by Al Maxey

Issue #123 ------- May 7, 2004
The most dangerous error is failure
to recognize our own tendency to error.

B.H. Liddell Hart (1895-1970)

Focusing on False Teachers
Scriptural Fact vs. Sectarian Fallacy

The people of God have been warned repeatedly in the inspired writings to be alert to the ever present danger of evil among us in various forms. One of the most deadly, primarily because of its deceptive nature, is the presence of those who disguise themselves as one of us. They are servants of darkness masquerading as servants of light; wolves wearing wool. In His Sermon on the Mount Jesus cautioned the flock, "Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves" (Matthew 7:15). These are pretenders; professing one thing, practicing another! They are not straying sheep or lost lambs; they are another species altogether. They are predators with a single purpose: to kill and devour sheep. The apostle Peter warned us to be alert, for "your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8). It is not just Satan, however, who is a prowling predator ... so also are his servants, and they are just as crafty in their efforts to slip in among the flock. Paul wrote the following to the brethren in Corinth, informing them about the nature and motives of certain evil persons -- "Such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness" (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

We, as the people of God, need to be aware of the reality of evil in our very midst. I'm not talking about the fact that we all at times do things that are contrary to the will of our Father, or that we frequently stumble and fall due to human frailty or sheer lack of understanding. We all fall into that category; we are all "brethren in error." I'm talking about those in our midst who have "sneaked in" (Galatians 2:4), who are willfully and maliciously intent upon the destruction of the flock. Paul refers to such as "false brethren" (ibid); they are not innocent sheep, but vicious wolves. They are among us, and indeed often arise from our own number (morphing from one species to another), and thus we must be alert. Paul warned the elders from Ephesus, "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert" (Acts 20:28-31).

The Bible has much to say about "false teachers" and "false prophets" and "false apostles" and "false brethren." We must be cognizant of such cursed creatures in the church. They can cause tremendous harm if they are not exposed, opposed and deposed. However, there is another equally dangerous problem here that we must not overlook -- that is the danger of misidentification. What a tragedy it would be to mark, maim and murder a whole group of sheep who had been mistaken for wolves! This happens daily in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. If a fellow sheep has wool that is a slightly different color from ours, or if their "baa baa" sounds somewhat dissimilar to our ears, or if their noses are black, whereas ours are white, or if they are kept in a different fold than ours, we too frequently "mark" them as "wool-wearing wolves" and go on the attack. In other words, brethren are very free and loose with the expression "false teacher," and it has been applied to brothers and sisters who are not even remotely "false teachers." Thus, it behooves us to try and determine exactly who and what a "false teacher" is .... and is not.

Question From A Reader

A reader from the great state of Arkansas (where I was born, by the way, some 55 years ago) wrote the following -- "Your Reflections, to which I recently subscribed, are very much appreciated. I am working on reading all of them in the Archives. Have you written on the subject of false teachers? My husband and I are members of a conservative congregation which has recently become ultra-conservative. It disturbs me that the new preacher refers to all denominations as 'false teachers.' He recently told the congregation that we sin if we, for example, purchase cookies from a denominational youth group. I wrote him a note and told him I am certain that the Waltons (of Wal-Mart) are not members of the Church of Christ, and I asked him if, in his view, I sin when I make purchases at Wal-Mart two or three times a week ... or if I only sin when I make purchases from denominational youth outside the Wal-Mart. I wish I had the space to convey to you his absurd response! Can you enlighten me, in one of your Reflections, with reference to 'false teachers'? I will be very grateful."

Reflecting on the Evidence

Although we hear the phrase "false teacher" tossed about virtually every day, and applied countless times to those with whom one may differ over numerous "weighty matters of the law," it might come as a surprise to many readers to learn that the phrase "false teacher" appears only ONE TIME in the entire Bible! The frequency with which it is used to label and libel others, however, might cause one to suspect this characterization is found flowing freely from the pen of every New Testament writer. It is not. Indeed, it is used most sparingly, and most specifically. The lone occurrence is found in a warning by the apostle Peter in his second epistle, which was written shortly before his death. He wrote:

2 Peter 2:1-3
1 But false prophets also arose among the people,
just as there will also be false teachers among you,
who will secretly introduce destructive heresies,
even denying the Master who bought them, bringing
swift destruction upon themselves.

