Associate Editorial

Identifying False Teachers
(Is 2 Peter 2 the Only Passage to Consider?)

Throughout the ebb and flow of inspired history, men have been pulled in separate directions in their religious beliefs by their teachers. "How shall I, unless someone shall guide me?" was the response of the Ethiopian to Phillip when asked, "Understandest thou what thou readest?" (Acts 8:30-31). On this occasion, the teacher was a man true to God who led the Ethiopian into the truth about Jesus Christ and who baptized him into the Lord.

Others have not been so fortunate. From time immemorial, other teachers have been as Balaam (Nu. 22; 31:16; 2 Pt. 2:15; Rev. 2:14) who taught Israel to sin. False teachers are legion.

Jesus confronted those of his day who placed their traditions on the same par with God's word: "In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Mt. 15:9). These commandments were identified on one occasion as the "doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (Mt. 16:12).

The Hebrew writer warned that we should not be "carried about with various and strange doctrines" (13:9)

Even today, false doctrines abound and have their advocates. Paul warned that "perverse things" would be taught, even within the church by its leaders (Acts 20:30). The "winds of doctrine" of which he warned in Ephesians 4:14 have not diminished in all the centuries that followed inspiration. Encompassing both past and future, Peter warned "But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies..." (2 Pt. 2:1).

However the counterfeit does not supplant the true. Just as false gods do not inveigh against Jehovah, the living God, false doctrines do not supplant the word of God. "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word shall not pass away" (Mt. 24:35). The word of God "liveth and abideth forever" (1 Pet. 1:23).

The first century church avoided apostasy so long as it "abided in the apostles' doctrine" (Acts 2:42), which was the apostles’ witness and preaching about Jesus. They were accused of filling Jerusalem with "your doctrine" (Acts 5:28) which is identified as "the words of life" (v. 20), "in his name" (v. 28). John further identified what they taught as the "doctrine of Christ" (2 Jn. 9-11) and warned that we must not "go beyond." The apostle Paul warned the Romans to "mark them that are causing the divisions and occasions of stumbling, contrary to the doctrine which ye learned, and turn away from them" (16:17 ASV).

Now We Have A Problem!
How Do We Recognize False Doctrine?

If we are to be held accountable for accepting or rejecting false doctrines, how can we be sure which they are? Shall we know intuitively which is right and which is wrong? Is there an "office of orthodoxy" which stamps its imprimatur upon a canon? Are there certain colleges or papers that have the power to speak for God in such matters? Does a cult leader have inside information about truth? Does the Holy Spirit whisper a soft confirmation into each heart? No, to each of these. Since New Testament Christianity is a brotherhood of saints who answers to Christ and no earthly headquarters, we cannot pass responsibility to any man or group of men to identify truth for us. Each of us is responsible directly to God for knowing and understanding truth.

"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free" (Jn. 8:32). "Hereby, when you read, you may perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ" (Eph. 3:4). "Be not foolish, but understand the will of the Lord" (5:17). "If anyone wants to do his will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on my own authority" (Jn. 7:17).

Thus, the true doctrine of Christ is knowable.

Likewise, the true doctrine of Christ is identifiable, as distinct from that which is false. This fact addresses the nature of truth. "God is light and in him is no darkness at all" (1 Jn. 1:5). "I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth" (2:21). Truth takes its nature from him who gave it and is antithetical to error. "Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth" (Jn. 17:17). Also, Christians are able to recognize truth so as to "walk in truth" (2 Jn. 4:1; 3 Jn. 3-4) as we distinguish it from darkness (1 John 1:6-7).


Truth is teachable, as when it was first revealed. In the parable of the sower, truth is called the "seed, the word of God" (Lk. 8:11). God's law of nature (which applies to the animal, vegetable, human and spiritual worlds) is that like begets like, "according to its kind" (Gen. 1:21). When the word of God (the seed) is planted in the hearts of honest men and women, the result will be taught citizens in the kingdom (James 1:21; Heb. 8:10-11; 1 Pet. 1:22-23). The Great Commission is predicated upon the ability of all men to respond to "teaching" (Mt. 28:18-20).

With these scriptural facts before us, it should be evident that if truth can be known, error can also be known, for error is opposite to truth. If I may know up as distinct from down, cold from hot and light from darkness, I may also know truth from error. Not only so, but God holds us accountable for making that distinction and will judge us on the basis of our relation to truth. "If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth" (1 Jn. 1:6). With animals, what they know must be impressed (we call it instinct) but with man, knowledge must be expressed. God has expressed his truth to man and holds him accountable for either obeying or disobeying through the free will that is given to each of us.

What Relationship Does A False Teacher Sustain to False Doctrine?

