False Doctrine: A Great Enemy of the Church
Ask Christians in any church if they believe false doctrine exists, and they will likely admit that something called “false doctrine” or “false teaching” truly exists. Yet, ask the same Christians in the same church if they or their church embraces or propagates false doctrine, and their answer will most likely be something like this: “Not my church”; or maybe, “Not that I am aware of”; or even, “I don’t think so.” You see, false teaching is something that always finds a home “out there” in some other person, church, denomination, or sect. But is it possible that even good churches and sincere Christians can be guilty of believing or teaching false doctrine?
False teaching, or false doctrine, is simply any teaching propagated or embraced that conflicts with the truth as revealed in the Word of God. Most people who embrace false doctrine actually point to Scripture to support their errant beliefs. Yes, people can make the Bible say anything they want it to say. This is why it is so important to grasp the context of every passage of Scripture. The goal of the faithful Christian is to understand God’s Word as God meant it to be understood to the reader. Remember, even Satan himself used the Bible to “proof text” his claims as he tempted Jesus in the wilderness. Yet Jesus replied with Scripture accurately interpreted!
The word doctrine simply means “teaching.” Yes, false doctrine does exist. In fact, it has existed since the beginning of time. Thousands of years ago in the garden of Eden, the serpent propagated the first “false doctrine” recorded in the history of mankind when he told Eve, “Ye shall not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). God had declared to Adam and Eve that they could eat of any fruit of the trees of the garden except the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God told them that should they eat of this tree, they would certainly die. The serpent declared otherwise. God declared the truth, and the serpent contradicted it with false doctrine, or erroneous teaching.
Since this first incident in the garden of Eden, Satan has continued to propagate false teaching, for “he is a liar, and the father of it” (Jn. 8:44). Christians who comprise the church, the body of Christ in this age, are not without warning concerning the reality and abundance of false teaching. The New Testament Scriptures warn the believer that false teaching—even within the professing church—will be a hallmark characteristic of the church age, the age of grace.
Jesus Himself hated false teaching and decried the religious leaders of His day for misleading the Jews through their words and their walk. Notice Matthew 16:6-12. Here, Jesus warned His disciples of the “leaven” or “doctrine” (v. 12) of the Pharisees and Sadducees. In the context, these religious leaders were looking for a “sign” from Jesus rather than receiving Him as their Messiah and changing their hearts. Jesus called them “blind guides” (Matt. 23:16, 24) and “hypocrites” who were void of discernment (Matt. 16:3), and yet these men were revered as the leading rabbis of the day who were responsible to impart spiritual knowledge to the children of Israel.
Following the death and resurrection of Jesus and the birth of the church, false doctrine continued to find its home in the hearts and minds of many within and without the church. The apostle Paul told the elders in Ephesus to “take heed” to themselves and to God’s “flock” because after Paul left them, false teachers—including some of the church elders—would “arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples” (Acts 20:29-30). Even in the church at Ephesus, false teaching was a serious problem!
Interestingly enough, many of the New Testament epistles (letters) were written to address false teaching that had crept into the church. Paul, Peter, John, Jude, and others penned Holy Spirit-inspired letters to individuals and churches for the purpose of setting the record straight—declaring the truth over against doctrinal error. Consider several letters (books of the New Testament) written for the purpose of addressing false doctrine:
1. Galatians—written to address the problem of legalism proclaimed by the Judaizers.
2. Colossians—written to address the problem of Gnosticism making its way into the church.
3. 2 Thessalonians—written to address the problem of false teaching concerning the rapture and the tribulation.
4. Hebrews—written to Christians who were backsliding into spiritual lethargy and leaning toward Judaistic legalism.
5. 1 John and 2 John—written to Christians who were facing the Gnostic heresies that diminished the person of Jesus Christ (1 Jn. 2:26; 4:1-6; 2 Jn. 7-11).
6. Revelation—Chapters two and three were written to local churches in Asia Minor, some of which were embracing error or minimizing the dangers of false doctrine.
Yet what is especially notable about God’s Word is that it not only addresses those in the first century but it also addresses believers in the twenty-first century as well! Carefully read and consider the following New Testament texts, which clearly reveal that false teaching exists and even abounds as the end of the church age draws near:
1 Timothy 4:1—The Holy Spirit clearly declares that as the end of the age draws near, people will turn from the truth as they give their attention to teaching that is demon-inspired rather than Holy Spirit-inspired. This text is quite informative, for it reveals that the catalyst of their departure from “the faith” was their attention to false doctrine.
