For years, Christian writers forced pens to bleed ink on the subject of false teachers. They warned, they begged people to be ready, they called out the false teachers, and they repeated the whole thing. We often nod, hum a hymn, and don’t give it much thought.
Let me put some meat on those bones.
At church, we are rightly warned about those wool-wearing wolves but we never think of them as already here, among us, teeth bared. We mention them in a nebulous sort of way, waving our arms in that direction over yonder, but most of us never stop and wonder if they’re sitting next to us, smiling and saying “amen” during the sermon. Or maybe, arms raised, leading the singing. Or possibly, speaking, behind the pulpit.
For most of us Christians, false teachers are a distant threat reserved for tele-evangelists.
Medieval artists, depicting Satan, painted him red (or black or gray), horned, and troubling, or eating, the saints: he looked evil. Modern artists followed in form. They show him as either a horrifying monster or a scary, beautiful, androgynous thing sometimes with cat eyes or blood caked to the corners of the mouth. People rarely think of him the way Scripture depicts him: an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). In other words, a pretty good guy.
With false teachers we’ve made the medievalist mistake. We have painted them in garish colors but rarely in soft, welcoming, yet dangerous, hues. The fact is we need to start thinking about them the way the Bible does.
I want to think about them the way the book of Jude talks about them. I want to try to get to the warning he’s offering when he says that these people have committed the error of Balaam or gone the way of Cain or have perished (even while currently alive) in Korah’s Rebellion. I want to understand why Peter offers similar warnings.
And I want us to take those warnings seriously.
Balaam’s Way: The False Teacher Outside of Israel
Balaam had set up a business where he would bestow God’s blessing or cursing for payment (Num 22:7). He made a point about checking with God before he’d do things, but in the end he remained persistent: it was all about him.
For example, the Lord tells Balaam not to go with a group of men who are paying to curse the Israelites (Num 22:12) but then, when they show up with even more money he asks the Lord if he was sure about him not going (Num 22:20): God allows him to do what he wants. When he goes, God sends his angel to display how much against Balaam he is (Num 23:22-33) and again Balaam takes the whole event and makes it a maybe: “I didn’t know you didn’t want me to go; if it’s really that bad I’ll turn around…” (Num 22:34) so God lets him go his way.
Eventually, he does exactly what God wants: he blesses the Israelites several times and cursing their enemies (Num 23-24). Eventually he goes home, but not without doing what he was paid to do as a false teacher.
Under his advice and direction (Num 31:16), the Moabites ensure that God Himself will strike out against the Israelites (Num 25).
In a context of representing God, Balaam’s error and way consisted of using his position for personal gain (Phil 3:18-19; Romans 16:18; Jude 11; 2 Peter 2:13).
Cain’s Way: The False Teacher in the Beginning
The first person to shed human blood did it in the context of worship (Gen 4). These two brothers offered their work to the Lord, but Cain offered a gift without trusting God (Heb 11:4) and became enraged when his sacrifice was rejected. Instead of listening to God’s warning, he embraced the darkness, rose up against his brother when they were out in the field, and murdered him (Gen 4:8; 1 John 3:12).
Religion was really just a way to prop himself up and, when seeing his faithless position was rejected, his solution is not to re-examine himself and repent, but rather to end the opposition: his ability as a false teacher was confirmed.
Korah’s Way: The False Teacher in the Camp
Korah, a Levite, embraced the royal priesthood of all Israel (Exodus 20) for the purpose of rebelling against Apostle (Moses) and the High Priest (Aaron) of the Jewish confession. He rejected what God would have him do in favor of doing what God had demarcated wasn’t for him. In so doing, he proved that his rebellion wasn’t against Aaron and Moses but rather against the Lord himself. (Numbers 16).
In a context of religious service, Korah took on prerogatives that the Lord Himself didn’t offer him. An able false teacher with his own private interpretation of God’s Word, he twisted it encouraging division against God’s mandates and personal gain.
The Modern Way: The False Teacher Amongst Us
It was no different in the early church, just a few years after Christ’s resurrection. False teachers like Elymas (Acts 13) or the super apostles in Corinth (2 Cor 11:22-23): dudes that would sneak into the church (Gal 2:4-5; Jude 1:4,13) or rise up in the ranks within the leadership (Acts 20:28-29) and cause serious problems.
They walked the long distances and preached great sermons, sometimes refuting apostles while drawing crowds (2 Cor 11) likely even speaking in the Lord’s name (Matt 7:23). Paul warned about them (Phil 3:2, 18; Gal 1:8-9), Peter warned about them (2 Pet 2:1-3), Jude warned about them, and John warned about them (1 John 2). Paul said that in the last days there will be both a desire away from the truth and enough teachers to scratch those itching ears as they pull away (2 Tim 4:1-4): Indeed, Jesus outright said this would happen (Matt 24:11)!
It shouldn’t be surprising then, that if there were false teachers back in Israel, and there were false teachers in the apostle’s day that there would be false teachers in our day. People will come along paying the Lord lip service, being exceedingly elegant, and ultimately serving their own appetites and pleasures (Rom 16:8; 2 Tim 3:4).
After several thousand years of history, a rise in individual opinion, a culture where perception is reality, and a denial of the sufficiency of Scripture, false teachers today have it better than ever. They can come in various shades from loving to ludicrous; preach various sermons from conservative to liberal; and embrace various errors without respect to logic. And today, unlike the past, they have instant access to many of our homes and churches.
The fact is that you might listen to these people and probably really enjoy them. Heck, most folk would even swear that these teachers are Biblical. But we need to actually go back to the Scriptures, employ some critical thinking, and be aware.
False teachers aren’t a distant bogeyman reserved for those weird late night public access channels; they’re already here.