Beware of False Teachers
Just as the true prophets of Israel had to deal with the prophets of foreign gods and false prophets from among the people of the land, the apostles confronted false teaching from within the church and from without. The New Testament Epistles offer several characteristics of false teachers and those susceptible to their teachings.
1. False teaching preys on the spiritually immature.
Paul repeatedly expresses concern for the minds of believers who may be “led astray” by belief in a different Jesus, a different spirit, and a different gospel (2 Cor. 11:3–4; cf. Gal. 1:6–7). Elsewhere, he asserts that believers will have true “unity of the faith” only when they will “no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:13–14).
2. False teaching can be the product of distorted interpretations of Scripture by those not firmly established in the truth.
Some pervert the meaning of Scriptures that are “hard to understand,” doing so “to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16). The emphasis made here is not on a particular method of interpretation or the difficulty of the texts themselves but on the type of people who distort the Scriptures—“ignorant and unstable” people (hoi amatheis kai astēriktoi). The term “unstable” (astēriktoi) shares a cognate (stērizō) with another word used in 2 Peter 1:12 to describe those “firmly established” (estērigmenous) in the truth (NIV). With the same group of terms, Peter contrasts those deeply rooted in the truth with those who are not (astēriktous), who are more susceptible to the deception of false prophets (2 Pet. 2:14).1
3. False teaching grows out of ungodly ambition, ignorance, and conceit.
Paul cautioned Timothy about false teachers who “wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Tim. 1:6–7). These teachers had ambition but lacked proper understanding of the things they taught. Elsewhere in the same letter, Paul warned, “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words” (1 Tim. 6:3–4). The ambition for power can be an impetus for false teaching as well. John challenged a false teacher who “put himself first” and denied the apostolic authority of John’s teaching, speaking “wicked nonsense” against him (3 John 9–10).
4. False teaching sometimes stems from a desire for material gain.
This tendency is very apparent in the modern world, where faith-healing televangelists and prosperity preachers prey upon the underprivileged to finance their extravagant lifestyles, but the same kind of greed motivated false prophecy and teaching in the early church (2 Pet. 2:3). As Paul defended his apostleship from this charge, “We are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:17). The same type of charge appears in the Pastoral Epistles: “From these come . . . constant disagreement among people whose minds are depraved and deprived of the truth, who imagine that godliness is a way to material gain. . . . For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:4b–5, 10 CSB).
5. False teaching can result from and lead to inappropriate sensuality and sexual immorality.
The idolatrous fixation on immoral behavior can yield false teaching. These false teachers “do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites [or “belly”; koilia]” (Rom. 16:18). As Peter observes, “many will follow their sensuality [aselgeiais], and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed” (2 Pet. 2:2). Teaching rooted in immoral desires yields immoral behavior. The risen Lord warns the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira about teachings that lead his “servants to practice sexual immorality [porneusai]” (Rev. 2:20; cf. 2:14). In a post–sexual revolution Western culture, people still “[follow] their own sinful desires [epithymias]” (Jude 16) and “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Tim. 4:3). Sensual urges and lust still motivate many to deny biblical truth about God’s design for sex and marriage and to justify atrocities like human abortion.
6. False teaching is sometimes attributed to demonic deception.
Some who depart the faith do so because they pay attention “to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). Paul cautions against affirming false apostles who are like Satan, who masquerades as “an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:13–14). Paul forewarns Galatian Christians not to believe any other gospel even if “an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you” (Gal. 1:8). Not every spiritual work is from God. The spirit of the messenger and the message must be tested because, as John insists, spirits who do “not confess Jesus” are “not from God” (1 John 4:3).
Not every spiritual work is from God. The spirit of the messenger and the message must be tested.
7. False teachers seek to divide the body of Christ.
Paul cautioned the church at Rome about “those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught” (Rom. 16:17). In his admonition to Titus to avoid “foolish controversies” and “quarrels about the law” (Titus 3:9), Paul remarks, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10–11). Those who cause division are worldly, “devoid of the Spirit,” and are relentlessly pursuing their own ungodly passions (Jude 18–19).
8. False teaching can come from apostates and deviant teachers within the church.
False teachers from “among the people [en tō laō] . . . secretly bring in destructive heresies” (2 Pet. 2:1). Jesus warned about false prophets from among the people who outwardly come in “sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15). Paul blames the Galatian conflict on false teachers who had covertly entered their ranks: “This matter arose because some false brothers [pseudadelphous] had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus in order to enslave us” (Gal. 2:4 CSB). Some of the false teachers addressed in the Pastoral Epistles appear to be former coworkers of Paul (1 Tim. 1:3; 2 Tim. 1:15; 2:15–18).2 John states that his “antichrist” opponents, those who deny that Jesus is the Christ, came out of the fellowship with the churches because “they did not belong” there in the first place (1 John 2:19 CSB). In instances where theological matters of first importance are denied, rejected, or replaced, doctrine does divide the people of God from those who are not.
- See “στηρίζω,” in NIDNTTE 4:375.
- E. Earle Ellis, “Paul and His Opponents,” in Christianity, Judaism, and Other GrecoRoman Cults, Part 1, ed. Jacob Neusner (Leiden: Brill, 1975), 297.
This article is adapted from When Doctrine Divides: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity by Rhyne R. Putman.
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