Have you ever sat through a sermon in which the teaching and the Bible just didn’t seem to match? I’m not talking about the preacher who says something that the Bible teaches, just not from his chosen text. Nor am I’m talking about a slip of the tongue or the pen, like when the printers wrote the seventh commandment in one edition of the King James Bible as “Thou shalt commit adultery.” No, I’m talking about the Bible teacher who starts regularly spewing stuff that is contrary to the gospel. Have you ever been personally confronted with false teaching?
False teaching doesn’t seem like it would be a problem in a healthy church. But the Bible is filled with warnings against false teachers and instructions on how to respond to them. Why are teachers who don’t accurately teach the truth attractive to so many? How can you tell the difference between a good and bad teacher? How can you protect yourself, your family, and your church from deviating from the Bible? The Bible passage in 2 Timothy 2:14-26 provides some wise answers. Mature Christians (especially church leaders) should navigate biblical and theological controversies in the church by rejecting foolish and ignorant speculations, avoiding entanglement in godless quarrels about words, and correcting those caught up in such arguments with an eye toward their repentance.
As usual, the background for this passage is important for understanding. Remember that Paul the apostle is writing to Timothy the pastor in Ephesus. Paul planted this church and pastored her for two and a half years—longer than any other. How could false teaching come from this flagship congregation? It would be as if false teaching took root in R.C. Sproul’s church! No way! And yet it did in Ephesus.
The Ubiquity of False Teaching
Gnosticism as a coherent movement was the first major Christian heresy that seriously challenged the church, but it didn’t fully develop until the 2nd century. During the apostolic era the seeds of Gnosticism were beginning to sprout in this form: new knowledge from those who claim to understand the once hidden but now revealed meaning of the Bible. According to this mindset, those who reject this new and higher teaching don’t just disagree. Rather they just don’t get it because they are in the dark. Only enlightened ones understand and believe; the simpletons cannot and will not believe. Stage-One Gnosticism is always the way false teaching starts. Something new, something higher, something better, something revealed that trumps the straightforward message of the Bible. False teaching always requires a secret key to unlock the door. Only the enlightened progressive ones can move from the sanctuary where regular Christians worship into the upper-room Holy of Holies.
Spiritualized resurrection (vv. 17b-18)
Hymenaeus and Philetus taught the resurrection already happened. Their message: the resurrection is spiritual not physical; mystical not material. In contrast, both Jesus (Mt 22:23-33) and Paul (1 Cor 15; 2 Cor 5:1-10; 1 Thess 4:15-18) taught the resurrection would be bodily. The Gnostics taught the resurrection was allegorical not literal, perhaps occurring at baptism. It was a similar (if not the same) error Paul encountered in the Corinthian church (1 Cor 15:12-20). A figurative resurrection was surely more culturally acceptable since a bodily resurrection was an absurd idea to popular Hellenistic philosophy that believed everything spiritual is good and everything material was evil. True to form, these false teachers modified a key element of the gospel to make their teaching more culturally attractive. This particular teaching of a spiritualized resurrection was a partial truth (the Bible teaches that regeneration or the new birth is a spiritual resurrection enjoyed now by believers), but it also denied a truth (the future bodily resurrection of believers to eternal life on the last day when Christ returns). By affirming the present spiritual reality but denying the future spiritual-bodily hope, Hymenaeus and Philetus attacked the gospel.
Perhaps you’ve never encountered this heresy. It’s still out there. Retired Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong is a modern-day Hymenaeus. He says, “I don’t think the Resurrection has anything to do with physical resuscitation. I think it means the life of Jesus was raised back into the life of God, not into the life of this world, and that it was out of this that his presence was manifested to certain witnesses. When people hear it, they grab on to it. They could not believe the superstitious stuff and they were brainwashed to believe that if they could not believe it literally they could not be a Christian. A Christian is one who accepts the reality of God without the requirement of a literal belief in miracles. What the Resurrection says is that Jesus breaks every human limit, including the limit of death, and by walking in his path you can catch a glimpse of that. And I think that’s a pretty good message.”