2 And many will follow their sensuality, and
because of them the way of the truth will be maligned;

3 and in their greed they will exploit you
with false words; their judgment from long ago
is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

Please note very carefully what Peter has to say about the nature of the character of these persons he identifies as "false teachers." Although mention is made of some aspects of their teaching, Peter is far more concerned about the many wicked motivations of their hearts! It is crucial to understand what the term "false" modifies in this expression --- it modifies teacher, not teaching. Thus, it is the teacher who is said by Peter to be "false," not so much the teaching. Yes, they were denying the Master, and this was partly done in their teaching, and they were introducing heresies (which certainly involves strongly held opinionated teaching that ultimately brings division in its wake), but Peter's primary emphasis is on WHY these teachers were doing these things. They were doing them because they themselves were "false." They were persons willing to do virtually anything to promote themselves and their agendas. These were not honest, sincere, committed disciples of Christ who were merely mistaken about some points of doctrine. Rather, they were vicious, willful, secretive, sensual, exploitive, greedy wolves with a taste for sheep.

When we label someone a "false teacher," we are rendering a judgment as to their character, their motivations, their heart. A "false teacher" is far more than one who merely teaches something which may not necessarily be true, or who holds to some perception or practice which differs from our own. "False" is a term which characterizes the man himself. When Paul spoke of "false brethren" (Galatians 2:4), it was not so much their theology that he had in mind, but rather their motivations and their methodologies. These were individuals who had "sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage." They were sneaky little spies, and their ultimate goal was to destroy the freedom of others and reduce them to a state of religious slavery. Paul doesn't even deal, at that point, with the nature of their teaching or message, he merely notes what is on their hearts, and the underhanded means they employed to try and achieve their nefarious goals. These persons themselves were "false." They were not genuine brethren in Christ.

If, as many today seem to think, a "false teacher" is simply one who "teaches that which is false," then by that definition we are ALL "false teachers." We are all "brethren in error" (there is no other kind), but that does not necessarily make us "false brethren." We are all mistaken at some point in our understanding, and subsequent teaching, of God's Word. None of us ever proclaims 100% of the Truth 100% of the time. Most don't do this intentionally, but they do it just the same. That is just part of being fallible mortal beings; finite creatures seeking to comprehend the Infinite. We are all fallible followers of Christ Jesus, each seeking to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Son and of the inspired revelation ... and not one of us has yet arrived! No matter how intelligent we may be, or how learned, or how long we live in faithful service to Him, there will always be pockets of darkness in our understanding ... and, subsequently, in our teaching. Therefore, according to this definition, every living person is a "false teacher."

Frankly, one can preach TRUTH and yet be a "false teacher." Why? Because it is not really the teaching, but rather the teacher, that determines whether or not one is legitimately a "false teacher." For example, in Philippians 1:17 the apostle Paul spoke of those who "proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, rather than from pure motives." These were people that were indeed teaching Truth; Paul even rejoiced that "whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed" (vs. 18). But, what about the character and motives of these men? What about their hearts? Even though proclaiming Truth, they were nevertheless spiritually corrupt. They were teachers who were themselves "false." Thus, these proclaimers of Truth were in actuality "false teachers."

On the other side of the coin, take a man like Apollos. Luke characterizes him this way: "He was an eloquent man ... he was mighty in the Scriptures. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; ... being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus" (Acts 18:24-25). There was a problem, however. Apollos was lacking in knowledge, "being acquainted only with the baptism of John" (vs. 25). Therefore, Priscilla and Aquila "took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately" (vs. 26). Was Apollos a false teacher? He was teaching that which was not true, after all. He is nowhere characterized as a "false teacher," however. Why? Because his heart and his motives were pure! Thus, he himself was not "false." Yes, he taught for a time that which was false, but that did not make him a "false teacher." False teaching does not necessarily make a "false teacher" .... a false heart does!!

