by Cecil Hook
In promoting and defending our doctrinal positions, we preachers have made many denunciations of false teachers whom we identified as persons who teach error. While we have admitted that no one teaches total error, we have declared that any point of error is sufficient to pervert the word of God and to make its proponent a false teacher.
Such branding has a solid, fundamental ring to it until one inquires a bit more deeply. The denouncer implies that he himself is in error on no point! He is right on everything; hence, he is no false teacher. Others teach some error, so they are false teachers. How blind and bigoted one can become!
Warning us of the gravity of becoming teachers, James assures us, “For we all make many mistakes, and if any one makes no mistakes in what he says he is a perfect man…” (James 3:2f). So, if teaching some error makes one a false teacher, all are false teachers.
It may be surprising to some to learn that the much-used term false teacher is used only once in the New Testament writings (2 Peter 2:1). The often heard companion expression false teaching is not found even once. False prophets and error are mentioned.
The adjective false describes the man rather than his teaching. He is a teacher or prophet with a character defect of evil motivation rather than being a sincere teacher who is misinformed and holds a different conviction on some minor point or points. Let us review a few references to see that this is true.
1. The teachers whom Peter wrote about were insidious, greedy, licentious, exploiting, divisive, and God-denying (2 Peter 2:1-3). They were not sincere, humble men who were ignorant or misunderstanding.
2. A factious man, because of his self-seeking ambition, is “perverted and sinful” (Titus 3:10f).
3. Persons departing from the faith would be “giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretension of liars whose consciences are seared” (1 Tim. 4:1f). These were not honest men who had missed the point on some doctrinal issues. Evidently, these were the false prophets of 1 John 4:1-3, the Gnostics who denied that Jesus had come in the flesh, the antichrists, whose deceit and licentiousness John deals with throughout his three epistles.
4. “Men of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith,” these insidious men were not simply persons ignorant of truth on certain points (2 Tim. 3:1-9). They were unscrupulous characters.
5. Paul dealt with many doctrinal problems in the Corinthian church with firm patience without demanding withdrawal from anyone on doctrinal grounds. Only the flagrantly impenitent immoral were to be excluded from their company. However, he unmasked those who were leading the dividing parties, declaring,
“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:12f). It is not their doctrinal stance that is objectionable, but their corrupt character. Evidently these were the persons leading the dissension who are rebuked in 1 Corinthians 1:10-15. Instead of being united in mind and judgment “that there be no dissensions among you” and all saying, “I am of Christ,” they let selfish ambition lead to a splintering of the fellowship.
6. In Romans 14 and 15, Paul taught the saints to love and respect each other and to live in harmony even though they had some differing convictions. Those who disagreed were not to judge each other. They were not false teachers to be driven out. However, some, in opposition to what Paul had taught about living in harmony, were creating dissensions and difficulties, serving not “our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by fair and flattering words they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded” (Romans 16:17f). How we have misapplied this passage to justify division over doctrinal issues and quibbles.
These selfish deceivers were not identified in the Roman epistle. Later, Paul wrote of the problem there while he was imprisoned in Rome. He declared, “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of partisanship, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in that I rejoice” (Phil 1:15-18). These men were preaching Christ, but they were also preaching circumcision and making it a dividing issue. Paul identifies them as such in Philippians 3:2-11. Then he reveals their true character: “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (3:18f). They were materialistic, earthly minded, self-serving men using the immaterial doctrinal issue of circumcision as a tool to divide.
No such denunciation is made of the contenders for circumcision involved in the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. The quality of the men was different, except for the false brethren who slipped in to spy at Antioch (Gal. 2:4). They were not false men even though they had a different conviction about circumcision.
We are in error when we castigate someone who differs from us in his sincere effort to knowanddothewillofGod. HeisdoingallthatyouorIcando—hisbest. Heisin error on some things even as you and I are in error on some things. The only brothers we have are brothers in error, someone had observed.
Neither side at the Jerusalem conference was made up of false prophets, nor was the sincere Apollos a false teacher due to being in error on a major doctrine through lack of information. Great teachers and reformers of the past, though they may never have gained some necessary doctrinal understandings, cannot be denounced as false teachers. They were honest searchers even as I trust you and I are. We have profited from their search. We can see further by standing on their shoulders. Thank God for them!
Jesus warned, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Matt. 7:15f). We have been inclined to interpret that as “by their teachings you shall know them,” but Jesus declares that the fruit of life will reveal the truth or falsity of the character.
Do we gain our confidence and satisfaction from contrasting our teachings with the teachings of those we denounce, or are we willing to compare the fruits of our lives with those of the people whom we oppose doctrinally? My self-esteem begins to shrink when I make such a comparison. The character of the teacher determines the kind of fruit that will be forthcoming. Many defenders of doctrine have, because of defective character and motive, produced the most unholy fruit of division and have been guilty of destroying God’s holy temple (1 Cor. 3:16f).
Jesus said, “… no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:39f).
The foregoing conclusions have not been reached easily, for I, too, long denounced as false teachers those who taught differently from me.
Those who have gained freedom in Christ are free to accept brothers who bear the fruit of the Spirit even though they are not in total doctrinal agreement.