On certain occasions, when matters of a spiritual nature are under discussion, it is not uncommon to hear someone suggest that they adhere to, or someone they know adheres to, a religion that is “better felt than told.” The thrust of such a statement, of course, is that it is not the teaching within the person’s religion that is of ultimate importance, but instead the individual’s personal feelings and emotional commitment.
While this sentiment may represent a correct assessment of the religion of some, it never has been true in regard to the biblical view of faith. This is not to imply, of course, that those who trust and obey God exhibit a faith that is void of emotion, or that somehow they are less committed to their belief system than adherents of other religions. Certainly, faith in the God of the Bible always has involved both personal feelings and emotional commitment (Matthew 22:37). To suggest otherwise would be to rob man of his free moral agency, his innate right to accept or reject heaven’s gracious offer of salvation, and his ability to delight in having made the correct choice.
What sets biblical faith apart from the beliefs of some other religions, however, is that instead of being rooted solely in an appeal to the emotions, it is rooted in an appeal to both the emotions and the intellect. In other words, biblical faith addresses both the heart and the mind; it is not just felt, but learned as well. This always has been the case. From the moment of man’s creation, God sought to teach him how to make correct choices that would keep him in, or return him to, a covenant relationship with his Creator. Thus, as soon as man was placed in the lovely Garden of Eden, God gave the instructions necessary for man’s temporal and spiritual well-being (Genesis 1:28; 2:16-17). From that moment forward, God actively taught man how to build, and maintain, a proper relationship with his heavenly Father. This is evident within the pages of both the Old and New Testaments.
The Old Testament, for example, is filled with numerous instances of God’s providing people with the instructions that would prompt them to serve Him with their hearts as well as with their intellects. During the Patriarchal Age, God spoke directly to the renowned men of old, and conveyed to them the commandments intended to regulate their daily lives, as well as their worship of Him. The apostle Paul, alluding to the Gentiles, spoke of those who had the law “written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness therewith, and their thoughts accusing or else excusing them” (Romans 2:15).
Later, during the Mosaical Age, God’s instructions were given to the Hebrews in written form so that as they grew numerically, they also would possess the ability to grow spiritually. Jewish parents were instructed to teach God’s Word to their children on a continuing basis (see Deuteronomy 4:10; 6:7-9; 11:18-25). Eventually, when national and spiritual reform was needed, God provided numerous kings and prophets to perform this important task (see 2 Kings 23:1-3; 2 Chronicles 7:7-9). It is said of the Old Testament prophet Ezra that he “had set his heart to seek the law of Jehovah, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and ordinances” (Ezra 7:10, emp. added). Nehemiah 8:7-8 records that Ezra “caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place, and they read in the book, in the law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, so that they understood the reading” (emp. added).
It is clear from such passages that during Old Testament times God placed a premium on knowing, understanding, obeying, and teaching His commandments. The golden thread that runs from Genesis through Malachi—the urgent message that the Savior was coming—could not be expressed through emotion alone; the intellect had to be involved as well. It was not enough for God’s people merely to “feel” the message; it had to be taught so they could understand it, realize its importance to their ultimate salvation, and preserve it for generations yet unborn, to whom it also would be taught.
Similarly, the New Testament stresses the critical nature of teaching. In the first century A.D., the message no longer was “the Savior is coming”; rather, the message was “the Savior has come.” Once Jesus began His public ministry, teaching His disciples (and others whom He encountered on almost a daily basis) became His primary task. While it is true that today we look upon Him as a miracle-worker, prophet, and preacher, He was foremost a teacher. Throughout Galilee, Samaria and Judea, Jesus taught in synagogues, boats, temples, streets, marketplaces, and gardens. He taught on plains, trails, and mountainsides—wherever people were. And He taught as One possessing authority. After hearing His discourses, the only thing the people who heard Him could say was, “Never man so spake” (John 7:46).
The teaching did not stop when Christ returned to heaven. He had trained others—apostles and disciples—to continue the task He had begun. They were sent to the uttermost parts of the Earth with the mandate to proclaim the “good news” through preaching and teaching (Matthew 28:18-20). This they did daily (Acts 5:42). The result was additional disciples, who then were rooted and grounded in the fundamentals of God’s Word (Acts 2:42) so they could teach others. In a single day, in a single city, over 3,000 people became Christians as a result of such teaching (Acts 2:41).
