False teaching is not a new threat, and throughout the history of the true church, God’s people have had to deal with this disease. The Bible repeatedly warns believers about religious deception. The gospel is the only way that we can be made right because it points us to the only One who is righteous – Jesus Christ. But, false teachers shut off the true gospel and put a stumbling block on believers by poisoning their souls with lies. All you have to do is walk into a Christian bookstore or tune into so-called Christian radio/TV. False teaching is alive and increasing. So, how should a Gospel-Centered Christian respond? Should we call out false teachers? Or, should we rest in God’s ultimate knowledge, and be careful not to ‘pronounce judgment before the time’ (1 Cor 4:5)?
Christians are afraid that the judgment of God would fall upon them if they question those who claim to be servants of God. But such a one-sided view of Scripture leaves false teachers on safe ground. We have given such impostors unusual immunity from the scrutiny of Scriptural standards for a servant of God. We never bother to test their teachings. They can preach any nonsense and get away with it. They confidently go about their business without fear, claiming divine protection upon themselves. But, there is another side of the scripture of which Christians must be aware.
Scripture identifies FOUR ways that a Gospel-Centered Christian should handle false teachers.
The ways of false teachers are very subtle, and unless you ‘watch carefully’ you won’t be able to recognize them. If a man comes onto a pulpit and denies the deity of Christ, there is not much subtlety about it, he is a heretic. But, our Lord’s picture suggests otherwise (Matthew 7:15). They are wolves, disguised in sheep’s clothing – which was the garment of a prophet – as if they are true prophets of God. They talk about God, they talk about Christ, they talk about the cross, they emphasize the love of God, they seem to be saying everything that a Christian should say. There is nothing that at once attracts our attention or arouses our suspicions. There is nothing apparently outrageous in their conduct.
They are already among you (2 Pet 2:1) as elders, ministry leaders, pastors, and members of a local congregation. They look like the right people but they have sheep’s clothing on. It is their subtlety that constitutes the danger. So, what can be wrong with such a person? How do I identify him? “You shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16-20).
It is the teaching, the falseness of which is to be detected by what it does not say rather than what it does say. And it is just at this point that we recognize the subtlety of the situation. Many Christians do not seem to be able to detect the man who seems to say the right things but leaves out vital things. The most dangerous person of all is the one who does not emphasize the right things. A false prophet is a man who has no “narrow way” in his gospel. He has nothing offensive to the natural man; he pleases all.
“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” (Romans 16:17). Paul wants us to be careful about those who would divide Christians who affirm the true Apostolic faith. We must not divide over nonessential matters, but have unity with other professing believers only insofar as they stand for the gospel.
Recently, I had a series of discussions with a Charismatic friend over a posting about election, regeneration, and salvation. No amount of scriptural explanations could bring him to a place where I could have a profitable and edifying conversation, and he relentlessly called every interpretation “Calvinistic”. There are no ‘Arminian’ or ‘Calvinist’ verses in the Bible, there are only God-inspired verses. As well, one of his accusations was that I only reference the Bible and not any other source. What other sources should I refer to above the authority of the Bible?
The typical characteristic of false teachers is to use words to argue against the Word of God. Paul calls for avoiding such debates and word battles, “not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (2 Timothy 2:14), so, avoid them (v16). The point is, there is no common ground for such a war of words. You stand on the Word of God; they stand on false doctrines – that is not common ground. Do not subject the truth of the Word of God to speculative debate and the attack of human reason. Do not expose yourself to ignorant arguments against God’s Word because it only produces quarrels and fights. If someone comes to debate you, after a couple of admonitions against his heresy, avoid him.
False prophets were a constant problem in the Old Testament, and those who falsely claimed to be prophets of God were to be stoned. The people rarely had the will to deal with them, so they multiplied, causing disaster to the spiritual life of God’s people. They should be stopped. Their mouths must be shut. One of the duties of the spiritual leadership of the gospel-centered church, apart from teaching the truth, is to silence the men who should not speak (Titus 1:10-12). Do not give a pulpit for them to talk. Do not put them on the radio. Do not put them on TV. Do not publish their books. Do not promote them on social media. Do not let them come into your house. Do not propagate their tapes. Do not play their music albums. Do not engage them in conversation.
Gospel-centered Christians are responsible to hold up the truth against all the attacks and speculations against the knowledge of God. Don’t only defend the faith, and fight for it (Jude 3). There is no point in defending the faith and then when somebody starts shooting at you, to pack up and run away. After you have defended it, continue to fight for it. Counter them with the truth. Paul viewed his ministry as an offensive confirmation of the Gospel and a defensive proclamation of the Gospel. He saw himself as on the offense and the defense, being aggressive in its propagation and defending what he believed. When errors and lies are exposed, naturally people get upset. It may not be popular; it may not be accepted by everyone, but that’s the responsibility given.
Paul identifies false teaching as a fast-moving, contagious disease – “Their talk will spread like gangrene” (2 Tim 2:17). And he went on naming the false teachers so that Timothy will know exactly who they were, and so he could tell the church to avoid them. To protect the unsuspecting believer, we should expose false teachers (Ephesians 5:11) and minimize the spread of the gangrene. Otherwise, it not only eats up the listener but also spreads its corrupting doctrine to infect others.
The Bible is clear that if we love God, love truth, and love others, Identify them. We all have some unknown wrong beliefs, but that does not mean we are false teachers. False teachers freely spread heresy and we are commanded to identify and avoid them. When you call out the name of a false teacher or expose a heresy, it is best to explain the error and the reasons for rejecting it. We shouldn’t be too quick to use the word “heretic” or far too reluctant to use it at all. It should be done lovingly so that people can avoid false teachers, or that false teacher may realize his sin, repent, and be saved.
Will God judge me if I judge False Teachers?
Listen to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself:
I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” – Revelation 2:2
Jesus commends the Church of Ephesus for testing and exposing false teachers. No one who claims to be a servant of God is above the test of Scripture. Declaring “God spoke to me”, “God appeared to me” or “I went up to heaven” does not make anyone special or immune to any examination.
Christians should get over with the fear of scoping out the false teachers. You shouldn’t be dumbfounded when you find a man with heretical teaching. If you are serious about the truth, you will be watchful and warn fellow Christians. The gospel demands that we deal with false teaching in light of the grace and truth found in Christ.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount
John MacArthur, Biblical Warning About False Teachers