By Mike Willis
In last issue’s editorial, I presented quotations designed to demonstrate that the concept that a “false teacher” is an unscrupulous deceiver without regard to the content of his message is spreading among us. I paralleled quotations from the pen of Leroy Garrett to that of brethren among us for the purpose of demonstrating that the same principle is being taught by both groups of brethren. In this article, I wish to consider what the Scriptures teach about who is a “false teacher.”
We Are Agreed
Let me begin by emphasizing that we are agreed that a man who is immoral, covetous, lascivious, and dishonest is an ungodly man even though he may teach the truth. Such a man is unworthy of support and the fellowship of God’s people because he is out of fellowship with God. Nothing that follows in this material is to be judged as defending such men. I can join hands with my brethren in opposing all such men.
We are agreed that none of us agrees totally with any other brother. I do not charge my brother with being a false teacher because he disagrees with me. The Bible allows room for brethren to: (a) have different abilities (Rom. 12:4-8), (b) have unique areas of service (1 Cor. 12:12-26), (c) differ on judgmental matters (1 Cor. 8-10), (d) differ in practice in matters of authorized liberty (Rom. 14). We are agreed that no one has a right to expect everyone to be a clone of any individual among us. We are agreed that any brother who binds judgmental matters on other men has overstepped the bounds allowed by God and falls into the condemnation described in 1 Timothy 4:1-3.
Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall de-part from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.
Pinpointing Our Disagreement
The point on which brethren are disagreed is this: Can a brother who is honest and sincere be labeled a “false teacher” because he teaches what is false? Our standard for determining the answer to this question must be the Bible.
The Precious Truth of Jesus Christ
The concern about false doctrines and false teachers stems from the positive good which the truth, the gospel of Jesus Christ, does for man. The truth (a) saves the soul from sin (John 8:32; Rom. 1:16; James 1:21; Pet. 2:20-21); (b) sanctifies (John 17:17; 2 Pet. 1:3-4); (c) reveals God to us (John 14:4-7); (d) contains precious promises (2 Pet. 1:3-4); (e) thoroughly furnishes us unto every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17); (f) gives spiritual light (Pss. 19:8; 119:105); (g) is the standard to be used at judgment (John 12:48).
The truth of the gospel is a precious deposit committed to our trust. Paul wrote,
… according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust (1 Tim. 1:11).
That good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us (2 Tim. 1:14).
And the things that thou halt heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2).
Paul uses language in these Scriptures with which we should be familiar. Even as a person entrusts a bank to safeguard his money, the Lord has entrusted the gospel to our keeping. This generation of Christians is responsible for passing down intact to the next generation the gospel of Christ. One has no right to add to or take away from that gospel.
Understanding the preciousness of the gospel of truth emphasizes for us the danger of false teaching. (a) False teaching leads men to commit sin (Matt. 15:1-15; 1 Cor. 15:33; 2 Pet. 2:1-22). (b) False teaching leads men to deny Bible doctrines (Col. 2:4, 8, 18, 21-23; 2 Thess. 2:10-12; 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 2 Tim. 2:17-18). (c) False teaching spreads like a leaven (Matt. 16:6-12; Gal. 5:9). False teaching has this effect and impact without regard to the sincerity of the ones who are teaching it. The false teacher can be as pure in motive, honest, and sincere as he can be, but if he teaches a person that he has a right to divorce his wife for some cause other than fornication and to remarry, the man who does this is an adulterer despite the sincerity of his teacher. The teaching that the man has done is a denial of the word of God despite the fact that the teacher was good, honest, and sincere. The leavening influence of the error will not cease just because its proponents are sincere. Those who love the truth hate every false way (Ps. 119:104). Therefore, to preserve the purity of the gospel, they must oppose every false teaching and that involves withstanding those who are propagating it.
No wonder Paul exhorted Timothy saying, “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (1 Tim 4:16).
