THIS past week I had an interesting Facebook altercation with some brothers (whom I dearly love) over their doctrine. Facebook is not the best place for positive and constructive debates though – I have learnt that. It also turned out to be hilarious - with rhetoric of me being accused of acting like “the head-boy of heaven”, “the junior Holy Ghost” and “accuser of brethren”. I thought that was funny and I will not use this platform to respond to those accusations.
So, I had a chat with at least five brothers and sisters over the past few days after that on how what the bible actually says we have to do when we are faced with a man or a woman who ‘preaches another gospel’. We generally all agreed on the need for a definitive biblical perspective on this issue. And one thing for sure - there is no biblical call to ignore and be quite when false teachings circulate as will be shown on this post.
Look, there are non-essentials which we can argue on to a certain extent, but there are just cores of the Christian faith which we cannot even debate about. However, Paul actually says if we are to be divided as believers, we have to be divided over the truth. “There must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognised” (1 Corinthians 11:19). And so, if to "contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) is what I have to do, I certainly will, praying that I myself am walking worthy of the call and staying faithful to the gospel.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) literally re-defined marriage a few weeks back by defining it as union between ‘two people’, not between ‘a man and a woman’ as has been known historically and biblically. If things like this do not worry you, you need to be worried on what Jesus you are following. I tend to be concerned many-times that with the kind of mentality that we have as Christians about false teachings, we are going to just accept anything that comes our way as we have seen happening in the church worldwide. It’s totally one thing to have a man of God falling into sin. It’s totally one thing for a Christian to fail to do things that they are supposed to do. But it’s a whole other thing for one to teach and preach a gospel which is not accurate.
I am afraid that if we do not speak out against false teaching, I will be left to be lost myself if ever I say or teach something that is not in sync with the gospel. Are we not to watch over each other? Doesn't Paul countlessly urge people to watch their doctrine?
Does it matter who is teaching false doctrine or we should let God ‘judge’?
Clearly, ‘letting God be the judge’ is one of the most abused phrases in Christianity. God is indeed the judge of all the earth. He is supreme. He is sovereign. But we as believers ought to guard the purity of the truth.
Having been called names for being blunt about false teachings myself, I can tell you personally that it’s not an enjoyable feeling to be ‘labelled’ a ‘hater’ or a seeker of ‘controversy'. Yet, as Paul instructed Timothy, we are to zealously guard the purity of the message God has entrusted to us, and for good reason (1 Tim 1:18-19; 6:20; 2 Tim. 4:2-5).
Passages like Acts 20, and 2 Peter 2 tell us that false teachers will arise, bringing with them destructive heresies, distorting the truth and destroying the faith of some. Moreover, it is clear that these teachers will come not only from outside the church, but also from within the body of Christ as well hence we need to test EVERYTHING by Scripture (1 Thes. 5:21). It was in this spirit that the Bereans examined the words of the Apostle Paul, for which they were reckoned as noble in character (Acts 17:11). I always think that is amazing. Who would think of examining the teachings of Paul? Yet the Bereans did. And we also ought to do the same.
The Bible cannot only be used for preaching, teaching and encouragement, but, it is equally valuable for correcting and rebuking (2 Tim. 4:2).
As a matter of fact, we as Christians are held accountable for proclaiming the whole will of God, warning others of false teachings.
Acts 20:26-28 (ESV)
26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
Ezekiel 33:7- (ESV)
7 “So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. 8 If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. 9 But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.
The Case of the Ephesians
The church at Ephesus had a great start – actually, other churches throughout Asia Minor grew out of it. Yet despite the influence of the apostle Paul's ministry, the church was never impervious to false teachers. As a result, Paul wrote this (1st Timothy) epistle to Timothy to remind him of his responsibility to stop false teachers and set things in order in the church.
"As I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, when I went into Macedonia, that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine, neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in faith, so do."
Let me give you a brief background here, by ‘besoughting’, Paul was literally pleading with Timmy to stay in Ephesus. Apparently, it sounds like Timothy had some sense of timidity and was reluctant to dispel false spiritual leaders – something which Paul himself had begun to do. In 1 Timothy 1:20, he mentions Hymenaeus and Alexander, possibly two of the foremost false teachers in Ephesus, whom he "delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme." But Paul had since left for Macedonia (v. 3) to visit the Philippians, and Timothy was faced with the difficult obligation of rebuking false spiritual leaders in the church at Ephesus, and perhaps the other churches in the nearby districts.
I love how John MacArthur sets out his view on false teachers from 1Timothy he comments (in his Bible Study series) on some of the verses:
(a) 1 Timothy 1:4--Paul says the false teachers were giving themselves to "fables and endless genealogies."
(b) 1 Timothy 1:7--The false teachers were promoting error because they were "desiring to be teachers of the law." Somehow the myths and genealogies were connected to Old Testament law. That leads us to believe there was a Jewish orientation to their error.
(c) 1 Timothy 4:2-3--These teachers were advocating celibacy and prohibiting marriage. They also were commanding people to abstain from food. To them true spirituality was found through all kinds of abstinences and self-deprivation.
(d) 1 Timothy 4:7--Here their teaching is referred to as "profane and old wives fables," which do nothing but bring about ungodliness.
(e) 1 Timothy 6:4-5--Here the false teacher is described as "proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and disputes of words ... perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness." You will find that the underlying motive of all false prophets is money.
