The Evolution of False Teachers
P. J. Casebolt
Paden City, West Virginia
Among other things, the term evolution can be applied to the gradual development, or disclosure of a thing. Some have tried to use this process in accounting for the existence of man and the universe. I think it can properly be applied to those false teachers' who arise from among God's people. In fact, this process, when applied to the development of false teachers, is so nearly identical in every situation that we begin to see a pattern which is followed closely by nearly every false teacher. I do not know in every case whether or not this is done consciously or unconsciously. But, just as surely as many criminals are identified and apprehended by their MO (method of operation), so also can the false teacher be recognized many times by his evolutionary pattern of apostasy. Not only has experience enlightened us on this point, but the word of God abounds with information on the subject.
Case No. 1
The time: late Forties or early Fifties. The place: Columbus, Ohio. (But, it could be Anyplace, USA, Asia, Europe, or Africa.) The congregation initially affected: the old Seventh Avenue church of Christ. The preacher's name, though known to this writer and several others, is withheld, because we are studying a principle that could include many names. I have cited enough facts to let the reader know this is not a hypothetical case.
At the first, the preacher's teaching began to change gradually, not so noticeably because of what he said, but because of what he did not say. Then, he began making statements gradually, which statements by themselves gave no evidence of false teaching, and yet, when considered in the light of other statements, began to form a good case of circumstantial evidence. But, you cannot convict a man on such evidence, even in a civil court, especially when the accused will not confess, and steadfastly maintains his innocence. Besides, he was an able preacher of some influence among the brethren in spite of his youth. He had influential relatives, and his grandfather was especially known among the brethren as a sound and able preacher of the gospel. Besides, no one wanted to compromise a young, promising preacher's influence and reputation.
This continued for several months, and later it was learned that all this time the one under suspicion was privately teaching others, and even succeeded in converting some to his position. Some insisted he was being misunderstood, and falsely accused, and he succeeded in appearing to be the persecuted "underdog," gaining even more sympathy. Those who dared question him were made to appear as the villains, prompted by jealousy or the desire to nail someone's hide to the wall.
Finally, the elders called for a showdown. The preacher then admitted that he had continued to baptize people for the space of several months, but that he had ceased to believe it was essential to salvation. He, along with some accomplices, had delved into worldly wisdom, and decided the Bible was not properly translated (or could not be properly understood), and had generally accepted the Calvinistic doctrines taught by Baptists. In spite of all this, he stayed in the pulpit until he was evicted, tearing apart the body of Christ, which he no longer thought to be essential to salvation. When he was forced to leave the pulpit, he identified himself with a local denomination, and began preaching for it. He took some "disciples" with him. And, you could probably still find some brethren who believe he was just a victim of circumstances, that he was "driven" from the church, and that if brethren had loved him more and been more longsuffering toward him, he would still be with us today.
Case No. 2
This preacher was also able, influential, and highly respected throughout the Ohio Valley churches of Christ. (This collection of disciples does not constitute an organization of churches, but is only a geographical designation.) Twenty-five years ago he was already dropping "hints" and questions on certain subjects, generally in private, or before selected audiences. Did Jesus really mean the "mansions" of John 14:1-6 were in heaven, or could he be talking about the church? If so, the church must have already been established at that time. And, further, the church and kingdom must be two separate things.
In 1952, this preacher in question corresponded with a young preacher in Clarksburg, West Virginia, advocating some of the above possibilities. I and another preacher read the correspondence, and helped the younger preacher with his end of the writing. We urged this teacher of strange doctrines to publicly declare himself on these matters, but he said the brethren would not be receptive to his teachings at that time, but would be after they were educated. Some of us knew then (1952) that the church was being troubled by another false teacher, but few believed our reports. Brethren would come away from his meetings where he was preaching, or read his writings in the papers, and say, "I didn't hear him say anything out of the way." Some of us were accused of trying to hurt his reputation, or of being jealous, or of misunderstanding him.
Finally, this man converted his son-in-law to his peculiar teachings, and his son-in-law was also a preacher with much ability, influence, and promise among the churches. Brethren just could not believe that this young man could be guilty of believing or teaching such doctrines, and he, along with his father-in-law, continued in the good graces of the brethren despite warnings to the contrary. But now, in the words of a well-known newscaster, the brethren "know the rest of the story," and have for the past few years.
This is partly true because the son-in-law authored a book containing his false doctrines, with an introduction by his father-in-law! That book was reviewed in the pages of Truth Magazine a few years back. It is the worst (or best) smorgasbord of premillennial positions I have ever seen. Some of it has to be original, with a mixture of doctrines peculiar to Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses! But, you will still find brethren who are sympathetic to these false teachers, and congregations and elderships who have been influenced by them.
Is There A Pattern?
I maintain that most false teachers are caught up in a gradual, evolutionary pattern from which they cannot extricate themselves, even while many of them maintain there is no pattern revealed in the Bible on any subject. The Holy Spirit has given us an abundant amount of evidence pertaining to false teachers, their doctrines and characteristics. Their very nature of trying to hide, conceal, deceive, divert, subvert, and convert makes it necessary for them to follow the pattern. No false teacher is going to confess that they are such, or that their teachings are contrary to truth. Some may even be sincerely convinced they are doing the church a great service, and setting souls in bondage free (2 Pet. 2:19).
Jesus warned of false teachers, and described their conduct (Mt. 7:15-20). Paul wrote much on the subject, and would probably be regarded as an alarmist, and a negativist, but the Holy Spirit says he wrote with the credentials of an apostle (Acts 20:28-31; Gal. 5:1-12; Eph 4:14; Col. 2:4-8, 18-23; 1 Tim. 4:1-6; 2 Tim. 4:1-4).. In fact, Paul warns of this in nearly all his epistles. Peter (2 Pet. 2), John (1, 2 & 3 John), and Jude all speak extensively on the matter. Yet, I get the impression that some brethren still think "there is no such animal" among God's people! Or, if there is, it is a ghost, and not a real person. And, even if there are false teachers, we have no way of identifying them, and even if we do, there is nothing we can do about it. If you listen to some, no false teacher has ever been handled correctly. Israel murmured when God disciplined Korah and his associates, and he was forced to discipline 14,700 more before He got His message across (Num. 16).
Yes, I believe there is a pattern for us to follow in dealing with erring brethren, including those who teach false doctrines. Our motives must be pure, and without prejudice. We may be able to save some, or teach them "more perfectly" (Acts 19:26; Jas. 5:19, 20; Jude 22, 23). But, when our efforts go unrewarded, how long must we stand by and watch the bride of Christ being mugged, the body of Christ being divided? If the reputation of one false teacher is precious, and some think we should "go slow" lest we harm his influence, what about the rest of the body? Are the ones being subjected to false doctrine not also important? Is not the well-being of the church as important as one of its members? Some in the civil realm think it is high time the victims of a crime be accorded the same privileges as the criminals. Are not the souls of those being led away by false teaching as important as those doing the teaching?
By all means, get the facts, and do not act on suspicion or rumor. Sometimes it is difficult to get facts from those who have every reason to conceal them, but Jesus said, " . . . by their fruits ye shall know them." It is a serious thing to take action of any kind which pertains to the Lord's body, but it is going to be even more serious for some of us if we have to explain why we did not do anything even when we had the facts. And, be sure, the Lord will require it of us, at His coming.
Truth Magazine XXII: 11, pp. 185-186