The Methods of False Teachers
False teachers most likely do not think they are teaching
falsely, or they would stop doing it. However, zeal for what we believe
can sometimes cause us to fail to examine ourselves (Rom 10:1-3; 2 Cor 13:5,
6). Spirited involvement is not sufficient unless coupled with
truth. Truth with no motivating spirit is not a good thing, but false
teaching, by definition, occurs when truth, at least in part, is missing, yet a
motivating spirit is present (Phil 3:4-7; Jn 4:23, 24). The will of God
ultimately demands the sacrifice of our own will for the sake of truth, but at
times it seems that there are few who truly take to heart the meaning of a
crucified self (Gal 2:20). Too commonly, some begin to search for a new
interpretation of scripture rather than to simply surrender to God's will.
When men within the church begin teaching falsely, the
eldership needs to recognize it and patiently deliver a gentle but firm
admonition. This is why the Holy Spirit has stipulated that elders be
solidly grounded in doctrine without bias and be able to refute error with
temperance (Tit 1:7-9). If the false teaching persists, the church will
eventually need to sharply rebuke (Tit 1:13) and mark those individuals as
heretics and withdraw (Rom 16:17).
Serious problems can insidiously result if the elders
themselves fail to exercise restraint in their power and do not hold to sound
doctrine. Paul warns the Ephesian elders that from among the elders
themselves false teachers are going to arise. No wonder he admonishes
them to first be on guard for themselves (Acts 20:28-30). Ironically, the
strongest area can become a weakness; the same influence to keep false doctrine
out can easily become the most efficient path for error to come in. If
this occurs, it is time for the church as a body to deliver a rebuke (1 Tim
5:19-21). Such action requires great courage, particularly if the elders
are sternly reminding the congregation that they must submit to their rule (1
Tim 5:17, 18; Heb 13:17). A congregation accustomed to following the
elders must be willing to step up to responsibility, obeying God rather than
men (Acts 5:29). This is not a call to oust men over judgmental matters
or treat elders with contempt or disrespect. Instead, it is a call to firmly
defend the truth in patience and expose false teaching no matter who is
involved and no matter what is the cost (Phil 1:16; Jude 3, 4).
The process by which false teaching typically comes to
fruition is observable and is virtually predictable, as God reveals to us this
process in His word. This writer has
observed each one of the tactics presented here put into action.
Demonstrate self will
The starting point of all sin is when a man decides what he
thinks is right in himself based entirely upon human reasoning or what he
simply wants to believe (2 Tim 4:3; Jas 1:14). Once a thing is
intuitively taken to be axiomatically true, the scriptures are then consulted
with bias to find the defense for what has already been assumed. This
process is somehow reverse of what it should be. It is for this reason
the Holy Spirit ordains that elders be "not self-willed" (Tit 1:7).
W. E. Vine relates that "self-willed" describes "one so
far overvaluing any determination at which he has himself once arrived that he
will not be removed from it." The man possessing this attitude will
declare that he does not need to study certain Bible topics because he has
already studied them, and he knows he is right.
If an elder declares that there is nothing others can say
that could make him change his mind, there is a strong chance false doctrine is
Change word meanings
When a false assumption is compared to the actual truth of
God's word, a conflict results. To resolve the conflict, the false
teacher will distort the truth rather than abandon the false assumption (2 Cor
4:2). This is easily seen by illustration. Calvinism claims that,
since salvation is a free gift unobtainable by works, and since it is intuitively
obvious that baptism is a work, baptism is therefore not essential to
salvation. The result is that every clear statement in God's word
regarding baptism is distorted to fit the premise. Tritely, if a square
steel peg is forced into a piece of wood having a round hole, the wood around
the peg must deform to fit it.
Most commonly, the distortion of scripture is accomplished
in redefining Bible words. Some examples will make this clear. On
the matter of withdrawal, the false teachers redefine "disorderly"
(ATAKTOS, 2 Thess 3:11) as "lazy" and so falsely teach a limitation
on those from whom we should withdraw. On divorce, they redefine
"put asunder" (CHORIZO, Matt 19:6) as "inject strife" and
so falsely teach that an abuser is actually doing the divorcing when he is
being divorced. They further redefine "fornication" (PORNEIA,
Matt 19:9) as "lasciviousness" and so falsely teach that one can
divorce a spouse for indecent talk or viewing pornography. They further redefine "reconcile"
(KATALLASSO, 1 Cor 7:11) as "producing fruits of repentance" and so
falsely teach that a man can divorce the wife whom he has reconciled after
fornication if she ever demonstrates any insincerity.
