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Following the true teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ is central to what it means to be a Christian. The Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20), perhaps the most well-known passage on the purpose of the church, has at its core this concept: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” As a result, the church has always made great efforts to teach the Bible. But efforts do not always bring about results. Interaction with culture, difficult passages in the Bible, and the power of sin to affect the mind have contributed to the formulation and dissemination of false or incorrect teaching. Churches and individual believers make a serious mistake if they think to themselves, “It can’t happen here.” Thinking we are immune to error places us in a very dangerous position. It is exactly what the enemy wants—for us to be asleep and unaware of his efforts to attack believers through false teaching.
The Reality of False Teaching
False teaching is a real threat to the church. False teaching is not a threat only in certain circumstances, or only in churches with certain governmental structures, or only in certain places and cultures in the world. We must recognize it as a threat because the Bible continually warns us that it is a threat. Jesus warns us that false teachers will come from outside the community of believers, trying to hide their true intentions (Matt. 7:15–20). Peter tells us that false teachers can also arise from within the community of believers, bringing doctrine that is destructive and poisonous (2 Peter 2:1). The Apostle Paul continually warned the churches that he served that if false teachers in their midst were left unchecked, the results would be disastrous (Gal. 1:6–9; 2 Cor. 11:1–21; 1 Tim. 6:3–5). Simply put, false teaching is not just a problem for other people and churches out there; it is a problem about which all believers must be vigilant and against which they must be on guard.
The Bible’s testimony about false teaching should make it clear that we are not invulnerable to this threat. When we are tempted to think we are beyond such threats because we have it all together, we will do well to remember the Apostle Paul’s warning to the Corinthian church, which thought it was beyond the errors that had sprung up during the days of Old Testament Israel: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). If doctrinal aberrations can spring up in churches that were nurtured with the teachings of the Apostles, what makes us think we are immune? Paul had to warn the Galatians about false teaching on the central doctrine of the faith—how man is justified before God—when the generation of disciples that were taught directly by Jesus was still walking the earth. How, then, can we afford to be complacent?
How False Teaching Enters
Since we are called to be alert to the threat of false teaching in our midst, for what should we be looking? Should we expect someone to stand up in the middle of a worship service and declare: “The church has had it all wrong for years and years. Let me tell you what the Bible really teaches.” Do we expect bold declarations that strike at the heart of the Bible’s teachings such as “God is not real” or “Jesus is not God”? If we expect that a sudden and dramatic falsehood will enter the church, we will not be looking in the right place. It is true that great falsehoods have been found in the church, but not typically in a sudden fashion. The enemy of our souls prefers a subtler approach, sowing doubts and twisting the truth to make falsehood acceptable. After all, the first attack on man was not, “How can you possibly believe that?” but, “Did God really say that?”
Another thing we need to remember is that false teaching does not always come into the church as a result of deliberate attempts to deceive Christians and trick them into denying the faith. Such tactics certainly are possible, for the New Testament does record instances of “the false brethren who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 2:4) and those who “crept in unnoticed . . . ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4). We should not be naive and ignore signs of such attacks. But more often, the danger of false teaching comes from other avenues. Three avenues to which we must be especially alert are the desire to find some new and interesting teaching or doctrine, an overreaction to other teaching errors in the church, and a desire to avoid criticism, particularly criticism from the world around us.
The Desire for New Teaching
Perhaps the most “innocent” way that false teaching can come into the church is when someone attempts to find a new and innovative way to understand the Bible. The Bible is an ancient book that pastors, elders, and scholars have studied for millennia. It is hard to think of a biblical topic about which hundreds of books have not been written. On the most controversial of topics, such as baptism or eschatology, virtually every theological position has been staked out. Not every teacher is satisfied with describing various historical interpretations or presenting historically biblical truth in a clear and convincing fashion. For some, there is a need to blaze a path where no one has gone before, teaching the Bible in a way that is not dependent on any predecessor.
One example of this was John Nelson Darby, whose desire to organize the Bible and its prophecy into a single definitive system produced what is now known as dispensationalism. His teachings led to deviations from historical understandings of the church, the sacraments, and, in some ways, original sin.
For others, there is a desire to solve definitively a thorny biblical issue over which theologians have wrangled for centuries. This leads them into uncharted territory—expressing untested ideas and interpretations of the Bible. The Jesuit scholar Luis de Molina thought that he had discovered a way to reconcile the age-old conflict between theologians about free will and predestination in the new teaching of “middle knowledge.” In the end, all he accomplished was to confuse people about God’s will and His providential care. A more modern example would be those who have put forward the idea of “open theism” in an effort to protect God from being accused of responsibility for evil in the world. The result has been to present a God who is weak, unable to provide for His people, and ultimately at the mercy of the actions of men. We should be aware of this entry point for false teaching, both when others come up to convince us of a great new insight that has never been heard before and when we are tempted to make a name for ourselves with some new teaching. It is far better to be thought of as boring when we stand fast and “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3).
Overreaction to Error
A second way that false teaching can enter the church is when teachers try overzealously to protect the church from error. By saying “overzealously,” I am referring not to the mere effort made to protect the church from error, but rather to the extent to which some go in the name of protecting the church. The greatest and most precious truths of the Bible have been explained and understood with great care throughout the centuries. Doctrines such as the Trinity, the person of Christ, and the relationship between faith and works have been developed from an understanding of the totality of Scripture and with the knowledge that there are equal and opposite errors that someone can fall into. In The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan described the Christian’s journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death as walking between two dangers: a deep ditch on the right, and a dangerous quag on the left. If one moves too sharply in one direction to avoid one danger, one can fall into the other opposite danger.
