False Teachers; Impure Motives or Impure Doctrines?

by Tim Haile

     It is difficult for me to believe that some brethren are having trouble understanding what a "false teacher" is. It is my studied conclusion that there is an agenda behind the present effort to redefine what a false teacher is. Many brethren refuse to accept the biblical definition and application because they are more interested in maintaining positive earthly friendships with known errorists. This is to their shame. Friendship with the world (and its soul-damning doctrines) is enmity against God (James 4:4). We need to cultivate the same attitude towards error that David had. He said, "Through thy precepts I get understanding, therefore I hate every false way" (Psalm 119:104). The argument is frequently made that when the word "false" is used in reference to a teacher, it only addresses his motives and character and doesn't really have to do with the error he teaches.

     The Bible does teach that false motives often stand behind false teaching. I don't think anyone would deny such. Jesus spoke of "false prophets" in Matthew 7:15, and He said, "inwardly they are ravenous wolves." Paul said Elymas the sorcerer was "full of subtlety and mischief" when he sought to "turn the deputy from the faith" (Acts 13:8-10).

     These verses do prove that some false teachers have impure motives, but the question is, what makes one a false teacher? Does the Bible call one a false teacher solely on the basis of his impure motives and insincerity? Does the Bible refer to one as a false teacher even though he has never taught one word of false doctrine? In this study we shall see that the Bible uses the word false in connection with speech and actions. Jesus did not say we would know one's fruits by his character. He said we can know one's character by his fruits (Matthew 7:16). We can only make righteous judgments about a person based upon his words and deeds (John 7:24; I Corinthians 2:11).

     There are four possible combinations of attitudes and teaching:

     (1) One may sincerely preach the truth in love (Philippians 1:17; Ephesians 4:15). This is the combination that most pleases God.

     (2) One may preach the truth, but do so with impure or false motives (Philippians 1:18). In this combination, the insincere teacher jeopardizes his own salvation, but the truth he is teaching will save others. Paul rejoiced when the truth was taught, even if the teacher's motives were wrong (Philippians 1:18).

     (3) One may teach error with a pure and sincere conscience. Apollos is a classic example of this combination (Acts 18:24-28). He taught the wrong baptism, but when the truth was pointed out by Aquila and Priscilla, he conformed his teaching to the truth. His repentance reflected the sincerity of his heart in wanting to be right.

     (4) One may teach error with intent to deceive his hearers. In Ephesians 4:14, Paul spoke of some who would combine every wind of doctrine with trickery, craftiness, and deceitful scheming in order to mislead ungrounded and unsuspecting Christians.

     Some would insist that the teachers in this last catagory are the only ones deserving of the designation "false teacher." However, we shall soon see that the Bible uses the word "false" to describe one whose words and/or actions are false. Let us examine the passages that are often misused to teach that the word "false" modifies the teacher rather than what he teaches.

     Galatians 2:4 has been used by some to make this argument because it speaks of "false brethren who sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ." Who were these "false brethren?" Were they false just because they were "sneaky?" Were they "false" just because they had false motives? No, Paul does not label these brethren as false because of their sneaky disposition. Paul is referring to their subtle and crafty methods. He has reference to their false teaching which sought to subjugate its adherents and lead them from the liberty that is in Christ (Galatians 5:1). These brethren may have had false motives, but Paul did not refer to them as false on that basis. They were false in their teaching and practices.

     Paul had encountered false brethren on many occasions, but the ones in Galatians 2 are well documented. No honest Bible student would even try to deny the connection between Acts 15 and Galatians 2. Galatians 2:1 points back to Acts 15 in our Bibles. Let us rid ourselves of whatever preconceptions we may have, and allow the Holy Spirit to tell us who these brethren were and why they were called "false." Luke recorded, "And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved," and "But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses" (Acts 15:1,5). These "false brethren" were brethren who taught false doctrine!

     These brother's motives and attitudes may have also been bad, but that is not the sin that the Holy Spirit charged them with. Paul identified these as false brethren exclusively on the basis of their false teaching. The Bible says they were wrong because they were binding circumcision and the keeping of the law of Moses. It is very possible that some of these false brethren were like Paul (formerly called Saul), and were honestly mistaken about the application of the law of Moses (Acts 23:1). We cannot judge motives. It is God who "knows the heart" and it is Christ who "searches the mind" (Acts 15:8; Rev. 2:23). We are only qualified to judge a man's fruits. We do this by considering his words and deeds, and it was on this basis that Paul referred to the Judaizers as "false brethren."

     What about the "false apostles" of 2 Corinthians 11:13? Were they just apostles with an attitude problem? Were they called "false" just because they were disingenuous or had insincere motives? The answer is given just a few verses earlier in 2 Corinthians 11:4. Paul said, "For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him." The NASB says, "you bear this beautifully." What were these "false apostles" guilty of? Paul said they "preached another Jesus and another gospel!" They were "false" because of what they taught. It was not their motives and attitudes that were discussed and condemned, it was their teaching.

     The Bible also speaks of "false witnesses." What makes a false witness? Is one a false witness just because he is of the character that he might falsify testimony? What if he just thought about giving false testimony? Would that make him a false witness? What does the Bible say? This is not very complicated. One is a false witness if he gives false testimony. Paul and other apostles would have qualified as "false witnesses" had they "testified" falsely concerning the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:15). According to Deuteronomy 19:18, a false witness is one who "testifies against a man that which is wrong." J. H. Thayer defines it as "to utter falsehoods in giving testimony, to testify falsely." (Lexicon, page 676). One of the ten commandments was, "Thou shalt not bear false witness" (Ex. 20:16). This is a command against misrepresentation and falsification of the facts. Just as one becomes a false witness by giving false testimony, he becomes a false teacher by teaching that which is false! These truths are not difficult to understand, but they may be difficult to apply.

     Should we make a different application of the word "false" when applied to a prophet or teacher? Some say one can only be called a false teacher if he has false motives or bad attitudes. The Bible says a "false prophet" is one who prophesies falsely. Jeremiah made this very clear. He said, "A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land; The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?" (Jeremiah 5:30-31). God later described how He was "against the prophets" because they "prophesy false dreams" and "cause my people to err by their lies" (Jeremiah 23:30-32). In Jeremiah 29:6, God said the prophets and diviners "prophesy falsely in my name." Those who did so were called "false prophets." These prophets would be included in the "false prophets" that Peter mentioned in II Peter 2:1. He mentioned that just as there were false prophets among the people, there shall also be "false teachers" among you. It is certainly true that false teachers and false prophets often have impure motives, but since the Bible applies the word "false" to teachers and prophets based upon what they teach rather than why they teach it, one may be a false teacher while having perfect motives!

     The same is true with the "false Christs" of Matthew 24:24. Jesus said, "For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect." The false Christs of this passage are described as those who attempt to deceive people by their false claims and actions. Jesus did not say these people were false in their attitudes and character. How could that be a threat to the elect? How could one be decieved into losing his faith by the mere insincerity of another? He said they made false claims and worked false miracles! As in the other examples of false individuals, the motives and intentions of the false Christs may have been bad. But we must understand that the Bible does not label one as being false strictly on the basis of his motives, intentions, and attitudes. The Bible says one who persists in teaching false doctrine is a "false teacher." I make no apology for what God's holy word teaches.

Tim Haile
7693 Russellville Rd.
Bowling Green, KY 42101

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