"False Teachers" - Who Are They?

"But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you " (I John 4:1).

The above scripture is often used by preachers as justification for branding other preachers as "false teachers," even their own brethren. Who are "false teachers?" The term and its use deserves some serious study.

It seems that in the hard-line approach of many preachers there are no honestly mistaken brethren (preachers). In their view there are only two classes: (1) themselves and (2) false teachers. A false teacher in their opinion is any preacher who does not agree with or is not aligned with them on "the current issues," the doctrine or position which has been exalted into a divisive standard for acceptance or rejection. Therefore, any preacher who preaches "the other side" to their belief or practice is to be publicly branded as a "false teacher" and is to be avoided.

Please observe that all this judging, marking, and publicly warning against some preacher is done by preachers (our clergy), not by the elders or the brethren. Preachers control the decisions of orthodoxy! They make all the decisions and hand them down for you to observe and obey. This is a major reason we have so many divisions, so much trouble and strife among us. The preachers in each of our alienated segments rule in this area. Our preacher/clergy are responsible for 90% of our ills and woes. Our multitude of religious papers become their seats of power and communication, along with their sacred and protected "pulpits" in the church headquarters building. From this fountain or source the strife and division originates and is disseminated to the churches and you.

My view is that one may be honestly mistaken in teaching some (important) "false" doctrine without being a "false teacher." If not, then everyone of us is a "false teacher" because not one of us knows the whole truth on every subject! Let me put it another way: If being honestly mistaken about some teaching of Scripture makes one a "false teacher," then we are all "false teachers" if we ever teach an erroneous view to any others, whether they agree or not.

Indeed, there are real "false teachers" who should be identified as such by each of us as the occasion demands. It is a responsibility that belongs to each disciple; not a decision made for us by some preacher or paper that we merely accept; yet that is the way it is usually done among us.

Being a "false teacher" involves far more than being honestly in error on some vital point of teaching; even something as important as premillenialism, or instrumental music, for example. Turn to II Peter 2 and read the description he gives of false teachers. He describes them as those who "secretly introduce destructive heresies." They do not engage in this activity in an open, honest manner. They are not honestly mistaken teachers. Peter says that they are "sensual," engaged in "shameful ways" and because of their wicked lives "the way of truth will be maligned" or brought into disrepute. Peter says that "in their greed they will exploit you with false words." These are men motivated by greed and willing to "make merchandise" of the people.

Jude describes false teachers as those who "turn the grace of God into licentiousness'' - an occasion for sinning. He declares that in such action they "deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ." He says, "these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh," just as the wicked did in Sodom and Gomorrah. These false teachers "by dreaming defile the flesh, and reject authority...revile the things which they do not understand...they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam...these are grumblers...following after their own lusts, they speak arrogantly, flattering people for the sake of gaining an advantage...these are the ones who cause divisions, worldly minded, devoid of the Spirit."

These passages do not describe honestly mistaken teachers, who with honorable motives sincerely teach what they believe to be the truth of God.

An Example

I do not believe that Apollos (Acts 18:24-28) was a "false teacher" even though he was in error on a vital point regarding salvation and apparently taught this error to others. Had he refused the light of truth brought to him by Priscilla and Aquila, and persisted in teaching the error from persona] pride, position, stubborn will, and/or for personal gain, then the complexion of his case changes radically. Had that been the case, he would have been a false person, dishonest and blinded by willful prejudice for personal gain, and thus a "false teacher."

Let me make a point for your honest consideration: Has it ever occurred to you that in the expression "false teacher" that the word "false" (an adjective) modifies or describes the teacher himself - as a person? It is the person, the teacher, who is false. It does not have anything necessarily to do with what is taught. In fact, one may teach the truth and be a "false teacher." Would you agree with that statement? Think about it. The "false teacher" is the teacher who knowingly teaches (whatever) for the wrong reasons. For example, he teaches for personal fame or gain. It is the teacher who loves the preeminence, the chief seats, the honor and praise of men, to be called of men "Rabbi," or "The Pulpit Minister," "Preacher," or "Our Minister." It is the hireling, self-serving teacher. He is the false teacher!

In Peter's and Jude's descriptions they describe the kind of men, persons, false teachers are. They condemn their motives, their evil hearts, rather than the error they teach. The point seems to be that "false teachers" will teach anything, even truth, if it will serve their purposes. This describes the compromiser who sells his convictions or refuses to do his duty as "a man of God;" one who knuckles under the pressure to save his job or his reputation in the brotherhood. He can ignore sin and evil practices if he stands to lose in doing so. False teachers are those who will not take an open stand for what (and with whom) they know to be truth and right. They speak "smooth things" and cry "peace when there is no peace." Yes, there will be "false teaching" to be sure, but it is done by the teacher who is "false" and who will teach whatever will save his "hide and his pride."

False teachers are "hypocrites," to use the Lord's word for them. Read Matthew 23 carefully. See the "falseness" of the person. "Woe to you...hypocrites, because for a pretense you make long prayers" (v. 14). They "travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves" (v. 15). Their proselyting was to make followers of themselves and/or their sect, caring nothing for the persons or their well-being. (Jesus said, "They care not for the sheep," in John 10.) Headcount is their main concern. They lie, even when they are swearing, with all their confusing legalities for getting around what they swear to do (vs. 16-22). They are scrupulous lawkeepers in the insignificant, but "neglect the weightier provisions of the law: justice, and mercy and faithfulness (v. 23). In that kind of hypocrisy, they are "blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel."

These "false teachers;' hypocrites, put on a good front; the outside looks clean, but "inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence" (v. 25). They are "like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness" (v. 27).