Concluding Thoughts

To dismiss all those who differ with us as "false teachers" is merely to show one's own ignorance of the true meaning of the phrase and the fallacy of one's sectarian mindset. Again, to equate the concept of "false teacher" with an individual being inaccurate, ignorant or misinformed about some biblical matter is ultimately self-condemning. Jesus told a crowd of religious elitists that the only person qualified to throw a stone at another was the one who was free of sin (John 8:7). No stones were cast that day. In like manner, it seems to me rather arrogant of any man to characterize another as a "false teacher" (based on lack of perfection of teaching or practice) unless that accuser has himself achieved absolute perfection of insight into all Truth.

The true test of "falseness," as the Bible applies the term, is displayed far more in the evidence of one's daily life than in the particulars of one's public teaching. Simply focusing on a person's teaching will probably tell us far more about his beliefs than about his basic behavior, and it is one's character and motivation, after all, that are determinative with regard to the falseness that concerns our Lord God -- which is falseness of one's heart. Yes, sometimes knowing what a person believes and teaches may give us some small insight into who that person is, and what motivates and drives them. But glimpses is all we are really likely to get. After all, those who are truly false inwardly are masters at disguising their true motives. "For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ" (2 Corinthians 11:13).

Discerning genuine falseness in another always comes down to character, motivation, and behavior. Jesus said we will know those who are "false" by their fruit; good trees don't produce bad fruit, just as bad trees don't produce good fruit, at least not as a rule (Matthew 7:15-20). Thus, the fruit a tree bears really reflects the nature and character of the tree itself. In other words, it is all about who a person is, far more than what a person says or teaches. The latter may often be a factor in determining falseness, but not always. As noted before, one may be proclaiming Truth, and yet be "false," if their proclamation comes from godless motivation. Also, being honestly mistaken in one's understanding is a far cry from being maliciously opposed to what one knows to be Truth. Some people need to be patiently and lovingly taught the way of the Lord more perfectly (such as Apollos), whereas others need to be resisted, exposed, opposed, refuted, and even driven off if need be. The difference lies more in the teacher than in the teaching. We are all "false" to some degree with respect to the latter; it is those who are "false" with respect to the former that pose the greatest danger to the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Did Priscilla and Aquila verbally assault and viciously hound Apollos, castigating him in public as a "false teacher"? Of course not! To have done so would have demonstrated a godless character on their own part. What they did do was take him aside as a beloved brother in Christ and inform him of the Truth more perfectly. When made aware of this greater Truth, Apollos embraced it willingly. Yes, Apollos had been teaching that which was false, but he was not a false teacher. The difference lies in the character and the motivating force of the one who is teaching that which is incorrect. If it is done knowingly and maliciously, the person himself is false; if it is done innocently and ignorantly, the person himself is not false, even though the teaching itself may be.

What if you believe someone is teaching that which is false? My advice is: go to them and tell them, but do it lovingly, respectfully, and patiently. They may not know what they are teaching is false. It is also possible that what they are teaching is NOT false .... it may be you who lacks true understanding into ultimate Truth. The key in such an encounter, however, is to focus on the teaching rather than the teacher, until evidence to the contrary irrefutably presents itself. Since we very rarely have full knowledge of the heart, mind and motive of another disciple, we should, in most cases, be very cautious, indeed reluctant, in declaring that person himself to be "false." That is a far greater charge than declaring his teaching to be false, because now you have placed yourself in the position of judge over the heart of the man himself. It is very much the exception, rather than the rule, that you or I ever possess the depth of knowledge and insight to make such a sweeping determination as to the character of another.

