I have heard the words, false teacher, heretic and apostate more times than I would like to think about. These terms can have a place in our discussion but not typically in the ways I have seen those terms used. As best I can tell these words are often used as code for “anyone who disagrees with my conclusions about what I clearly find in scripture.” The problem is, that criteria is not the New Testament criteria for such a serious label. It covers things much more serious than any and every doctrinal disagreement.
Let’s have a look at “false teachers”/”false teaching” in the New Testament.
ἑτεροδιδασκαλέω – “To teach contrary to standard instruction, give divergent (divisive) instruction (BDAG). This word is used twice in the New Testament, both times in Paul’s 1 letter to Timothy.
1 Tim 1:3
“As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” (1:3-7)
1 Tim 6:3
“If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (6:3-10)
ψευδολόγος – speaking falsely/lying
1 Tim 4:2
The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. (4:1-7)
2 Tim 2:14-19 – This one does not use any term for false teachers but deals with false teachers in Ephesus without using the term,
“Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some. Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”
ψευδοδιδάσκαλος – this is the word for “teacher” διδάσκαλος with the prefix ψευδο (pseudo) – literally pseudoteachers
2 Peter 2 – Peter is talking about the prophets of the Old Testament and how they words they spoke originated in God. Just as they had true prophets in the Old Testament, Peter goes on in chapter 2 to talk about the false prophets then and in his day.
“But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority.
Bold and arrogant, they are not afraid to heap abuse on celestial beings; yet even angels, although they are stronger and more powerful, do not heap abuse on such beings when bringing judgment on them from the Lord. But these people blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish.
They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. Their idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Bezer, who loved the wages of wickedness. But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey—an animal without speech—who spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.
These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.” If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.”
If you want to look at more scripture…look at what the Corinthians were doing and teaching. Look at what the 7 churches of Asia were doing and teaching in Rev 1-3. Those are some serious things…and yet Christ reserved a place for them WHILE calling them to repentance. It seems people today push people out of the fold first (because they are clearly wrong) and then demand repentance from afar. It is all wrong.
A few take away points here:
- Being a false teacher is serious and has serious consequences.
- The accusation is serious as well so you better be sure you have scripture to back you up in saying something so BOLD. Not just scripture that says the other person is wrong…scripture that justifies the label itself.
- Paul didn’t say everyone he disagrees with is a false teacher, heretic or apostate.
- Paul didn’t even call everyone who got something wrong in their doctrine a false teacher, heretic or apostate
- Paul did call some people false teachers and it wasn’t because they were just wrong on something…on anything. He called people false teachers who misconstrued the Gospel itself…who taught other ways to salvation than Jesus Christ…not just those who did something or said something or believed something (anything) that was wrong.
- There is a particular content of teaching that can be wrong but not “false teaching”
- There is a particular kind of teaching that is wrong and serious enough to be called “false teaching”
- It takes a bit of common sense to figure out which is which.
- None of these passages justify Christians branding other Christians as false teachers, heretics or apostate over any and every matter of disagreement.
- In the Churches of Christ, we have put every single doctrinal issue on par with the divinity of Jesus Christ. Not every issue is that serious.
- If you are doing that then you may need to watch this video to get some help.