What Does “False Teacher” Mean?

By Mike Willis

But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction (2 Pet. 2:1)

This is the only text in the New Testament in which the words “false teachers” occurs. It is translated from the Greek word pseudodidaskaloi. The argument that is made about who is a false teacher is this: The word pseudomai means “to lie” and when the prefix pseudo- is joined to a word, such as teacher (didaskalos), the emphasis is on his lying, deceitful, and dishonest ways. Hence, to be a “false teacher” says nothing about the content of what is preached. A “false teacher” may be teaching what is the truth, but he is a false teacher because of his lying, deceitful, and dishonest ways.

Certainly no one wishes to defend anyone who is lying, deceitful and dishonest. Those who manifest these traits are ungodly and unworthy of fellowship. Having said that, we are back to the issue of whether or not the descriptive term “false teachers” says anything about the content of what is preached. In order to arrive at a conclusion about this matter, we are forced to investigate the meaning of the pseudo word group.

Looking at the Lexicons

Looking at the root meaning of the Greek word, Conzelmann wrote in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (IX:594-603), “The derivation of the root is uncertain. The primary meaning is `false’ in the broad sense.” He then gave several examples such as “breach of an agreement,” “false assertion,” “error,” “a deliberately false statement.” The active verb means “to deceive” and the passive verb means “to be deceived,” “to deceive oneself.” In the middle voice, the word means “to speak falsely . . . though only the context and not the term itself shows whether this is intentional or not.” Conzelmann added that the noun pseudos means “what is untrue,” “deceit,” “falsehood,” “lying,” “lie.”

One can easily see how this word group is used to refer to intentional deception, what we commonly call “lying.” Many who are “false” intentionally deceive others. But this is not the only usage of the word group.

An antithesis exists between what is true (aletheia) and what is false (pseudos). This usage is rooted in the Old Testament contrast between truth and error (IX:598-599). The Dictionary of New Testament Theology (edited by Colin Brown), in defining pseudomai, says, The Old Testament proclaims that God is truthful. He and his word can be trusted. When salvation or calamity is prophesied, it is also fulfilled. “God is not a man that he should lie. . . . Has he said and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it?” (Num. 23:19; cf. 1 Sam. 15:29). The God-ness of God is proved by the truth of his word and his faithfulness in fulfilling it.

Man, however, has fallen prey to a lie; he has disassociated himself from God, and does not let him be the Lord who, in truth, he is. The prophets make the accusation that God’s people have fallen prey to a lie. Instead of trusting their Lord, they rely on their own strength and on political alliances. They listen to false prophets (Jer. 5:31; Ezek. 13:19 and after), who flatter them and give them false prophecies of salvation, who preach about “drinking and strong drink” (Mic. 2:11), and who use whitewash over their sins (Ezek. 22:28). Hosea pro-claimed the charge from God, “You have ploughed iniquity, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies” (10:13). The most serious accusation was that the people have put their faith in idols instead of in God which the prophet calls lies. “Their lies let them astray” (Amos 2:4). Lies have become their refuge (Isa. 28:15), and they have renounced their God (Isa. 59:1; Jer. 5:12). Lying, in the eyes of the prophets, is not so much an ethical offence as a basic moral attitude, which turns its back on the true God. It therefore falls prey to the delusion of the lie, as it does to the “nothingness” of existence. To put one’s trust in a delusory lie instead of in the true God is called by Isaiah a “covenant with death” (28:15) (470-471).

This concept underlies several of the New Testament uses of the pseudo word group.

The New Testament takes up the Old Testament witness to the truthfulness and truth of God. Tit. 1:2 speaks of God as the apseudes theos, God who does not lie. God’s truth does not come to light in the unveiling of being in the way that the Greeks understood aletheia. Rather, God’s truth is to be seen as truthfulness in the way that he keeps faith with his promises in history… .

The revelation of God’s truth in Jesus Christ lets the other side of the picture come to light  the lies of men. For men have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25). . . The revelation of God’s wrath against human wickedness (Rom. 1:18-3:20) leads in Rom. 3:4 to the confession: “Let God be true though every man be false, as it is written, `That thou mayest bejustified in thy words, and prevail when thou art judged”‘ (cf. Ps. 116:1 LXX; Zeph. 3; Ps.51:4ff.)…. (Ibid. 472).

The “lie” then stands in contrast to what is “truth” (unreality vs. reality; truth vs. error). There is inherent in the word pseudo a recognition that the content of what is spoken is false.