Thus, I urge my brethren in the One Body to exercise great caution in the use of such harsh characterizations as "false teacher." This label has been used so much of late by certain elements within the church that one would almost think it flowed freely from the lips of the early disciples, and perhaps even the apostles themselves. It did not! It was used sparingly, and only when the true motivation of one's heart was abundantly evident. Yes, we need to go after the wolves ... but we have also attacked and killed too many of our fellow sheep in our factional frenzy to destroy "every false way." May God help us to be a bit more discerning, lest we ourselves become a greater danger to the flock than the wolves!

Reflections from Readers

From a Minister/Elder in New Jersey:

I applaud your article on God's Ideal for Marriage. Excellent! I agree with you on the explanation of adultery as being more than just a physical sexual act. Some years ago I was teaching a class that came to the discussion of marriage and adultery. I made the observation back then that I believed adultery was much more than just a sexual act. Many marriage covenants are broken because of one spouse or the other having a greater commitment to work, friends, sports, even church, than they do to their marriage partner. "Divorce" papers may never be filed or signed, but the marriage covenant is still broken, and one spouse lives a lonely, rejected, trapped life because of the adultery that occurs outside the bed. May God bless you in your life and ministry as greatly as He has me through you.

From an Attorney in Texas:

Al, The CENI concept comes in part from the common law of British-American jurisprudence. I was somewhat startled, while reading some old cases in law school nearly 20 years ago, to find an appeal for authority based either on express "statute," approved "precedent," or "necessary inference." This is not so surprising, however, when we realize that some of the chief debaters who developed and popularized the CENI theory among us -- Roy Cogdill, Guy N. Woods, Alan Highers -- were men trained in the law! Interestingly, there are today a considerable number of lawyer-preachers among us who detest legalism and proclaim the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

From a Minister in New Mexico:

Al, Thanks for your thoughtful and well-thought-out response to the brother in the last issue of Reflections. Regarding that reader's comment, "Our Lord's body was bruised and broken on the Old Rugged Cross," I have heard people say that for years, and it makes me cringe every time I hear it. Could someone show me where in the Bible it says the Lord's body was broken? I know it sounds good to say the Lord's body was "broken," so therefore we "break" the bread that represents His body, but it seems to me that the biblical writers go out of their way to communicate that the Lord's body was not broken! Not one bone was broken on the Lord's body either during or after His crucifixion on the cross. I believe a careful reading of the Bible will prove that.

From a Reader in California:

I'm not even finished with the latest Reflections and I can't wait to say this. When my sister was undergoing treatment for alcoholism, I attended some of the open meetings with her. One night in particular I remember a person taking the floor to say something that was "on his mind." He began to complain about certain ones from the neighborhood, who had various "other" addictions, being allowed into the AA meeting .... just "trash" is what I recall that he named them. At that moment I remember thinking how odd it was that one addict would refer to another addict as "trash" when they were all in the same boat. Just as he was about to get really wound up, the moderator took the floor and told him that he was "out of line, and to please sit down." Others around the table "Amen'd" that suggestion, and so he took his seat.

I was struck by the fact that people in the church do that all the time. For far too long there have been those who take the pulpit who are "out of line" in what they say about other people, churches, groups, etc., simply because they differ from "us," and either those who sit in the audience don't know any better or are too cowardly to speak up. In fact, are we not all sinners in need of forgiveness each and every day? Are we not all sick people in need of healing; in need of getting well and staying well? Aren't we all in the same boat?

From a Staff Member at University of Alabama:

Look out, brother. Some of the readers are going to "reflect" all over you for this one. [Like it would be the first time, eh?] In the early years of my Christian life, as I moved out from my very conservative home congregation and began discussing matters of belief with brothers and sisters from different backgrounds (though still members of Churches of Christ), one of the first things I reconsidered was "necessary inference" (NI). These Christians utilized CENI, as did I, but some of the things they inferred on certain issues weren't necessarily the same things I inferred. Their lives indicated that they were as serious about loving God and living that out as I was, but looking at the same texts I was, they didn't come to all the same conclusions. That confused me. It also caused me to reconsider NI -- to the consternation of some back at my home church. [Since this challenging of NI began while I was at college -- a Christian college -- some of them concluded that "intellectual pride" had claimed another victim.]

