Why would a man, professing to be a teacher of God's word, say that? He sought to convince people that false teaching is not a great danger: The Bible does not warn against it often so it we don't need to be very concerned about it. You might see it occasionally, but not very often.
Why would someone want us to believe that? He advocated overlooking most points of disagreement about Scripture and fellowshiping people who are involved in obvious religious error.
This idea has many labels: "ecumenism," "political correctness," etc. People defend it by saying we should not "judge" others but should have a spirit of love and be more Christ-like, etc. The basic idea is that we should achieve fellowship among various groups by compromise: i.e., by ignoring differences in doctrine and practice. They say we should oppose immorality, hypocrisy, or open denial of God, etc. But we should not teach that, in order to be acceptable to God, people must repent of errors in worship or religious practices. As long as they sincerely seek to worship God, we should fellowship them.
A fundamental plank in this platform is the doctrine that false teaching is not very serious, so we do not need to be very concerned about it.
Surely we must agree that we should not condemn practices that harmonize with God's will. But the question is: Should we view false teaching as a serious threat, or should we tone down our opposition to it and seek unity based on compromise with those whose practices cannot be found in Scripture? Does the Bible contain many warnings against false teaching, or is it a minor concern rarely mentioned?
Consider the following Bible teachings:
Is it true that false teaching is rarely discussed in Scripture, or are there many passages that mention it?
This is the one passage that expressly mentions "false teachers."
Vv 1,2 - There will be false teachers today just as there were false prophets in Israel. They bring destructive heresies, cause destruction, and many follow their error. They forsake the right way and go astray (v15). Those who follow their error would be better to have never known the truth (vv 20-22).
This may be the only passage that technically uses the words "false teacher," nevertheless this passage itself shows it is a serious problem. The context discusses the problem for an entire chapter and gives a stinging rebuke. It warns that "many" will be led astray by false teachers. But it is not the only passage on the subject! Note: "False teachers" are called "false prophets" (v1).
Beware of false prophets, who are wolves in sheep's clothing. Many people who follow their teachings will think they are pleasing to God, but will be rejected because they have not done His will (vv 21-23).
Note that these false teachers come in disguise. They do not appear to be false teachers. V21 shows that they don't necessarily deny Christ: they call Him "Lord, Lord." They appear to be "sheep," not "wolves"; they appear to be godly, sincere, good moral people. But they teach enough error to cause people to be lost.
This passage uses the phrase "false prophet," instead of "false teacher," but it shows that false teaching is a serious problem. Jesus expressly warned us to be on guard for it; He said false teachers will be hard to recognize, and that "many" will be rejected because of their influence. Doesn't that sound serious?
False apostles are deceitful workers who pretend to be apostles of Jesus. They are like Satan himself, who pretends to be an angel of light. One reason false teaching is so dangerous is that it is deceitful; numerous passages warn about this danger.
Before I make any major purchase, I like to go on the Internet and read product reviews written by people who have actually bought the item. You may read something like: "This product consists of cheap materials assembled by shoddy workmanship. It is sure to break within a month, and then you will learn that the company does not stand behind its warranty. In short, it is a lousy product and you would be better off buying a different brand." Obviously, such reviews must be taken with a grain of salt; the reviewer may have gotten a lemon or may have ulterior motives, etc.
But when you shop in a store, would you find such a label attached to a product? Who would buy it? Even if they knew it to be true, neither the manufacturer nor the store would admit it.
The same is true of false teaching. If it came clearly labeled as error, who would buy it? So, Satan's favorite trick is to disguise false teaching and make it appear as truth.
V3 illustrates this. Satan led Eve to sin by deceiving her. (See notes below.) The first sin resulted from deception, and Satan has used that technique ever since. He makes counterfeits that fool people because they are so much like what God made, and he promotes them by men who seem to be so godly, but there is just enough error to cause people to be lost (Matt. 15:14).
Again, this passage does not use the words "false teacher." It uses "false apostle." But who could deny that it is intended to show the serious danger of false teaching?
The Spirit expressly warns that some will fall away from the faith and speak lies and doctrines of demons. This includes doctrines such as forbidding marriage, commanding to abstain from meats, etc.
A person does not have to be an openly immoral rebel to teach such doctrines. He might claim to believe in God and the Bible and live a decent, moral life. He could be a hypocrite, but a hypocrite is a deceiver: he fools people to think that he is upright and godly when he is not. So those who believe his teaching may be honest, sincere people who have been deceived.
That is the danger of false teaching.
The time will come when men will not endure sound doctrine, but will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts, and will turn aside from truth to fables. So he charged faithful teachers to preach the truth and rebuke such errors.
The passage does not mention the words "false teachers," but who can deny that it discusses the subject and shows that it is a serious problem?
