How to deal with false teachers

In my last post, we looked at six characteristics that help us to identify false teachers. In this post, we will consider what pastors and congregations are supposed to do in response to such persons who emerge in their midst.

1. Correct false teachers.

The apostle Paul tells us that we ought to correct false teachers in the hope that God might change their mind about their error.

24 And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

Not every purveyor of false teaching is a lackey of the Devil. We have examples in scripture where bona fide believers are the source of error in the church. Apollos was a man mighty in the scriptures who taught accurately about Jesus but who nevertheless was only familiar with John’s baptism. In Apollos’ case, his deficient teaching was an error of omission. He simply did not yet know the full apostolic message. Priscilla and Aquila came alongside Apollos and explained to him the way of God “more accurately” (Acts 18:26). Presumably, Apollos responded favorably to their correction such that Paul would later identify Apollos as a co-laborer in preaching the gospel (1 Cor. 3:5-9).

In Galatians 2, Paul says that he opposed Peter for not being “straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). Peter’s bad behavior in this situation had a teaching function, and so Paul says that he had to oppose him “to his face” and “in the presence of all” (Gal. 2:11, 14). Again, Peter did not continue in the Judaizing error but was corrected.

The examples of Apollos and Peter show us that any one of us might be subject to imbibing and disseminating false teaching. As I have confessed elsewhere, I have been in this position before. The key issue is how we respond to correction. There are two kinds of false teachers: those who repent and those who do not. We need to be careful not to underestimate how important our response to correction is. Those who respond to biblical correction reveal that they have the Spirit and are under the command of Jesus. Those who refuse to respond to biblical correction are proving themselves to be devoid of the Spirit and taking orders from another master (Jude 1:19).

Recalcitrance in the face of correction is dangerous, and it is why the apostles would often apply some of the most bone-chilling descriptors to unrepentant false teachers. Unrepentant false teachers are,

“men of depraved mind, rejected as regards the faith” (2 Tim. 3:8)
“evil men and impostors… deceiving and being deceived” (2 Ti m. 3:13)
“perverted and sinful, being self-condemned” (Titus 3:11)
“bringing swift destruction upon themselves… their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep” (2 Pet. 2:1)
“springs without water, and mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved” (2 Pet. 2:17)

Again, the stakes are high here. Response to correction reveals whether you are dealing with a brother or with a wolf. Restoration is only possible for those who repent. Those who persist in false teaching present grave spiritual danger and must be opposed. And that brings us to our second point.

2. Confront false teachers.

Pastors have a responsibility to oppose false teaching whenever it arises. As I mentioned yesterday, pastoral ministry is not merely a building up, but also a tearing down. It involves tearing down every speculation and lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:5). To fail to do this is ministerial malpractice and harmful to God’s people. The apostle Paul says that willingness to engage this kind of controversy is a qualification for office:

He must hold fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict (Titus 1:9).

Paul has a word to those who are pastors and who aspire to be a pastor. If you cannot or will not “refute those who contradict” then you should not be a pastor. God does not want shepherds to be pugnacious and walking around all the time with a theological chip on their shoulder. But if you are the kind of person who always shrinks back from conflict—either because you’re afraid or because you don’t want to risk offending people or risk your chance at gathering a megachurch—if you always shrink back from the conflict that sound doctrine brings, then you are not qualified to be a pastor. As long as false teaching exists in the world, you must be willing to meet this challenge if you are to be a pastor.

Confronting false teachers is not the responsibility of the pastor alone. The congregation has a role in this, which brings us to our third point.

3. Discipline false teachers.

In numerous instances, the Bible commends believers to ostracize those who will not repent of their false teaching. In other words, false teachers become subject to the church’s discipline. I write this as a Baptist, and so I would argue that the excommunication is a congregational responsibility and not something that pastors can impose alone (e.g., 1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 2:6). Nevertheless, even pastors in non-congregational churches must still rely upon the congregation’s cooperation for excommunication to work.

