Identifying and Responding to False Teachers

by Jack Crabtree

Occasionally we are warned about “dangerous” people and ideas. Recently, when the leadership at a friend’s church found my friend “unsafe,” I found myself pondering a very important question: How are we to interact with others who hold (or are sympathetic toward) doctrinally significant beliefs that we think are false?

Typically, we attempt to make the wayward brother conform, usually through various social pressures. At some level, we may believe we need to punish him, as an example to others. After all, we remind ourselves, there are well prescribed doctrinal boundaries we dare not transgress. Everyone needs to be clear about that. Making a wayward brother an example will underline the necessity of staying within the boundaries.

But here a fundamental tension confronts us. On the one hand, Christianity is the very source and origin of freedom of thought. Endemic to the gospel message is the fundamental idea that salvation hinges on the human individual personally accepting the claims of the gospel and committing himself to them as an individual—embracing them as the truths that define his existence. One cannot become an heir to eternal life by being coerced into belief. If faith is not freely chosen, it is not real faith—not a faith that will save. Accordingly, no philosophy recognizes more clearly than biblical Christianity the necessity of allowing people to find their own way to truth—allowing them to ponder, to investigate, to think, to wander until God brings them home—because if they do not get there freely, they have not arrived at all. If faith is forced upon a person from the outside (no matter how subtle the coercion), then it is not that person’s faith. It is another’s. And another’s faith cannot save me.

Why then would Christians—of all people—try to coerce others into believing the “right” things? We are told that this is the way of love and the way the Bible instructs us to act. We are told, for example, that the apostles would brook no dissent when it came to the non-negotiable essentials of the faith, that they were utterly intolerant of anyone outside the bounds of apostolic Truth. But is that true?

John’s letters are a good place to learn what the apostles thought about false teaching. Arguably, an important purpose of John’s letters is to warn his readers against false teachers, teachers who oppose the essence of the faith. What attitudes and behaviors does John encourage with respect to them? And how would John instruct us? To deal harshly with false teachers? To ostracize anyone who listens to such teachers? To exert social pressure on our brothers to coerce them to remain in the truth?

To understand John’s letters accurately, we must carefully reconstruct their background. The gospel of Jesus was widely proclaimed in the province of Asia (western Turkey), and believing communities existed throughout. In the late first century, these communities included a second generation—younger believers who heard the gospel from their parents, not from an apostle. Both generations embraced the faith the apostles had proclaimed. The parents believed because an apostle or his emissary had persuaded them. The children believed because their parents had taught them.

Itinerant teachers then arrived in these communities. The teachers claimed a close connection to Jesus—either to have been among his original disciples or to have been taught by original disciples. In any case, they claimed a direct knowledge of Jesus’ original teaching. Based on this alleged knowledge, they disputed the understanding of the faith that the community had received from the apostles and taught the following instead:

Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah. Whoever told you that is mistaken. Jesus is our Rabbi, but that is all he is. His message was that we must strive to obey the Covenant of Moses. We must demonstrate ourselves worthy of God’s mercy by keeping the requirements of the Law.

In my judgment, these itinerant teachers were simply promoting Pharisaical Judaism under the guise of Jesus’ teaching.

Imagine how disruptive the claims of these teachers would have been in the churches of Asia. The parents, having believed on the basis of the eyewitness testimony of the apostles, would likely have rejected their claims. But their children had not believed on the basis of eyewitness testimony; they had believed based on secondhand teaching from their parents. But now these children were confronted by teachers claiming to know firsthand what Jesus originally said and did. Who were the children to believe? Their parents? Or these men? Why was the claim of these teachers any less credible than the claim of their parents? This, I think, was the dilemma that prompted John to write First John.

The initiative, I speculate, came from one of the Asian churches. They knew John could settle the dispute among them; everyone acknowledged that John—still alive and residing in Ephesus—was an original disciple. Presumably, the church wrote to ask him to determine—on the basis of his eyewitness knowledge—who was right. The parents? Or the itinerant teachers?

Essentially, then, First John is John’s “finding” in response to the church’s query. His finding was this: the parents (who continued to embrace the apostolic gospel) were right; the itinerant teachers were wrong, and their claims to know Jesus were fraudulent.

John begins the letter with his assessment of these teachers and lays out the reasoning that leads to his assessment. He judges these teachers to be liars and frauds for the following three reasons:

(1) The teachers have rejected what Jesus actually taught, substituting other contradictory teachings in its place. (John, the eyewitness, is in a position to know that they have done so.) Their teachings are not the Truth that God purposed to reveal to mankind through the teaching of Jesus.

(2) The teachers do not conduct their lives on the basis of what Jesus taught. (Again, John, the eyewitness, is in a position to know that this is the case.) They were never authentic followers of Jesus.

