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“It is to his grievous injury that a man is deceived when he does not believe what leads to eternal life, or believes what leads to eternal death” ~ Augustine (354–430 AD)[1]


In the Spirit-inspired Scriptures, God says through the Apostle John that he has “no greater joy than to hear of his children walking in the truth” (3 Jn. 4). Given God’s revealed will in this matter, it should come as no surprise that he warns his children repeatedly to watch out for error. Moreover, much of the Bible—both Old and New Testament—reveals God’s displeasure with false doctrine and consists of instruction aimed at correcting aberrant teaching (Deut. 18:20–22; Gal. 1:6–9; Col. 2:8). Christians, therefore, must care about doctrine. Ours is a doctrinal faith.[2] For this reason, we must consider the reality of false teachers, learn some of their basic features, and be willing to confront false teaching if necessary.

The Presence of False Teachers

False teaching should not catch thinking Christians by surprise. Instead, we should expect it. Paul said false teachers would come (Acts 20:29), as did Peter (2 Pet. 2:1–3), and Jude (Jude 4). And they did, which is what precipitated the Apostles to send letters to churches under their care. Paul, for example, wrote Galatians to confront the Judaizers—those insisting that salvation is by grace plus circumcision. He wrote to the Colossians in order to combat “the Colossian heresy,” a hard-to-pin-down set of teachings that combined elements of Greek speculation (2:4, 8–10), Jewish legalism (2:11–17), mysticism (2:18–23), and asceticism (2:20-23). John, the Beloved Apostle, wrote First John in order to confront those who denied that Jesus came in human form.

How to Spot False Teaching

Spotting false teaching is challenging because it doesn’t often come in the form we expect. We tend to think a false teacher is going to identify him- or herself during a church service and start spewing, “Jesus is not God,” or “Jesus never existed.” This is not usually the case, however. More often than not, their method is to sow seeds of doubt and throw out statements that impugn God’s character—all of which take aim at believers’ trust relationship with God.

Some Common Practices

How does false teaching arise and what are some practices common to false teachers? Here are a few:

False teaching usually arises because people find certain biblical doctrines unpalatable. For example, Arminians in New England denied original sin because “it was offensive to their refined sensibilities” and didn’t comport with their self-defined notions of equity.[3] Of course, if “refined sensibilities” is the test of the truthfulness of doctrine, then who has the stomach for hell? Washington Gladden (1836–1918), one of the early leaders in the Social Gospel Movement, said concerning hell, “To teach such a doctrine as this about God, is to inflict upon religion a terrible injury and to subvert the very foundations of morality.” (Although I won’t highlight it as a separate point, watch for false teachers to mimic Gladden’s approach by employing emotive arguments.[4])

Still, expect false teachers to appeal to Scripture. Don’t be surprised by this. Every heretic has his or her verse. The issue is never what one isolated verse says, but what the entirety of the Bible discloses. In addition to patiently attending to the entirety of biblical revelation, good biblical interpretation heeds the catholic church’s exegetical, theological, and moral reflection. False teachers typically fail in this regard. In light of this, prepare not only for false teachers to appeal to Scripture, but also to trumpet a bastardized version of sola Scriptura. Theirs is a bastardized version because it’s been “nursed at the breast of modern rationalism and individualism” and is therefore out of step with what the magisterial reformers envisioned.[5] Sola Scriptura properly understood does not divorce canonicity—what the canon of Scripture reveals—from Catholicity, what the church universal has taught throughout the ages.[6]

Finally, expect false teachers to have a kernel of truth in what they say. Not everything a false teachers says is incorrect. Sometimes they speak the truth. For example, in the early church two heresies that came to the fore were Nestorianism and Eutycheanism. Nestorius agreed that Christ was fully human (as did the catholic church), but he denied the divinity of Christ. On the other hand, Eutyches stressed the divinity of Christ (as did the catholic church) but denied the humanity of Christ. Note carefully: False teachers are not always identified by what they say, but also by what they fail to say.[7] Why is this kind of nuance and precision necessary? Well, I can’t say it any better than J. I. Packer: “A half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.”[8]

Responding to False Teaching/Teachers

How should Christians respond to false teaching/teachers? Three thoughts come to mind.

We must confront false teachers/teaching in the church. In an age where the only heresy left is believing there’s such a thing as heresy, fear might prevent us from doing the hard work of confronting. Nevertheless, we must do so because false teaching destroys its hearers (2 Tim. 2:14). While this is the responsibility of all Christians, elders are especially charged to protect the flock under their care (1 Pet. 5:1–3; Acts 20:28–30). Although this is hard work, it is necessary work.