Where do we see excommunication coming into play for false teachers? Paul commands Titus and the believers in Crete to distance themselves from false teachers, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:10). Paul ratchets up the rhetoric when facing down serious error coming from Hymenaeus and Alexander:

Some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered over to Satan, so that they may be taught not to blaspheme (1 Tim. 1:19-20).

This latter text is significant because of the parallel to 1 Corinthians 5. In both texts, Paul hands someone over to Satan. That fact indicates that false teaching is just as much a disciplinable offense as sexual immorality. And so Paul excommunicates these two false teachers, Hymenaeus and Alexander.

If we would be faithful to Christ, we must be willing to impose the most extreme sanction that the church has to battle false teachers.

4. Refuse support for false teachers.

The first three points more or less presuppose the context of a local congregation. What are churches to do when false teachers from outside a congregation exert an influence within the congregation? The apostle John addresses such a scenario in 2 John and 3 John. He says that “many deceivers have gone out into the world” who “do not abide in the teaching of Christ” (2 John 7, 9). John says that the congregation has a responsibility to refuse all support for such teachers. Moreover, the congregation must not behave in any way that might indicate endorsement of their false teaching.

If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds (2 John 10-11).

The only teachers whom the church supports are those whose teaching is in accordance with the standard of divine truth (3 John 8). For all others, we must be clear about our rejection of their dangerous teaching. This not only applies to those whom we give our money. It also applies to those Christians that we would be willing to extend the hand of fellowship to outside of our church. We must be careful not to imply through our associations affirmation of false teachers.

In conclusion, what’s the point of confronting false teachers? I think we have to be careful here. One of the character requirements of the pastor is that he not be pugnacious—that he not be the kind of guy who walks around with a theological chip on his shoulder just waiting for someone to knock it off (1 Tim. 3:3). A pastor can’t be the kind of guy who can’t accept an apology or recognize repentance when he sees it. If he is that kind of guy, then there’s a real question about his fitness for ministry.

So here’s the question we have to ask and answer anytime we are refuting error. What are our motives in the confrontation? Are we just being pugnacious? Or is there a more biblically formed motive for the controversy? If all we’re trying to do is put red meat before the congregation or drive up blog stats, that’s not really a good motive. That’s the sign of a person who’s self-promoting through public pugnacity. Everyone can smell that rot from a mile away, and it’s not very becoming of a man of God (Rom. 12:18).

What should our motive be in bringing confrontation? The scripture tells us that we ought to have in mind the best interests of both the flock and the false teachers. Public confrontation ought to be animated by a desire to protect God’s people from being led astray by teaching that is spiritually and morally harmful to them (Acts 20:28). But it should also be motivated by a desire to see false teachers come to repentance and faith. Paul didn’t want Timothy merely to triumph over the false teachers. Paul wanted Timothy—if possible—to win them over to the truth (2 Tim. 2:24-25).

So pastor, what are your motives in refuting those who contradict? Is it to aggrandize yourself, to gin up the base, or to draw attention to your “bravery” and “boldness”? Or is it to make much of God and His precious truth? Is it a desire to be proved right? Or is it a humble desire to protect God’s people from error and to see false teachers turn from their ways? How you answer those questions will determine your fitness for the ministry. Test yourselves here. How are you doing?

24 Responses to How to deal with false teachers

  1. Paul Reed April 8, 2014 at 9:00 am #

    Name a living pastor that isn’t in error somehow, especially when you consider the error of omission. The big question becomes, where do you draw the line? How do we know which errors are tolerable and which must be met with disciplinary action against the teacher? We have an extra-scriptural authority that gives us a hierarchy of doctrines. At the top of the tier we have doctrines we say are essential (Trinity). Then next on the list we’ll say a doctrine is important, but not completely essential (creation). And at the bottom of the list we have doctrines we don’t consider important (ritual). Where do we get this extra-biblical standard?

