By Harry Osborne
Over the past few years, numerous brethren have redefined the term “false teacher.” We have been told that a false teacher is not known by the fact that he teaches falsely. Rather, we are told that we must see evidence of a despicable character before we may view the individual as a false teacher. Those suggesting this new definition of a “false teacher” appeal to 2 Peter 2 where the term is used and say that the characteristics noted of such men must be present before they can be called a “false teacher.”
Recently, this concept has been taken another step. Some are now saying that, since such evil characteristics as those listed in 2 Peter 2 are not apparent in teachers of error today, we have no false teachers among us. While admitting with some hesitance that there may be a few in the denominational world, we are assured that none exists among us as warned in 2 Peter 2:1.
If that assessment is correct, think what that means. We have had about 50 years since the division with the institutional folks and we are still free from any false teachers. Not a one! Yet, with the apostles of Christ present in the first century, there were already multiple false teachers present so much so that Peter had to warn of them within 35 years of the beginning of the church. If the teachers of false doctrine named by Paul and John are to be viewed as false teachers, there is evidence of yet more. Is it reasonable to say that this generation has done a better job in keeping false teachers from arising than was done in New Testament times?
Examining the Context
Look at the context which immediately precedes and follows 2 Peter 2. The emphasis is upon the need to heed the message of truth. In introducing the fact that we can have confidence in that truth, Peter says, “Wherefore I shall be ready always to put you in remembrance of these things, though ye know them, and are established in the truth which is with you” (1:12). He then calls upon all to remember the testimony of Christ as given by the apostles (1:13-15). Why? The message delivered did not consist of “cunningly devised fables,” but was the product of “eyewitnesses” who “spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit” (1:16-21).
Immediately following chapter 2, Peter calls them back to remembrance of the “words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour through your apostles” (3:1-2). He then calls upon the readers to remember that they will be judged by that word of God as delivered (3:3-13). After again warning that “the ignorant and unstedfast wrest” the Scripture to their destruction, the readers are urged to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (3:14-18). What is the focus? Clearly, Peter’s focus is upon the need for us to hold firmly to the truth!
In the midst of these exhortations, Peter warns against whom? False teachers. Why? Because of the threat of their character? No, but because they called people away from the message of truth into doctrines which resulted in the condemnation of souls. Men who teach doctrines which result in sin and condemnation of souls when put into practice will produce evil characteristics as a rule. However, they do not begin to pose a threat to God’s people which must be exposed at the point of manifesting an evil character. That threat must be exposed beginning at the point when, though previously undetected, they “bring in destructive heresies” (2:1).
“False Teachers” Were Not Recognized Initially
Remember that Peter warns brethren to be watchful for these “false teachers” who would be “among” them as though they had slipped in unawares and unrecognized. Brethren, could you tell me how one would have all of the characteristics described before he could be called a “false teacher” and yet slip in unawares and unrecognized? Wouldn’t most brethren notice a fellow who was presumptuous, self-willed, evil speaking, having eyes full of adultery and speaking great swelling words of vanity?
It is clear even by the immediate context that Peter is noting the end of these false teachers who in the end would be fully corrupted as a result of their error. (The growing corruption of error is elsewhere attested as in 2 Tim. 3:13.) But what was the first sign? The destructive heresies!
Key Word: “Destructive”
Notice also that in the first three verses of chapter 2, a form of the word “destructive” is used three times.
First, the message taught is characterized as “destructive heresies.” Not all teaching which is incorrect is necessarily destructive in that it leads to sin and condemnation if practiced. An example can be noted in McGarvey’s Sermons where he noted the possibility that the young prophet going to Bethel could have believed a lie which would not have led to his death:
Shall we think, then, that every man who believes a lie in regard to God’s will shall perish? I think not. If a blind man is guided by another blind man along a smooth road, where there is no ditch, I don’t think either of them will fall into a ditch. It is only when there is a ditch in the way that they will fall into it. So, if this young prophet had been told to do almost any thing else than what he was told to do, we have no reason to think it would have been fatal. If, for example, the old prophet had said, An angel sent me to tell you to get from under this tree and run for your life, and not to stop until you get home, the young man would have been scared, and would have run himself out of breath; but the lion would not have killed him. In like manner, I can imagine a man believing some lies in religion, which, though they may injure him some, and I suppose there are very few that would not, might yet fall short of proving fatal to him (J.W. McGarvey, McGarvey’s Sermons, Gospel Light, 1975, 333-4).
Other examples of being incorrect about the interpretation of a given passage not necessarily leading to sin if put into practice could be given (early date or late date of the book of Revelation, whether Ephesians 4:12 specifies the three areas of legitimate work of the church in one verse, the exact meaning of the “gift of the Holy Spirit” in Acts 2:38, etc.) A doctrine is destructive if it will cause one to commit sin if put into practice, thus causing the soul to be in jeopardy of hell.
