By Brooks Cochran
God’s people have always been plagued with false teachers. The Bible gives many warnings concerning them and their evil works (cf. Matt. 7:15-27; Gal. 1:6-9; Col. 2:8-10; 1 Tim. 4:1-5; Acts 20:28-32). False teachers, for the most part, would be powerless if it were not for the untaught members of the church. These individuals provide fertile ground for false teachers to do their damaging work within a congregation of God’s people.
In speaking of the untaught, we speak of those who are “relatively” untaught. They, for the most part, are individuals who have accepted the Christian life without much study on their own part. It may be they were baptized because their friends were: it maybe seemed like a good thing to do at the moment, or perhaps they did it to please their parents. Included in this group would be those individuals who have very little commitment to attend the services, or to study the word of God, or to engage in the local work of the congregation. They, as someone once said, “have just enough religion to make themselves miserable.” They know very little beyond the first principles of the gospel. This problem with the untaught has been with the church since the days of the apostles (cf. Heb. 5:11 ff; Matt. 24:12).
Since this problem exists it would be well to study and determine what can be done to correct it. Our aim in this study will be to consider the following: the problem of the untaught as it relates to the church in general; more specifically, the problem of the untaught as dealt with in the epistles of John; and lastly, what admonitions does the Bible give to correct this situation.
The Problem Of The Untaught As It Relates To The Church In General
The problem of the untaught is not one that exclusively belongs to the church. It was one that ancient Israel faced as well: “And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers: and there arose another generation after them, that knew not Jehovah, nor yet the work which he had wrought for Israel” (Judg. 2:10). One of the reasons why this generation arose that “knew not Jehovah, nor yet the work which he had wrought for Israel” was that the older generation failed to teach the younger generation as God has commanded (cf. Deut. 6:1-9; Josh. 24:14-28). As a result of this, the nation went into apostasy (i.e., they forsook God, cf. Judg. 2:11-15).
This came to be the general pattern of Israel in her relationship with God. A generation would come along that was taught in the way of the Lord. However, they would fail to teach their children concerning God and His works.
As a result, a generation would arise that knew not God and would depart from Him. God would then inflict punishment upon the people to bring them to repentance. They would return to God, and in a few years the cycle would start over. This pattern is seen in the book of Judges as well as the writings of the Old Testament prophets. One should note that though the majority of the nation went into apostasy, there were always a few who remained faithful to God (cf. Isa. 1:9; 10:20-24).
The church, like Israel, has this same problem. The greatest danger she faces is not from without, but from within. False teachers and untaught members are able to accomplish what outward persecution cannot (i.e. the turning of the church away from God and her divine mission, and directing her down the path of apostasy).
Apostasy does not happen overnight. For it to occur there are several factors which must be involved for it to be successful:
(1) A lack of knowledge of the will of God and a respect for the same. This is generally accomplished through a lack of teaching and studying God’s word.
(2) The exaltation of human leaders and human pronouncements. The false teacher is exalted to a place of prominence whereby his words can tickle the ears of the untaught.
(3) Time. Only after a wrong attitude toward God and His word has become prevalent, and enough time has elapsed for this attitude to manifest itself in the form of some leader, can the consequences begin to be seen and known.
These factors can be seen in the advice Paul gave the Ephesian elders at Miletus: “I know that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).
(1) Time – “I know that after my departing . . . .” Once the strong influence of Paul was gone it would not be long before the vacuum left by him would be filled by some false teacher (cf. 2 Tim. 2:16-18; 1:15).
(2) The exaltation of human leaders and human pronouncements – “. . . grievous wolves shall enter in among you, . . .” [From without]; “. . . and from among your own selves shall men arise, . . .” [From within] “. . . speaking perverse things . . . .”
(3) A lack of knowledge of the will of God – “. . . to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). If these individuals were well taught in the faith they would not be drawn away (cf. 2 Tim. 2:16-18).