The Case of the Galatians
Interestingly, the book of Galatians is one of the most blunt books on false teachings in the whole bible. If that letter were to be sent to some of our churches, Paul would have been called a good-for-nothing, hating fool who was just all about contention. We can learn many other lessons from the book of Galatians too.
In his exposure of these false teachers, Paul gives us six identifying marks that can guide us to discern the presence of "wolves in sheep's clothing" in our midst today from Galatians 5.
1. False teachers distract Christians from obeying the truth of the gospel (v. 7)
Paul compliments the Galatian believers for running a good race. Running a race was one of Paul's favourite images for living the Christian life. Here this image portrays how well they were obeying the truth. The gospel set the course for their life, and they were running well in that course. The reality of their belief in the truth about Christ was demonstrated by their obedience to Christ. But then they were distracted, tripped and so hindered from running this race.
In this context, the false teachers are hindering the Christians from obeying the truth of the gospel with all their talk about joining the Jewish people and keeping the law. All those who get the church off on a tangent, away from the clear direction given by the central truth of the gospel, are like these false teachers. An attack of the gospel is one of the defining marks for a false teacher for myself.
2 Corinthians 11:4 also says, “For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.” Galatians 1:8 notes: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”
2. False teachers replace the call of God with their own deceptive persuasiveness (v. 8).
That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you, Paul informs his readers. When Paul had preached the gospel, the Galatians heard the voice of God calling them through Paul (1:6). But when the false teachers teach, all that can be heard is flattery, boastfulness and empty rhetoric. They are dexterous orators or speakers. No doubt they claim to be giving God's message backed by Scripture. But all one can hear through their strident voices is a harsh repetition of the demands of the law and their own opinions on how Christians should live their lives. What a contrast to "the one who called you by the grace of Christ" (1:6) and the God who "called me by his grace" (1:15). Their message is all about “works”, not about God's work of grace in Christ. Its always about “Do this to get that”. So obviously their persuasion does not come from God, who always calls by his grace.
3. Third, false teachers gain control over the whole church (v. 9).
Just as a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough, so the negative influence of a few false teachers has penetrated the whole church and is quickly coming to control the direction of the church. False teachers are like that; they seek to dominate every situation in the life of the church. Everything is either their way or no-way. They are usually like the Pharisees described in Matthew 23:4, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”
4. False teachers cause confusion and discouragement (v. 10).
When the Galatians were converted, they connected with God with the joyful confidence of children, calling him "Abba, Father" through the Spirit. But their confidence in God's grace has been badly traumatized by the false teachers, who threaten them with the judgment of God if they do not keep the law of God. They are confused and discouraged. So Paul reassures the Galatians of his confidence in the Lord regarding them: I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. And then he turns the tables on the false teachers by putting them under the judgment of God: The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be.
5. False teachers spread false reports about true spiritual leaders.
We may infer that verse 11 is Paul's response to a false report that had been given about him. Since the immediate context focuses on the debasing influence of the false teachers, it seems reasonable to suppose that they claimed Paul's support for their campaign to circumcise the Gentile believers. We don't know on what foundation they would have done this. Perhaps if this letter was written after Paul circumcised Timothy, as recorded in Acts 16:3, they may have appealed to that incident. Or maybe they pointed to Paul's own willingness to continue his Jewish way of life even after his conversion (see 1 Cor 9:20). Whatever their basis may have been, they gave a false report about Paul to strengthen their own position.
6. False teachers emphasize “sensational rituals.”
Verse 12 sounds terribly harsh and crude, but we must interpret it in its historical and cultural context. It would indeed have been a sensational ceremony if all the male members of the Galatian churches had been circumcised by the false teachers. But then, Paul says, somewhat sarcastically, if they really want to put on a sensational show, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!
He is probably referring here to a barbaric ritual that actually took place in his day in Galatian pagan temples. The priests of Cybele, the mother goddess of the earth, castrated themselves with ritual tongs and placed their testicles in a box. The false teachers were leading the Galatian Christians to think that the ritual of circumcision was a sacred act that would bring them into fellowship with God. But Paul has already said that "in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value" (v. 6). Now he puts the ritual of circumcision in the same category as the ritual castration of the Galli, the priests of the mother-goddess of the earth, Cybele; it had no more significance to the Gentile Christians than any of the other barbaric, bloody rituals practiced in the ancient world.
False teachers will most likely have apparent replicas of traditional religions in different cultures like in Nigeria where we have seen many so-called ‘Prophets’ operating ritualistically in ways that witch-doctors do.
So what should I do about false teaching then?
The scriptures say the following:
i. Do not follow them: Jeremiah 5:31
The prophets prophesy falsely,
And the priests rule by their own power;
And My people love to have it so.
But what will you do in the end?
ii. Pursue Sound Doctrine 2 Tim4 4:3-4
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound[a] teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
iii. Guard against them: Romans 16:17
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.
iv. Do not entertain them: 2 John 10
If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting,
I have never said that its enjoyable to expose false teachings because the apparent truth in my life is that I have a lot of false teaching in my own heart which I am praying to God to daily deal with and lead me to truth. I have lost friends because of my disassociation with anything which I do not find faithful to the gospel of Jesus. That is not a nice place to be at all. But its worth it. And I will continue loving my brothers and sisters who are entangled in false teaching – praying that the gospel of God’s grace be clearer and clearer to them.
I pray that you carefully consider what I have shared here before you take it lightly or just as an attack on your person - I frankly do not have time to fight any personal battles.
Grace and Peace. I love you all.
John MacArthur’s Grace to You