(3) The teachers show contempt for people who have embraced the actual teaching of Jesus. (John, the eyewitness, is in a position to know who does embrace the authentic teaching of Jesus.) The teachers’ contempt demonstrates that they are hostile to Jesus’ teaching and have not themselves believed and embraced it.

John follows his assessment of the false teachers with a word of encouragement to those in the community who have embraced the apostolic teaching: Contrary to the insinuations of the false teachers, you do know God! And your sins are forgiven!

In the body of his “finding,” John makes four assertions regarding who is rightly related to God. His purpose is twofold: (1) to provide a basis for reassuring his readers that they are rightly related to God; and (2) to provide a basis for warning his readers not to heed the false teachers. If these teachers are not themselves rightly related to God, how can they instruct others to be rightly related to God? Their teaching must not be received; it must be rejected.

The following are John’s four assertions:

(1) A person is an authentic child of God and an authentic disciple of Jesus if and only if (a) he is committed to pursuing righteousness and (b) he is not hostile to others who are so committed.

(2) A person is “from God” and “of the Truth” if and only if he values what God revealed through Jesus’ teaching (as passed on by the apostles). And one can know that a person values this revelation if (a) he acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah and (b) he is not hostile to others who so acknowledge Jesus.

(3) A person is an authentic child of God, knows and loves God, and remains a faithful follower of God if and only if he strives to act toward others out of Godlike love.

(4) A person genuinely loves God and is truly a child of God if and only if he obeys God’s instructions, which include the following: (a) to love those who acknowledge Jesus to be the Messiah; and (b) to acknowledge Jesus to be the Messiah—thereby accepting the explicit testimony of God Himself.

This, then, is the essence of John’s “finding.” With respect to our initial question—How would John instruct us to interact with people who believe false doctrines?—we must note four important things:

(1) Of all the criteria that John offers for determining who is worthy to be listened to, only one is doctrinal: the person must not deny that Jesus is the Messiah. The other criteria are all moral and spiritual. They pertain to our behavior and our attitude toward others, not to our doctrine. It is a great irony, then, that some of the staunchest defenders of doctrinal orthodoxy are among the most hateful and unloving men. John thinks that should get our attention. A person who is not seeking to emulate God’s love does not know and love Him and has no hope of Life. Being a champion of doctrinal orthodoxy does not change that.

(2) The only doctrinal criterion that John offers is this: an affirmation that Jesus is the Christ. John offers no other doctrinal litmus test than this.1 But even this doctrinal touchstone (I would argue) is ultimately a spiritual criterion, not a doctrinal one. For John, the issue is not whether one does or does not believe that Jesus is the Messiah. The issue is whether one is hostile to the idea. The issue is a person’s heart, not his doctrine per se. Therefore, we find no warrant in John for our all-too-typical practice of judging a person’s spiritual status by whether he subscribes to our particular brand of doctrinal orthodoxy. It is alien to our way of thinking but nonetheless profoundly true that God looks at the orientation of a man’s heart—as evidenced most clearly by his commitment to practice love and righteousness—not at the content of his doctrines.

(3) It is crucial to understand John’s warning to his readers. He is not insisting that they must avoid false teaching—that they must refuse to think and talk about the false teaching. Rather, he is exhorting them not to receive false teaching as true. John’s instruction is this: the believer must discern the difference between doctrines born of the spirit of error and doctrines born of the spirit of truth. He should embrace the latter and refuse to embrace the former. But John expresses no concern about listening to false teaching. False teaching has no power over me if I reject it. But I must take care to understand that not all teaching that claims to be from God is from God.

(4) How John would instruct us to relate to a brother whose doctrinal beliefs do not measure up to ours should be clear. He would instruct us to love the brother as God has loved us. He would not instruct us to hate, to ostracize, to shun, to disassociate, to punish, to coerce, or to force him into submission2—that is, to act in ways that fail to emulate the love of God, in ways that more accurately reveal the heart of a false teacher and child of the devil.

How, then, do we show our wayward brother the error of his ways? Through argument, reasons, and evidence. Not through coercion and bullying. Dialogue is risky, of course. It is always possible that I am the one with false beliefs. Perhaps that is why we prefer the way of coercion over the way of love. If I focus on coercing others to conform to my point of view, I need not critically evaluate my own.


1 One cannot rightly infer from this that no other valid doctrinal litmus tests exist. We know there are others. For example, “that God is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6; emphasis mine). Back to text

2 Second John 10 is no counter evidence. In John’s time and culture, not “welcoming” a false teacher into one’s home is not equivalent to our ostracizing or marginalizing him. Rather, it is equivalent to not giving material support to his promotion of a message contrary to the Truth. Neither is First Corinthians 5 a counter example. Paul’s concern there is immoral behavior, not false doctrine. Back to text

Copyright October 2007 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Jack Crabtree