These characteristics can also be found in other warnings which Paul gave of a coming apostasy within the church (cf. 2 Thess. 2:3-12; 1 Tim. 4:1-5; 2 Tim. 4:1-5). Even today they can be cited as one of the basic causes of God (I John 4:1-6).
divisions which occur within many congregations of God’s people.
The Problem Of The Untaught As Dealt With In The Epistles Of John
By 90 A.D. (the approximate date of the writing of the epistles of John), enough time had elapsed for many of the things Paul spoke to have begun to occur. Apostasy was underway. There were many who were untaught and they provided fruitful ground for false teachers who had already departed from the faith (cf. 1 John 2:18; 4:1). William Barclay, describing this’ condition, states that “certain things had almost inevitably happened within the church. Many were now second or even third generation Christians. The thrill of the first days had, to some extent at least, passed away. In the first days of Christianity there was a glory and a splendor, but now Christianity had become a thing of habit, `traditional, half-hearted, nominal.’ Men had grown used to it and something of the wonder was lost. John was, writing at a time when, for some at least, the first thrill was gone and the flame of devotion had died to a flicker” (William Barclay, The Letters of John and Jude, Rev. Edition, p. 3).
John lived to see corruption, both in doctrine and practice, introduced into the church by many who professed to be Christians. The latter years of his life were spent in opposing these changes. His main concern in his epistles was not necessarily that of confronting the false teachers who were at work within the church, as it was to warn his readers of them and to prevent any from being led astray from the truth.
Concerning these false teachers John wanted his readers to remember that:
(1) They are false prophets (1 John 4:1).
(2) They are “deceivers” that can and do lead people astray (2 John 7, 8; 1 John 2:19; 2:26).
(3) They are “anti-Christ” because they deny the deity of Christ (1 John 2:18; 2:22; 4:3; 2 John 7).
(4) They once were faithful members of the church but now have gone back into the world (1 John 2:19).
John draws a sharp line between truth and error, righteousness and unrighteousness, light and darkness, and love and hate. He demands that the Christian place himself on one side of the line or the other. He admonishes his readers to:
(I) Walk in the light where God is, rather than in the darkness; i.e. remain in fellowship with God (1 John 1:5-10).
(2) Keep from sin (1 John 2:1).
(3) Love one another (1 John 2:7-I1).
(4) Separate themselves from the world and any love they might have for it (1 John 2:15-17).
(5) Try and/or test those that claim to be prophets of God to determine if they have the spirit of truth or spirit of error. This testing is to be done by examining the so called prophet and his teaching with the truth, i.e. the word of God (1 John 4:1-6).
(6) Walk in love and keep the Lord’s commandments (1 John 5:3; 2 John 5, 6; cf. 1 John 2:3-6).
(7) Walk and stand in the truth (3 John 3, 4).
John wrote to teach and admonish his readers. By their reading and applying the things taught, they should be well equipped to deal with the false prophets and the untaught members.
Correcting The Problem
There is no need for members of the church to remain ignorant concerning spiritual matters. The key to spiritual growth and development is a constant diet of the word of God. Peter admonishes Christians to be like a newborn baby. As a newborn desires milk to satisfy his hunger, so should the Christian desire “the spiritual milk which is without guile,” that he “may grow thereby unto salvation” (1 Pet. 2:22). No one has to tell a newborn it’s time to eat. It’s sad that some Christians have to be pushed and pulled to the table to eat spiritual food.
The Bible provides us with a case of two Christians that were second and third generation Christians respectively and were faithful to the Lord. We are referring to Eunice and Timothy: “Having been reminded of the unfeigned faith that is in thee; which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice; and, I am persuaded, in thee also” (2 Tim. 1:5). The reason for such strong faith is given in 2 Tim. 3:15: “And that from a babe thou bast known the sacred writings which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.”
Timothy, from a youth up, had known the scriptures. This was due, in part, to the teaching he had received from his mother. However, for his mother to have been able to teach him implies that she was taught in the “sacred writings.” No doubt Lois taught Eunice from a youth up. Such faith would not have been in Lois, Eunice and Timothy had they not been taught and/or studied the “sacred writings,” the word of God.