Second, as a result of bringing in the “destructive heresies” the false teachers bring “upon themselves swift destruction.” Before any evil character is said to be present with these false teachers, Peter declares their fitness for destruction based upon the heresies they introduced among the people of God.
Third, the false teachers’ decline into benefitting themselves through their “feigned words” showed the fact that “their destruction slumbereth not.” As noted above, they would indeed wax worse and worse. From that point, the chapter continues to denote that decline.
All Characteristics or Limited Number?
If it is true that false teachers must have the corrupt characteristics noted in 2 Peter 2 before they can be called “false teachers,” would not consistency demand that they have every single one of them before they could be called “false teachers”? If not, how many of them must they have? One? Two? Six? If not, how many?
If our redefining brethren answer that false teachers must first possess every characteristic named, they would be hard pressed to find one among the very vilest of men, much less in the midst of God’s people. If they answer that false teachers may have less than all of the characteristics named, please tell me why we cannot use the same logic to conclude they may be recognized by the first one listed: “bring in destructive (damnable) heresies.”
False Teachers and False Prophets
Also of interest is the parallel of “false prophets” to “false teachers” in this context. The fact that the exact phrase “false prophet” is not found in the Old Testament does not keep us from identifying them. Every time you find a prophet speaking falsely while claiming it is the truth of God, you find a “false prophet.”
In the case of the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, it is clear that they are very sincere in their actions. But we would still rightly recognize them as false prophets because they prophesied falsely. Hence, there is no exclusive pattern suggesting that all false prophets had to have despicable character.
If that is so regarding false prophets and they are parallel with false teachers by Peter, what is the necessary conclusion? No exclusive pattern exists suggesting that all false teachers must first have despicable characters before being called “false teachers.”
Efforts to say that a false teacher in this context is one who first possessed the evil character misses the point of both the immediate and extended context. The false teachers were first known because of their teaching. Hence the term, “false teachers,” not “false characters” or “false hearts.” Failure to detect their false teaching would lead brethren to forget the truth which Peter continually urges the readers to remember.
False Teaching of New Testament Times
Please think for a moment about the errors refuted most in the New Testament and the view the inspired writers had of those advocating such. The Judaizing heresy and Gnosticism probably receive more attention than any others. Could we agree that those condemned for advancing these views could rightly be called false teachers? Yet, many of them would have been exemplary in their character.
For example, the Gnostics who took the ascetic view would have been anything but people with despicable characters. Would that preclude them from being described as false teachers? Yet, Paul clearly refers to the advocate of that type in Colossians 2 and warns faithful brethren that the effect of the teaching was to make “spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col. 2:8). There are other ways for advocates of error to make spoil of the hearers other than physically enriching themselves at the expense of those hearers. They could make spoil of them in the spiritual sense as well. Would such make the advocate of error any less a false teacher?
Are Other Terms Acceptable?
The objection to the use of this one description of those teaching error puzzles me. If we say those teaching error are causing divisions and occasions of stumbling contrary to the doctrine of Christ and should be avoided, would that be more acceptable? That is the way Paul expressed it in Romans 16:17. If such men were named and it was said that their word ate like a cancer, would that be more acceptable? That is what was said of Hymenaeus and Philetus in 2 Timothy 2:17. If we were to say that the teachers of error contrary to the doctrine of Christ were “anti-christ,” would that be acceptable? Yet, that is how John described the Gnostics of his day in his epistles.
It is obvious that the same brethren objecting to the use of the term “false teacher” would also object to those biblical terms. The fact is that some brethren are becoming very hesitant to rebuke error and the advocates thereof with the same rebukes stated in Scripture. There is no essential difference in such efforts today and that of the identical argument made on the same subject by Leroy Garrett as follows:
A false teacher is a liar, and he knows he’s a liar; or he is so corrupt of mind and heart that he no longer distinguishes between right and wrong. . . . It is unthinkable that such characterization as this should be laid upon any sincere, well-meaning, God-loving person, however misled he may be on some ideas. One may even be caught up in the clutches of an insidious system and still not be a pseudo-didaskalos. The nun that marches her girls in front of you as you wait at the light does not necessarily deserve the epithet of false, whatever judgment you make of Romanism (Leroy Garrett, Restoration Review , 264).
We should remember where this principle was taken by those in the “Grace/Unity Movement.” It is troubling to hear the same argumentation from brethren today. How far are we willing to take this idea? Today, we are to believe there are no false teachers among us. Could the day be coming when there are none in the denominational world either? Brethren, let us take the sum of God’s word on this matter and speak as the oracles of God. Let us never obscure the clear terms of inspiration with the uncertain sounds of compromise and tolerance with evil.
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