In fact, so effective was this kind of instruction that Christianity’s bitterest enemies desperately tried to prohibit any further public teaching (Acts 4:18; 5:28), yet to no avail. Christianity’s message, and the unwavering dedication of those into whose hands it had been placed, were too powerful for even its most formidable foes to abate or defeat. Twenty centuries later, the central theme of the Cross still is vibrant and forceful. But will that continue to be the case if those given the sobering task of teaching the Gospel act irresponsibly and alter its content, or use fraudulent means to present it? The simple fact is—Christianity’s success today, just as in the first century, is dependent on the dedication, and honesty, of those to whom the Truth has been entrusted.
“HANDLING ARIGHT THE WORD OF TRUTH”
God has placed the Gospel plan of salvation into the hands of men and women who have been instructed to teach it so that all who hear it might have the opportunity to obey it, and be saved. The apostle Paul commented on this when he wrote: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:7). The thrust of the apostle’s statement in this particular passage was that the responsibility of taking the Gospel to a lost and dying world ultimately has been given to mortal men.
But the power is not in the men; rather, it is in the message! This, no doubt, accounts for the instructions Paul sent to Timothy in his second epistle when he urged the young evangelist to “give diligence to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, handling aright the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, emp. added). In addressing this point, Wayne Jackson has written:
The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that Christians are to proclaim the gospel of God in a loving and positive way. We are to expose every rational creature to the good news regarding the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. We should assume that each person we encounter is an honest soul until he or she demonstrates that such is not the case. Like the Lord, our mission is to seek those who are lost.... In our defense of the faith, however, we must maintain the highest level of integrity. Our argumentation must be honest and it must be sound. Any person who knowingly employs a fallacious argument in defense of some biblical truth is unworthy of the name of Christ. Truth does not need the support of misapplied scripture and invalid reasoning. It can stand on its own. There are occasions, though, when sincere people, who are honestly attempting to defend a biblical truth, unknowingly employ unsound argumentation in the process. Perhaps many of us have discovered, in retrospect, that we have made these sorts of mistakes. When such is the case, we will resolve to never repeat them—no matter how flashy or impressive the argument appears to be. Virtue demands that we attempt to prove our position correctly (1990, 26:1).
Considering the fact that we, as God’s “earthen vessels,” have been made the instruments through which God offers to a lost and dying world reconciliation through His Son (John 3:16), the apostle’s admonition is well taken. Surely it behooves us to “handle aright” so precious a commodity as the Word of God. The salvation of our own souls, and the souls of those we instruct, depends on the accuracy of the message.
The Unintentional Teaching of Error
Two kinds of erroneous teaching are under discussion in the above assessment. Error can result when a person inadvertently teaches something that is incorrect. The mistake is accidental and unintentional; the teacher means well, and is sincere, but is wrong. The New Testament itself records just such an incident.
In Acts 18, the story is related about Apollos, a Jew who was “fervent in spirit” and who “spake and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:25). However, when Apollos traveled to Ephesus, and began speaking “boldly in the synagogue,” Aquila and Priscilla heard him and realized that he still was advocating the baptism of John the Baptist as it looked forward to the coming of Christ (see Acts 18:25-26). That baptism, of course, no longer was valid, having been supplanted by the baptism commemorating Christ’s death and burial. Certainly, Apollos was sincere, but he was wrong. Aquila and Priscilla “took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26).
When his error was pointed out, he corrected it and subsequently continued with his preaching and teaching about Christ—apparently with much success, since, upon his arrival in Achaia, “the brethren encouraged him; and wrote to the disciples to receive him, and when he was come, he helped them much..., for he powerfully confuted the Jews, and that publicly, showing by the scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:27-28). Apollos was a good teacher. Nevertheless, he taught error. When he was shown his mistake, however, he possessed an attitude of humility, and a love for the Truth, that caused him to make the necessary correction. In so doing, he set a wonderful example for all who would be teachers of God’s Word.