It has been said by some that one cannot call a person who teaches error a "false teacher"

If false teachers may only be identified as such when it is proven they are dishonest:

Men Must Be Heart Readers: Dishonesty is not always discernible. Dishonesty is a heart sin and

If it be contended that we are to "judge a tree by its fruit" (Mt. 7:16), it must also be conceded that fruit needs time to ripen. There is not always the occasion and opportunity to allow a man time to expose his evil by the fruit of his heart being matured into action. Given the companion heart sin of hypocrisy, some men may "act out" a life of righteousness for many years while teaching error every day. Likewise, there is the fact that hearts may be self-deceived with the teacher of error believing

Honest Men Could Never Teach False Doctrine: A false teacher is one who teaches false doctrine. Yet, if one cannot be considered a false teacher unless that one is dishonest, honest men could never teach false doctrine. All my life I have opposed the concept that “it doesn’t matter what you believe and teach so long as you honestly believe it.” Are we now to align ourselves with this denominational concept? If an honest man accepts false doctrine, does it make the doctrine right? Are his disciples any less deceived because their teacher is honest? Must we refrain from warning about this teacher of false doctrine because we judge him to be honest?

Is it possible for a man to be honest and teach false doctrine? Let me point you to none other than Saul of Tarsus who became Paul the apostle. Though he asserted his innocence of heart in “all good conscience" (Acts 23:1), he taught that Jesus was a false Christ and imprisoned the saints, consenting to their death. During the time that Saul taught false doctrine about Jesus, Saul was a deceiver, teaching a lie, a "destructive heresy" (2 Pet.2:1). He was a false teacher ("pseudo-didaskalos") by definition. He taught a lie, but Saul was not wilfully a liar! He taught a lie, but he did not intend to do so. Even those whom Saul taught could believe, in all honesty, the lie about Jesus, being deceived. Thus, the Bible informs us that it is false doctrine that is the lie, not necessarily the one who teaches it. The one teaching the false doctrine is, by action and definition, a false teacher even though he may be, himself, deceived.

Likewise, Apollos came to Corinth "knowing only the baptism of John" (Acts 18:24-26). Though mighty in the scriptures, Apollos was a teacher of false doctrine about baptism. It, too, was a destructive heresy which, believed and unrepented of, would condemn. Through the patience of Aquilla and Priscilla, Apollos was led to the truth. Please note that in both these cases they taught error, believing a lie (2 Thes. 2:11; 1 Jn. 2:21), yet were of pure hearts. Objectively, it cannot be sustained that one has to be proven to be dishonest in order to be identified as a false teacher.

Dishonesty Must Be A Trait of Every False Teacher: It has been argued extensively from 2 Peter 2 that a false teacher always must exhibit dishonesty, dissimulation and deceit as personal character traits before he may be identified as a false teacher. Some even contend that it is a sin to call a person a false teacher unless one is personally satisfied as to his dishonesty. But now we have a problem!

Depending on which version of the Bible one reads, there may be twenty characteristics of false teachers listed in 2 Peter 2. Are we now to say that one cannot be called a false teacher unless he exhibits dishonesty, plus: he 1) denies the Lord, 2) causes the truth to be blasphemed, 3) is covetousness, 4) uses deceptive words, 5) is unjust, 6) walks in the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, 7) despises authority, 8) is presumptuous, 9) self-willed, 10) speaks evil of dignitaries, 11) speaks evil of things they do not understand, 12) counts it pleasure to carouse, 13) has eyes full of adultery, 14) cannot cease from sin, 15) beguiles innocent souls, 16) forsakes the right way and goes astray, 17) loves the wages of unrighteousness, 18) speaks great swelling words of emptiness, 19) allures through lusts of the flesh, and 20) promises liberty while being slaves of corruption? By what right do we limit the definition of a false teacher only to one who is dishonest when Peter lists all these characteristics?

But perhaps there is another possibility which we should consider.

Peter is describing the class of false prophets and false teachers of both the past and present (v. 1) who have collectively demonstrated all these sins distributively. There may not have been a single false prophet in the past or false teacher in the present who has been or will be guilty of each and every sin enumerated, but who, together as a class of false prophets and false teachers, have done so. One thing is sure, however. If we are going to limit the use of "false teacher" to those who are dishonest, we must also limit the use to those, and only those, who exhibit all these characteristics. Which, if that is the case, will retire the use of "false teacher" for all time. No one, not one person, can be proven to be guilty of each and every sin that Peter describes.

Why Is A False Teacher False?

Is a false teacher false because he has a character flaw or because what he teaches is false? It is argued that "pseudo," (Gk: "false") when attached to "teacher," "prophet," "brethren," "witness," etc. implies that the teacher is dishonest. This is not true, as we have demonstrated with Paul and Apollos. The same can be demonstrated from some prophets of the Old Testament who, though false prophets, demonstrated a dedication to error that superseded dishonesty. Consider the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 who called on the name of Baal from morning to noon, expecting a miracle. They were zealous, leaping about the altar, cutting themselves with knives until the blood ran. They continued prophesying until the evening oblation, still expecting a miracle, but in vain. These would be included in Peter's class of "false prophets from among the people" but no man can prove them dishonest!

