“Don’t read her books—she’s a false teacher.” These scathing words came from my mouth in various forms when I first began to dig into my theology.
As I grew in my understanding of the Word and solid doctrine, I likewise grew in my pride. I only listen to or read books by sound teachers; no fluff or false teaching ever comes near me. A good desire for knowledge was corrupted by the wickedness of pride.
Most of us have learned to be careful with the term “heretic”, reserving it for those who are far from orthodoxy, but perhaps some of us (myself included) are still a bit too quick to stick the label “false teacher” on others’ backs. Can you relate?
So how do you know when to call someone a false teacher? How do we know when that label is appropriate? When are we simply brothers and sisters who disagree, or people on opposing sides of orthodoxy?
Defining False Teachers
2 Peter 2 lays out a well-rounded character map of a false teacher:
- They are condemned (vv. 1, 3-10, 12, 15, 17, 18-21)
- They secretly bring in destructive heresies (vv. 1, 13)
- They deny Christ (v. 1)
- They follow their sensuality (vv. 2, 14)
- Because of them, the way of truth is blasphemed (v. 2)
- They exploit their followers with false words because of their greed (vv. 3, 14)
- They revel in their deceptions (v. 13)
- They lead their followers astray (v. 18)
- They promise their followers freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption (v. 19)
In Scripture, “false teacher” is set apart for condemned men and women who purposely lead others astray into heresy to exploit them. It’s not meant for the woman who accidentally misspeaks. It’s not meant for the preacher who interprets secondary issues differently than we might. It’s not meant for gospel-believing people who are faithfully trying to understand Scripture. Rather, it’s meant for sly, arrogant, greedy heretics.
Sibling or Wolf in Disguise?
Not everyone who poorly interprets the Bible is a false teacher. There’s a difference between someone who believes a few false teachings and someone who purposely teaches them to harm others. I’ve held to legalistic teachings. I’ve interpreted Scripture wrongly at times. I’ve misspoken. And perhaps we all have too. Does this make us false teachers? I don’t believe so, not according to Scripture.
The difference between a sibling in Christ and a false teacher is their heart and their theology. Siblings in Christ believe the true gospel—they hold to an orthodox view of salvation and the Trinity. A believer loves God and their fellow siblings, and they desire to teach them according to Scripture. In their humanity or weakness, they might have a few things wrong. But a family member is humble and correctable; they are willing to listen and consider our correction if it’s in line with Scripture.
We see stories of this sort of confrontation in the Word. Consider Apollos, who was gently corrected by Priscilla and Aquila and changed his teaching to be in line with the truth (Acts 18:24-28). Consider Peter—a man walked side-by-side with Christ during his earthly ministry—was rebuked by Paul when he was unnecessarily dividing the church (Galatians 2:11-14). Both these examples show how even wise and mature believers can accept or teach error, but as members of the body of Christ, they repent and are responsive to correction.
A false teacher does not resemble that. They hold to damning heresies, preaching a gospel that is far from true. They call Christians to follow another Christ, another God—one of their making and liking. They don’t love our fellow heirs—they’re wolves out to tear apart the family of God. They want to lead them astray to follow themselves instead. And when we approach them with a humble and true correction, they’ll stomp it in the dirt. False teachers are enslaved to sin and won’t let us show them freedom—they only want to ensnare us too.
Don’t Slander Your Sister
These characteristics are so contrasting. It would be slander to label our fellow siblings in Christ with such a horrible name. So how do we avoid misrepresenting one another while still standing firm for truth?
This lesson comes back to charity. We should believe the best in our fellow siblings in Christ, hoping their motives aren’t like those of a false teacher. We should patiently seek to understand one another to see that we share the same gospel. And if they believe something erroneous, we must graciously call them to the truth—keeping watch on ourselves, lest we be tempted likewise (Galatians 6:1-2).
We likewise need to develop discernment. We need to weigh their words (and our own) against Scripture. The lies of false teachers aren’t always obvious; recognizing the difference between false teaching and minor errors requires us to be deep in the Word of God, always checking what’s being said with what God has already spoken.
We need to take care who we label false teachers. It’s okay to name names—but we should do so only when we’re certain. And when we do wrongly label one another false teachers, we need humility to confess and repent.