If Bible words are being made to change their meaning, there
is a strong chance false doctrine is in process.
Call doctrine opinion
When a false teacher misrepresents scripture in an attempt
to defend his assumed doctrine, a brother is likely to call it into
question. Typically, more scriptures are then distorted by the false
teacher to harmonize the other previously distorted scriptures, which only
results in more false doctrine (2 Tim 3:13). Eventually, the false
teacher will resort to simply calling it a matter of opinion as described in
Romans 14. Now if the false teacher happens to be an elder, he may think
that God has given him the authority to make such a judgment and that others
simply need to submit. However, doctrinal truth is not established on the
word of one who happens to be ruler (1 Pet 5:3). An elder's function is
not to dictate what is true but to defend what is true; he is an overseer, not
Almost all false teachers use the "opinion"
argument. Disagree with a denominationalist about instrumental music in
worship, and he will say it is just your opinion. Disagree with an
institutional brother about church-supported missionary societies, and he will
say it is just your opinion. Calling a thing a matter of opinion does not
make it a matter of opinion. Romans 14 is sorely abused today as a
shelter from accountability and a license for false teaching. In the
first place, the opinions of Romans 14 are of those who are weak in faith (Rom
14:1, 2; 15:1), not the spiritually mature or leaders in the church.
Second, Paul makes clear that the things that are opinions are matters of
indifference: things not wrong if you do and not wrong if you don't (vs 3 -
The convenience of this for a false teacher is that, once a
false doctrine is decreed to be only opinion, a reasonable scriptural defense
for it is no longer necessary. To illustrate, suppose a weak brother
believes he should not eat a certain meat or that he should regard a certain
day holy (Romans 14:2-6). It doesn't matter what kind of illogical
notions or silly ideas he uses to reach his conclusions, because he does no
wrong either way, as long as he doesn't violate his conscience (vs 23).
This is only valid, of course, if a thing is actually a matter of indifference
in the first place. An elder, above all, must be able to discern what
things belong to Romans 14 and what things belong to 2 John 9.
Certainly, those who are spiritually mature will also hold
opinions on various matters of indifference, however, Romans 14 is not about
them. Besides, if a thing is truly a matter that is neither here nor
there, we should be able to discuss it openly without fear, as the apostle Paul
did on occasions, clarified as such (1 Cor 7:25-28).
If an elder stresses the point without qualification that we
all have the right to believe whatever opinion we want to believe as long as we
keep it to ourselves, there is a strong chance false doctrine is in process.
Discourage open Bible study
The next conclusion of convenience for the false teacher is
that, since he is not to preach his opinions, he is presumably relieved from
his obligation to publicly preach on such a matter or try to convince all
others. Instead, he will teach it only privately to a limited number of
people. Then, if anyone calls the false teaching into question, he can be
chastised for gossiping, since it is a private matter, or chastised for seeking
to bind opinions. Moreover, since the doctrine is not publicized, either
by spoken or written word, it is more difficult reprove, since there is no
tangible evidence of it. This is such a cowardly tactic.
There is no such thing in scripture as some doctrinal truths
that are to be taught openly and other doctrinal truths that are only to be
taught privately. The gospel preacher does not get to make this choice;
he must openly teach it all and to all (Matt 10:27; John 18:20; Acts
20:27). False teachers will attempt to defend this right by misapplying
Romans 14:22: "The faith that you have, keep between yourself and
God" (RSV). They claim to keep the opinion to themselves, divulging
it to others only when asked. First of all, as previously established,
the context indicates that this faith is some personal conviction that is
neither right nor wrong in itself. Second, this scripture states no
exception to keeping the matter to oneself "unless someone
asks." Keep it to yourself means
keep it to yourself. According to this
reasoning, the false teacher needs only to call his heresy "opinion"
and opportunistically wait for some unsuspecting soul to voluntarily ask a
question concerning it, and he can then freely teach him his false doctrine
without accountability for his actions.