Bishop Spong proves the false teaching of a spiritualized resurrection finds a home today in liberal theology that denies the possibility of the miraculous. But it also finds a home in the “end-times” heresy of hyper-preterism (which is a technical label for taking the legitimate view of run-of-the-mill preterism way too far). Hyper-preterism teaches that every single one of the promises and prophecies of the Bible were completely fulfilled when it claims Jesus Christ’s second coming was in 70 AD when he destroyed the Jewish temple. That was THE END. Thus hyper-preterists believe this world is the new heavens and the new earth. This world is all there is, and this is all the hope and blessing you’ll get, and isn’t it grand? You may be surprised to hear that Calvinists and Reformed believers are particularly susceptible to this false teaching. (A hyper-preterist friend once told me that Calvinism and his views on the resurrection fit like hand in glove.) This doctrine is primarily found on the internet with a small but dedicated following. Its teachers and followers occasionally make their way into Presbyterian and Reformed congregations, seeking to win converts by quarreling about words.
False teaching has always taken many forms. When Paul named the influential false teachers and connected them to particular false teachings, he gave us permission to do the same. Warnings need to be clear and doled out carefully, judiciously. So I will try very hard to keep that in mind as I call out a few famous names. Who are false teachers who are ubiquitous in the American evangelical world? Bart Ehrman, a graduate of Wheaton College, now an apostate, is an elite scholar of Bible textual criticism, but he writes for a popular audience of churched people, relentlessly sowing unwarranted doubt regarding the truthfulness and divine inspiration of the Bible. Rob Bell, a former mega-church pastor, a best-selling author, and star of the hip Nooma video series, began teaching the heresy of universalism, that God’s “love wins” in such a way that no one will go to hell for their sins. And he went downhill from there. Bell is now an Oprah Winfrey devotee and traveling on the self-help speaking circuit. Brian McLaren, one of the founding fathers of the Emerging Church movement, pastored a church in Maryland, and continues to speak in public and publish widely-read books that teach the heresy that all religions lead to Jesus and thus to heaven. But it’s not only men. Jen Hatmaker, a pastor’s wife, best-selling author, HGTV show host, and currently one of the most popular women’s speakers in the evangelical world (she has over 600,000 Facebook followers!), has made waves with her teaching that some forms of sexual immorality are actually moral. Please listen carefully, these teachers are not like Charles Manson. Each of them has some good, true, and helpful things to say, but hear me clearly: they are all false teachers. As far as I can tell, two are no longer formally connected to the church, but two are still consciously leading the church. Now I probably just stepped on some toes in calling out these particular names. How can that be? Because you see, false teachers and their teaching are ubiquitous. They are not just out there. They are here. They are everywhere. And they are drawing many disciples to themselves. So in one sense, you ought not panic when you hear rumblings that false teaching is worming its way into the PCA or even your own congregation. This is normal business as usual. There is no totally pure church, so please don’t freak out when you sense false teaching may be lurking nearby. But in a more important sense, you ought to be gravely concerned when false teachers rear their ugly heads. Why? Because they pose a terrible threat.
The Threat of False Teaching
It spreads easily like germs (vv. 14, 16)
Through irreverent babble, talk of foolish and ignorant speculations, quarrels about words. What does it mean to quarrel about words? Surely you’ve heard meaningless bickering about Bible or theological words, or splitting hairs on trivial, controversial, speculative minutiae in the law (1 Tim 1:4; Tit 3:9). Such arguments can attract a crowd because they titillate our curiosity. Sometimes I think that’s what internet comment threads were made for! There is a reason they call sensational headlines “click-bait”—because we bite! False teachers are successful at spreading their lies. Often those who engage in such quarrels revel in the strife and division they cause. I think of Shakespeare’s famous line in Hamlet, “Methinks thou dost protest too much.” Calvin says such disputes are “commonly produced by a foolish desire of being ingenious.” The chatter may be about God, the Bible, theology, ministry, Christian counseling, or other spiritual things. But if such talk stems from a desire to argue about words and a love of disagreement, then it does the opposite of the intended purpose—it actually makes a person ungodly! This kind of talk provokes anger and leads to hurt feelings and relational breakdown in the church (1 Tim 6:4b-5). False teaching is a threat because it can rapidly spread the germ of ungodliness. Godless chatter does no good for the speakers and even ruins the hearers.