2 Timothy 4:1-4—Paul tells Timothy (and all believers today) that people will come to a point where they no longer endure the truth but, rather, will turn away from the truth and listen to myths (un-truths). The truth is not popular with the world because it is exclusive and narrow. Because of this, many did not endure it and chose a broad and easy path, and “fables” or false teaching filled the void left by truth.
2 Peter 2:1-2—Peter reminds his readers that just as false prophets existed in the Old Testament times, false teachers will intermingle among believers even today, and these false teachers will introduce extremely dangerous teaching into the church. This text is interesting because it reveals that many will follow the false teachers, and it informs us that this false teaching will be introduced to the church subtly and craftily. In other words, undiscerning people would not even recognize the false teaching when it crept into the church.
2 Peter 3:1-3, 17—Peter reminds believers in the church that scoffers will arise who will mock and deny the clear teaching of God’s Word. Obviously, these men and women will have their own sets of beliefs that contradict the truth, and these errant beliefs will stem from their own “lusts” (v. 3), that is, they will believe and behave in a manner that suits their own desires.
Jude 1-25—The entire letter from Jude urges believers to beware of the false teaching of those who are attempting to seduce them away from the truth. These false teachers are wicked and arrogant, yet they appear pleasant and cordial on the outside. They tell people what they want to hear, even though their words are empty of truth and dangerous to the spiritual lives of God’s people.
Yes, sound doctrine is of paramount importance to God. The Bible itself is full of truth and full of warnings concerning error. Never let anyone declare that doctrine is not important. It is of paramount importance to the church today. Dr. Renald Showers in his book The Foundations of Faith wrote the following words:
"Is it true that doctrine is not important? God doesn’t think so. Many years ago I read an article that so impressed me I have never forgotten its content. At the beginning of a seminary course on New Testament studies, an instructor told his students that they would work together on one major project that semester. They would move systematically through the New Testament to categorize every area of truth and determine how many times each area is addressed. Their goal was to find the one truth emphasized more than any other in the New Testament. When they completed the project, they were amazed to see that warning against false doctrine is emphasized more than any other issue—even more than love, unity, and experience.
Since God inspired the Scriptures, this discovery is significant. It indicates that doctrine is of paramount importance to God. Since it is so important to Him, it had better be important to His people (p. 10)."
The Ramifications of False Doctrine
Although the ramifications of false doctrine in the life of a believer and the church are many, take some time to consider four primary consequences of such:
1. It leads to ungodly behavior.
What one believes determines how he behaves. To pay attention to false teaching only leads to more ungodliness (2 Tim. 2:16). Notice that in 1 Timothy 4:1-3, those who are embracing and teaching false doctrine are behaving in a manner that is completely inconsistent with truth. The believer cannot divorce his beliefs from his behavior. God’s Word is full of examples of people who dishonored the Lord with their behavior because inwardly they lacked belief in His promises and commands.
2. It can lead to more doctrinal error and eventually shipwreck the faith of a believer.
Erroneous beliefs can lead to doubt and despair (2 Tim. 2:16-18). This can often affect believers to the degree that they move away from faith and confidence in God and His Word and “fall from [their] own stedfastness” (2 Pet. 3:17; 1 Tim. 1:19). Second Timothy 4:3-4 says that those who turn away their ears from the truth turn their ears toward something else—fables or myths (that which is not literally true). This, of course, only leads to a spiritual disaster. In 1 Corinthians 15:12, Paul declared the truth of future resurrection and spelled out the dangerous implications of rejecting this doctrine (that is, if resurrection is not a reality, then Jesus did not rise again, the Christian’s faith is vain, he has no hope, etc.). False teaching in its many forms does not edify (build up) Christians. On the contrary, it tears them down and brings despair and even spiritual ruin.