If an elder or preacher could do this, anyone should be able to do
this. This is absolutely ridiculous.
This very kind of private teaching is accurately described in
scripture of those who would "secretly bring in destructive heresies"
(2 Pet 2:1-3 NKJ), and it is outright condemned. Bear in mind, a heresy
dressed up as an opinion is still a heresy. Peter further warns that many
will be deceived and follow, being exploited. Now when a member who is
privately taught such doctrine openly puts it into practice, the congregation
becomes bound in fellowship with the so-called opinion. The congregation
may never know what error is actually being taught and practiced among them
unless they make critical inquiry. No wonder Peter declares of these
false teachers, "For a long time their judgment has not been idle, and
their destruction does not slumber."
If there is ever a Bible topic on which the elders shun open
discussion and discourage Bible studies, there is a strong chance false
doctrine is in process.
The next logical step in the development of false doctrine
grows out of this idea that elders by virtue of the office held are involved in
privately disseminated information more than regular members would be.
This could be especially prevalent if the elders begin serving the church also
as financial advisors or marriage counselors, thinking that doing more than
teaching what the Bible teaches on these subjects is part of their function as
The duties of elders are well defined in scripture, and the
focus is primarily upon spiritual things: overseeing the work, teaching the
word, refuting false doctrine (1 Tim 3:2; 5:17; Tit 1:9-11; 1 Pet 5:1-2).
Paul commissions the Ephesian elders to watch over and feed the flock (Acts
20:28). It is not with physical food that elders are to feed but with the
spiritual food of God's word. In Acts 6, the apostles are devoted to ministry
in the word while the appointed servants are devoted to benevolence among needy
saints. This is often referenced as a guidepost for the primary
distinction in function between elders and deacons. There will certainly
be some pragmatic overlapping in functions, but sometimes the primary roles get
confused. When only the elders are allowed to know the details concerning
benevolent distributions of the church's treasury, accountability can become
lost (1 Tim 5:19, 20; Heb 13:17).
If there are doctrinal decisions made in the church
concerning things which the elders claim the specifics cannot be divulged,
there is a strong chance false doctrine is in process.
Cast doubt and confusion
The false teacher will also attempt to confuse and complicate
(1 Tim 6:3, 4). In virtually every doctrinal matter in the Lord's church
we can find intense debate, whether it be concerning elder qualifications,
communion, withdrawal, divorce, women's roles, instrumental music,
institutionalism, and so on. Whatever the issue, it can be made to look
so ambiguous in the light of debate that the false teacher declares the matter
cannot be known with absolute certainty. Anyone who would take a stand is
considered dogmatic by those unwilling to critically investigate.
Without doubt, there are many doctrinal things which require
deep study to understand. Notably, it is not merely the easy things but
the hard things to understand in particular that men are condemned for
distorting (2 Pet 3:16). This suggests that God expects us to understand
those difficult things, and if we truly understand, we will understand alike.
If an elder or preacher suggests that there are many gray
areas in doctrine and things that are not so black or white, there is a strong
chance false doctrine is in process.
Appeal to emotions
Further confused about his role, an elder might think that
his main function is to shield the congregation from controversy rather than to
openly refute error and defend truth. Presuming that controversy will
cause some to become emotionally upset and leave, in the interest of
maintaining numbers, controversial discussions are avoided to keep peace in the
congregation. However, it is not controversy that will destroy a church
but the failure to maintain sound doctrine (2 Pet 2:1-3). Working to
promote peace among brethren can lead us into doctrinal error, if we allow
purity of truth to be compromised in the pursuit of compassion and harmony (Jas
Many doctrinal issues in the church are highly emotionally
charged, such as withdrawal from the unruly and especially divorce. These
issues affect people at their very core, and daily life for some may be utter
turmoil. However, brethren who are unwilling to bend the truth even a
little to allow a favorable ruling for another in duress are considered
heartless and void of compassion. Although truthfully, the most
compassionate thing of all will be to hold all parties to the requirements of
God's law (Jam 5:19, 20). The unanimous verbal consent is that God's way
is the best way, but people are too often unwilling to surrender to that
concept in actual practice. Incidentally, in every divorce situation, two
parties are involved, not just one. If false doctrine allows a favorable
ruling for one, the other is disregarded, and that is hardly an act of
compassion (Jam 2:9).