Many of us who teach have found ourselves in a situation akin to that of Apollos. In our earnest attempt to spread the Gospel, enlarge the borders of the kingdom, or defend the faith, we inadvertently made a mistake, and taught error. When our mistake was made known to us, we corrected it, learned from it, and determined not to repeat it—consistent with the example set by Apollos. Does the fact that we erred necessarily, then, make us a false teacher? In addressing the question, “Is everyone who makes mistakes a false teacher?,” Steve Gibson has suggested:
No, a person receives a label when a certain behavior becomes characteristic of him. A preacher, for example, is one who preaches; a teacher is one who teaches; a criminal is one who commits crime. But not everyone who has ever delivered a sermon deserves to be called a preacher; not everyone who has ever violated a traffic law deserves to be called a criminal. Regardless of its content, a label should be reserved for those distinguished by the corresponding behavior (1990, 10[11/12]:18).
The discussion here is not intended to center on dedicated teachers who, on occasion, make (and correct) an inadvertent error as they attempt to instruct someone regarding the Gospel. Rather, it has to do with those who teach error purposely.
The Intentional Teaching of Error
Error can also result when a person intentionally teaches something he knows to be wrong. The Old Testament provides an intriguing example of this very thing. In 1 Kings 13, the story is told of an unnamed young prophet whom God sent to deliver a message to king Jeroboam. God commanded the prophet: “Thou shalt eat no bread, nor drink water, neither return by the same way that thou camest” (13:9). Yet an older, lying prophet met the younger prophet and said: “I also am a prophet as thou art; and an angel spake unto me by the word of Jehovah, saying, ‘Bring him back with thee into thy house that he may eat bread and drink water’ ” (13:18). The young prophet accepted at face value the older prophet’s instruction—false though it was—and on his return trip home was slain by a lion in punishment for his disobedience (13:24). The young prophet fell victim to teaching that had been presented to him intentionally by one who knew it was false. The result was the wrath of God and the loss of the young prophet’s life.
Wayne Jackson, in the quotation above, suggested that “we should assume that each person we encounter is an honest soul until he or she demonstrates that such is not the case.” That is good advice, and is in keeping with the apostle Paul’s discussion of the concept of Christian charity that “beareth all things, believeth all things, endureth all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). As difficult as it is for most of us to believe, however, the sad truth of the matter is that some people simply are not completely honest in their dealings. On occasion, this manifests itself even among those who profess to be Christians, and who claim that their intention is to convert the lost. The justification usually offered for the deliberate misrepresentation of the Truth (even if it is not actually verbalized) is the idea that the end justifies the means. Some apparently feel that employing just the truth of the matter will not impress people sufficiently to make them want to obey God’s Word. Thus, the teaching is altered, and falsehood results.
While it may make the task of reaching the lost easier, and may swell the church roll temporarily, what good ultimately results from the teaching of such falsehood? Can we (legitimately) convert the lost through the intentional teaching of error? Can one be taught wrongly and obey correctly? The intentional teaching of error may comfort where truth offends. The person living in an adulterous marriage can be told that the marriage is acceptable to God. The person who believes that God created the Universe and populated the Earth via the process of organic evolution can be told that such a view is correct. And so on.
In the end, however, three things have occurred. First, as a result of having been taught error, the sinner may not be truly converted. Second, the church has been filled with adulterers, theistic evolutionists, and others who hold to false views. Since “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (Galatians 5:9), the church will be weakened, and others may be lured into the same error through association with those who believe it to be true. Third, the person who knowingly perpetrated the error has placed his soul, and the souls of those he taught, in jeopardy, because he knowingly taught error.
Error That Condemns, and Error That Does Not
Someone might suggest that it is possible to be taught, and believe, error without endangering one’s soul, since some error condemns while some does not. Such an observation is correct. As Bobby Duncan noted:
There are two kinds of error: (1) error which does not deter one from a course of action in harmony with the will of God, and (2) error which leads to a course of action out of harmony with the will of God....
Some in Paul’s day obviously held erroneous views regarding the eating of certain meats (Rom. 14; I Cor. 8). But these views did not cause them to follow a course of action out of harmony with the will of God, and those who knew the truth were exhorted to receive them (Rom. 14:1).... One’s belief of error will not damn his soul unless his erroneous views lead him into a course of action out of harmony with the will of God....