Writing to define the specific word pseudodidaskalos Rengstorf commented in TDNT (II:160),

In the NT it occurs only in 2 Pt. 2:1, where it is used with pseudoprophetai (false prophets, mw) for false teachers. The pseudo- suggests both that the claim of the men concerned is false and also that their teaching is erroneous, so that in every respect they are a perversion of the Christian didaskalos (teacher, mw), since they reject the claim of Jesus to dominion over their whole lives.

Arndt and Gingrich

Arndt and Gingrich’s monumental work provides us in-sight on the meaning of the pseudo word group. Consider the following:

Pseudadelphos: “a false brother, i.e. one who pretends to be a Christian brother, but whose claim is belied by his unbrotherly conduct. Paul applies the term to his Judaistic opponents 2 Cor 11:26; Gal 2:4. Of Christians w. wrong beliefs Pol 6:3.”

Pseudapostolos: “false apostle, i.e. one who represents himself to be an apostle without the divine commission necessary for the office.”

Pseudes: “1. Of persons. . . false, lying… Also of the spirit of man. . . Subst. the liar.. . 2. Of things false, lying. . . a false oath.”

Pseudodidaskalia: “false teaching.”

Pseudodidaskalos: “false teacher, prob. one who teaches falsehoods… 2 Pt 2:1.”

Pseudoprophetes: “false prophet, one who falsely claims to be a prophet of God or who prophesies falsely.”

Pseudochristos: “one who, in lying fashion, gives himself out to be the Christ, a false Messiah.”

A Parallel Usage

The usage of the pseudo (false) word group can be compared to the aletheia (true) word group (see TDNT I:232-251). The word “true” can be used in more than one sense. It can be used to describe what is genuine (in contrast to pretense, hypocrisy). We can speak of a “true friend” in contrast to those who pretend to be one’s friend. In this respect the word “true” carries the idea of sincerity, integrity, and honesty. However, the word “true” can also carry the meaning of “truth” in contrast to that which is “false” (error, wrong). The gospel is the “word of truth” (2 Cor. 6:7; Col. 1:5; Eph. 1:13). That does not mean that it is a word spoken by someone who is sincere; rather, it reflects what is reality. It affirms that the inspired Christian revelation is inerrant in contrast with those systems devised by man that are filled with error.

In a similar way, the word “false” can be used to refer to what is done in an underhanded, dishonest way. There are those who are liars, deceivers, and dishonest. However, that does not exhaust the meaning and uses of the term. The word “false” can also be used in contrast with what is “true,” “truth,” or “reality.”

Which is the New Testament usage? The context must determine which definition is intended. There can be little question of whether the men of 2 Peter 2 are ungodly men. That is clearly indicated by such words to describe their conduct as: (a) covetous (2:3); (b) make merchandise of you (2:3); (c) walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness (2:10); (d) despise government (2:10); (e) presumptuous (2:10); (f) self-willed (2:10); etc. However, none of these descriptions is inherent in the meaning of the pseudo prefix.

These false teachers are also described as men who “bring in damnable heresies” (2:1), “denying the Lord that bought them” (2:1), “speaking evil of the things that they under-stand not” (2:12), “forsaken the right way and are gone astray” (2:15), “promise liberty” but this liberty leads to enslavement (2:19), “turning from the holy commandment” (2:21). These descriptions of the false teachers of 2 Peter 2 fit the definition of “false” that corresponds to “error,” “wrong,” “unreality,” the opposite of the truth. Consequently, I conclude that the meaning intended by “false teachers” is that the teacher is teaching that which is false.

This also corresponds with the use of “false prophets” of the Old Testament. The verse parallels the “false teachers” of 2 Peter 2 with the “false prophets” of the Old Testament. As one studies the false prophets of the Old Testament, he is impressed with the fact that many of them obviously were sincere in their belief. For example, the men who had the contest with Elijah on Mt. Carmel were so convinced of the truthfulness of their beliefs that “cried aloud, and cut themselves with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them” (1 Kings 18:28). One could not seriously question whether or not these “false prophets” were sincere in their worship of Baal. That they were sincere did not change the fact that the content of their message was wrong, led men away from God, and had to be resisted by the godly Elijah.

Similarly, “false teachers” frequently are sincere, honor-able men, who are simply mistaken. Nevertheless, their message leads men away from God and into eternal damnation. For that reason they must be resisted.


A man may not always be able to determine the integrity of another. However, he always can weigh what he is teaching against what the Bible says. If what he is teaching is false, he is a “false teacher” in respect to that teaching.

Guardian of Truth XL: No. 17, p. 2
September 5, 1996