Revisiting the False Teacher Controversy

By Mike Willis

In an effort to defend an on-going fellowship with those who are teaching admittedly false doctrines, some brethren have re-defined “false teacher” as a bad apple, one who is intentionally dishonest and manifests all of the character traits listed in 2 Peter 2. The argument that is made is that the word “false” (pseudos) always refers to one who is dishonest.

In previous articles, I have cited New Testament evidence that demonstrates that is not so (“If He’s Not A False Teacher,” Truth Magazine [July 20, 2000]). In this article, I want to demonstrate that the pseudos word group is not exclusively used with reference to intentional dishonesty. My evidence is drawn from a contemporary writer, Philo of Alexandria. Philo the Jew or Philo of Alexandria (a city in Egypt with a large Jewish population) lived from about 20 B.C. to A.D. 50, making him contemporary with Christ and the biblical authors. The language of the New Testament is not a divinely created language with special definitions; rather, the language of the New Testament reflects contemporary usage of the words. Philo’s use of the language is instructive in showing us how the pseudos word group was used in the period contemporary with the New Testament writers.

The quotations that are given are taken from The Works of Philo translated by C.D. Yonge (Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1993). 

Intentional Deceit
The pseudos word group can be used of intentional deceit, as it frequently is so used (for an example, see Special Laws I:235). No one is denying that the pseudos word group can describe intentional deceit. However, one should not presume that intentional deceit is the primary meaning of the word, assuming without contextual reasons for doing so that the pseudos refers to being intentionally dishonest.

An Antonym To True/Truth

In going through the uses of the pseudo word group in Philo, one is immediately impressed with the number of places in which the word is used as an antonym for “true” or “truth.” Here are a few citations:

For of what advantage would it be to make our assertions clear and distinct, but nevertheless false?” (Allegorical Interpretations III:121).]

“. . .some are true, some are false” (On Husbandry 141).

“. . . separating true from false arguments” (The Preliminary Studies, 18).

“. . . a foe to truth, a champion of falsehood” (On the Confusion of Tongues, 48).

“. . . speech into truth and falsehood . . . truth to falsehood” (Who Is Heir of Divine Things? 132).

“. . . and what is false and what is true” (On Dreams — Book 2, 47).

“. . . but seeking the plain truth, since his mind was unable to admit any falsehood” (On the Life of Moses, I:24).

“. . . for it is suitable to the mind that it should admit of no error or falsehood” (On the Life of Moses, II:129).

“. . . and at the vast amount of falsehood which they had embraced instead of truth” (On the Life of Moses, II:167).

“. . . their having from their infancy learnt to look upon what was false as if it had been true” (The Special Laws I:53).

Additional examples can be cited, for this is a very common use of the word pseudos.

Can A False Teacher Be Sincere?

Particularly interesting for the present discussion is whether or not one who is designated as being pseudos can also be honest and sincere? 

Philo speaks of one’s “outward senses” bearing “false witness” (pseudomarturia), obviously not intending thereby to say that they intentionally deceive (On the Confusion of Tongues, 126).
A proof that one can be well-intentioned but a false teacher is seen from this quotation:

And if, indeed, any one assuming the name and appearance of a prophet, appearing to be inspired and possessed by the Holy Spirit, were to seek to lead the people to the worship of those who are accounted gods in the different cities, it would be fitting for the people to attend to him being deceived by the name of a prophet. For such an one is an impostor and not a prophet, since he has been inventing speeches and oracles full of falsehood, even though a brother, or a son, or a daughter, or a wife, or a steward, or a firm friend, or any one who else seems to be well-intentioned towards one should seek to lead one in a similar course (The Special Laws, I:315-316).

Note that Philo describes this false prophet as one who is “well-intentioned,” nevertheless his speeches and oracles are “full of falsehood.” Obviously, Philo thought this relative or associate was good, honest, and sincere, although deceived and a false prophet.


This evidence is what motivates lexicographers to state in their definitions that the pseudos word group is not exclusively used of intentional deceit and deception (see “What Does ‘False Teacher’ Mean?”, Truth Magazine [September 5, 1996], 534, 554-556). In our study of “false teachers,” we assert that what makes one a “false teacher” is his teaching false doctrines, without regard to his intentions, whether well-intentioned or an intentional deceiver. One cannot always know another’s heart, but he can always examine his message to see if it corresponds with the truth of Scripture. When what one teaches on a subject is false 
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Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 20  p2  October 17, 2000