Perhaps the best historical example of this is the way that false teaching on the person of Christ came into the church. In trying to understand how Christ can be both human and divine, Nestorius and his followers taught a sharp division in Christ that essentially made Him two persons, one human and one divine. The church took issue with this teaching and condemned it at the First Council of Ephesus. But in an overzealous attempt to correct the Nestorian error, Eutyches and his followers taught that the way to avoid conceiving of two persons in Christ was to understand the divinity of Christ as overwhelming the humanity of Christ, essentially denying His true humanity. They had successfully avoided one false teaching only to fall headlong into another. Another example is when various false teachers throughout history have sought to deal with the supposed problem of tritheism in the doctrine of the Trinity (that the doctrine appears to teach there are three Gods). From Sabellius in the third century, to Michael Servetus during the Reformation, to oneness theologians today, attempts to “ensure” that the church teaches monotheism have often resulted in false teaching about the Trinity.
The Desire to Avoid Criticism
A third way that false teaching enters the church is when teachers are overly desirous to avoid criticism, especially when that criticism comes from the surrounding culture. This is where human nature, especially our sinful pride, comes in. People do not like to be thought of as ignorant, uncultured, or uneducated. They do not enjoy being looked down on by others for things they believe or say. And yet this is a fundamental part of being a Christian.
To be a Christian means to believe that what God says in His Word is true even if everyone around you disagrees. “Let God be true though every one were a liar,” the Bible tells us (Rom. 3:4). Martin Luther put it with his characteristic wit: “One with God is a majority.” But often this is easier said than done. Teachers within the church can become afraid that they will have no effect on the world around them unless they teach in a way that is acceptable to the culture.
It was this way of thinking that led to a departure from the biblical truth about the atonement and Christ’s sacrifice. Cries against “cosmic child abuse” and a “harsh, vengeful Father” have led some to teach against the substitutionary atonement of Christ. This, in turn, has led to the redefinition of sin, repentance, and holiness. Once the thread starts to unravel, the whole cloth begins to tear.
Another example of this tendency is the way that teachers within the church have shied away from the biblical doctrine of creation as set forth in Genesis 1–2, Isaiah 40, and Colossians 1, among other places. Rather than seem to go against a scientific “consensus,” such teachers will deny that God is the Creator of all things.
What is especially dangerous is that false teaching can come into the church from the culture because people have good intentions—they want to reach the lost, so they try to remove anything that they think is a barrier. We should not make a point of intentionally attacking our neighbors, but we must also never be afraid to stand on the Word of God—even when such a stand is unpopular. That also means we must be wary of those within the church who are constantly trying to accommodate the latest cultural thinking.
How False Teaching Takes Root
We have seen some of the ways that false teaching arises in the church. How, then, does it take root and continue, despite being contrary to the truth of God’s Word and the mission of the church? If we can see how false teaching spreads and becomes accepted, we will be more prepared to confront it. There are a variety of factors involved here, but for brevity’s sake, let us look at three: one educational, one institutional, and one related to leadership.
One of the most common contributors to the spread of false teaching in the church is a general lack of Bible knowledge and discernment among the people. It might seem counterintuitive to say that students should be able to correct teachers when they bring falsehood into the church, but that is exactly what the Bible teaches us. When Paul was in Berea, his teaching was not merely accepted on his own authority, but his listeners examined it daily by the Scriptures to see whether it was true (Acts 17:11). For this, they were praised by Luke as being “more noble.” All believers must read the Scriptures for themselves and compare what is being taught to the Scriptures. This does not require a radical skepticism, but it does mean that believers are not to unhesitatingly trust every word of mere men. They are to trust only the Scriptures in such a way. A problem arises when believers do not have the willingness or the ability to search the Scriptures for themselves. This leads to a dependence on human authority and allows false teaching to take root and spread. The educational goal of the church should be not just to transmit knowledge of the Bible but also to transmit a love for the Bible and an eagerness to study it.
A second contributor to the spread of false teaching is institutional—the failure to hold people accountable for their false teaching. It has often been noted that there are three marks of the true church: the right preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of discipline. The third mark exists to make sure the first two marks are maintained. When the church turns a blind eye to false teaching because its proponents are popular or have “successful ministries” (one thinks of more people or more money), or simply to avoid conflict in the church, it allows false teaching to spread and to be the source of further division and conflict. Church discipline exists to uphold the glory of Christ and His truth and also to protect the people of God from error and its consequences.
There is a third contributor to the advance of false teaching in the church, and it is related to leadership. Even when the people of God are eager to study His Word and the church is prepared to exercise discipline, false teaching can flourish when the leadership of the church is ill prepared and poorly trained. The lower we set our standards for training pastors and elders for the ministry, the less prepared they will be to recognize false teaching. Pastors and elders who are untrained in historical theology will miss the reappearance of ancient false teaching in modern clothing. Those who have not been trained well in the Bible, its languages, and principles of its sound interpretation may fall prey to novel teachings that seem to explain away problems or contradictions. To combat false teaching, the church needs pastors, elders, and teachers who are both willing and able to confront falsehood (Titus 2:8; 1 Peter 2:15).
What We Can Do about False Teaching
False teaching is a danger to the church of Jesus Christ, and it can arise from different quarters and flourish if not confronted. How does knowing the origin and presence of false teaching help us combat it? Briefly put, such knowledge keeps us from being complacent about false teaching and the danger it presents. Being aware of where false teaching comes from keeps us alert. And perhaps most importantly, if we are mindful of false teaching, we will be driven to study our Bibles more and more, to be prepared to stand for the truth that the Lord has given to us and impresses on our hearts by the work of the Holy Spirit.