Who is a False Teacher?
There is always talk in the religious world about what constitutes a false teacher. For the most part, those in denominationalism are really not concerned about matters such as false teachers (see more later). There is presently much talk within churches of Christ about false teachers. Some of the interest is good and healthy. Alas, some of the talk is obviously the language that accompanies an apostasy or falling away. You see, the subject of false teachers must be toned down in order for false teachers to be able to successfully inject and introduce their false teaching.
Allow me to immediately submit to you that the subject of false teachers is indeed a biblical matter of grave importance. I understand that most in the religious world at large de-emphasize doctrine and truth in general. More and more, in churches of Christ are also heard playing down the importance of purity and necessity of doctrine. Notwithstanding, the scriptures explicitly and irrefutably teach the importance of sound doctrine. In fact, the Bible is replete with teaching both positive and negative in nature relative to obligations to the truth.
Man is to choose the truth, learn it, and walk in truth (Ps. 119: 30; I Tim. 2: 4; 2 Jn. 4). Love of truth, speaking the truth, and handling aright the truth is also required (2 Thes. 2: 10-12; Eph. 4: 15; 2 Tim. 2: 15). Moreover, the truth is to be obeyed from the heart, dwell in the Christian, and the Christian is to be established in the truth (Rom. 6: 17, 18; 2 Jn. 2; Col. 1: 23). Jesus said, "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (Jn. 8: 24).
Regarding negation, we must not resist, err, or work against the truth (2 Tim. 3: 8; Jas. 5: 19, 20; Phili. 3: 18). The truth is so valuable, it must not be sold, concealed, or changed in any way (Prov. 23: 23; Ps. 40: 10; Rom. 1: 25, Gal. 1: 6-9). To resist the truth is to resist the Holy Spirit (Acts 7: 51-53).
We are witnessing many efforts today that result in false teachers being tolerated. Allow me to first suggest to you that false teachers are plainly mentioned in the Bible: "But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction" (2 Pet. 2: 1).
We are hearing the teaching today that the language "false teacher" (pseudodidaskaloi) is not referring to what the person teaches but to the fact that he is not sincere in his teaching and profession. I engaged in one exchange pertaining to a man teaching blatant and damnable error. I overwhelmingly documented the false teaching of certain preachers within the church of Christ (Ed Harrell, Homer Hailey, etc.). The error they taught was granted, but the teachers were defended. It was argued that their teaching was corrupt, but their hearts and motives were pure; hence, they were not false teachers. In the process, a number conceded I taught the truth in the particular issue being considered, but, hear this now, I was the false teacher because they judged my motives and heart as impure!
How about "false teacher," does it have any reference at all to the nature of the teaching being taught? The growing argument is that false (pseudo, adjective) simply modifies teacher (didaskaloi, noun, the one teaching). Hence, no reference is intended regarding what is taught, the reference is to the fact the teacher is an impostor or insincere. Jeff Smelser (gospel preacher) recently had material published by Focus Magazine (April 2000, see Addendum). He taught: "False brethren, false apostles, and false christs belong in the first category for they clearly refer to impostors ." Here, then, is the teaching denying "false teacher" identifies, at least in part, a man who is teaching error.
In one exchange I had last year (1999), it was affirmed, "What I am saying is that the identifying of a false teacher is not by his false doctrine, but by his false character" (Wallace Little, Mar's List, an Internet discussion list, September 10, digest 928). Little went on to teach in referring to a book by F. LaGard Smith, Who is my Brother the following, "He writes, and I endorse wholly, that the adjective 'false' refers to the person, not to the teaching. A false teacher is one who is, as a person, false. He may or may not be teaching error" (Mar's List, September 6, digest 919). On a higher level of gradation, Little stated " labeling him a false teacher because of his false teaching is not "proper" (dm, Mar's List, September 10, 928). Preacher Little showed his lack of respect for and interest in truth when he taught, "Since when is 'damnable teaching' a sin? And who determines what 'damnable teaching' is damnable?" (Mar's List, September 6, digest 919).
How can the phraseology "false teacher" not include the teaching? What does a teacher do and why would he be distinguished as a teacher, unless there is emphasis being placed on his teaching? Thus it is regarding "false witnesses" (pseudomartus, I Cor. 15: 15). The witnesses may be false in nature, but, for sure, their testimony is false! Both the false teacher and false witness are specific people. However, the nouns "teacher" and "witness" necessarily involve what they are doing as people: they are teaching and witnessing.