But there are other errors which, if believed, will directly affect one’s life and religious practice so as to turn him aside from the will of God.... If one’s belief of error caused him to worship according to the doctrines and commandments of men, his worship would be vain (Matt. 15:8-9).... If his belief of error led him to teach a perverted gospel, the curse of God would rest upon him (Gal. 1:6-9)... (1983, 19:2).
Not all error, if believed, will condemn one’s soul. Suppose, in the example of the two prophets (1 Kings 13), that the older prophet convinced the younger that God wanted him to rush home, carrying his staff in his left hand all the way. Would this have been a lie? Yes, but the consequences would not have been the same, for, believing and acting upon this lie, the younger prophet would not have been following a course of action out of harmony with the instructions God had given him.
To suggest, however, that the intentional teaching of error does not always produce negative effects, and thus is acceptable, ignores three important points. First, error is error, regardless of the effects produced. Christians are not called to teach error, but truth (John 14:6). Surely, the question should be asked: What faithful Christian would want to teach, or believe, any error? God always has measured men by their attitude toward the truth. Jesus said: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). But the truth can free us only if we know it, accept it, and act upon it. Error never frees; it only enslaves.
Second, it is a simple fact that not all error is neutral in its effects upon a person’s soul. As Bobby Duncan went on to state: “For one to be in error on some point that does not affect the faithful performance of his duty to God is one thing. But it is another for one to hold to error that would keep him from faithful obedience to God” (19:2). It is possible to believe error, thinking all the while that it is true, only to discover all too late that it was not. The young prophet who lost his life because he believed a lie is a fine case in point.
Third, while it may be correct to assert that not all error condemns, such an assertion does not tell the whole story. What about the danger to the soul of the person responsible for the intentional false teaching? It will not do simply to suggest that the truth was misrepresented purposely so as to save a sinner from the error of his ways. The end does not always justify the means. Situation ethics has no place in the teaching, or life, of a faithful Christian. In both the Old Testament (e.g., Exodus 20:16) and New Testament (e.g., Revelation 21:8), God forbade the willful distortion of truth, and condemned those who engaged in such a practice. While positive benefits initially may seem to result from the intentional teaching of error, such benefits will be temporary at best. Ultimately the truth will win out, and those who have believed and taught error will suffer in one way or another. When those who have been taught error discover that they have believed a lie, they may become disillusioned and abandon their faith. When those who have taught the lie(s) appear before God in judgment, they will stand condemned.
In the end, who has benefited from the intentional teaching of error? The person who believed the error did not benefit, for his faith was not built upon truth, and thus his “conversion” may be called into question. The church did not benefit, but was weakened because although its numbers increased, its spirituality did not. Spiritual benefits cannot result from the intentional teaching of error. The person who taught the error did not benefit. He lied, and in so doing, incurred heaven’s condemnation. Should he fail to repent, he will be delivered to “the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).
In 2 Timothy 3:1-4, Paul presented his protégé with a litany of sins that characterized what he termed “grievous times.” In addition to those who were selfish, boastful, haughty, disobedient, and without self-control, Paul wrote of men “holding a form of godliness, but having denied the power thereof ” (2 Timothy 3:5). Paul’s point was that Timothy would encounter some who, from all outward appearances, were moral, truthful, dedicated Christians. But the outward appearance was deceptive because they had become hypocrites whose lives and teachings did not conform to the Gospel.
In commenting on the sinful nature of the Pharisees, Christ said, “ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but inwardly ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Matthew 23:28). The people described by Paul who exhibited “a form of godliness,” but who had “denied the power thereof,” possessed the same hypocritical, sinful nature as the Pharisees, which is why Paul commanded Timothy, “from these also turn away” (2 Timothy 3:5). Concerning the ill effects of this artificial “form of godliness,” Raymond Hagood has stated:
Is it not easy to see how destructive this “form of godliness” can be? It works evil under the guise of good. It wounds the sensitive consciences of babes in Christ. It corrupts the values, honesty, and integrity of our young people and it presents to the world a dim view of the church (1976, 12:1).
