It might sound like a silly question, but I don't think it is. I've been prompted to ask it by something I've observed in the last few weeks, which is that America seems to be full of ‘false teachers’, and Britain seems to be blissfully free of the problem. American Christians, like the apostles, are fairly happy to label certain people ‘false teachers’ and certain messages ‘false gospels’; Brits, by and large, are extremely nervous of saying anything so apparently callous and judgmental. At one level, I'm sure this is the product of two obvious sociological factors: the far larger size of the American Christian population, which makes intra-evangelical debates much bigger and more significant than they are in Britain, and the well-known (although often overstated) British penchant for reserve and caution, in contrast to our gung-ho cousins across the water. At another level, however, I think it reflects a genuine disagreement about what exactly a ‘false teacher’ is.
Take the following list, for example.
1. Is Andrew Wilson a false teacher? I have, as I’ve often said, taught a number of things that I now believe to be false. If teaching something false is a sign that someone is a false teacher - which doesn’t sound that ridiculous - then I’m a false teacher. Yikes.
2. Should I regard John Piper as a false teacher? Piper not only has taught, but continues to teach, several things that I believe to be false (which is to say: I disagree with him about some things). No doubt he would say the same of me. Should we regard each other as false teachers? If so, then is there anyone out there whom I should not regard that way (since I’m likely to disagree with everyone about something)?
3. Should I regard Tom Wright as a false teacher? In Wright’s case, I not only believe some things he teaches to be false - as, again, he would say of me - but in at least one case (the meaning of 2 Cor 5:21), the way we preach the gospel is affected. Should I then see him as a false teacher, even though he has corrected my theology on countless points, and could probably affirm more of (say) the Westminster Confession than I could?
4. Should I regard Pope Francis as a false teacher? After all, he not only leads a church which teaches many things that I believe to be false, but he also excludes from communion those who disagree with him about several of them. Some of my church leader friends are big fans; others would object to even praying for him in a church meeting. Does his position on justification, or priesthood, or the mass, or the papacy, mark him out as a false teacher?
5. Should I regard Rob Bell as a false teacher? I really like the guy, as I’ve said, and I’ve learned a lot from him. On the other hand, not only does he teach some things that I believe to be false, but he teaches some things that he knows the church throughout history has believed to be false. In a purely technical sense, this makes him a heretic: one who knowingly departs from church orthodoxy. Having said that, if departing from church orthodoxy into heresy makes someone a false teacher, then was Luther? Was Wesley, or Spurgeon, or John Stott? Are you?
6. Should I regard Joel Osteen as a false teacher? Again, he seems like a lovely guy, but he also teaches a version of the gospel that the church throughout history has believed to be false. Shai Linne released a song recently that referred to him and a bunch of others as fal$e teacher$, on the basis of his prosperity message and his dialling down of the cost of Christianity. Then again, there are a lot of people who do that to some degree, including many of the people whose songs we sing and who speak at conferences we attend. Are they all false teachers? How would we know?
7. Should I regard Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as a false teacher? He teaches that Jesus is not the Christ, nor divine, nor raised from the dead, all of which I believe (and all orthodox Christians have believed) to be false. But then he has never professed to be a Christian, and that makes ‘false teacher’ a very odd label for him. In New Testament terms, he’s not a false teacher; he’s not a teacher at all. Is he?
You see the problem. If a false teacher is someone who teaches something that is false, then none of us are exempt. But if the label is reserved only for those professing Christians who explicitly repudiate the divinity, incarnation, resurrection and Messiahship of Jesus, then presumably there is no such thing as a false teacher any more, since (virtually) nobody would deny those things and continue to self-identify as a Christian. American Christianity in general, it seems to me, leans more towards the first of these positions (at the risk of being divisive and sectarian); British Christianity in general leans more towards the second (at the risk of being fuzzy and unclear). Biblically, how should we think about all this?
Several scriptures are relevant. Paul’s reference in 2 Corinthians 11:13 to ‘false apostles’ makes clear that for him, at least, this category applied to those who were not truly in Christ at all, but rather servants of Satan who were disguising themselves as apostles of Jesus. 2 Peter 2, likewise, speaks of ‘false teachers’ as those for whom final condemnation is reserved: ‘destructive heresies’, prompted by sensuality and greed, lead to the destruction of both the teacher and the listener. Jude 19 describes those bringing false teaching - which in context concerns the perversion of grace into sensuality, the denial of the Lord Jesus Christ, and divisiveness - as ‘worldly people, devoid of the Spirit’. 1 John 2 talks about antichrists who deny the Father, the Son and the Messiahship of Jesus, and who can thus be identified as not ‘of us’. In Galatians 2:4, Paul refers to the circumcision group quite bluntly as ‘false brothers’. And throughout the Pastorals, although the language of ‘false teacher’ is never used, a similar picture emerges: wrong doctrine is the result of an alliance between demons and liars (1 Tim 4:1-2), the capturing of people’s minds by the devil (2 Tim 2:26), and the pursuit of wealth and divisiveness (1 Tim 6:3-10), and it shows that the individual responsible ‘understands nothing’ (1 Tim 6:4), has ‘swerved from the faith’ (6:10, 21), ‘opposes the truth’ and is ‘disqualified regarding the faith’ (2 Tim 3:8), and is ‘defiled and unbelieving ... detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work’ (Titus 1:15-16). Pretty emphatic stuff.
Notice: all of these passages refer to false teachers / prophets / apostles / brothers in a very similar way. They are depicted as those who masquerade as Christian believers, but in reality are not; they teach things which strike at the heart of the Christian gospel and undermine people’s faith; they themselves are consumed by, and lead people into, idolatry, whether through money, sex or power; and they are destined for eternal destruction by God. In other words, labels like ‘false teacher’ and ‘false apostle’ are not used in the epistles to refer to those who merely teach wrong doctrine (compare the way Paul speaks of Cephas, James and Barnabas after Antiochgate, for example); they are used of people whose conduct and belief indicates that they are not even Christians. ‘Wolves’ are those who eat sheep, not those who make life more confusing and annoying for shepherds. To say that someone is a ‘false teacher’, in New Testament terms, is to say that they are going to hell.
So I wouldn’t use the term of John Piper (for believing some things I disagree with), or Tom Wright (for believing some things I disagree with which affect the gospel), and I’d like to think they wouldn’t use it of me. Nor would I use it of Pope Francis, or Rob Bell, or Joel Osteen - I do not believe that any of them are not in Christ, or are destined for eternal destruction - and if asked about it, I would seek to be careful to distinguish between incorrect teaching (papal infallibility, the acceptability of gay sex, the prosperity gospel, etc) and false teachers (to whom the terrifying descriptors of 2 Peter 2 presumably apply). Some might see that as over-fussy: what is a false teacher, after all, except one who teaches falsely? But I would respond that Paul’s approach to Peter was very different from his approach to Hymenaeus and Alexander - he confronted one, and handed the others over to Satan - and that, as one who has taught a whole bunch of things that are wrong in my ministry so far, I am very grateful for that. I’m living proof, and so are Piper and Wright and many others, that it is possible to teach incorrectly on something without being condemned by both men and God as a false teacher.
So at the moment, I’m more British than American on this one. Who knew?