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False Teachers Part 6



In addition to having dominant character flaws, false teachers typically err in their doctrine at critical points. So far we have examined four critical points at which false teachers often err: denying the identity of Jesus, denying the authority of Jesus, misapplying the Old Testament law, and over-spiritualizing the Christian life. Frankly, there are multiple false teachings for every true teaching, which means that we could end up with an exceedingly long list of false teachings. My aim in this series is not to produce and analyze such a list, but only to touch on some key areas. Of the five critical points that I mentioned in Part 3, I have not yet addressed the fifth one – and to that we now turn.

Critical Point #5: Misusing Secondary or Speculative Matters

In addition to denying or distorting key doctrines, false teachers might also distract from key doctrines. When this is happening, false teachers distract from the most important doctrines by elevating secondary or speculative matters to a place of first importance. Thus what is less important replaces what is most important, and what is less important becomes most important in the minds of the false teachers and their followers.

Paul warns Timothy about people who drift from what is central and primary to that which is not central and primary. Paul instructs Timothy to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.” (1 Timothy 1:3-4)[1] Paul describes a false teacher as someone who “has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words” (1 Timothy 6:4). Timothy must see to it that he has “nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies” (2 Timothy 2:23). Likewise Titus must “avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” (Titus 3:9) Being on ‘the right side’ of the quarrel doesn’t mean that you are ‘in the right’ because the quarrel itself is “unprofitable and worthless” – so you’re in the wrong regardless of the technical merits of your argument!

Learning Biblical Simplicity

Part of becoming a healthy Christian means learning to keep the main thing the main thing: trust in Jesus, treasure His words, walk in obedience to His commands, love one another, devote your life and resources to displaying the Lord’s glory and partner with others who share the same ultimate commitment, and look forward to the glorious future that the Lord has promised to His faithful ones! This is not complicated. Live in the simplicity of “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).

It is inevitable, of course, that as a thinking person you will develop opinions about a whole range of secondary (matters of conscience) and tertiary (matters of preference) and speculative (matters of very interesting guesswork) issues. Further, there are in fact some very important secondary issues that you will have to make decisions about (e.g., how you will educate your children; how you will ‘keep the Sabbath/Lord’s Day’ if you are convinced that you ought to keep it). With such decisions, do your best to make wise ones that honor the Lord. But even on these important secondary issues, you are “not to quarrel over opinions” (Romans 14:1). And on tertiary and speculative issues, you are not to get into stupid fights with each other. Instead, you are to have a clear sense of what is most important, and you are to find joy in having your feet firmly planted there. Where? Here: “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” (1 John 3:23) Indeed, the totality of the Scriptures is designed to establish our faith in Jesus and to shape our life in accordance with love. The Scriptures should be understood, taught, and lived accordingly!

Beware The Drifting

In his short book on Philippians, D. A. Carson shares an important lesson that relates to our general topic:

“In a fair bit of Western evangelicalism, there is a worrying tendency to focus on the periphery. I have a colleague in the Missions Department at Trinity whose analysis of his own heritage is very helpful. Dr. Paul Hiebert labored for years in India before returning to the United States to teach. He springs from Mennonite stock and analyzes his heritage in a fashion that he himself would acknowledge is something of a simplistic caricature, but a useful one nonetheless. One generation of Mennonites believed the gospel and held as well that there were certain social, economic, and political entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel, but identified with the entailments. The following generation denied the gospel: the “entailments” became everything. Assuming this sort of scheme for evangelicalism, one suspects that large swaths of the movement are lodged in the second step, with some drifting toward the third."[2]

To be clear, the gospel does have important implications for the social (e.g., home groups, soup kitchens), economic (e.g., financial stewardship, resource-sharing), and political (e.g., pro-life, education freedom) aspects of our lives. But every generation of believers must learn afresh and anew that the glorious gospel comes first; and once the gospel becomes first in our hearts and minds, it must remain first. The gospel of God’s gracious salvation must never to fade into the background, but must be proclaimed and grasped as the unique and wonderful wellspring that generates life and joy and fellowship. The entailments and implications must be kept in their proper place as part of the good fruit that grows on the gospel tree. But whenever this fruit either eclipses the tree or gets severed from the tree, the fruit ceases to be good fruit. And when the gospel message gets dislodged from the heart of the church, the churchgoers become mere moralists, mere communitarians, or mere activists. Such churchgoers may keep themselves quite busy, but they are not “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15)

Are you remaining in the center of God’s will? Are you focusing your attention on the weightiest matters? Or do you find yourself preoccupied with a whole host of secondary, peripheral, or even trivial issues? And if so, are you influencing others to join you in your lack of biblical focus?

A Final Word

In the final analysis, all you have to do to warrant the label ‘false teacher’ or ‘unhelpful influencer’ is to teach a lot of good and interesting things that are not the main thing, and to teach those things as if they are the main thing. Do that, and you will weaken others and leave behind a legacy of ruin.

Brothers and sisters, be diligent not to swerve from (1 Timothy 1:6, 6:21) or “depart from” (1 Timothy 4:1) or “drift away from” (Hebrews 2:1) or “neglect” (Hebrews 2:3) or “shrink back” from (Hebrews 10:39) or “be led astray from” (2 Corinthians 11:3) the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. All doctrinal deviations, cheap substitutes, and rabbit trails are not welcome! Be resolved that you will not settle for anything less than the gold standard of biblical truth!

Therefore, my friends, stand firm, hold fast, and press on!


[1] Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] D. A. Carson, Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996: p. 26-27.

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