While the end results of erroneous teaching eventually may not be difficult to recognize, the false teacher is not always easy to identify. There are, however, certain criteria that signal a departure from the Truth (see Miller, 1987). First, the person who intentionally teaches error generally is bold to advance his ideas in certain settings, but is strangely silent or evasive in others. When among those sympathetic to his erroneous views, he will not hesitate to advocate them, but when in the presence of those he knows are well versed in the Scriptures, and who therefore could recognize and refute such views, often he will keep them to himself, or even go so far as to deny believing them.
Second, whereas the false teacher once was understood easily, and known for the clarity with which he taught, now he has begun to speak or write in vague terms that employ a “new vocabulary” of his own making. When questioned, he claims that he has been “misrepresented,” “misunderstood,” or “quoted out of context.” He has become a chameleon-like character, able to vacillate back and forth at will between truth and error.
Third, as the real nature of the false teacher becomes increasingly evident, and the documentation of his error irrefutable, he becomes more overt in his teachings. Soon he associates himself with those who, in the past, he would have had no association. Others who are known to teach error suddenly consider him an ally, and actively promote him and his teachings.
Fourth, in time, as more and more faithful Christians rise up to challenge the false teacher, he depicts them as troublemakers who are unreliable barometers of the real spiritual atmosphere. He charges them as being paranoid, narrow-minded, unloving, tradition-bound, stagnant, witch-hunting pseudo-Christians who possess no real love for the Lord or His Word. He urges them to dispense with their Pharisaic legalism, and to cloak themselves with an “irenic” spirit that allows Christians the right to “agree to disagree” about fundamental Bible doctrines, resulting in the misnamed concept of “unity in diversity.”
The damage inflicted by one who teaches error can be almost inestimable. That damage can be minimized, however, if faithful Christians follow the procedures set forth in Scripture for dealing with false teachers (e.g., Romans 16:17; Galatians 6:1; Ephesians 4:14-15; 5:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:6; 2 Timothy 2:25-26; Titus 3:10-11; James 5:19-20; 2 Peter 2:1-2; 1 John 4:1; 2 John 9-11). As Paul commanded Titus, “there are many unruly men, vain talkers and deceivers...whose mouths must be stopped; men who overthrow whole houses, teaching things which they ought not,.... For this cause reprove them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:10-11,13).
When James penned his New Testament epistle, he warned: “Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment” (James 3:1). It is a sobering thought indeed to know that those of us who teach God’s Word one day shall be held accountable for how, and what, we have taught. Our teaching, therefore, should be designed to do at least three things.
First, it should present the sinner with the pure, unadulterated Gospel, in the hope that he will hear it, believe it, and obey it, thereby being saved from his lost state (Luke 13:3; Romans 3:23; 6:23). The ultimate goal of our efforts is not merely to inform, but rather to motivate the hearer to proper action.
Second, the things we teach, publicly or privately, should equip Christians for greater maturity in the faith so that they, too, can become teachers (Hebrews 5:12). The success of Christianity in the world is dependent upon those who advocate it being able to teach it to others.
Third, our teaching should edify the entire church so that should the time come when certain saints “will not endure the sound doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:3-4), there will be those well-grounded in the truth who can combat error and “contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude 3).
Certainly, those of us who teach bear a weighty responsibility (Ezekiel 33:7-9). But if we do our jobs properly, we will receive from the Lord a “crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). Equally important is the fact that if those whom we teach accept and obey God’s Word, they, too, will enjoy a home in heaven, and we will have saved a soul from death (Ezekiel 33:14-16). The responsibility may be weighty, but the reward is commensurate to the task.
Duncan, Bobby (1983), “Error Which Does & Does Not Condemn,” Words of Truth, 19:2, May 20.
Gibson, Steve (1990), “Some Common Questions About False Teachers,” The Restorer, 10[11/12]:17-20, November/December.
Hagood, Raymond A. (1976), “Perilous Times,” Words of Truth, 12:1, September 17.
Jackson, Wayne (1990), “Defending the Faith with a Broken Sword,” Christian Courier, 26:1-2, May.
Miller, David L. (1987), “Anatomy of a False Teacher,” The Restorer, 7:2-3, February.