It destroys thoroughly like diseases (vv. 17a, 25-26)
False teaching destroys like gangrene (warning: graphic images), progressively eating at the body and killing whatever it infects. Ancient writers sometimes compared pervasive immorality to gangrene, which had to be treated by cutting it out of the body. How does false teaching destroy? It obscure the truth which produces ignorance, it makes you drugged and inebriated on its lies, it entraps you, and enslaves you to do the devil’s bidding (cf. 1 Tim 1:20).
How exactly does false teaching do all these? Think of it this way. Every doctrine, whether true or false, cannot stand on its own for long. Doctrines must be situated in a worldview, a grand story of the world, and a system of thought encompassing all your life. When you believe a plausible lie (that’s what false teaching is—a plausible lie), your natural tendency is to become more consistent. You will tend in the direction of bringing all your thoughts, values, practices, and relationships into conformity with any new teaching you adopt. That is how false teaching spreads like gangrene. When you conform toward consistency with a lie, you will start to believe other lies that are consistent with the first one. And they have to be lies, because the truth will never agree with a lie. So as truth is slowly expunged from your belief system, truth will begin to look less true to you—more like a lie. When you eventually come to the place where lies are your truth and the truth are lies, then you’re effectively ignorant of the truth. But the damage doesn’t stop there. Even though you’re ignorant you don’t feel ignorant. Rather you feel enlightened compared to all who don’t see things according to your new viewpoint. This feeds your intellectual and spiritual pride, puffing you up and dulling your senses to the fact that you’re really trapped by a lie. “If I’m right where so many others are wrong then I must be pretty smart!” At this stage you cannot get out of the false teaching because you don’t want to get out. “After all,” you think, “why would I want to go back to the way the unenlightened masses believe? I can’t. I won’t.” And so the devil has you exactly where he wants you. Locked in a cage and happy to serve your captor. That’s how the disease of false teaching progressively destroys you. While God’s gift of repentance is ultimately the only cure for this disease, the Bible also contains practical instruction on how to handle the threat before it infects you.
The Remedy for False Teaching
Neutralize error by way of isolation (vv. 14, 16, 23-26)
Reject foolish and ignorant speculations (v. 23). If it is not consistent with what the Bible plainly teaches and with what the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church has received and taught, then don’t entertain the idea. Don’t question orthodoxy to consider speculations. Don’t give it your time or attention. Don’t even make it an option. Someone will object, “Why not take an honest look?” To which I simply reply, “That’s surely what Adam and Eve thought.”
Avoid entanglement in godless arguments about words (vv. 14, 16). One time I found myself in what I thought was an honest theological discussion with a hyper-preterist about Paul’s term “spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44). I turned to this key verse which proves the Bible teaches the doctrine of a future physical bodily resurrection. But it didn’t convince him because he bought in to a unorthodox alternative interpretation. It wasn’t long before our banter sank into a childish “Yes it does, No it doesn’t” back-and-forth. A quarrel about words had erupted, it went nowhere, and did no good. I felt like Elmer Fudd (“Wabbit season, Duck season!”) and an irreverent babbler for being dragged into such godless chatter.
Correct those trapped with gentleness (vv. 24-26). Wisdom teaches when to stay and correct a quarrelsome person, and when to flee so as not be become quarrelsome yourself. The biblical guideline is correct an error twice, then neutralize through isolation (Tit 3:10-11). Even so, the Lord’s servant must be kind to all, able to teach, and longsuffering by gently correcting opponents. Why? Because gentleness plows the heart and sows seeds of repentance. If you truly desire the unteachable to change their minds and conform their behavior to the truth of God, then you must gently lead them to the stream of repentance. Only God can make your opponents bow down to drink, but you can lead them there with a gentle touch (2 Cor 10:1; Gal 6:1; Eph 4:2; 1 Pet 3:15). Reject, avoid, and correct are reactive instructions for how to handle false teaching. But is there any way to be proactive to minimize this ubiquitous threat?
