In a world which is increasingly fuelled by online commentary, where everyone has a Twitter account or an online platform, it is now more than ever, easier for false teaching to spread. Long gone are the days where messages had to be copied by hand and false teachers would have to travel for weeks on horseback to share their message. Now, through a tweet or the creation of a Tiktok video, false teaching can spread at the press of a button. However, this is nothing new. Since the inception of the Church in Acts 2, the history of the Church has been inextricably linked with Satan’s attempts to defile Her. So, in today’s day and age, how should the Church discern and respond to false teachers?
All Heresies Are Errors, But Not All Errors Are Heresies.
The first distinction I would like to make in this article is that there is a clear and biblical difference between false teaching and false teachers. There is a distinction between willfully committing a soul-destroying heresy and committing a theological error. Let’s take the example of Apollos who was a man regarded as “competent in the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24). The Bible even goes as far as to say that he “taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (18:25). Now, Apollos wasn’t deceitful and seeking to exploit fellow believers; in fact, he was very much sincere, however, regarding their topic of baptism, he was sincerely wrong. It is important to note that he wasn’t treated as a false teacher. Instead, Aquilla and Priscilla, a Christian couple, “took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (18:26). Here was a man found to be committing theological error. I have seen many believers, who similar to Apollos, teach “accurately the things concerning Jesus”, but however may be mistaken on some doctrinal points and then be labelled with the term ‘heretic’ and treated as enemies of the faith.
Aquilla and Priscilla show us the Christian response to such theological error. They should, in love, be taken aside to explore and hear more fully the revealed truth about God. The truth is, just about any Christian, especially ones who are just starting out in their faith, can teach or believe something that is false. The Good news is, as someone once famously said, “we are not justified by precision alone. We are justified by faith alone”. However, on the issue of heresy and false teaching, the Bible plays a very different tune.
The Bible is very specific in its use of the term “False teachers”. So much so that, though strong rebuke around false teaching is expressed throughout, the term “false teacher” only explicitly appears once all throughout scripture. That makes it clear that what is being discussed is no small matter and highlights the gravity of identifying someone as a false teacher. Here is what the Apostle Peter had to say on the issue:
“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 Lord 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
So How Do We Recognise False Teachers?
The first point to make when it comes to discerning false teaching is to acknowledge the existence of false teaching not as a mere possibility but rather a certainty. Peter does not mince his words in relation to false teaching, he doesn’t beat around the bush. He makes the definitive statement that “there will be false teachers among you.” There are two important things to note here. Firstly Peter is writing to the Church and secondly, the use of the words “among you”. Peter is not saying that there might be false teachers in your workplace, schools, or on the TV. But rather that there will be false teachers posing as members in your local congregation; or in online and offline Christian spaces. If this wasn’t enough, the Apostle John warns that “many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). The ‘many’ illustrates this isn’t something that is happening on the fringes elsewhere but that it is a pervasive reality everywhere.
This is why Paul warns the elders in the Ephesian church (Acts 20:29–31) and his mentee Timothy (2 Timothy 4:3–4) (1 Timothy 4:1 and 2 Timothy 3:1–6) about the existence of false teaching and false teachers in their church. So the question beckons, how do we spot false teaching?
The Westminster Assembly describes heresy as the following:
“Heresy is a gross and dangerous error, voluntarily held and factiously maintained by some person or persons within the visible church, in opposition to some chief or substantial truth or truths grounded upon and drawn from the Holy Scripture by necessary consequence.”The Westminister Assembly
False teaching or heresy is any ‘voluntary’ intentional and ‘fictitious’ biblical error so severe that it disputes the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith. Jesus said false prophets were “ravenous wolves” who dressed in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15).
Here are some fundamental Christian beliefs alongside helpful questions to ask when discerning whether something constitutes as false teaching:
- Salvation by faith alone and in Christ alone – Does this teaching encourage us to trust in anything else other than Christ alone for righteousness?
- The Trinitarian view of God – Does this teaching so distort the doctrines of either (a) the Trinity or (b) the unity of the Godhead?
- The Word of God – Does this teaching so distort the doctrine of Scripture that it undermines biblical authority?
- The person of Christ – Does this teaching affirm something contrary to the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ?
- The Holy Spirit – Does this teaching affirm something about the Person or work of the Holy Spirit that is false and thus antithetical to His nature?
More can be added but in summary, a false teacher is someone who maintains a view that opposes a chief truth of the Gospel message. Heresy is something that strikes at the very heart of the Gospel and of the truth.
Furthermore, Jesus said you could recognize false prophets also by their “fruit.” (Matthew 7:15-20). False teaching, then, is not simply predicated on what someone may say but also how they live their lives. Peter sheds some light on what this might look like in 2 Peter 2. He says that false teachers in their pride would defy authority (2 Peter 2:10, 12-13,18). In their greed, they will exploit fellow believers for material gain ( 2 Peter 2:3, 14-15). Additionally, in their lust, they would compromise sexually (2 Peter 2:2,10, 12–14, and 19).
So How Should Christians Respond to False Teachers?
The Christian response to false teachers begins on your knees in prayer. As Rod Smith brilliantly says, we pray for false teachers “the same way that you should pray for your own pastor and teachers. Pray that they would not teach anything false or misleading, but only what is true and right and accurate according to God’s Word, the Bible”. We pray that they would turn from their wicked ways come to know the truth of the Gospel and preach the truth of the Gospel. Not only does the Bible inform us to pray for false teachers, but we must also rebuke and call out false teaching. If a Christian truly claims to love God, love His Word, love the truth, love the lost, love the flock and even if you love the false teachers themself, the Christian should expose them publically in order to minimise the spread of their infectious and dangerous teaching (Ephesians 5:11). For far too long, Christians, under the guise of trying to be “loving” have cowered in their response to false teachers. To be apathetic towards false teaching is the opposite of love.
Let’s imagine for a moment, that there’s a shepherd who notices a ravenous wolf and because he doesn’t want to be seen as ‘judgemental’ so fails to warn his sheep. That shepherd is one who should be considered a selfish shepherd who doesn’t love his sheep. A good shepherd would fend off the wolf and warn the flock because their lives are in danger! And in a similar fashion, eternity is at stake and ravenous wolves are running loose in our churches. Christians, especially those in a position of leadership, have a duty to alert, identify, and expose false teachers (1 Timothy 5:19–20). Paul throughout his ministry went on to publically name at least six false teachers (See 2 Timothy 4:10, 2 Timothy 1:15, 1 Timothy 1:19-20, 2 Timothy 2:17).
“The best protection against the darkness of error is the light of truth.”
– John Piper
In the perilous times, we find ourselves in we must resist the temptation to passively let false teaching and false teachers slide in the name of “love”. True love for the Lord and His Bride/Body results in a carefully considered but courageous response to refute false propositions in His name.
Instead with knees on the ground and hearts moved by compassion, let love for the Lord drive us to pray for and highlight both teachers and teaching who desecrate His image and worth by the abuse of the Word.
Likewise, let love for the Bride/Body cause us to simultaneously pray for the hearts of those projecting false ideas about God whilst warning against their false teaching. In so doing we are protecting our vulnerable and unassuming brothers and sisters, who are the sheep of the Great Shepherd. But also a love which ‘hopes and endures all things’ (1 Cor 13:7) hopes those who espouse these false ideas embrace the opportunity to repent and be delivered from deception (2 Tim 3:13) and ultimately be restored to fellowship with the God of truth.
Do not regard false teaching lightly. Consider what is at stake and insist on the clear teaching of God’s law and His gospel. Do it for the love of God and people.