Sheep with Sharp Teeth

“The Lord told me I need to rent a nicer apartment!” the preacher shouted, urging the church members to give him their money and receive God’s blessing. We sat, unimpressed; he went on, speaking of his nice car, his expensive clothes, and his extravagant lifestyle – apparently all signs of God’s blessing. This sermon sticks in my mind as the first time I recall hearing false teaching. I visited this church to experience Christianity in a different culture, but left with an education in sheep shearing.

What picture does the phrase “false teacher” create in your mind?

Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on your door, looking casual.

Prosperity Gospel preachers in shiny suits with unnaturally bright smiles, big egos and even bigger hair.

Catholics and Charismatics and anyone we don’t agree with.

Shadowy, dangerous-looking boogeymen. (We don’t know what they look like, but we’ll know ‘em when we see ‘em.)

The thing is, we tend to view false teachers as “out there,” separate and far removed from the safe havens of Anabaptism. To guard from the danger, we need only to circle the wagons and keep a sharp lookout for anyone who isn’t like us. But could a false teacher dress and speak and act like we do? Could it be that some false teachers are bringing casserole to our carry-in every second Sunday? Surely not.

False Teachers: Coming to a Church Near You

Listen to Apostle Peter’s warning to the church:

“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.”[1]

This passage always jars me – a reality check upon my idealism. Peter doesn’t say false teachers may arise; he says they will. Paul too, warned the Ephesian elders in his parting speech that “fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.”[2]

“But we don’t see any false teachers,” we protest, “perhaps they’re not quite everywhere.” Yet Peter warns that these false teachers bring in their deception secretly. Paul says they twist words to draw people away. Jesus describes them as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Of course false teachers are hard to see; if they weren’t, no one would listen to them! As Christian blogger Tim Challies observes, “Perhaps the most surprising thing about false teachers is that we continue to be surprised by them.”[3]

False teachers come in sheep’s clothing, and they can also come in modest shirts with Pennsylvania Dutch accents.

Recognizing Falsehood

The Bible warns us about false teachers for a reason – to protect us from being deceived. So if there are false teachers secretly among us, how can we recognize them?

As the oft-repeated adage says, to recognize a counterfeit, one must study the truth.

And there is a lot of wisdom to that. We do need to know the truth. We do need to ground ourselves in Scripture. We must always – always – check our beliefs against the unmoving rock of God’s Word.

However, in 2 Peter 2, the most comprehensive passage on false teachers, Peter doesn’t offer that advice. “Peter has very little to say about compromised teaching,” one writer points out, “but he gives a litany of descriptions about compromised lives.”[4] He describes false teachers as greedy, sensual, rebellious, and proud.

The fact is, sometimes what comes from a person’s life says more than what comes from their lips. By nature, false teaching twists truth, redefines words, and creates gray areas where previously there were none. And though in principle truth will always expose error, in practice we may fail to spot the fakery when the waters get muddy.

I think this is why Peter spends so much time pointing out the behavior of false teachers. Jesus, speaking of false prophets, states this even more clearly: “You will recognize them by their fruits.”[5] Fruit reveals true identity – of trees and of teaching. So our first question must be “Is this true?” but we must also ask “What is the fruit?” Does it lead to sanctification and unity? Or rather, to sensuality and rebellion?

Responding to Falsehood

I want to be very careful here not to start a witch hunt. I am not suggesting that we treat our fellow church members with suspicion, trying to root out the fakes. Nor am I suggesting that anyone who disagrees with us is a false teacher. False teachers are dangerous, but so are false accusations. And when we haphazardly label those we disagree with as heretics, we risk an equal danger: slander.