Paul in commending the Ephesian elders “to God, and to the word of his grace” gave the cure for dealing with error, false teachers and untaught members within the church (Acts 20:32). John spoke of this word as the “doctrine of Christ.” In the preceding verse John warns his readers not to “lose the things which we have wrought,” i.e. remain faithful (2 John 8, 9). This is done by abiding in the “doctrine of Christ” which is also the same as the “apostles’ doctrine,” i.e. their teaching (cf. Acts 2:42). This is also the same as “walking in the truth” (3 John 4).
“Walking in the truth” is the same as keeping the commands of God: “And hereby we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3). We are also told that “he that knoweth God heareth us (the apostles and their doctrine – B.C., he who is not of God heareth not us. By this we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6). “There is no real knowledge of God, no fellowship with Him, without practical conformity to His will . . . There is only one way of proving to ourselves that we know God, and that is by loving obedience to His will” (Cambridge Greek Testament, Epistles of John, p. 37). The child of God must constantly study and obey the word of God to be well pleasing to Him.
The solution to the problem of the untaught is simple: more teaching and/or studying of God’s word needs to be done. Yet, for the’ teaching and studying to be fruitful there must be a strong desire on the part of the untaught to want to learn and grow. This is the thought of the writer of the Book of Hebrews: “Of whom we have many things to say, and hard of interpretation, seeing ye are become dull of hearing. For when by reason of the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need again that some one teach you the rudiments of the first principles of the oracles of God” (Heb. 5:11-12). These Christians should have been more mature in the faith than they were. In fact, the writer says they were “dull of hearing” and he rebukes them for being in such a condition. He does, however, give them a way to correct their situation: “. . . ye have need again that some one teach you . . .”
The church has always had those that were untaught; but she also has those that are taught and are able to defend the truth against all error. We need to strive to learn all that we possibly can about the word of God so that we can teach it to others. This is the only way we can be pleasing to God.
William Barclay, in giving the reason for John’s first epistle, states that he “wrote his great letter to meet a threatening situation and in defence of the faith. The heresies which he attacked are by no means altogether echoes of ‘old unhappy far off things and battles long ago.’ They are still beneath the surface and sometimes they even raise their heads. To study his letter will confirm us in the true faith and enable us to have a defence against that which would seduce us from it” (The Epistles of John and Jude, Rev. Edition, p. 20).
Jesus, in giving the great commission, instructed the apostles to go make disciples of all nations, “baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). He recognized the importance of continued teaching and/or studying on the part of one after he became a disciple (Christian). This, then, is the solution to the problem of the untaught second and third generation church members: teaching, teaching and more teaching!
- Why are false teachers able to exert such a strong influence among God’s people?
- What is meant by the term “untaught church member”?
- Discuss the conditions which must be present for apostasy to succeed. What can be done to prevent such occurring?
- Discuss these conditions as they relate to the following passages:
- Acts 20:29-30 (To whom was Paul speaking?)
- 2 Tim. 2:16-18 (Where was Timothy when Paul wrote to him?)
- 2 Thess. 2:3-12
- 1 Tim. 4:1-5
- 2 Tim. 4:1-5
- Describe the condition of the church when John wrote his epistles. Do we find any of these characteristics within the church today?
- What does John say about false prophets and/or teachers? What advice does he give Christians in regards to them?
- How and with what does one test and/or try these false teachers? Does one need to know the scriptures in order to be able to try and/or test them?
- Discuss some of the parallels that exist bet ween a newborn baby and a Christian.
- How does one account for Timothy’s strong faith? Why aren’t there more like him? Whose fault is it if one does not study and grow?
- Define and/or discuss the following:
- Doctrine of Christ (2 John 8, 9)
- Apostles’ doctrine (Acts 2:42)
- Spirit of truth (1 John 4:6)
- Spirit of error (1 John 4:6)
- Heb. 5:11-12
- Matt. 28:19
- What suggestions would you give to help solve the problem of the untaught?
Guardian of Truth XXV: 17, pp. 261-263
April 23, 1981