Another thing occurred to me back in those days. Though I didn't cast off "Command" or even "Example," my perspective had broadened. One summer, between semesters at college, I talked to some brothers back home about the Lord's Supper. I asked them, individually, "Why do we observe the Lord's Supper?" To a man, they told me that it's because we're commanded to. Not one of them said or even hinted at "do this in remembrance of Me" or "whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes." Perhaps I shouldn't read too much into that, but it spoke to me of an emphasis: obeying the commands without any motivation beyond the obedience itself. Relationship with God seemed to be missing from the obedience equation. Not that they didn't have that relationship, but there seemed to be a disconnect between it and their obedience. I had come to believe that a relationship of thankfulness and love is a stronger motivation to obey than "just because." That was due in part to a professor pointing out that at the giving of the Ten Commandments, God prefaced the list with "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery," stating the relationship upon which obedience to the commandments was based. It appeared to be Jesus' thinking, too: "If you love Me, you will obey what I command." All this is to say that it seems to me that without a focus on the relationship we have with God through Jesus Christ as the basis for obedience (or, loving response), CENI, or any version of it, devolves into mere legalism.

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Al, you wrote in your last Reflections, "Our unity is in a PERSON, not in a PRACTICE. When we finally come to realize that, we will begin to see the barriers that divide us come down." Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen X 144,000!! I've been preaching for 47 years. I don't know how many years I have been asking the following question, but it has been many. I have heard noted brethren over and over talk about some passage, and when asked how they know that one part is binding and the other part isn't, the final answer of authority was, "You must use the common sense God has given you." I have mulled that over and over. It seems to me that my common sense, which God has given me, tells me that what brethren are really saying is, "We do what we do in many cases because our 'common sense' is our authority, not what the Scriptures expressly say."

What is the origin of bowing the head in prayer? Who did we borrow it from? Catholicism? Protestantism? It is never described as a prayer practice in the New Testament writings. Why is "kneeling" or "lifting up holy hands" in prayer criticized, even though it was practiced by the first century church? The rebuttal is, "Because the denominations do it." Is that not an unreasonable and illogical response? We borrowed church buildings from the Catholics without even batting an eyelash. We borrowed the Sunday School from the Protestants, and yet who is upset over this? We borrowed individual communion cups from Protestantism and we hear no unfavorable comments. The list of borrowed items is numerous! What makes this practice of the early churches of Christ, of "kneeling" or "lifting up of holy hands," so satanic in the minds of some? Why are some now making it a fellowship question? Could it be that Satan has found his home more on the side of the critics?!

From a Reader in (Unknown):

Al, I just read your May 1st issue of Reflections, which was forwarded on to me by Ray Downen in his Mission Outreach publication. I have been a part of this group for quite some time, and have spent over 50 years in Christian ministries and work. I also had a long-time friend named Tibbs Maxey ... probably no relation except in Christ. But anyway, please add me to your Reflections mailing list. Thank you.

From a Reader in Alabama:

For years I have been quietly asking, "But who gets to decide?", all the while feeling somewhat rebellious for even daring to challenge the party line. In addressing this issue in your latest Reflections, you have given credence as well as answer to my question. Sometimes honest seekers are seen as heretics. Let us pray for discernment.

