Danger of False Teachers
You may or may not know that I’m involved in the area of apologetics. If you are not familiar with apologetics, it is about providing reasons for holding to the Christian faith. It often includes a defence against attacks on the faith. To some, that might seem like a distraction from pastoring. But I have learned differently.
While I had some interest in apologetics before becoming a pastor, my involvement really took off when I became a pastor. I would go as far as to say that I am an apologist because I am a pastor. Here is my story.
When I was at my previous church, I lived in the same town as a well known religion writer. He had just written a best seller that claimed that Jesus never existed and that the Gospels were based on pagan myths. There was a picture of him in the local paper sitting in a church with stained glass windows, claiming that Jesus never existed. People in our town, including people in our church, were very upset. I remember one man in his 90s coming to me after one Sunday service. He was red in the face and shaking with anger. He handed me every newspaper clipping he had on this author and asked me, “What are we going to do about this man?” One of my deacons came to me, equally upset, and asked why the clergy were not responding. I had talked to one of the other local pastors and he had strongly urged that we not respond. He felt we should just not get involved.
I don’t actually like confrontation, but as a pastor I felt I had to do something. I ended up co-writing a book responding to that author. Before the book came out I planned a Saturday morning talk at our church. There was a blizzard that weekend and I showed up just to let the one or two people know t was cancelled. Fifty people showed up to hear the talk.
I had an individual show up in my church office who confessed that he had almost given up on the faith after reading that other author’s book. Then he read our book and felt his confidence in Christianity was being rebuilt. It was all worth it.
I want you to know that I didn’t hate the man who wrote that book. I had coffee with him and we had a pleasant conversation. In fact one of the main criticisms we received for our book is that we were too nice. I was fine with that criticism.
The reason we wrote the book was not to attack a man but to respond to ideas. We were convinced that there is such a thing as truth and that what he was presenting was false teaching. This was something not just affecting scholars but people in the pews.
False Teaching in the Early Church
What I’m talking about is not new. It goes back to the very beginning of Christianity. Jesus not only preached the truth, he was the truth. But the truth scares people and so people try to change the truth, to make it more comfortable and more controllable,
The passage we read is from one of what is called the pastoral epistles. That should give some indication of how relevant this is. Second Timothy is probably the last letter that Paul ever wrote. He wrote it to one of his close friends. Imagine if you knew you were about to die and didn’t have much time to say what you wanted to say. What would you want to tell those close to you? For Paul it was about the dangers of false teachers. We was concerned about how this would affect Timothy and so he warned his friend to be watching. I find it interesting that this is what he said immediately before stating that he is close to death. The very next verse after this warning talks about Paul’s impending death. This tells us something about how important this was for Paul.
We learn two things about false teaching from Paul’s words. One is that there will always be people who will offer false teaching and there will always be people who will listen to it. False teachers have a variety of motives. Some know it is wrong but are greedy. Others are sincerely mistaken. Either way, their teaching is dangerous. If your doctor gives you the wrong medical treatment, even if he sincerely believes it will work, your health will still suffer. Good intentions do not make it better. And there will always be people ready to listen to these teachings. In the early church false teachings ranged from those who thought Jesus was only a man with no divine nature to those who thought he was only divine and had no human body. What false teachings do is to provide a religious buffet. People can pick and choose what they like or dislike. Instead of beginning with what is absolutely true, they begin with what fits their preferences. This is the world that Paul and Timothy lived in and it is the same for us today.
False Teaching and the Modern Church
While this kind of talk seems right up my alley, I actually was hesitant to speak on it. It is not that I don’t have strong feelings about it as I do. But rather I have seen the dangers of what I call “heretic hunting.” A heretic is someone who embraces and teaches unorthodox theology. However that is not how it is always used today. The label heretic is often thrown around at people you don’t like or who overemphasize our underemphasize certain parts of the faith. Some of the most respected leaders in evangelical Christianity have been labelled as heretics by other evangelical Christians. I will sometimes challenge the heretic hunters by asking what essential Christian doctrine they have denied and yet the problem is always with a secondary issue. I have a problem with labelling a fellow Christian a heretic, even though they hold to orthodox theology, just because we don’t like them and heretic is the harshest insult.
Having said that, I have already argued that false teaching must be responded to. I think to do that we have to decide what we are going to defend. One of my favourite apologists is C.S. Lewis and I think one of the reasons he was effective is that he didn’t try to defend a narrow interpretation of Christianity. He argued for something called Mere Christianity. Obviously there are different interpretations among the variety of Christian denominations. But there is a core faith that is common to us all. Once we get past differences in worship styles, means of baptism and role of spiritual gifts, there is a basic Christian faith. This is Mere Christianity and it is what we should defend. It includes things like belief in the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, death and bodily resurrection of Jesus and salvation by faith.
Going back to my experience with that religion author. I didn’t want to go after another person, especially one who lived in the same community as me. But, despite having once been an ordained minister and seminary professor, he was teaching that Jesus never existed. If belief is not an essential doctrine of Christianity, I don’t know what is.
That is why we need to understand our own faith and to be able to recognize false teaching when we see it. Many years ago, my mother took some money out of the bank using a teller. She was spending her twenty dollar bills until she was stopped by a person at a convenience store. The money was counterfeit. Somehow the details got past the teller but were noticed by the convenience store clerk. Would we be able to recognize a spiritual counterfeit? I once heard a Christian radio station promoting the official Christian Science website as an inspiring place to find testimonies of healings. They did not know that Christian Science is not a part of historical Christianity and that it promotes false teachings. We must be aware.
So should Christians be concerned about false teachings? Absolutely. Christianity is a religion of truth. Our Jesus claims to be the truth. We want our doctors and airplane pilots to operate according to truth and not just personal preference. Our faith needs to be true.
False teachers have always been around and always will be. A false teacher is not just someone who has made a mistake interpreting the Bible. Do we really believe that every one of our interpretations is correct? A false teacher is one who promotes doctrines that go against the essentials of the Christian faith, that go against Mere Christianity.
This is what we need to know. We need to know what we believe. We need to be able to recognize false teaching when we see it. And we need to respond appropriately, which is with truth and love. Never attack the person, always respond to the idea.