Cultivate godliness in community (vv. 15, 19-22)
Handle the Bible in a straightforward, honest manner (v. 15). “Rightly handling” renders in English the meaning of a figure of speech in the Greek. It literally says something like “guide along a straight path” or “cut a straight road.” The KJV translates it “rightly dividing” as it tries to convey the image of cutting a straight path between one place and another, not meandering out of the way to confuse God’s people or make God’s straight ways crooked (Prov 3:6; 11:5; Acts 13:10). This implies a straightforward interpretation, reading the meaning out of the text, not creatively inserting a desired meaning into the text. Paul charges preachers and teachers to do our best so that when the Lord inspects our work, we will be approved and not ashamed.
In order to cultivate godliness, your task as the congregation is to hold us accountable by making sure we preach and teach the Bible faithfully, clearly, and with integrity. In order to discharge your responsibility well, first you must value handling the Bible in a straightforward, honest manner, and second you must also do it yourself. Always remember that the worst kind of false teaching—the kind that is first tolerated, then accepted, and finally overruns and usurps churches—usually originates in the leadership. For example, if a seminary begins to disseminate false teaching, its students become pastors who make false disciples in the church. But if a church body knows how to rightly handle the Bible through years of being taught by unashamed and approved workmen, then she will be able to quickly recognize and handle counterfeits.
Apostatize from strong sinful yearnings for holy usefulness (vv. 19-21). Read the seal on God’s firm foundation in verse 19. It contains two loose quotations from Numbers 16 where Korah’s rebellion is narrated. If you don’t remember the story, Korah draws many disgruntled Israelites to himself to challenge Moses’s authority. The two factions decide to put the Lord to the test to see which group was set apart—made holy—in God’s sight. Then God makes his choice clear when an earthquake swallows up Korah and his followers because they didn’t repent of their rebellion. That story is the source for the words on the seal: “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” The Greek word for “depart” or “withdraw” is aposteto, from which we get the word “apostasy.” It conjures up a jarring image for English speakers because we rightly consider apostasy a blasphemous sin. To apostatize is for a once-professing believer to deny the Lord who died for him and depart from the faith. It is an unthinkable sin for Christians. With that in mind, consider that one of the mottos of the church—inscribed on her foundation—is we all must apostatize…from sin! We must set ourselves apart as honorable vessels for holy usefulness by blaspheming our strong sinful yearnings. We must thoroughly betray them to be clean, pure, and useful vessels in the Master’s hand. Only by apostatizing from sin will you be ready for every good work. If you don’t, the strong implication from the seal’s motto is that your end will be the same as Korah and his followers. Make sure you apostatize to the right side! OK, so how do you apostatize from sin?
Pursue the pure fruit of the Spirit (v. 22). Paul exhorts Timothy, who is a relatively young pastor, to flee youthful passions and pursue the fruit of the Spirit in community. It is not obvious what exactly these “youthful passions” are until we consider the positive virtues upheld. Righteousness, faith, love, peace, kindness, longsuffering, gentleness. You pursue these first by running away from their corresponding vices: injustice, unbelief, hatred, apathy, contentiousness, cruelty, impatience, and harshness—all sins that are characteristic of (but certainly not limited to) the young and immature. If you run away from these works of the flesh and actively run after the fruit of the Spirit, then you’ll be a lot more like God. You will reflect your Maker. You will image him. Now, imagine if an entire community of godly people lived this way. Wouldn’t it be a little like heaven on earth where God’s teachings are believed and lived in holiness?
That of course is God’s purpose—to bring heaven down to earth. That is why he sent his son Jesus, the good Teacher who conquered false teaching. Think of how he applied the remedy. With the Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the law who made it a practice to quarrel about words and stir up foolish controversies, Jesus didn’t give them an inch. He rejected their ignorant interpretations, he corrected their errors at teachable moments, but mostly he avoided them. By doing so he put them on the outside of his church. To return to God they had to repent and believe his teaching, which meant they had to believe in him as not merely the true Teacher, but also as their Savior and Lord. It is the same today. False teachers and their doctrines are everywhere, and you need to vigilantly be on your guard, but the Lord knows those who are his. “Though with a scornful wonder the world see her oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed, yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up: “How long?” and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.” [from the hymn The Church’s One Foundation]
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7 False Teachers in the Church Today, by Tim Challies