Again, there are other considerations that some may overlook.

All Error is "Pseudo"

"No lie is of the truth" (1 Jn. 2:21). Stating it positively, all error is a lie ("pseudo"). By the very nature of truth and error, any error is a lie and, thereby ("pseudo"), false, deceiving all who believe it. What makes false doctrine false is that it is a lie. What makes a false teacher is that he teaches a lie. He may, or may not be dishonest, personally. As proven above, not every false teacher knows that what he teaches is a lie; not every false teacher is dishonest. With this in mind (that all error is a lie), it must be conceded that the word "pseudo" always refers to a lie. A false prophet, false teacher, false brother, etc., will always be found teaching lies, but he may not know it. False teachers may be ignorant of the truth, self-deceived or, indeed, dishonest. But unless one can read their hearts or stay around them long enough to judge their lives, it cannot proven that they are dishonest and not self-deceived or ignorant.

We have a case in point in 1 John 4:1ff which undergirds these facts. In this instance, John warns that "many false prophets are gone out into the world" (v. 1). But how does he instruct the disciples to discern who they are? Note carefully that he does not say to read their hearts nor wait around for years to judge their fruit. John gives us the inspired answer: "Test the spirits."

But how do we test the prophets? We test them by what they teach! Do they confess that Jesus is come in the flesh? If not, they are false prophets, false teachers. We need to ask false teachers questions about what they believe and teach! Such men taught a lie, but it cannot be demonstrated that they were liars, much less guilty of the 20 other characteristics of which Peter spoke. John says they "speak as of the world and the world hears them" (v. 5). Those who oppose the false prophets are those who "hear" the apostles (v. 6) and receive their "testimony" (v. 14). Thus, testing a false teacher involves comparing what he teaches against what the apostles taught.

Calling One a False Teacher Is Offensive

I wish it were possible to be at peace with all men, but friendship with men is conditional. Paul instructed: “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18). Notice: “If it is possible.” Jesus was the Prince of Peace, yet he offended the Pharisees (Mt. 15:12). It was not possible to be at peace with them and remain at peace with God! He often called the Pharisees “hypocrites” (cf. Mt. 23) and drove the money changers out of the temple (Mt. 21:12). While we must be sharply aware of our responsibility in this matter (“as much as depends on you”), we must not be timid about contending for the faith (Jude 3) and bringing men under the conviction of their sins. No one, not a single disciple of Jesus who is true to the Lord who died for him, enjoys controversy. Only the perverse of heart relish a dispute with denominationalists, much less brethren. Knowing that one of the fruits of the Spirit is peace (Gal. 5:22) and that Christians should be “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3), none of us can remain faithful to God while needlessly striving and carping with one another in a carnal spirit.

As true as all that is, and as admirable is peace among brethren, we must not avoid the opposite fact that is equally valid: we cannot sacrifice truth for the sake of peace. Do we “love the brotherhood” (1 Pt. 2:17)? Yes, a thousand times over. But our love for Christ outweighs even our love for our brethren. Do we need to be reminded that the “agape” love (1 Cor. 13) is an exercise of the mind by which we give to those whom we love what they need? It is not just an emotion which veneers sin and overlooks unrighteousness. Even as Paul taught that “love suffers long and is kind,” he also taught, “love does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth” (13:4, 6). Such a love drove Jesus to the cross, not because we were so lovable, but because our need was so great. “But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Divine love, as demonstrated by God, impels us to follow his example (1 Pt. 2:21) and preach the truth, “rightly dividing” (2 Tim. 2:15) what is needed.

“Give Me Truth”

Brethren, what we need is truth! And that is one thing that a false teacher can never give. They may be simple brethren who are mislead. They may be as honest as Paul and as eloquent as Apollos while they teach lies. They may even “believe the lie” (2 Thes. 2:11), but their faith in a lie does not make it true. For the sake of our own soul’s salvation, and those that hear us, we must be found teaching truth and exposing error. This is the burden and joy of being a child of God.

As Bill Crews, evangelist from Baton Rouge, LA, so well put it:

"If you are my friend, if you are concerned about my soul, give me the truth. Do not flatter me. Do not praise my virtues while remaining silent about my vices. Do not fear that the truth will offend me. Do not treasure our friendship, our friendly relations, above my salvation. Do not think that being blind to my sins will prove yourself charitable. However I may react to it, whatever may be my attitude toward you after you have done it, give me the truth. For the truth, and only the truth, can make me free from the shackles of sin, strengthen me in the pathway of righteousness and led me to the joys of heaven. If I am wavering, weak, lukewarm, indifferent, neglectful; if I have been overtaken in a trespass; if I have left my first love; if I have been led astray by error; or if I have done none of these, but simply need to grow in knowledge and to be edified; give me the truth."

Email Tom Roberts

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