Salvation 2.0: Part 8.1: False teachers

The NT often condemns people called “false teachers.” Who are these people? I mean, does the condemnation of false teachers mean that every teacher who makes a mistake is damned? If not, then what errors damn and which do not?

Sadly, the term is thrown around very easily — and often just because we disagree. What do the scriptures say?

2 Pe 2:1-3

(2Pe 2:1-3 ESV) 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.  2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.  3 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. 

What characterizes these false teachers?

* They deny the Master (Jesus).

* They follow their sensuality. “Sensuality” translates a word sometimes translated licentiousness, that is, a willingness to violate God’s known laws for the sake of sensual pleasure. The term has a sexual connotation. The NET Bible translators suggest “debaucheries.”

In other words, the sexual license of these teachers is catching, and as it becomes apparent in the Christian community, “the way of truth” will be “brought into disrepute” or slandered.

Peter H. Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), n.p.

* They cause the way of truth (the gospel lifestyle) to be blasphemed.

* They are greedy.

Now, does this describe the Church of Christ preacher down the road who disagrees over some fine point of who is qualified to be an elder or how best to conduct the Sunday morning assembly? Obviously not. And to use this language to refer to a fellow believer who simply disagrees about such a thing is slander and sin.

Matt 7:15-19

Jesus taught a similar lesson:

(Mat 7:15-19 ESV) “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

How can we distinguish a false prophet from a good brother we just happen disagree with? Well, look at his teeth. Sheep eat grass. Wolves eat sheep. If the other guy is chewing up other churches and Christians, he just might be a wolf. If he is producing “good fruit,” then he’s not a false prophet.

Again, by this test, the “false prophet” in our denomination is far more likely to be the person making the accusation and attacking a fellow believer over matters of opinion. He’s the one whose breath smells like the sheep he’s killed and eaten.

Rom 16:16-18

When I was growing up, one of  the most popular accusations to throw at a fellow member of the Churches of Christ was —

(Rom 16:17-18 ESV)  I 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.  18 For 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.

(Rom 16:17-18 KJV)  Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.  18 For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.

Following the KJV, it was common practice to “mark” those who dared disagree with the preacher’s perceived orthodoxy. Of course, “mark” is early 17th Century English (Jacobean English) for “watch out” not “write slanders in a church newsletter.” Indeed, many preachers continue to keep lists of who must not be invited to a favored lectureship and who dares to fellowship error by not “marking” someone on the bad list. It’s all quite childish.

The people we are to avoid are those who “cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught.” “Taught”? By whom? When? Well, obviously, by Paul in the preceding chapters of Romans. He’d just spent fifteen chapters teaching us how to get along!

Among Paul’s lessons in Romans are that we’re saved by faith in Jesus rather than works.

(Rom 8:1 ESV) There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 

(Rom 8:9-11 ESV) You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. 

(Rom 8:33-34 ESV)  33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.  34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died– more than that, who was raised– who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 

(Rom 12:10 ESV)  10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.

(Rom 12:14-18 ESV) Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.  17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.  18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

(Rom 13:8 ESV) Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

(Rom 14:1 ESV)  As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 

(Rom 14:4 ESV)  4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

(Rom 14:10-13 ESV) Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;  11 for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.”  12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.  13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.

(Rom 14:17-19 ESV) 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.  19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. 

(Rom 15:7 ESV) Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

That should be enough to make the point. Once again, the ones who are so easily tossing around “markings” are often the very ones violating Paul’s very explicit teachings.

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  1. Thanks Jay for your thoughts. I almost always learn something from your posts. Just wanted to add that from my experience I would say that many of the wolves in the church who bite and devour those they disagree with are focused on the “destructive heresies” they disagree with and don’t see the examples you brought out in the context of scripture. They also are focused on the “secret” things being brought out by those with whom they disagree. Since they themselves openly expose what the others are doing they must themselves be correct contextually or not.

  2. When labels such as liberal, false teacher, heretic, apostate, etc. are applied and hurled without considering their real meaning, they lose their meaning when a real false teacher needs labeling as such. This is like crying wolf. Most people don’t realize just what liberal Christianity is all about. Some people hurl the liberal label at a church that has a kitchen or a functioning sink outside of the bathroom.