Some Things That Are Not Adequate
Tests of a False Teacher
The Bible warns men not to use some things to deter-mine whether or not a man is a false teacher. Here is a list of some inadequate things to use to determine whether or not a man is a false teacher:
1. His heart. The heart would be one test of whether or not a man is a false teacher if man was qualified to judge the heart. However, Paul wrote, “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him?” (1 Cor. 2:11).
But there also are men who appear to have a sincere heart who will not be saved. (a) Jesus spoke of those in judgment who would protest their being consigned to torment saying, “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? And in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matt. 7:22-23). (b) The blind guides were apparently good, honest and sincere, but nevertheless blind. Jesus said, “Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch” (Matt. 15:14). (c) Apollos was a sincere person who did not teach the truth (Acts 18:24-28).
To deny that there are men who have a sincere heart teaching a false doctrine that leads men to damnation, one must conclude that every teacher affiliated with any false system of doctrine in the New Testament was insincere and hypocritical, or else he was not a false teacher. Was every Sadducee, Pharisee, Gnostic, Judaizer, etc. of the first century dishonest and insincere? If not, were those sincere men who taught the Judaizing doctrine of salvation by works false teachers? The point is this: One’s heart does not determine whether or not what he is teaching is false.
2. Their audience. One cannot determine whether or not a man is a false teacher by his audience. False teachers are popular (Luke 6:26). Their message appeals to the flesh and attracts a large crowd.
3. The number of converts. Jesus warned, “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matt. 7:13-14).
4. Their age or number of years they have been preaching. One is not immune to temptation at any time in his life (Gal. 2:9-14).
5. Their friends. Just because a man has a number of prominent men as his friends does not make what he is teaching true (1 Cor. 4:6).
The True Test of False Teachers: Their Fruit
Jesus himself gave us the test for who is a false teacher:
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them (Matt. 7:15-20).
We cannot know a man’s heart, but we can know his fruit. Here are some of the fruit that false teachers produce:
1. Their doctrines contradict divine revelation. (a) They undermine God’s word, making worship vain (Matt. 15:8-9); (b) they bring “another gospel” (Gal. 1:8-9; 2 Cor. 11:3-4); (c) they do not bring sound doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3); rather, they bring the doctrine of demons (1 Tim. 4:1-3); (d) they deny plain Bible doctrines, overthrowing the faith of some (1 Cor. 15:33; 2 Tim. 2:17-18); (e) they teach a broad gate and wide way and that many will be saved (Matt. 7:7-12); (f) they keep people from obeying the gospel (Acts 13:9-12); (g) their heresies lead to damnation (2 Pet. 2:1).
2. Their doctrines, being inconsistent with divine rev-elation, are sometimes self-contradictory.
3. They trouble churches. “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:6-7; 5:10-12; cf. Acts 15:24).
4. They cause division. “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple” (Rom 16:17-18).
5. They spoil the flock (Acts 20:29-32).
One should not conclude from this that one is not a false teacher until he has done each of the things mentioned above. If a man only did four out of the five, he would be a false teacher; if he did one of the five, his fruit would manifest that he was a false teacher.
One should also notice that those who are honest and sincere, but teaching false doctrine, can and do bear these fruit. They divide churches, deny divine revelation, and trouble churches.
Characteristics of False Teachers
1. They preach a popular message (Lk. 6:26). It is popular because it usually justifies a course of conduct in conflict with the word of God which men wish to follow. It attracts those living in sin who wish to be religious with-out giving up their sin (this is not intended to be a judgment of their heart).
2. They are self-serving (Rom. 16:17-18). For example, notice how many false teachers on the subject of divorce and remarriage have personal involvement in divorce and remarriage, children involved in unscriptural marriages, or close friends involved.
3. They appear as sheep (Matt. 7:15-17) and angels of light (2 Cor. 11:14-15). This makes them more dangerous. The more nearly these teachers resemble teachers of the truth, the more dangerous they are (illustrate: no one is deceived by “Monopoly” money, but many are deceived by the more skilled counterfeiters).
4. They persecute true saints (Gal. 4:21-30). False teachers undermine the influence of godly men by charges that they are “radicals” and “extremists” or “creed makers.” They belittle them as “guardians of the orthodoxy” or “keepers of the party.” This is the way false teachers have always treated those who oppose their error.
