Judging False Teachers

“Judge not, that you be not judged!” Matthew 7:1

O how this verse gets misused, and sadly it is equally distorted within the church as it is by those outside the church. If only we would read the rest of the passage before trying to apply it to each and every situation where judgement is called for. Today we are in such trouble in the area of discernment within the church, and a large reason for it is because of our attempts to apply this verse to any questionable ideas and/or behavior (we could look at 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 and see that within the church we are actually commanded to judge).

One area where the church is in real trouble due to this misuse of scripture is in the area of “judging” false teachers. We might disagree with certain teachings and even teachers, but shouldn’t we just leave it to God to “judge” them? After all, we are not to judge! Well, the simple answer to this question is an emphatic NO! Let’s open our bibles and see what response we are called to, where teachers of false doctrine are concerned.

“Shouldn’t we leave it to God to judge?” I think before we even get to that question, we need to back up a step and first ask “Does God judge those who teach false doctrine?” Now we could look at a multitude of scriptures that show very clearly that indeed God does judge these, and He judges these in the extreme, but I’ll just stick to one example. So often today we hear people making the claim that Jesus would never judge, so I want to focus there. Jesus is after all the exact imprint of the God’s nature (Hebrews 1:3), so did Jesus ever judge those who taught false doctrine? Was Jesus ok with people teaching whatever they think to be correct? If not, how did He respond?

Well, Jesus was faced with those who taught falsely about God very often. The Pharisees were exactly that. Jesus called them sons of Satan who were of their father the devil (John 8:38-44), white washed tombs full of dead men’s bones (Matthew 23:27), He said they were full of greed and self-indulgence (Matthew 23:25), He said they make those whom they disciple twice as much the sons of hell as they themselves are (Matthew 23:15). He called them hypocrites who would never inherit the Kingdom. Need I go on? I think that is really clear. Did Jesus judge false teachers? Very much so! In John 5:30 Jesus says “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.”

We too, believers in Jesus Christ, have been sent, in fact, as Jesus was sent, so we have been sent (John 20:21). We too judge only as we have heard, referring of course to the Word of God, and our reasoning is exactly the same as Jesus, because we seek not our own will but the will of Him who sent us. His will regarding false teachers has not changed.

Now of course Jesus is God, we are not, so we really haven’t answered the question. I mean as God, Jesus has the right to judge, but that doesn’t mean we have that same right. Jesus did teach his disciples to “judge with righteous judgement” (John 7:24) which means to judge the same way that our righteous Father judges. To see things the same way He does. We are to love the things that God loves. Truth, righteousness, holiness, and so on, and we are to hate the things which God hates. He loves truth, we are to love truth. He hates error and false teaching, and we are to judge it, and those who promote it, in the same way He does, righteously.

But did the apostles respond to false teachers as Jesus did, or did they leave the judging to God? We could look at many passage here again, but I would like to focus on just a few. First, let’s look at Paul’s instructions to the elders of the church in Ephesus, a church He had planted and spent three years teaching.

In Acts 20 Paul calls these elders of this church to himself and gives them instructions as he is heading to Jerusalem and will not see them again. There is much to be learned in that passage, but let’s focus on the elder’s role with regards to false teachers.

Acts 20:28-31 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.

The role of the elders in the church is a role of oversight, care, and protection of the flock of God. Paul warns these that wolves will arise, from within the flock, seeking to do harm to the flock which happens by “speaking twisted things for the purpose of drawing away disciples after them.” False teachers! What is the response of the shepherd (elder/pastor)? He is to be alert! He is to admonish the sheep continually as a means of protecting them. To admonish means to reprove, to reprimand, to caution, to rebuke. It is a harsh warning! He is to warn the sheep to have nothing to do with these false teachers. That is going to require teaching the flock not only what is wrong in the teachings of these, but also naming these. We see in Paul’s example throughout his letters to the churches and to his trained-up men (Timothy and Titus) that Paul has no trouble naming names. That is a pattern we (elders today) are to follow.

In 1 Timothy 1 Paul speaks of teachers who mislead people. 1 Timothy 1:3 As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine. In other words, don’t let these teach unless first their doctrine is correct! Then he goes on to explain where their teaching is off the mark, specifically in this case devotion to genealogies, myths, speculations rather than sound doctrine, vain discussions, teaching about the law without understanding of the law. Paul goes on to instruct on proper understanding and later in the chapter comes back to these false teachers where we find this:

1 Timothy 1:18-20 This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.

Paul instructs the pastor, Timothy, that part of his role is to “wage the good warfare” which of course earlier includes charging certain people not to teach, and Paul goes on to name those he has in mind. He says of these that he has “handed them over to Satan” to learn not to blaspheme. He has dis-fellowshipped these individuals. He removed them from the church, meaning none were to fellowship with them, none were to give them their attention other than to call them to repentance. They were to be considered outside of the body of Christ.