    • Shawn Paterson (@shawnpaterson) April 8, 2014 at 10:03 am #

      Paul Reed—

      I don’t have a full answer, but if you think about the doctrines that are considered “secondary”—they are the ones that faithful people disagree on, like baptism (Presbyterian/Baptist). Both sides are convinced exegetically that their view is the correct one. And both sides believe the same authoritative doctrine regarding Scripture. The solution is not to say “all my views on so-called ‘secondary issues’ are the correct ones” because none of us know that for sure. We think they’re correct—otherwise we wouldn’t believe them! The solution regarding these doctrines would be to express disagreement, discuss, continue on, and if there is another faithful church in your area that agrees with you, go there.

    • Ian Shaw April 8, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

      You have a good point. I will give yoiu that. I’m sure Denny will have a good rebuttal, but I would offer (in my non-theological education), you would look for certain items, such as-do they add to the finished works of Christ? or if the teachings will ultimately lead people to worship/believe a god of their own invention/lead them on a path to hell? and so on.

      My pastor has often refered to issues as either level 1, 2 or 3. A level 1 issue would be something very obvious regarding salvation with orthodox Christainity, such as whether you belive Christ was raised from the dead or if you believe there is more than 1 god or you can become a god. A level 3 issue would be something like believing baptism by imersion or sprinkling (won’t effect salvation).

      So while a false teaching, is definitely not a level 3 issue (if we are using my scale), but yet at the same time, false teachings tend to not be big giant red stop lights for many people either, as they get slipped into a feeling of it being a level 3 when it’s probably closer to a level 1.

      I do see your point Paul and I would understand that it gets muddy.

      • Chris Ryan April 9, 2014 at 2:36 am #

        This is a pretty loaded issue and it gets real nasty real fast. I know people who say that every Catholic prelate is a ‘false teacher’. I know others who say every Pentecostal preacher is a ‘false teacher’. Of course some Pentecostals flip that and say the same about Baptists. I think your 1, 2, 3 tiers is a valiant attempt, but I don’t how it works in practice. At some level if 3rd tier issues didn’t impact salvation then we wouldn’t have any denominational splits. Based on Rev 22:18-19, I’m personally most skeptical of people who ADD sins to the Bible. My grandmother tells of how when she was coming up it was considered a sin to play baseball, or for women to wear pants. Would we consider a preacher who taught this today to be a false teacher? If so, were they a false teacher back then?

  2. Tim Dukeman April 8, 2014 at 9:36 am #

    Your fourth point: “Refuse support for false teachers.”

    Wouldn’t that make it mandatory for Christians to boycott World Vision (before they reversed that policy change)?

    http://afellowtruthseeker.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-christian-obligation-to-boycott.html#!/2014/03/the-christian-obligation-to-boycott.html

    • Bridget Platt April 8, 2014 at 7:14 pm #

      Yes, and even after their reversal. I stopped support for World Vision years ago when I realized that they don’t even have gospel proclamation in their mission statement.

  3. Don Johnson April 8, 2014 at 1:44 pm #

    All fine in theory, except protestants do not accept an Magisterium, a teaching authority. So what happens is that various tribes form over differences in interpretation. For example, Baptists hold to believer’s baptism while Presbyterians baptize infants, each thinking all the while that they are holding onto what Scripture teaches when it is obvious that both cannot be correct. And on and on it goes, for a whole litany of doctrines. In fact, this is a common way to form a new denomination (tribe), disagree over some doctrine and this is exactly how the SBC formed.

    • Ken Abbott April 8, 2014 at 3:04 pm #

      And yet…Presbyterians are not accusing Baptists willy-nilly of being false teachers, nor are Baptists anathematizing Presbyterians left and right. There is a core of doctrine held by both groups that they would warm-heartedly affirm. Strong Bible-based Presbyterians and Baptists share the platform at a number of conferences (Ligonier, TFTG, etc.) without getting into food fights. So even without a human Mageisterium, they manage, based on their mutual submission to Scripture, to have remarkable unity in the faith.