Some biblical facts relative to teachers. The scriptures reveal that one may sincerely preach the truth in love (Eph. 4: 15). One may teach error, but have a good heart and motives (cp. Acts 18: 24-28; I Tim. 1: 13, Acts 23: 1). One may also teach the truth, but have impure motives (Phili. 1: 15, 18). Another recognized scenario is one may teach error with an intent to deceive (2 Pet. 2: 3, 10, 12, 14, 15, 18, 19). The tangible and static feature in each of these scenarios is the teaching. It may be truth or error, but it can be easily determined (Acts 17: 11). The heart and motives of the teacher, however, cannot be determined, unless there is fruit as to deliberate corruptness of life.
"False teachers" is used in the context of deliberate deceit. It is true the expression "false teachers" is used in the setting of deliberate deceit, " who privily shall bring in damnable heresies " (2 Pet. 2: 1). However, if one insists on always binding the presence of willful deceit, how about all the other mentioned characteristics? Peter describes the particular false teachers under consideration as covetous (vs. 3), walk in uncleanness (vs. 10), and despise government, self-willed, and speak evil of dignities (vs. 10). Moreover, they count it pleasure to "riot in the day time" and "have eyes full of adultery" (vs. 13). If deliberate deceit must be proved before one can be designated as a false teacher, why are not also all these additional traits required? In fact, all these characteristics must be present and shown to be in place, before one can be labeled as a false teacher, according to the rationale we are noticing.
Beloved, the truth of the matter is that most false teachers do have a "corrupt nature." Kittel defines "false teachers" thus:
"Pseudodaskalos, this is
never found outside Christian usage....The pseudo- suggest both that the claim of the men
concerned is false and also that their teaching is erroneous, so that in every respect
they are a perversion of the Christian didaskalos, since they reject the claim of Jesus to
dominion over their whole lives...(Theological Dictionary of the New Testament,
Vol. 2, pg. 160).
Intelligent reader, you have probably observed that Kittel's work (considered the ultimate) states two things. It refers to the "false nature" of the teachers and involves the teaching as that which is false.
I concede, the context of 2 Peter 2 describes the false teachers as teaching "damnable heresies" and being false in nature as well. The point I am making is we can identify a false teacher by his teaching without having to be personally and intimately acquainted with his private life. I concur that
most false teachers are corrupt. I also believe a man ceases being honestly mistaken about fallacious teaching when he is confronted and challenged, but adamantly refuses to even study the matter (consider Apollos, Acts 18: 24-28).
The cry of some brethren that brother........teaches error, but that he is not a false teacher is ridiculous. In the specific cases with which I am familiar, these brethren in question have both consistently and persistently taught damnable error over a period of years. Yet, some among us continue to claim we cannot refer to such men as false teachers.
The bottom line is: I can know what a man is teaching (objective). Moreover, I am obligated to know his teaching in order to fellowship him (2 Jn. 9-11). However, knowing the sincerity of a man's heart is a different matter (subjective). It is ridiculous to think we must avoid designating a
man as a false teacher (based on his false teaching) until we have proof he is covetous, has eyes full of adultery, etc. However, this is what we continue to hear. (It is important to note "false prophets," the model for "false teachers" in 2 Peter 2: 1. "False prophets" (pseudoprophetes) had characteristic of them not only the matter of often being insincere, but also false teaching or prophesying lies (cp. Jere. 23: 25-36)
The requisite posture toward false teachers. How must a man be viewed and treated who persists in the teaching of "damnable heresy?"
"Whosoever trangresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds" (2 Jn. 9-11). Beloved, the "doctrine of Christ" (didache tou christou) involves more than simply and only the deity of Jesus (notice "commandments," vs. 6 and "heresies," 2 Pet. 2: 1, plural).
In closing, let us all respect and love the truth and those who loyally teach it (I Pet. 4: 11). However, those who teach false doctrine must be marked and noted (Rom. 16: 17). If all would have the a scriptural attitude toward false teaching, teachers of error would cease enjoying the success and acclaim that they too often enjoy in the religious world and even in the Lord's church (I Jn. 2: 19, 4: 1; 2 Pet. 2: 1).
Addendum: Jeff Smelser admittedly presents a relatively more conservative view regarding false teachers being impostors. He admits that such impostors usually teach false doctrine. In the same issue of Focus Magazine (April 2000), we find articles by Ed Harrell and Paul Earnhart. Both Harrell and Earnhart have defended a false teacher (Homer Hailey) and been actively and passively, respectively, involved in advancing the false doctrine that a man can over time teach damnable error and still should not be called a false teacher, click here to read about Christianity Magazine. It is also very interesting that the theme of the April issue of Focus Magazine is "The Art of Preaching."