Jesus further describes them: "You outwardly appear righteous to men, [men, not God, were their primary concern], but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (v. 28). Notice how Jesus stressed what they were outwardly in contrast to what they were inwardly. They were not what they appeared to be, they were "false" or deceptive, not genuine or sincere. This is what made them "false teachers." Let it be said here (and our able teachers can show me if it is wrong) that it is the person, the teacher himself who is false (a hypocrite), thus a "false teacher." The word "hypocrite" tells us it is the one who is not what he seems. This is not a description of a genuine, honestly mistaken teacher.

In Matthew 7:15, Jesus said,

"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves."

That description tells it like it is - "sheep's clothing" outwardly, looking innocent and harmless, honest and genuine. But inwardly, referring to their hearts and motives, they are "ravenous wolves, not sparing the flock." With good words and fair speeches they can deceive the innocent and unsuspecting; often even the informed.

Saul of Tarsus - A Classic Example

Look at Saul of Tarsus. When he was persecuting Christians, making them blaspheme, and putting them to death, was he a "false teacher"? What do you say? I do not believe that he was. He was definitely wrong. He said of himself that he was "formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a wanton aggressor" (I Tim. 1:13). The question really is, was he a false person when he was doing all of this?

Look carefully at I Tim. 1:12:

"I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service; even though I was formerly a blasphemer and persecutor and a wanton aggressor."

That seems to say to me that the Lord "considered" Saul as "faithful" even when he was a blasphemer, persecutor, and a wanton aggressor. Yes, I believe that one can be counted "faithful" by God, in the sense intended here, even though engaged in wickedness! Paul affirms this to be true, for he says plainly that Christ Jesus "counted me faithful" as a reason for appointing him to His service. Saul was not a "false teacher;" certainly not a "false person," even when he was persecuting the church of God!!

I believe Christ Jesus "selected Paul for fidelity to his conscience, his sincere desire to obey God, and his willingness to die for what he believed to be right. God always respects the man who keeps a good conscience and is true to his convictions:' to quote from David Lipscomb concerning this very passage and point. Truly God looks on the heart. Such a person has an "honest and good heart" even before being saved, as a necessary pre-requisite to being saved. In my view, that is the first essential of salvation as far as man's part is concerned. Saul of Tarsus was no false person; he was no false teacher. He was true blue, but dead wrong in what he was doing. He did it all, in "good conscience;' honestly believing he was doing God's service (cf. John 16:2).

Now if a man, engaged in wickedness of this magnitude, is not to be regarded as a "false teacher," then surely we can see that one may teach false doctrine without being a "false teacher." The doctrine is false, but the teacher is not! No wonder the Lord saw in this man the one He needed to bear His name to the Gentiles, kings of the earth, and to all creation. This was His "chosen" apostle even while Saul was yet the persecutor! When the "revelation'' of truth shown round about him, he recognized immediately his error, and asked, "Lord, what will You have me to do?" He made a radical change from rejection to acceptance; and "immediately" began to preach the faith he once sought to destroy. The Lord has always needed and can use men of that caliber; but they are a rare breed.

Jesus warned us about "false teachers" among us. But He issued a word of caution that we be careful and not jump to a conclusion or judgment too quickly. He said: "By their fruits you will know them." Note that He did not say, "By their teaching you shall know them." No! Teaching is not the "fruits" here meant. Fruits take some time to bear or become apparent. It starts with a bloom and grows, but somewhere along the line we should be able to detect the bad from the good. Notice the word is plural - fruits. It is the combination of things, perhaps, that helps us to "know them by their fruits;" by the results, behavior, life, motivation, courage, conviction, as well as the teaching of the teacher.

Go back to Peter and Jude. They plainly describe the "fruits" of the "false teacher."

In Romans 16:17-18 we find a passage that sheds light on this subject. (This is a badly abused and misused passage.) Paul urges the brethren to "keep your eye on those who cause dissentions and hindrances ["occasions of stumbling''] contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them." Almost without exception preachers try to make this passage mean that these people were teaching "false doctrine" But this is not in the text; it is read into it. They may have been teaching false doctrine, but that is not the thing Paul condemns. They were causing "dissentions and occasions of stumbling" and this was the evil they were doing, however they did it.

In verse 17 Paul says: "For such men are slaves not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting." They produced "fruits" adequate for being able to "know" them for what they really were. They caused "dissentions," alienations, which caused people to stumble or fall. This was contrary to "the teaching which you learned." "The teaching" which had been given them was that "dissentions," divisions, and separations among the saints is wrong; it is evil. The "fruits" produced by these men were contrary to Paul's teaching about preserving "the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" and the love of brethren.

When anyone engages in anything that leads to dissentions and divisions among brethren, that person is going "contrary to the teaching" which is from Christ. Let us get the force of Romans 16:17: "dissentions and hindrances" [occasions or causes of stumbling] are contrary to all "the teaching" of the Lord regarding our oneness, unity, peace, and love for each other. The "fruits" of these teachers will become apparent. Do what the Holy Spirit commands: "turn away from them."

A false doctrine is one thing, but a false teacher is something else. I am not as competent at identifying the "fruits" necessary to prove one is a false teacher as I once thought I was. Hypocrisy is not as easy for one to diagnose as I would like it to be. False doctrine seems easier to recognize, but it is apparently not as destructive as the false teacher.

Jesus did warn us: "Beware of the false prophets," because they "are ravenous wolves." False doctrine is not like that or that dangerous. We can "know them by their fruits." Pay attention for Peter plainly warned that "there will be false teachers among you."

There is far more to being a false teacher, a hypocrite, than simply honestly believing and teaching a doctrine that is false. In fact, an honest or true teacher can do nothing else but teach what he believes to be God's word. He must teach what he believes to be the truth on every subject, without fear or favor, whatever the consequences. He must be true to himself in order to be true to God. - CAH