  4. Robert Karl April 8, 2014 at 5:26 pm #

    Unity of faith without a Magisterium–what ?!?–You have over 20,000 different protestant groups/churches/sects with all differing beliefs. If you have personal interpretation of Holy Scriptureswith no Magisterium then how can one tell another what interpretation is wrong. Who died and made you the Pope. If my church disagrees with me then will go to another or form my own or just not go at all–why need a church anyway. St.Paul excommunicates someone–that is discipline because at St.Pauls’ there was only one Church (warts and all) –now, no big deal I go to another and just go by myself because I need a church.

    • Ken Abbott April 8, 2014 at 5:49 pm #

      1. Just 20 thousand Protestant denominations? I thought the RC apologists’ current line was up to 30 or 40 thousand. In any event, it’s a spurious argument as most of those distinctions are organizational, not doctrinal, and often that’s a matter of geography. The differences between Protestant denominations are commonly over issues of polity and practice, not belief. The doctrinal unity among those Protestant groups that hold Scripture as the highest authority in matters of faith and practice is remarkably high–higher, in fact, than among the various Roman Catholic subdivisions.

      2. There are a number of professing Christian organizations that place a teaching magesterium above the sole infallible authority of Scripture. As an individual believer in Christ, how am I supposed to determine which of those organizations is the right one? Roman Catholicism teaches different things than does Eastern Orthodoxy than does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints than does the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society than does The Church of Christ, Scientist, etc. How do I pick?

      3. You’ll get no argument from me on the generally poor state of ecclesiology among American Protestants. I think this has a lot more to do with culture (individualism and egalitarianism; they’re in the air and water in this country) than it does with denominational teaching, especially among the more confessional denominations, but we’ve done a lousy job of teaching the importance of the church to our congregants.

  5. Bridget Platt April 8, 2014 at 7:11 pm #

    I agree with Ian. False teaching that leads people away from the one, true God toward a false god, a false salvation, and ultimately to hell. Examples:

    -All roads lead to God

    -Only Jesus leads to God but you don’t need to know him or name him to be saved

    -There is no hell

    -You just need to believe and how you live doesn’t matter

    -Obeying God by keeping the commandments and doing x,y,and z saves you or keeps you saved

    -God wants you to have health, wealth, and your best life now

    -God is in all, we are God

    And I agree with personally correcting, confronting, disciplining, and refusing funding, but because of the world we now live in, most of our exposure to false teaching is through public media and often 3 or 4 of those cannot be carried out, and therefore requires public exposure.

  6. Flyaway April 8, 2014 at 7:11 pm #

    I’m not a pastor but I have confronted two pastors and a missionary about their support for same sex marriage. They did not repent so now I pray for God to open their eyes.

  7. SLIMJIM April 9, 2014 at 3:04 am #

    Thank you for this

  8. Leigh Rupp April 10, 2014 at 9:49 pm #

    What do you guys do with ~ kingdom theology. We have a couple that is attending the church I attend who is very much following some of the left field teaching .ie.. Graham Cooke, Ihop, Bethel Redding. This is not what I believe. There are Facebook posts that quote Wayne Dryer and other new age teachers. I suggested that they research Dryer and gave them a warning that his teaching was new age in nature and was told thank you but no thank you. I just liked what it said. Now what??? I am in a small group with them as well. Thank you

    • Flyaway April 11, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

      Since they are not teachers but just members of the group I would pray for them. I would consider them as a weaker brother. One church has women who listen to the gospel according to Oprah. We just keep them in the Bible and pray that God will open their eyes.

    • Liz Allie April 16, 2014 at 5:43 pm #

      We must be going to the same church! ;)
      They are very outspoken and leading others to the same false stuff.

      I remember to pray for them and in boldness speak the truth and lead them back to the word. They do not want to hear.

  9. Pastor Joe Quatrone, Jr. May 30, 2014 at 10:14 am #

    Well said. Excellent article!

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