5. They appeal to the flesh (Phil. 3:18-19; 2 Pet. 2:10). Most doctrines have an appeal to the carnal lusts of men. The appeal may be obvious as in the loose doctrines on divorce and remarriage. However, sometimes it is more subtle. When the sponsoring church arrangement for the Herald of Truth was being preached, men who saw the “Lutheran Hour” and “Catholic Hour” wanted a “Church of Christ Hour.” Like Israel who wanted a king to be like the nations around her, spiritual Israel also wanted to be like the denominations around her.
6. They glory in that of which they should be ashamed (Phil. 3:18-19). Think of how the Corinthians gloried in their receiving the fornicator in their fellowship (1 Cor. 5). Many who should be ashamed of their conduct glory in being a church that emphasizes “grace” instead of “legalism.”
7. They raise foolish questions (1 Tim. 1:3; 6:5). Many foolish questions have the effect of diverting men’s attention from the clearly revealed truth. The clear teaching of Christ on divorce and remarriage (“Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery” Matt. 19:9) is obscured by such foolish questions as the following: (a) If we withdraw from those who teach something different on divorce and remarriage, will we be forced to divide over every thing over which we disagree? (b) If you with-draw from those who disagree with you over divorce and remarriage, won’t you have to withdraw from those who disagree with you on the covering question and carnal warfare? If we answered this and a hundred other questions on other subjects, do you think those who are bent on teaching another doctrine on divorce and remarriage would change what they preach? Do you think they would change what they are determined to practice in the realm of fellowship? These questions simply divert men from giving their full attention to what the Lord has revealed!
8. They are arrogant (1 Tim. 6:1; both Jude 8 and 2 Peter 2:10 show that false teachers despise dignitaries). Many false teachers manifest an elitism among themselves with a condescending attitude toward the “less enlightened” who simply ask for “book, chapter, and verse” for what is being done.
Again, we emphasize that this list does not mean that unless a person manifests all eight of these characteristics he is not a false teacher. A man may manifest one or more of these characteristics but not another.
Furthermore, we see from this list that many of those who show the characteristics of the false teacher can do so while being good, honest, and sincere. A man does not have to be a lying hypocrite to be arrogant, raise foolish questions, glory in that of which one should be ashamed, preach a popular message, and such like things.
The Antithesis Shows What False Teachers Are
The opposite of a “false teacher” is a “true teacher.” What is a “true teacher”? Is he merely a man who is sincere and honest without regard to the content of what he preaches? If that is so, a good, honest, and sincere atheist would be just as certainly a “true teacher” as Jesus Christ. Who can believe this? The concept of being a “true teacher” demands that the content of the message be true.
To further demonstrate that a “false teacher” is one whose message is untrue, consider Paul’s opponents in Philippi. There was one group of men who taught the truth (a true message) but had a sinful attitude. Paul wrote of them saying, “Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will: The one preach Christ of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds” (Phil. 1:15-16). With reference to these men, Paul said, “What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice” (Phil. 1:18). These men who had sinful attitudes were not false teachers. They were teachers of the truth who had sinful attitudes.
In contrast to these, there were Judaizers at Philippi who brought a message with a doctrinal content that was not true to God’s revelation. Regarding those who brought the false message, Paul wrote, “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you it is safe. Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision” (Phil. 3:1-2). The content of the message was what made the difference in how the two groups were treated.
One does not have to know whether or not Billy Graham is dishonest, a liar, lascivious, and covetous to know whether or not he is a false teacher. However, if what one wrote is true (“Biblically, there is no such thing as a sincere, honest false teacher.”), he could not know whether or not Billy Graham is a false teacher without knowing this about his moral character. So far as I know, Billy Graham has not manifested the traits of dishonesty, lasciviousness, lying, or covetousness. Nevertheless, he is a false teacher because he teaches what is false. Sincerity does not keep one from teaching what is false or being a false teacher any more than it can save!
Guardian of Truth XL: No. 16, p. 2
August 15, 1996