In Galatians 1:8 Paul instructs the church what to think about false teachings. “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” According to Paul, those who teach a different gospel are under the curse of God. Not only will God judge them, He already has and we are to respond to them as if that is true. Just two verses earlier Paul expressed his opinion of those who receive the doctrines of these false teachers. He says “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6). Further into this letter he writes of these “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Galatians 3:1) Notice he did not respond “I’ll just leave it to God to work it out and judge those who present false doctrine.” No, Paul did exactly what he told the elders of Ephesus to do in Acts 20. He warned harshly not to listen to those who teach falsely, and he made it very clear who these false teachers were. In this instance, not by specifically naming names, probably because there were too many to name, but he called out an entire system of theology. Much like we would call out the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church today. Its not just the Pope, and its not just the cardinals, it’s the entire system of belief that is under God’s curse.

Next, let’s look at Paul’s instruction to a pastor, his own son in the faith whom he trained for the purpose of giving oversight to the church. As we read this, we should also understand this instruction is equally given to all of the church in every age as direction for leadership. Paul left Titus in Crete for the purpose of appointing elders in all the churches there. Paul gave the qualifications for the men to be selected for this office in Titus 1:5-9 (if only we would take these qualifications seriously, we wouldn’t be speaking of this today because it would already be happening). These qualifications give us a pattern for two things. One, the kind of life the elder is to lead. It is obviously so important that he be a man who seeks to live in holiness unto the Lord. But Paul also gives qualification for this man’s spiritual life and specifically his teaching as this is to be the central focus of his ministry.

Titus 1:5-9 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

I want to focus on that last verse, and then continue on in Titus 1, because the passage doesn’t end there. These men who are to be installed as elders in all the churches (which by the way is still the pattern today) are to be men who hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught. In other words, men who stick very close to sound biblical doctrine. This automatically disqualifies anyone of deviant doctrine. Why is that so important? Well this man is responsible for teaching and protecting the flock. He must be a man who can tell the difference between truth and error so as to protect the flock from poison and ensure that they are fed what is good for them.

Not only must he be a man who clings very close to sound biblical teaching himself, He also must pass on that sound teaching. He must give spiritual instruction in sound doctrine. He can’t do that if he is not sound himself. We could say much about the importance of this, and it is clear today that by in large the church has neglected this instruction which is evident by all the false teaching coming from the pulpits in churches across our nations. But let’s stay on track and look at the second part of verse 9. These elders are also to “rebuke those who contradict” sound doctrine. The word Paul uses here translated as “rebuke” in the ESV is the word elegcho which means to harshly rebuke generally with the suggestion of shaming. It means to “speak against”. So the elder who cares for the flock is to warn them, and protect them by teaching them what is true, what is not true, and who not to follow. He is to speak boldly against those who teach falsely so that the sheep will not be swayed by the false doctrine these present. But let’s continue reading the passage because Paul also tells us why he is to preach as such.

Titus 1:10-16 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.

Insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, upsetting people (meaning confusing in doctrine what to follow and giving people uncertainty in what to believe). They do it for wrong motives, shameful gain. They teach what they ought not teach. They must be silenced! They must be sharply rebuked. That is another way of saying they must be harshly, harshly corrected. The emphasis must not be missed. They need rebuke so strongly so that they will not lead others astray, and so that they themselves might turn to the truth.

As John MacArthur states in his commentary on this passage:

“The Lord’s preachers and teachers are to be polemicists against unsound doctrine that goes under the guise of biblical truth… The dual role of the godly preacher and teacher is to proclaim and to defend God’s Word. In the eyes of the world and, tragically, in the eyes of many genuine but untaught believers, to denounce false doctrine, especially if that doctrine is given under the guise of evangelicalism, is to be unloving, judgmental, and divisive. But compromising Scripture in order to make it more palatable and acceptable—whether to believers or to unbelievers—is not “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). It is speaking falsehood and is the farthest thing from godly love. It is a subtle, deceptive, and dangerous way to contradict God’s own Word. The faithful pastor must have no part in it. He himself tolerates, and he teaches his people to tolerate, only sound doctrine.”

How does God feel about false teaching? Strongly enough that He gives us warning about the dangers of adding to, or removing from, His word. God is also so concerned about those who would add to, or take away from the whole council of God, that He instructs the church that these wolves will come, they are to be marked as such, the sheep are to be protected from them, which is accomplished by letting everyone know who they are and how their teaching is in error. In short, we are to judge these, and frankly, we are in real need of this today!

This is a qualification for an elder. It is a part of the office, and therefore, the elder that does not follow in this pattern disqualifies himself from the office. If a pastor never warns the flock with regards to false teachers and false teaching, he is not a shepherd, and should not hold that office, and he should not be listened to by the flock.

Why is this so important today? It might well be more important today than it ever has been. We have here in our city a “Christian bookstore” whose shelves are filled with anything and everything but Christian material. So little of what you would find there could actually be called Christian. Moreover, the internet has much to offer Christians in the area of teaching. I have been blessed again and again by good solid biblical teaching which I have found online. But there is also much that is hazardous and fatal to the flock if they are allowed to feed on it. Baby sheep can’t tell the difference between good feed and poison, and the shepherd must help them discern the difference. If we love the sheep, we teach them truth, we warn them about false doctrine, and we name names so they know who not to give attention to. And remember, false doctrine is not always so slap you in the face obvious that anyone and everyone can see it for what it is. No, it is often very subtle, nuanced, but just as deadly.

So yes we are to judge. We judge because we love God and we love His truth. We judge because we love God’s people and would have them protected and guided.

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