What is a false teacher? I remember someone telling me several months ago about a new church forming in a neighboring county. This church is centered around one doctrine, namely that repentance is not required. It is always dangerous to have a church formed around one doctrine, but the interesting part of this story is that one of their founding members responded to someone else in their community who disagreed with their one doctrine on Facebook by calling that person a false teacher.
I think the word is used rather loosely in the church today, mostly in the same vein that people blast away on social media…to stop anyone from disagreeing with them. I decided to play it safe and only include pictures of David Koresh and Jim Jones as finger puppets…although if you dare to google “false teachers” you will get a lot of pointing fingers.
So, what is a false teacher? First of all, a false teacher is not someone who has made a mistake in something they taught or is simply incorrect about something in Bible. No teacher is perfect and we all have room to grow in both our maturity in Christ and our understanding of the Bible. The real truth is that I have been in ministry for over 30 years and my belief system has modified itself (in small ways) during that time. I had a very simplistic theology when I first became a believer and I now understand more of the complexities expressed in Scripture.
Secondly, a false teacher is not someone who disagrees with your interpretation of something in the Bible. Just as no teacher is perfect, no system of doctrine gets everything exactly right. An important thing to remember when it comes to what we believe is that all doctrines are not equal. There are some things taught in the Bible that are essential and cannot be compromised. These are the things relating to the nature of Christ and His saving work expressed in the cross and the resurrection.
A good way to think about this is to picture three concentric circles. The center circle contains the things that cannot be compromised. These beliefs form our understanding of the gospel and the nature of God. This inner circle really represents what makes a person a disciple or follower of Jesus.
There is a second circle which is a little farther out and surrounds the first. This circle represents beliefs or doctrines which allow churches to form and doctrinal statements to be generated. Things in this circle would include our understanding of baptism, the meaning of communion and how we govern the church. It becomes important to agree on things in this circle because we are working and worshipping together.
The third circle that surrounds the first two represents beliefs, that although they come from Scripture, do not affect either our faith in Christ or how we worship together. In this circle you find interpretations about the book of Revelation, time tables(?!!) for the second coming of Christ and things of this nature. (I think I just gave away something I believe that belongs in the third circle…). As long as something is genuinely based on the Bible, you can believe as you feel led, and include some speculation on your part as you fill in what the Bible teaches with things that seem logical or consistent with your thinking.
A false teacher is not someone who has a weird theory about the second coming of Christ or who belongs to a church that uses a different form of baptism than yours does. A false teacher is someone who deliberately propagates a wrong understanding of the gospel. A red flag is attached to his/her lifestyle because generally there is a problem there if you are able to look closely. Both Jim Jones and David Koresh taught that they were incarnations of the Son of God. This has obvious implications for the gospel, as they both taught that they were a source of salvation. When someone looks at their lives, one can see obvious moral issues as well. Both men had a practice of sleeping with other men’s wives from among their followers as a part of their “ministry.” Indeed, both of these men developed what we call a cult.
Not all false teachers are cult leaders. Not all false teachers have obvious moral problems. And to be absolutely fair, not every minister who has had a moral problem is a false teacher! But all false teachers are in the ministry for their own profit. This may be financial profit, or power, or control or any combination of these things.
Be careful about throwing “false teacher” out as a label unless you see obvious problems with what they teach about the gospel. At the same time, be aware of teachers who have moral issues, who orient their ministries around money or power, or who claim to have truth that no one else is teaching from the Bible.
- Image of David Koresh is public domain; http://www.therightperspective.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/david-koresh.jpg
- Image of Rev. Jim Jones. This file is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 4.0 International By Nancy Wong [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
- Handskelett im Röntgenbild; https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en. By Hellerhoff [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
- All three of these images have been altered with a filter and as such do not adequately represent the original work.