Who Is A False Teacher?

By Tom M. Roberts

It has become fashionable of late to suggest that a person cannot be called a false teacher or a position labeled as false doctrine unless it can be determined that the teacher is insincere or dishonest. Virtually any position known to man regarding any biblical matter can be covered by this logic and, once accepted, becomes unassailable without the ability to read hearts and judge motives. The ultimate end of such folly is that of compromise and open-ended fellowship unless hypocrisy and dishonesty can be proven. The word of God itself is not clear enough, we are told, to be the determinant factor and fellowship becomes a matter of subjective (as opposed to objective) reasoning.

As one writer said, “You may have noticed that I have said little about false doctrine. There is a reason for that: ‘false doctrine’ is an unscriptural term!” (“Refutation By Ridicule,” R. Andrew Parker, Sentry Magazine, Vol. 17, No. 1, March 31, 1991).

Someone else has asserted: “I do not regard (name deleted) as a false teacher . . . because I am persuaded by his conduct and his arguments that he honestly believes that he is faithful to God’s teaching on the subject” (“Divorce and Fellowship,” Ed Harrell, written speech at FC Open Forum, Feb. 1991).

Since my earliest years of preaching, I have had sectarian preachers attempt to justify their false teachings on the basis of an honest and sincere heart and the lack of clarity of the gospel message. It is most disconcerting to hear this from respected brethren.

The apostle Peter stated an opposite view rather clearly: “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction” (2 Pet. 2:1). Paul also warned: “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them” (Rom. 16:17). And again: “. . . and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine. . . ” (1 Tim. 1:10). “Contrary doctrine” is prohibited, though the teacher even be an angel: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8-9).

Our proposition is before us, fairly stated, and the answer is no less manifest.

False Doctrine

Brethren, it is patently false that there is no such thing today as false doctrine or false teachers. Yes, it is true that pseudos refers to “a lie, conscious and intentional falsehood,” (see Thayer, et al). But it should be understood that not every brother who teaches “contrary doctrine” does so with conscious intent. Some surely do. However it is also true that one who deceives others may himself be deceived (2 Tim. 3:13), teaching error unintentionally. Is the “destructive heresy” any less evil because it is believed by the one who teaches it? Was Paul any less a blasphemer because he was honest (Acts 23:1)? Thayer also says that pseusma is “a falsehood, a lie; spec. the perfidy by which a man by sinning breaks faith with God.” Shall we be so naive as to suppose that no man ever broke faith with God through sin that was unintentional? Did David and Uzzah (2 Sam. 6) “break faith” with God by intentionally bringing the Ark of God home on a cart or was it an oversight? David understood that God punished them “because we did not seek Him according to the ordinance,” (1 Chron. 15:13), not for conscious intent to do wickedly. Thus we see that an act takes its nature (good or evil, moral or immoral, lie or truth) from its relation to God’s revelation and not from the attitude of the heart. Good intent and honesty cannot make false doctrine true!

Was the “man of God,” the prophet from Judah (1 Kings 13), any less dead (having been slain by a lion at the word of God) because he believed the voice of a lying prophet? He was deceived, having followed a “blind guide” (Matt. 15:14). Here is the clear example of one who is called a “man of God” breaking faith with God and paying the price because he believed a lie. Could this happen today? We are hearing it taught that one cannot break faith with God unless one is dishonest. But this does not fit the pattern of “sound words.”

Is False Doctrine Known Subjectively?

I know that Jesus can read hearts. Likewise, the apostles and inspired men and women could “discern spirits” (1 Cor. 12:10). But none this side of the miraculous age can judge whether a teacher is false by reading his heart. Brethren, the position that we can only know a man to be a false teacher when we adjudge him to be dishonest or insincere is so wide of the mark as to be ludicrous. This position throws the knowledge of truth vs. error into the realm of subjectivity, removing it from the objective standard: the word of God. It is an impossible situation, removing any credible assessment of right or wrong. The Baptists make this argument about their preacher who teaches that baptism is “because of” remission of sins. They say he “honestly believes that he is faithful to God’s teaching on the subject,” therefore he must be right. We say they are wrong because the teaching violates the word of God — regardless of how honest the teacher may be. Now, our brethren are saying that one who teaches adulterous marriages to be acceptable is to be received into fellowship because “he honestly believes that he is faithful to God’s teaching on the subject.” Is this not a double standard? Why is a Baptist wrong even though he has a sincere heart and our brother right because he has a sincere heart? Do only members of the church of Christ have honest hearts?

Another part of this fallacious argument that must be considered is that because there are so many different positions on the disputed subject, no one can be sure of where the truth actually lies; the word of God is just not clear on the subject. But again, clear to whom? And on which subjects?

Our Baptist friend, once again, teaches “salvation by faith alone” and makes six or seven arguments to prove that baptism is “because of” remission of sins. He insists that the Bible does not clearly teach what we insist that it does. We reply that one hundred faulty arguments do not change truth. “Let God be true, and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4). Now our brother argues that marriage, divorce and remarriage is such a complex situation, having six or seven different positions that no one can be sure of what truth really is, therefore we must allow our brother to teach his destructive view. Truthfully, these arguments to encourage fellowship on the marriage-divorce-remarriage issue are more dangerous, if possible, than the marriage-divorce-remarriage issue itself. Adulterous marriages, as sinful as they are, do not question the clarity of God’s revelation nor demand that we read hearts nor deny that other types of false teachers exist. I respectfully urge those who advocate continued fellowship with those who teach admittedly “unsound” and “contrary” doctrines to be extremely careful lest your arguments to open a door to these brethren make it impossible to close the door to any error.

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 1, pp. 16-17
January 2, 1992