinguishing False Teachers from Imperfect Teachers

  1. Dave says:

    False teachers can most times be easily spotted by the gospel that they teach, in addition to any other false teachings, IMO. Their false gospel runs to anywhere except the pure Gospel of God’s grace, and could include almost any work as a “requirement” for salvation.

    Instead of attributing everything necessary for salvation to God, a false teacher will point to man’s so-called “free will”, or his ability to choose Christ when presented with the word of God. They will zero in on man having to do something to gain salvation, keep salvation or any combination of the two…and many people will be carried away by this gospel, because it sounds correct to the carnal mind and even to the minds of babes in Christ. However, as Christ’s sheep grow in grace and knowledge, they will be able to discern false gospels and false teachers, because:

    ” But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.” ( 1 John 2:27 )

    Under the new covenant, God becomes our teacher through His Holy Spirit dwelling within us ( Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 6:45, Hebrews 8:7-13 ), and teachers given in the Body of Christ are not there to transfer their own understanding to younger, more spiritually immature believers, but are there to show their brothers and sisters where to find the answers for themselves in God’s word, their authority ( Ephesians 4:11-16 ).

    As they then grow and mature, they become able to discern for themselves who false teachers are, and what false gospels look like, just as their older brothers and sisters do.

    In conclusion, false teachers are put within God’s churches and in society at large to do whatever damage they can as a delaying tactic towards Christ’s sheep…they are like chaff and flares, in that they seek to get God’s children off track…but since none of them can be lost, then these tactics only work temporarily on them, and permanently on those who are not Christ’s sheep. They are a hindrance, not a destructive force. Why? Because:

    “He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear [them] not, because ye are not of God.” ( John 8:47 )

    ” And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. 5 And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.” ( John 10:4-5 )

    ” My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:” ( John 10:27 )

    Christ’s sheep hear His voice, spiritually, They recognize His word and the truth of it, and they hearken to it. Those that are not Christ’s will be carried away time and again with false teachings and false gospels.

    Thank God for the Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth!

    Like

  2. Pingback: Questions that Reveal Hidden Beliefs of False Teachers - Part 1 « Seeing God’s Breath

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