If the elders suggest that your heart of compassion should
tell you a certain thing is right, there is a strong chance false doctrine is
Emotional bias can prevail even more if the doctrine in
question becomes a personal matter to the one who would presume to teach
falsely. Special considerations might then be given for close friends or
family members. Gospel preachers sometimes teach a certain doctrine for
decades and then change their view when it finally becomes personal.
There's nothing disgraceful about changing one's mind when objectively
convinced by sound reasoning, but we sell out the truth if we subjectively
change because of personal bias. Jesus emphasizes the need to stand for
truth, regardless of the situation of those close to us (Matt 10:34-38).
The epistles also contain numerous warnings against showing partiality (James
2:1-9; 3:17; 1 Timothy 5:21).
If a preacher should feel the need to state that a certain
doctrinal matter currently involves someone close to him, there is a strong
chance false doctrine is in process.
Appeal to common ground
A false teacher will enumerate the many things on which the parties
agree, as if this should satisfy the opposition. Again, most false
teachers do this. A denominationalist will say that since we both believe
in Jesus, there is sufficient grounds for fellowship. An institutional
brother will say that since we both believe in the same plan of salvation,
there is sufficient grounds for fellowship. False doctrine almost always
contains partly truth, however, partial unity is unacceptable before God (1 Cor
The false doctrine of unity in diversity finds a footing
here. For example, there are some who claim there is a difference between
gospel and doctrine. "Gospel," as it is explained, includes the
more important teachings of Christ: things concerning the plan of salvation and
the atoning power of Christ's blood. These are the things on which we
must agree. "Doctrine," as it is explained, includes things of
lesser importance: things relative, subjective, and more elusive. These
are things on which we may differ. There is no foundation for this in
scripture (1 Tim 1:8-11; 2 Tim 3:16). The appeal to common ground is a
step in this direction.
If there is no scriptural basis for calling one thing a
matter of fellowship and another thing a matter of tolerance, then our system
of belief is arbitrary and wholly a product of human judgment. As a
man-made religion, there would be no legitimate basis for defending anything as
actual truth or refuting anything as actual error. Therefore, one church
really would be as good as another. However, if we reject this, then we
must accept that there is scriptural basis for making the necessary distinction
on matters of fellowship.
If the elders proclaim that unity only on the so-called
"important things" is enough, there is a strong chance false doctrine
is in process.
with derision and accusations
Finally, when a false teacher sees he is unable to deliver a
correctly applied scriptural defense for his position, a common diversion
tactic is to attempt to discredit and defame a brother who would oppose. One who would call a teaching into question
is then labeled a troublemaker and is said to be causing strife (1 Kings 18:17,
18). Instead of listening, the false
teacher dismisses the brother's warning for his perceived harshness and
Almost inevitably, the false teacher charges the one who is
merely challenging the doctrine with making a "personal attack." Intending to garner sympathy from others, he
further announces how shocking it is that a long-time friend could do such a
thing (though a true friend will try to admonish his erring brother). Ironically, the one claiming to have been
personally attacked is usually the only one making personal attacks. In self defense, he dredges up every past
instance carefully committed to his memory where the challenger ever slightly
raised his voice, spoke disparagingly, was party to suspicious circumstances,
or otherwise used poor judgment.
However, note that when the council falsely accuses Stephen, he defends
not himself but the truth (Acts 7:1, 2).
Attacking only their sins against the Holy Spirit, Stephen's words are
perceived by the council as a personal attack, because they have no valid
answer. Besides, a teacher ought to be
able and willing to defend his doctrine, regardless the disposition of a
challenger (1 Pet 3:14-16).
If, instead of addressing the teaching in question, a
preacher complains about personal attacks or an elder claims some are
disrespecting his office, there is a strong chance false doctrine is in
False teaching will find its ultimate end in complete