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?