By George W. Sarris
I had the sad experience recently of having a dear friend who I have known well for over a dozen years come up to me at a conference where I was speaking to inform me that, in essence, he didn’t want to be my friend anymore. His reason? He has concluded that I am a “false teacher” who is leading people astray by my blog posts and a yet-to-be published book addressing the issue of ultimate destinies.
He informed me that he had written to the person in charge of the conference to express his concerns and urge that I not be allowed to address those assembled. He also told me that he would continue to follow that practice whenever he heard that I was going to speak somewhere.
Tears actually began to form in my eyes as my friend left, specifically requesting that I not communicate with him anymore. It’s one thing to have people you don’t know - and who don’t really know you – call you a heretic or a false teacher and tell you to take a walk. It’s quite another to have someone you know well do the same thing.
Neither my friend’s words nor the spirit in which they were communicated motivated me to change my beliefs. Those of you who have read some of the comments on my blog posts know that my friend is not the only one who has called my character into question. However, his words did make me think.
What Characterizes False Teachers?
Both Paul (I Timothy 1) and Peter (II Peter 2) expressly warn us to stay away from false teachers. Jesus (Matthew 7) told us to watch out for ravenous wolves who dress in sheep’s clothing. But, what exactly is it that makes someone a true “false teacher?”
Are Calvinists false teachers because their theological understanding of God’s sovereignty and grace differs from that of Arminians? Are Baptists heretics because they disagree with their Presbyterian friends about the mode or age at which people should be baptized? Are Charismatics really wolves in sheep’s clothing because they disagree with non-Charismatics about whether or not the gifts of the Spirit are relevant to life today? Are Pre-Millennial, Amillennial, or Post-Millennial Christians false prophets because they disagree with each other on end times prophecy?
False teachers are deceptive in their dealings.
It would seem reasonable from a quick look at the actual phrase itself to expect false teachers to teach something that is false. Peter pointed out that the false teachers he was referring to lied by exploiting others with stories they have made up. Wolves who come to you in sheep’s clothing are seeking to deceive those they are preying upon.
Jim Jones comes quickly to mind as someone in the religious world who lied about who he was and what he taught. He deceived great numbers of followers.
In contrast, Calvinists and Arminians, Baptists and Presbyterians, Charismatics and non-Charismatics, and end times prophets who differ with one another do not generally lie to their followers about what Scripture actually says. Rather, they each look at the text and come to different conclusions. They definitely believe their theological opponents are mistaken, but they don’t usually see them as being deceitful. As a result, they don’t generally call each other heretics or false teachers.
In my particular situation, it has been my goal to point out truth. In a recent blog post, for example, I noted that the original NIV translators inappropriately used the word “hell” to translate the Greek word “hades” in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and that those same translators never translated hades that way anywhere else in Scripture. I didn’t lie. I didn’t seek to deceive my readers. I stated the truth. And, in fact, the 2011 revision of the NIV actually corrected the error. With regard to my friend’s correspondence with the leadership of the conference where I was speaking, it had no effect because I had already informed them of my views when they first contacted me.
False teachers are interested in profits.
The false teachers Peter speaks of are greedy for gain. They follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness.
I have known – or known of – those within the religious community who have been motivated to a great degree by a desire to make money. Some have built large empires that later collapsed when fraudulent fundraising and accounting practices were exposed.
My motivation for writing my book and blog posts has not been to get rich. In fact, I have not earned one cent from what I have written so far. On the contrary, I was terminated from a ministry that I had worked with for over ten years after passing along a copy of my manuscript to the head of the ministry to let him know my thinking on the issue.
False teachers pursue sensual pleasure.
They carouse in broad daylight. Their eyes are full of adultery. They seduce the unstable, and appeal to the lustful desires of sinful human nature.
Major scandals have plagued the religious world in recent years involving well-known figures whose moral failures have brought disrepute on the gospel of Christ.
My wife and I just celebrated our 41st wedding anniversary. I have never been involved in an illicit affair. And, I can honestly say that I love and admire my wife more today than when we were first married.
Respected theologians and sincere Christians throughout history who were clearly NOT false teachers have speculated on many different issues, and have often come up with significantly different conclusions as to what the true teaching of Scripture really is. They were not trying to deceive. They were not purposely trying to become rich in the eyes of the world by promoting false doctrines. And, they were not pursuing immoral lifestyles. They were actually honest men and women who were sincerely trying to understand the truth of God’s Word.
I honestly love my friend – and, yes, as far as I am concerned he is still my friend. I am honestly sad that he no longer wants to continue in fellowship with me. But, I am also honestly convinced that I am not a heretic, and that my friend does not really understand what actually constitutes a false teacher.
Jesus followed His warning about wolves in sheep’s clothing by explaining how we would be able to know who they are – By their fruit you will recognize them.
Because someone disagrees with you or me, or a teacher or leader we may follow, or the specific teaching of our individual church or denomination doesn’t automatically make that person a false teacher.
We need to look at their lives. Are those we label as false teachers deceptive, or greedy, or immoral? If not, we should be very careful about labeling them that way.
In an earlier blog post, I mentioned that there is really only one true Statement of Faith that the entire Christian Church assembled has ever agreed on – the Nicene Creed which was finalized at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. And, interestingly, that same group specifically prohibited other creeds from being formulated and presented as the official teaching of the Christian Church.
The views I have expressed on these blog posts and in my book are not new. In fact, much of what I have written has been an attempt to inform people in this generation of ideas that were held by the Christian Church in the earliest years of its existence – when it was closest to the Apostles and its influence on the surrounding culture was the greatest.
In a tract written in about AD 1627, a little known German divine named Rupertus Meldenius penned three short and very profound statements about how Christians should treat those with whom they disagree:
In essentials unity. In nonessentials liberty. In all things charity.
We would do well to follow that advice today.