What comes to mind the moment you hear the words ‘False Teacher’ role of someone’s lips?
Perhaps you think of some elderly theologian who has predicted (for the third time) the date Jesus will return. Or maybe it is the Jehovah’s Witness, or Mormon knocking on your door in the early evening. Many people will undoubtedly think of a prosperity gospel preacher in a white suit. There may even be a few whose minds drift toward healing ministries. However, I am convinced that almost all of us are thinking of somewhere other than our own churches.
In fact, at first the term false teachers may be drawn to people outside the church. We can all see the enemy general marching on us with his men in formation, so to speak. Churches know who opposes them: There are scientists who deny intelligent design. We have advertisers who encourage pursuing joy in creations rather than the creator. We have TV preachers who deny that suffering is part and parcel of the Christian life. We have family members who deny that some guy Jesus ever lived. We have friends and work colleagues who deny that there is an after-life. We are surrounded by false teachers and we can see them coming.
And even when those perceptions are challenged, we may acknowledge there are false teachers inside the church universal. But in our minds that means the church in Africa or Latin America. Or the independent church down the road; and the rather drab established church round the corner.
But none of us entertain the thought that false teachers may be in our church!
Peter and Jude
For those who are attentive when reading the New Testament it will soon become apparent that there are two letters which are very similar. Even a cursory read of the letters 2 Peter and Jude reveals a very similar theme and vocabulary. These two letters are written for two different churches (or groups of churches) and yet the separate churches face the same problem – an enemy within, false teachers! Both Peter and Jude warn their readers that false teachers are within their very own churches…
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. (2 Peter 2:1-3a)
For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 4)
By extension we are well within our rights to proclaim the warning that there very well may be false teachers in your congregation. Sitting there week by week, singing songs with you, shaking hands with your pastor and perhaps even leading a ministry in your church.
How do we move forward from that daunting revelation? Is there any way we can protect ourselves against false teachers? Permit me two very brief primers for moving forward.
First, we must watch people’s life and doctrine closely. This was Paul’s charge to Timothy who was the teaching elder in Ephesus: ‘Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching’ (1 Tim. 4:16). Paul is telling Timothy to make sure his life and his teaching match the gospel passed onto him. The reality is that false teachers will drift on one of these two points (if not both of them).
Do you want to spot the guy who is going to draw you away from Jesus? Do you desire to defend your church from sensuality, perversion and ungodliness? Watch both life and doctrine. This is what Peter and Jude say, in a way, as they proceed to describe the false teacher’s divergence on doctrine (they are clearly stepping away from the ‘faith’) and the ungodliness of their behaviour.
However, this is not just something we must do to others though. We ourselves are not exempt from this kind of scrutiny. We also must watch our own life and doctrine, because we may be the very people that Peter and Jude are warning their readers of.
Secondly, we can exercise the helpful practice of church membership. While it must be acknowledged the false teachers that Peter describes sound like Christians, they looked and acted like Christians for a time (and so we cannot be fool proof on this), this does not mean we neglect to try. We must make sure that those included in our fellowship have a testimony, display a changed life and understand the gospel. We must protect ourselves in the church.
Concerning membership, it is important that we take it seriously. Mark Dever writes ‘make it more difficult to join, on the one hand, and make it easier to be excluded on the other’. In other words make it hard to get in and easy to get out. In doing so we may protect ourselves against false teachers from within as the process to join membership is rigorous and the route out of membership is swift.
A Final Word
In light of all that has been said above it may seem a daunting, unnerving and insurmountable task to identify false teachers and preserve the purity of the church. However, all is not lost. Both Peter and Jude, in making the congregations they write aware of false teachers, promise that they will not go unpunished. Yes they may seem to prevail here and now, for a time. But eventually God will have the last word and that word will be judgement:
Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgement; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgement, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority. (2 Peter 2:4-10)
Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterwards destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgement of the great day— just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire… It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgement on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” (Jude 5-7, 14-15)