3. It will destroy the unity of the church.
The common ground of believers is described in Scripture as “the faith,” that is, the body of truth that has been delivered to the church (Acts 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:13; Eph. 4:5; Col. 2:7; 2 Tim. 4:7; Jude 3). The apostle Paul frequently exhorted the New Testament churches to be unified in “the faith,” and this is accomplished through a unity of mind and purpose (Rom. 15:5-6; Phil. 1:27). In fact, God has gifted His church with pastor-teachers to equip saints to do the work of the ministry as they hold fast sound doctrine and are mature enough to withstand being tossed about with every wind of doctrine. Ephesians 4:11-16 addresses the importance of doctrine, unity, spiritual maturity, and the dangers of false teaching in the church. False doctrine destroys the unity that God desires of His body.
4. It will render a believer unusable for God.
Clearly, to depart from “the faith” or to teach that which is contrary to the truth renders one ineffective in ministry. In 2 Timothy 3:13-17, the apostle Paul makes it clear that Timothy was to “continue” in the truth he had learned, understanding that the Holy Scriptures were totally sufficient to bring him to spiritual maturity. In verse seventeen, it is evident that only the one who continues in truth (as opposed to error or false teaching) is mature and equipped to do what is right for God’s glory. The Christian who is usable for God is one who is separated from iniquity (including bad doctrine) and set apart unto the Lord, “prepared unto every good work” (2 Tim. 2:19, 21). God wants to use every believer for His glory, but the Christian is only “usable” when he is separated from sin and set apart unto God.
The Remedy for False Doctrine
Although false doctrine has been around since the beginning of time, and although God reminds His children in His Word that they will continue to face this formidable foe until the end of the age, He has given clear instructions concerning how to avoid the snare of this great enemy of the church. Consider five necessary action steps:
1. Be aware and reminded of its continual presence within and without the church.
Awareness is the first line of defense. Too often, Christians today live life with their heads in the clouds, not even remembering that a real enemy exists and is trying to destroy the church through false doctrine. God knows that believers tend to be forgetful and susceptible to this dangerous enemy, so He constantly exhorts the church to “remember.” Jude writes, “But, beloved, remember ye the words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; How that they told you there should be mockers in the last time …” (Jude 17-18). The apostle Peter told the Christians in the early church that they needed to be continually reminded of the truths of God’s Word (2 Pet. 1:12-15). In fact, he noted that the words he wrote (inspired by the Holy Spirit) would serve as a continual reminder even after he died and went to be with the Lord (2 Pet. 1:15). Notice what he said concerning his authorship of the second epistle: “This second epistle, beloved, I now write unto you; in both which I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance: That ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before. … Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts” (2 Pet. 3:1-3). Do not forget that false doctrine not only exists in the church, but it will increase as time goes on!
2. Be grounded and established in the truth.
Of course, the best defense is a good offense. God’s program for this age centers around the church, and the primary focus of the church is to propagate the truth. Believers must be rooted and grounded and steadfast in the faith (Col. 2:6-7). Without a good grounding in the truth, it is impossible to be protected from false doctrine. Consider the following texts and notice the common thread that runs through each of them:
Second Timothy 2:15 exhorts every Christian to “study” as a “workman” who is “rightly dividing the word of truth.” The word study carries the idea of diligent persistence in working hard to effectively ground oneself in properly interpreting and applying the truth to one’s life and ministry.
Second Timothy 3:14-17 reveals that the Old and New Testament Scriptures are totally sufficient to equip the believer to be a mature Christian who manifests a close walk with God. The Holy Scriptures are not only able to save a sinner, but they are also able to “grow” or “mature” a saint. All Scripture is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect (mature), throughly furnished unto all good works.” Believers need to be grounded in God’s Word in order to recognize false doctrine and to remove themselves from it.
Second Timothy 4:2 is God’s call for a constant emphasis on His Word. Timothy is told to “preach the Word” without compromise, and he is to accomplish this goal as he exercises patience and longsuffering while paying attention to “doctrine.”
Second Peter 3:17-18 is an excellent summary of the apostle Peter’s letter, for it not only encourages believers to be reminded of the truth and to beware of error, but it describes how they can keep from falling from their own “stedfastness”—by growing in “grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” Followers of Jesus Christ need to be established and steadfast in the truth of God’s Word (healthy, true doctrine) in order to battle the onslaught of error.