We must invest time, energy, and prayer in reading the Bible and studying theology. Lack of Bible knowledge and basic Christian doctrine is a key factor in how false doctrine creeps into the church. We know this because Peter says that it is those who are “untaught” and “unstable” in sound doctrine who twist the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16). Since knowing the Scriptures well requires time and effort, we must urge our people to spend time reading and studying the Bible. This time-consuming work flows naturally from our devotion to God. As Eugene Peterson aptly put it, “Exegesis is loving God enough to stop and listen carefully to what he says.”[9]

We must set high standards for both ordained and non-ordained leaders in the church. Yes, the qualifications for elders and deacons are spelled out in Scripture, but the truth is that all people in positions of leadership in the church should know basic Christian doctrine, live consistently godly lives, and evidence the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23).

A Word of Caution

In calling Christians to care about doctrine and call out false teachers, I’m not advocating for people in the pews to become belligerent “heresy hunters,” always suspicious of everything their pastors say. The great Spurgeon put it best: “Don’t go about the world with your fist doubled up for fighting, carrying a theological revolver in the leg of your trousers. There is no sense in being a sort of doctrinal gamecock, to be carried about to show your spirit, or a terrier of orthodoxy, ready to tackle heterodox rats by the score.”[10]

In short, care about doctrine, but don’t be a jerk.

A Word of Warning

As you stand for truth, prepare for hostility. In an age of moral relativism Christians still believe in absolute truth; and since theology and ethics are inextricably linked together, certain choices and behaviors are not consistent with our way of life.[11] In an era of faux tolerance, because of our lack of openness to all views and lifestyles, expect for people to lambast you as intolerant and bigoted.[12] Without rejoicing in this fact, it helps to know that Christians have been viewed in this light for much of history. From the Epistle of Diognetus stating that “the world hates Christians . . . because they set themselves against its pleasures” (6. 5), to the Romans accusing Christians of “hatred of the human race,”[13] it’s fairly obvious followers of Christ have not always been applauded for their convictions. Just as early Christians lived with scars on their bodies or faced hardships for their devotion to Christ, so also may contemporary disciples. But in the words of Basil the Great (330-379 AD), “we must care about the truth, not our own safety.”[14]

In sum, Christians are a people of the truth. Therefore, we must embrace the truth, love the truth, fight for the truth, and pass on the truth.


[1] Augustine, The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love (trans. J. F. Shaw; South Bend, IN: Regnery/Gateway, 1961), 23.

[2] This is one of the main differences between historic Christianity and Unitarian Univeralism. See, e.g., John Buehrens and Forrest Church, A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998). The authors state, “By definition, ours is a non-doctrinal faith” (185). Since “doctrine” simply refers to any form of teaching, however, and Unitarian Universalists hold to “six sources of faith,” it is difficult to see how they can consistently claim to espouse a “non-doctrinal” faith.

[3] Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 230.

[4] See further D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 106–108. In another work Carson notes that liberal theologians (i.e., false teachers) often absolutize one biblical motif without taking other emphases into consideration. See Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), 39.

[5] Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015), 85.

[6] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2016), 130. Scott Manetsch notes, “Calvin’s doctrine of sola Scriptura did not preclude him from calling upon the authority of the early church fathers or the customs of the patristic church in an effort to demonstrate the fundamental continuity between the gospel of the reformers and the message of the early church. If Scripture was Calvin’s highest authority, it was not the only authority to which he appealed” (Scott Manetsch, “Is the Reformation Over? John Calvin, Roman Catholicism, and Contemporary Ecumenical Conversations,” Themelios 36:2 (2011): 185–202, emphasis mine. For more evidence that the Reformation did not discard the patristic witness see, Robert Letham, “Catholicity Global and Historical: Constantinople, Westminster, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century,” Westminster Theological Journal 72 (2010): 43–57; also idem, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), 96.

[7] As was the case in the antinomian controversy. One finds salient observations and critique in Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), 529–535. For a more recent explanation and analysis see Mark Jones, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 34, 117.

[8] J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 126.

[9] Eugene Peterson, “Caveat Lector,” Crux 32 (1996): 6.

[10] Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), 235.

[11] As Oliver O’Donovan memorably put it, “Ethics is doctrine existentially situated, extended into the living of life” (“Sanctification and Ethics,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014], 153).

[12] For some examples on the selective appeal to tolerance, see D. A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 81–87.

[13] Paul W. Barnett, Jesus and the Logic of History (NSBT; Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), 34. In particular the Romans despised Christians because their loyalty to Christ was greater than their loyalty to Caesar. Barnett notes, “This loyalty, which was expressed in private gatherings of adherents, was seen as politically subversive” (p. 34).

[14] Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit (trans. David Anderson; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980), 21.52 (p. 82).