Do not believe every spirit, but put them to the test, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This warning about false prophets expressly says it is a common problem: there are "many" false prophets.
If you only consider the exact phrase "false teacher," then it is technically correct to say the expression is used only once. But the statement itself illustrates the kind of deceitful half-truths that all these passages have been warning about, because there are many, many passages that warn against the concept of false teaching; they simply use other phrases to describe it.
[Galatians 1:6-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12; Matt. 24:11,24; Acts 20:29,30; Col. 2:8; Tit. 1:9-14; 3:10,11; Eph. 4:14; 5:6; 2 Pet. 3:15,16; 1 Cor. 4:6; Lam. 2:14; Zech. 10:2; 1 Tim. 6:20,21; 6:5; 1:3; Luke 6:26; Deut. 18:20; Heb. 13:9; Rom. 16:17,18; James 5:19,20; Psa. 119:118]
The Bible not only expressly warns us of the danger of false teaching, it also gives us many examples that demonstrate the consequences of accepting error. Note that many of these teachers were not immoral reprobates who openly denied the existence of God. And in most cases the people who followed the false teachers were neither reprobates nor hypocrites; rather they accepted error because they were deceived by the false teachers.
Eve sinned because she was beguiled or deceived. God said she would die if she ate, but Satan tricked her with the false doctrine that she would not die but would become like God.
Eve was not a hypocrite or moral reprobate, nor did she deny God's existence. She was deceived by a false teacher. Was there no serious consequence in this? Think of all the horrible problems that came into the world - even into your life and mine - as a result of this one act.
Surely this illustrates the serious problems that false teaching can cause.
These men said Israel could not enter Canaan because the people in the land were too great to be defeated. This was simply false: God would have given the power they needed to conquer the land, even as He later did under Joshua. But the people believed this false teaching and refused to enter.
Again, the people where not immoral hypocrites who openly denied God's existence. Yet the consequence was the people wandered forty years in the wilderness till everyone over age twenty died, except the two faithful spies.
Who would deny that this false doctrine had serious consequences?
In the Old Testament, God's faithful prophets often opposed false teachers who attempted to lead God's people into sin.
Jeremiah 23:13-17,21,22,25,26,32 - God said that the prophets spoke by Baal, not what God had told them. They caused the people to err, and encouraged them in sin instead of urging them to repent. They prophesied lies and deceit, and did not profit the people. Why give such a stern rebuke if false teaching is not dangerous?
Ezekiel 13:1-9,22,23 - Prophets spoke from their own hearts, not from God. It was futility and false divination. They grieved the righteous and caused the wicked to continue in sin.
These are just a few of many examples we could examine. Had people of the ecumenical spirit lived in those days, would they have given such firm rebukes to these false teachers or would they have sought to fellowship them despite their false practices? Note that one of God's main objections to false teaching was that it led people to think they could safely continue in their sins instead of warning them to repent. But that is exactly what modern ecumenical teachers do!
[Jeremiah 28:15-17; 1 Kings 12:26-33; Jer. 5:30,31; 27:9,10,14-16; 29:8,9; 14:14; Isa. 30:10.]
Matthew 15:1-9,12-14 - The Pharisees transgressed God's command because of human tradition. Following human commands makes worship vain. Those who follow such teachers, fall into the ditch with the teacher. Jesus believed that following false teaching has serious consequences, so he rebuked the false teachers and told others to "leave them alone."
Mark 12:24,27 - Sadducees refused to believe in the resurrection of the dead. Jesus said they were greatly mistaken not knowing the Scriptures.
These are just a few of many passages where Jesus rebuked the false teaching of Jewish leaders. Note that neither the teaching of the Sadducees nor that of the Pharisees involved immorality nor unbelief in God's existence. And while the teachers themselves may have been hypocrites, the people who followed them were often quite sincere. Yet Jesus rebuked the false teachers and warned people not to follow them.
[See also John 8:43- 47.]
Judaizing teachers taught that people had to be circumcised and keep Old Testament laws to be saved (Acts 15:1,24). Paul said such were false brethren, and he refused to compromise with their teaching for so much as an hour. Those who accepted this false teaching are not obeying truth, but are fallen from grace.
Note again the severe consequences of following false teaching, yet the practice in question was not a matter of immorality, hypocrisy, or unbelief in God's existence (or in Jesus as the Savior, etc.). Would those of the ecumenical spirit oppose such teaching? Compromise is the essence of their view. Yet Paul refused to submit. [cf. 2:11-14.]
Jesus' own statements to the seven churches of Asia include several strong warnings about the danger of false teaching.
2:2 - Ephesus was commended because they put to the test men who claimed to be apostles, and proved they were liars.