3. Judge (examine) yourself.
Believers must not think that they can live their lives on “autopilot.” If a Christian is growing spiritually, he will be constantly changing and conforming to the image of Jesus Christ. During his spiritual growth process, he will be confronted with false teaching and false teachers at times. This is simply a part of life. Satan, who is described as the “god of this world,” will continually find ways to introduce God’s people to thoughts, beliefs, and worldviews that contradict the truth as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and His Word, the Bible. Therefore, believers must keep checking up on themselves! The apostle John reminds the church that “many deceivers are entered into the world” and then exhorts Christians to “look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward” (2 Jn. 7-8). Believers must not be self-deceived and think they are exempt from falling prey to Satan’s devices.
4. Avoid that which is false.
People today do not like to be told to avoid or separate from anything. Yet avoidance of error is the only way to be spiritually healthy. Just as in the physical realm one must avoid junk food if he wants to be physically healthy, in the spiritual realm he must avoid “junk doctrine” if he wants to be spiritually healthy. Consider God’s clear commands to separate from (avoid) false doctrine:
Romans 16:17 is one of the clearest passages of Scripture on the subject of separation from false doctrine and those who embrace it. Paul tells the Roman Christians, “Mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.” Notice that doctrine—not personalities or opinions or any other issue—is the dividing line here. Paul was concerned that false teachers would arise and “deceive the hearts of the simple” through their “good words and fair speeches” (Rom. 16:18). Remember, false doctrine does not look “evil.” Rather, it appeals not only to the one who propagates it but to the listener as well.
Second Timothy 2:16-19 exhorts believers to “shun (keep away from; avoid) profane and vain babblings” and to “depart from iniquity.” Notice that the context of these iniquitous teachings centered around a denial of the truth (the doctrine of the resurrection) and a propagation of error. Paul knew that to embrace this teaching could have a profoundly negative impact on one’s life.
Second Thessalonians 3:14-15 is a command to avoid or separate from a Christian brother who walks disorderly, yet notice that the “dividing line” between avoidance and acceptance is whether or not this individual obeys “our [the apostle’s] word by this epistle.” The teaching of the New Testament apostles and prophets as penned in Scripture is of paramount importance in the life of a follower of Jesus Christ, and those who ignore, reject, or disobey the truth are to be avoided, even if they are fellow brothers or sisters in Christ. Please note, however, that one’s “separatist” attitude is extremely important. Paul writes, “Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”
5. Test all teachings according to the standard of God’s Word, the Bible.
The Word of God is the only certain, objective standard of truth. To measure a teaching against another person or against the beliefs and values of a majority of people or against history or anything else is insufficient. People change. Ideas and philosophies change. But God and His Word are solid and unchangeable. Therefore, if a believer is to be rooted, grounded, and established in the truth, then he must measure every teaching and philosophy and behavior according to this objective standard of truth.
In 1 John 4:1-6, the apostle John warns Christians to “believe not every spirit … because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (v. 1). It is evident from this text that dangerous doctrine is not only demon-inspired, but it comes in the form of people who are spreading this false doctrine. John’s exhortation to the church is to “try the spirits whether they are of God” (v. 1). How can Christians do this? They can do so by measuring the words and actions of these teachers against the Scriptures. John writes, “He that knoweth God heareth us (the apostles and prophets); he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error” (v. 6). In other words, if any doctrine conflicts with the teachings of the authors of God’s Word—the Bible—then such a doctrine is “false doctrine,” and those who propagate it are dangerous and should be avoided.
Notice 2 Thessalonians 2:15. Here, Paul exhorts the believers in Thessalonica (and all Christians today) to “stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” Again, it is evident that the dividing line between what one should embrace or reject is the doctrine proclaimed by the authors of Scripture. In 2 Thessalonians 3:4-6 the apostle Paul again commands the saints in Thessalonica to use God’s authoritative Word (“the tradition which he received of us”) as the ultimate standard by which all belief and behavior are to be judged.
That false doctrine is all around us is a daunting reality. Yet God has given His children the keys to spiritual victory. First, they possess the truth (Jn. 17:17). Nothing is more liberating, eternal, and powerful than the truth as it is in the person of God and the Word of God. Second, they have been blessed with the power of God through the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit. With God’s Word and the indwelling Holy Spirit, a believer can have victory over any foe. “Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen” (Jude 24-25).
[Excerpt from The Greatest Enemies of the Church in the 21st Century by Matt Costella. This book is available from the FEA and can be ordered through our website]