I am suggesting, however, that we keep our eyes open, recognizing that we are in a spiritual battle. Dealing with false teaching requires prayer, humility, discernment, and unity as a church. Dealing with false teaching should involve the pastors and the congregation, following the model of church discipline in Matthew 18. Consider the following three steps:

  1. Correct: When someone in the church is in error, we ought to correct them in the spirit of love and humility. Not everyone in error is a false teacher. Consider for instance, Apollos[6] and Peter[7], who both needed some correction. All of us make mistakes. The difference is that genuine Christians repent when corrected; false teachers do not.
  2. Confront: The church must confront those who won’t respond to correction. This should happen publicly, refuting the errors and again calling for repentance.
  3. Discipline: If a person refuses to respond to correction and confrontation, the church must discipline them. Again, this should always happen with the hope that God “may perhaps grant them repentance,”[8] but those who will not respond must be excommunicated for the good of the church. Paul says, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.”[9]

Sometimes the thought of false teaching all around us is discouraging. How can we avoid every pitfall? We are fallible, easily deceived, prone to mistakes.
Yet for us, Peter gives these words of hope: “The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.”[10]

Bryce Wenger Bryce Wenger lives and works on a small farm near Dalton, Ohio. He has a love for music, literature, and learning. His free time is usually spent backpacking, canoeing, or otherwise enjoying nature. He is passionate about knowing God’s Word and living life to the fullest.

 

 

[1] 2 Peter 2:1, ESV

[2] Acts 20:28, ESV

[3] Challies, Tim. “Lessons I’ve Learned From False Teachers.” Challies. 24 July 2014. 24 Feb. 2019 <https://www.challies.com/articles/lessons-ive-learned-from-false-teachers/&gt;.

[4] Mathis, David. “The Surprising Truth About False Teachers.” Desiring God. 8 Aug. 2016. 24 Feb. 2019 <https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-surprising-truth-about-false-teachers&gt;.

[5] Matthew 7:16, ESV

[6] Acts 18:26, ESV

[7] Galatians 2:14, ESV

[8] 2 Timothy 2:25, ESV

[9] Titus 3:10, ESV

[10] 2 Peter 2:9, ESV

 

7 thoughts on “Sheep with Sharp Teeth

  1. This is a very helpful article on a topic we rarely discuss. But I had a question:

    If, as your David Mathias quote suggests, we can more easily discern false teachers by their lifestyles than their teaching, how do we handle truth taught by those whose lives weren’t the greatest (e.g. Martin Luther King, Jr. who slept around and Jonathan Edwards who owned slaves all his life)? Even the modern day preachers who are exposed as hypocrites —do we throw out everything they said?

    Like

    1. Hi Tabitha,
      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. Your question is a good one — one I’ve thought about — and I’m not sure I have a very satisfactory answer to it. As is often the case, the extremes of an issue are easy to define, but the middle is tricky. Here are some of my thoughts:

      1) When a person is dead or outside of our church, we can’t rebuke or exercise church discipline to correct them like we would a church member living inconsistently. Perhaps some different rules apply.

      2) We can, however, exercise discernment by avoiding those who teach “another gospel.” If the teaching is bad, we should avoid it.

      3) We need to recognize that no human being lives a perfectly consistent life and no teacher is without error. The fruit of a Christian is not sinlessness, but an attitude of humility and a lifestyle of repentance. Sometimes this helps us to recognize if a teacher sinned out of ignorance as a beliver or because they never knew Christ at all.

      4) God can and does use imperfect people — sometimes even those intending to do harm. Paul’s adversaries, for instance, preached the gospel “out of selfish ambition, not sincerely,” intending to stir up trouble so Paul would get a harsher punishment as a prisoner of Rome. Yet Paul responds that “whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Phil. 1:15-18).

      5) We should be aware of a person’s faults and watch for areas where those faults influenced their teaching. We need to exercise discernment, sorting out the good from the bad. In this way, we apply both the test of fruit and the test of truth.

      I know these principles don’t completely answer your question, but hopefully they help a little. I’m open to hearing any suggestions you have as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for writing this article. I think that you handled the subject wisely. Most of the information I have read on false teaching is woefully lopsided.

    Like

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