2:14-16 - Pergamum was rebuked because they had some there who taught the false doctrine of Balaam and some who held the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which Jesus hated. He said they must repent or He would come and fight against them. Was that doctrine insignificant?
2:20-22 - Thyatira was also rebuked because it allowed a false teacher, Jezebel, to teach and lead people into sin.
These show that God does want us to reject and firmly oppose false teaching. In fact failure to oppose false teaching is itself one of the errors that the Lord firmly rebukes! Many other examples of false teaching can be found in both Old Testament and New Testament.
Honestly, does this sound like false teaching is not a very serious matter? Is it true that there are not many warnings about it in the Bible?
[See also Acts 13:6-12; Jer. 20:6; Amos 2:4; Isa. 9:15,16; 3:12; 1 Kings 13:18; 22:22f; 2 Chron. 33:9; Mic. 3:5; 2 Tim. 2:18; 1 Tim. 1:19,20; Malachi 2:7,8; Zech. 13:3.]
At the root of the problem, why should we be so concerned about false teaching?
When two things are opposites, if I am for one thing, I must be against its opposite. In fact, the stronger I favor something, the stronger I must oppose its opposite.
(1) If I favor a democratic republic, I must oppose dictatorship.
(2) If I favor life, I must oppose death.
(3) If I favor light, I must oppose darkness. The more I value the one, the more I must object to the other.
But error is the opposite of truth. If I appreciate truth, then, I must oppose error. To say that false practices do not matter much, is to necessarily imply that truth does not matter much!
Every passage that emphasizes the importance of truth, simultaneously emphasizes the danger of error. The more I care about truth, the more firmly I will oppose error. So, consider:
Proverbs 23:23 - Buy the truth and sell it not. Truth must be obtained at all costs. Once we have it, we must not surrender it for any price. Nothing is more valuable than truth. But if we really care about truth, then we must firmly object to accepting error.
John 8:31,32 - To be free from sin (v34) so we can be Jesus' disciples, we must know and abide in the truth. What if we do not know the truth, but abide in error? Then we are not Jesus' disciples; we are servants of sin.
James 3:17 - Wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable. Peace is so important that we should never sacrifice it for the sake of our own stubborn opinions or personal preferences. Yet important as peace is, purity in doctrine and practice is even more important.
The ecumenical spirit says that we should be first peaceable, but don't worry much about purity. God's word says to be first pure, then peaceable.
Jude 3 - Earnestly contend for the faith that was once delivered to the saints. But to contend for the faith absolutely requires us to oppose false teaching, because it contradicts the faith (cf. Eph. 4:3-6).
Psalms 119:104,105 - If we consider God's precepts to be right, then we must hate every false way. You cannot support truth without opposing error.
2 John 9-11 - If we do not abide in Jesus' teachings, we do not have God. If we want to have God, we must abide in His teachings, and this requires us to refuse to fellowship those who bring other teachings.
The problem with false teaching is that it contradicts truth and leads people away from God's will. When a person belittles the danger of error, he is also belittling the value of truth. So the real reason why we ought to be concerned about false teaching is that we care about truth. And the reason we care about truth is that we care about God and other people. We want to please God by following His will and helping other people do the same.
[John 4:23,24; Rom. 2:6-11; 1 Pet. 1:22-25; Rom. 16:17,18]
One of the surest ways to become a victim of false doctrine is to think that it is not dangerous and you don't need to be concerned about it.
When someone tells you that false teaching is not a big problem and you don't need to be very concerned about it, he is teaching you a false doctrine when he says it! And it is just a matter of time before he will try to get you to accept other false teachings! Not every false teacher will belittle the danger of false teaching. But anytime a man does tell you that false teachers are not a serious danger, you can be sure he is telling you that either because he is a false teacher or because he is under the influence of false teachers!
How can we escape the danger of false teaching?
(1) Love the truth. We have seen that the people who are most likely to accept error are the people who are not sufficiently dedicated to the truth.
(2) Study God's word diligently. The way to recognize error is to compare it to the truth (Acts 17:11; 2 Tim. 2:15; 3:16,17).
(3) Honestly examine every doctrine and practice before we accept it (2 Cor. 13:5).
(4) Let God's word be the standard for all our spiritual decisions (Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Tim. 3:16,17; Matt. 15:9; 2 John 9; etc.)
What about you and me? Do we care about truth? Do we care enough to study diligently, remove error from our lives, and serve God faithfully? If you know the truth about becoming a Christian, have you obeyed it? Are you living a faithful life as a Christian?
Copyright 1991, 2009, David E. Pratte
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Divine Authority vs. Human Authority in Religion
Why So Much Religious Confusion and Disagreement?
The Importance of Bible Knowledge
Tradition as Religious Authority
The Inspiration of the Bible
Emotions in Authority and Worship
Can We Understand the Bible?
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.