From a Reader in (Unknown):

Hello, brother. I'm requesting to be added to the Reflections mailing list. I have visited your web page several times in the past 3 years and am always rewarded with fresh insight and discussion on many issues facing the church and Christians today. I grew up in the Church of Christ -- attended 25+ years, served as a youth minister for 3 years and a camp counselor for 15 years. In 1997, I left the Church of Christ, having become disillusioned with all of the legalistic dogma and thinking. My wife and I are struggling to find a church home, especially since our son is growing older -- he's 3 now. We attend Sunday School at a Methodist church in town; before that, we attended the Episcopal church, and probably would have continued had it not been for the current issue of homosexuality in the priesthood. Anyway, I would like to receive your Reflections, and may correspond with you from time to time.

From an Elder in Oklahoma:

Al, I really enjoy your writings. It is refreshing to find another Christian who holds many of the same convictions. I could be classified as a "senior," and I struggle with the legalism of so many of my peers. Al, in reading about your background I find many similarities with my own. I am retired from the USAF since 1971. We were stationed in Germany from '65 thru '68 at Hahn AFB. I preached for the English speaking congregation for those years. Additionally, I had opportunities to speak at the Kaiserslautern (where you preached), Baumholder, and Bitburg assemblies. I retired from Federal Service in '88 and returned to Oklahoma as the Congregational Care Minister for the --- ---- Church of Christ for ten years. I now serve here as one of the Elders. Keep up the good work!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Al, I appreciate Reflections #122, and also your comments to the reader in California who mentioned the failure of a preacher to respond to questioning. I have had similar results with several preachers among the Non-Institutional brethren. I thought maybe I was the only one having this problem, but now I know the refusal to respond to questioning is widespread. This is disturbing!

From a Reader in Arizona:

I've read a few responses from the readers who have praised and thanked you not only for replying to their emails to you, but for doing so promptly. I want to add my words of thanks to theirs! I'm still a fairly new Christian (three years), and my thirst for the Word has been non-stop. As I study something in the Bible and have questions, I often turn to the Internet to see what others have written about the same issue. I read things written by ministers, preachers, pastors, and others, and they often include their email address on the page, encouraging readers to write to them with comments or questions. So, sometimes I do. However, most times I have never received a reply. I've come to pretty much expect it now, but during my first year as a babe in Christ I found it quite discouraging. I thought to myself, "Don't they CARE?!" So, anyway, Al, thank YOU so very much for being the responsive, loving, and mature man of Christ that you are. My prayer for those reading this is -- if they are in the habit of inviting and receiving questions from others regarding our mutual faith, they should at the very least respond with some kind of acknowledging reply, even if they can't or don't want to answer the questions asked of them. They could be influencing a young Christian, and both their action and inaction will have an influence, one way or the other.

From a Reader in (Unknown):

Necessary Inference is where men take examples, encouragements and exhortations and turn them into all-encompassing, God-inspired commands, to which they then assign an exclusionary principle to better enforce their inference against attack. You nailed it in this statement: "The primary problem with this one particular interpretative theory is the inherent tendency toward inconsistency with regard to application."

From a Minister/Elder in Alabama:

Brother Al, my understanding of Jesus and the Bible is closely related to yours, even though I am not even in the same ballpark as far as expressing that understanding. What I am about to suggest to you really goes against what I have previously thought. I have always thought arguing and debating accomplished very little. Al, as I have mentioned to you before, I grew up in the ultra-conservative Church of Christ, and know how people like your critic from this area of Alabama think, because I used to think the same way. But let me get back to my statement concerning debating (and the challenge of this critic of yours to pay your way here for a public debate). I believe that if we advertised and promoted a debate regarding Law versus Grace, and you were the one defending Grace, God would bless the effort. I have talked with a lot of preachers over the years and I have never seen a more capable man than yourself in defending what I believe to be the Truth. Like I said, I have not been in favor of debates in the past, but I think this might be the time. The reason I believe that you and somebody in our area ought to debate the issue is this -- there are a lot of people in our county with honest hearts that could be helped. I don't believe people like your critic, or the man he proposes you debate, will ever change, but you never know. I also believe that we could get hundreds to come for it.

If you would like to be removed from or added to this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. I would also welcome
any questions or comments from the readers.
The Archives for past issues of Reflections is: