My series on Biblical Counseling is coming to a close. But before I wrap up with the final post, I want to address what it means to deal with false teachers.
Many times, when a Christian blogger publishes a post that reveals an unbiblical doctrine or practice of a well-known pastor or teacher, a lot of hand-wringing tends to occur. Fellow Christians come out of the woodwork saying, “Oh, why must you be so critical! Doesn’t Pastor so-and-so love the Lord just as much as you do? You’re causing division among the saints! Can’t you just chew up the meat and spit out the bones?? If you have such a problem with his teachings, approach him privately first! That’s what Matthew 18 says to do!”
True. But Matthew 18 was not written for false teachers.
What is a false teacher?
Before I explain what I mean, it is helpful to define just what a false teacher is. A false teacher is not simply someone you disagree with, even theologically. There are many pastors and teachers with whom I disagree over various matters. That does not earn them the label of “false.” A false teacher is one who, according to the Bible, does any of the following:
– Claims that Christ did not appear in the flesh, was not God’s son, or was not the sacrifice for our sin (1 John 4:1-3).
– Teaches that one needs more than faith in Christ to be saved (Romans 4:2-3).
– Burdens believers with extra-biblical rules that they then feel compelled to follow (1 Timothy 4:1-5; Galatians 5:4-8; Colossians 2:20-23).
– Views godliness as a form of gain (1 Timothy 6:3-5) and uses their ministry to exploit believers (2 Peter 2:3).
– Causes confusion (Galatians 5:10) and division (Romans 16:17).
– Pursues sensuality (2 Peter 2:13-15).
– Emphasizes spiritual experiences over scriptural truth (Colossians 2:18).
– Invents stories and distorts scripture, leading people away from Christ (2 Peter 2:3; Acts 20:30).
This is the short list, but you get the idea. A false teacher is someone whose teaching leads people away from Christ – causing them to stumble and fall into sin, live under guilt and condemnation, or reject God altogether.
False teachers are very crafty. They know exactly which words and phrases to use in order to sound spiritual, and they don’t relinquish their authority easily. Their humility is false. Whenever a knowledgeable believer exposes their hypocrisy and scripture-twisting, today’s false teachers will often accuse that person of being bitter, divisive, rebellious, slanderous, or engaging in persecution. They will rail against being publicly exposed and claim that the believer should have followed the steps in Matthew 18 and made their complaint privately.
What Matthew 18 Says
Matthew 18 is about dealing with sin in the church – specifically, addressing a private offense committed by one believer against another. By spreading their doctrines, false teachers are not committing private, individual offenses. Their offense is against the entire body of Christ. They are corrupting the whole Church and leading the naive into judgment. The Bible calls them wolves, vipers and whitewashed tombs.
And unlike in Paul’s day, today’s false teachers aren’t likely to be sitting with you in the same pews or preaching in your pulpit. You may hear them speak by radio or video conference. Their curriculum may be in your church library or bookstore. Their sermons may be broadcast on TV to millions of people around the world. So even if you did decide to follow Matthew 18 in this case, how would you approach them privately? What witnesses would you take to affirm your reproof? To which body would you appeal for discipline if, indeed, they refused to repent?
The truth is, many of today’s false teachers have been approached and reproved privately, both in person and through letters, emails, and even governing church boards. Yet they still continue to teach and find footholds among believers with a poor understanding of the gospel. One more email is not going to change them. Their conscience has been seared as with a hot iron (1 Timothy 4:2). The clear course of action is to publicly expose them and warn believers to reject their poisonous doctrines.
What Paul and Jesus Did
The Apostle Paul was not shy about exposing false teachers, nor shy about encouraging others to do the same. In his letter to Titus, he wrote,
For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth. To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. ~ Titus 1:10-16
False teachers were a big headache for Paul. Some were claiming that the resurrection of the dead had already occurred. Others were saying that believers must be circumcised and follow Jewish law to be saved. And still others were tainting the gospel message with their own rules and myths.
It was the circumcision group that troubled Paul the most. Not only did its teachers lead believers astray, they also persecuted and slandered Paul at every turn. Paul’s frustration shows most strongly in his letter to the Galatians:
As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! ~ Galatians 5:12
Not exactly the kindest of sentiments.
Likewise, Jesus had little patience for those who mishandled the truth. The entirety of Matthew 23 is devoted to Jesus’ very public, very passionate rant against the Pharisees, which includes such descriptors as “hypocrites,” “snakes,” and “blind guides.” Jesus did not privately approach the Pharisees, quietly point out the flaws in their teaching and ask them, pretty please, to desist. Instead, he exposed them in front of the crowds, repeatedly admonishing his listeners to avoid the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.
Now, if this is how Jesus and the Early Church leaders handled false teachers, why would we do anything else today? The Bible shows us that false teaching is a serious issue that demands a strong, immediate and public response.
About those itching ears…
In 2 Timothy 4, Paul speaks of those who will turn to false teachers to hear what their “itching ears” want to hear. Today’s false teachers – particularly those of the ultra-conservative persuasion – often reference this verse to support their rules-based doctrines and shame those who teach freedom in Christ. But what did ear tickling look like in Paul’s day?
Sure, there were some in Paul’s time who used the concept of freedom in Christ to justify indulging the flesh. But the vast majority of the “ear ticklers” were preaching doctrines that attempted to elevate some believers over others. This is what the circumcision group did. They claimed that since they were Jewish and had the revelation of the Law, their salvation was assured. If the Gentiles wanted such assurance, they needed to commit to the Law as well. Essentially, the circumcision group preached special revelation, special favor, hierarchy, and justification by works – all of which Paul vigorously refutes. These doctrines remain popular because they appeal to human pride. For those who can best adhere to the rules, earthly rewards abound.
We may not have a group preaching circumcision these days, but the ear-tickling doctrines are still with us in different flavors. There are some who say believers can gain special revelation or “reach new levels in the Spirit” by praying a certain number of hours per day. There are others who say that believers can earn special favor from God by giving large amounts of money to their church. And there are others who say that believers must submit to a hierarchy of church authority or else suffer a lack of God’s blessing and protection. These are false teachings that only benefit those who teach them. They should be opposed. Loudly. Which is what I will continue to do.
Matthew 18 was not written for false teachers. Jesus and the apostles had a method for dealing with false teachers, and the private approach was not it.