If I may botch the words of Benjamin Franklin, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and Christians fighting over doctrine.”
Until the Lord returns, theological disagreement is an inevitability, even among evangelical Christians who affirm the same gospel and appeal to the same inerrant authority in scripture. Christians who disagree over doctrine do so because they are imperfect interpreters who have different interpretations of scripture, ways of reasoning, feelings and biases. As our 175-year history bears witness, Southern Baptists are not immune to these kinds of intramural disputes.
Yet not every theological disagreement is a “false teaching” in the biblical sense, nor is everyone who disagrees with our interpretation on a doctrinal matter a “false teacher.” In the New Testament, the term “false teacher” has a connotation more specific than someone who is factually incorrect in a belief or doctrine. It speaks more about the character of the teacher than the teaching itself. “False doctrine” is not a mere disagreement about the meaning of a biblical text.
First, false teaching deceives the spiritually immature. Those who are like “little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching” (Ephesians 4:14) are most susceptible to “turning away from … the grace of Christ … to a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6), “another Jesus” and a “different spirit” (2 Corinthians 11:4). Notice the benchmarks for false doctrine here are a “different gospel” and “another Jesus.”
Second, Peter associates false teaching with “untaught and unstable” individuals who distort the meaning of every scripture (2 Peter 3:16). He contrasts this “unstable” personality with those who are “established in the truth” (2 Peter 1:12).
Third, biblically speaking, false teachers are more than men or women teaching mistaken ideas. They also have fatal character flaws like ungodly ambition, foolishness, greed and arrogance. According to Paul, the one who teaches false doctrine is “conceited and understands nothing.” Like many of the keyboard warriors ready to pounce on anyone who disagrees with them, the false teacher has an “unhealthy interest in disputes and arguments over words.” Their comments provoke “envy, quarreling, slander, evil suspicions and constant disagreement.” (1 Timothy 6:4–5).
Fourth, false teachers see their so-called ministries as “a way to material gain” (1 Tim. 6:5). Like modern televangelists dissatisfied with their multimillion-dollar jets, the false teachers and prophets confronted by the apostles would “market the word of God for profit” (2 Corinthians 2:17). These false teachers “exploit you in their greed with made-up stories” (2 Peter 2:3).
Fifth, false teaching can stem from and result in sexual sin. Peter warns of “destructive heresies” which lead many to “follow their depraved ways” (2 Peter 2:1–2). Jesus warns the churches in Revelation of deceptive teaching that leads to sexual immorality (Revelation 2:14, 20). Those who endorse sexual behaviors contrary to the clear teaching of scripture are properly called “false teachers.”
Sixth, biblical authors occasionally attribute false teaching to spiritual warfare, “to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1, Galatians 1:8). Even people who are “spiritual” in their teachings may not be under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
But how do we know when a teacher is under the work of a demonic spirit? John gave a simple litmus test for churches battling heresy: “Every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:3). Paul adds, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Biblically speaking, anyone who denies the true divinity or true humanity of Christ is a false teacher under spiritual deception.
Finally, false teaching comes from “false brothers” who infiltrate our ranks (Galatians 2:4). From this final characteristic, we must make an important clarification: someone who is a false teacher cannot be a true brother or sister in Christ. False teachers deny “the Master who bought them” (2 Peter 2:1), evidence gross sin in their behavior and dealings with others and are characterized by immorality and wickedness.
For these reasons, we must be slow to label the theological disagreements we have with others “false teaching” and especially cautious about labeling other men and women “false teachers.” Grace and patience must characterize our theological conflicts, especially those which do not rise to these extremes.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Rhyne Putman is associate professor of theology and culture at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.)