One of Christian culture’s favorite things to do is reappropriate the ancient language of the Bible for whatever it is we’re trying to accomplish at the moment. We’re not just constructing a new building, we’re “taking possession of the land of promise.” I’m not hogging the copier, I’m “doing kingdom work under the anointing of the Spirit.”
And if what you’re trying to accomplish at the moment is warning your own tribe about a bad seed from another, you’ll find plenty of ammunition in the text. The language of “false prophets” and “false teachers” gives our criticism an air of authority and an edge of supernatural danger. These people aren’t just misguided or unhelpful, they represent an evil force of opposition which is as wrongheaded and wicked as we are correct and righteous. The Christian Internet is standing-room-only when it comes to this sort of name calling. A Google search for “false teachers” unearths countless warnings and accusations, but very little about the context and meaning of these phrases in the Bible.
In the interest of constructive discussion, I offer brief glimpses at these two labels in specific scriptural settings.
False Prophets! Run!
“15 Watch out for false prophets. They will come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are hungry wolves. 16 You’ll be able to tell them by the fruit they bear. You don’t find grapes growing on thornbushes, or figs on thistles, do you?” (Matthew 7)
This is a big one because it comes from Jesus, and if Jesus said it then I can throw it as hard as I like in your face and you just have to take it, right? One of the unfortunate ways we’ve abused the legacy of Jesus is to assume that everything he did and said was for and about the church, that is, us. Jesus’ primary vocation was not to be the founder of the church and a new religion called Christianity, it was to be a Jewish prophet in the tradition of the great prophets of Israel and Judah. (For more on this see my recent podcasts on Matthew’s Gospel.) Getting Jesus’ context and self-identity wrong has led to widespread misunderstanding regarding his words and deeds. Some examples:
- Matthew 18:15-20 is read as a primer on church discipline rather than a plea for peacemaking among neighbors (modern translations complicate this by using the word “church” instead of “assembly”).
- Jesus’ parables are read as pep talks about evangelism and the “second coming” instead of announcements of YHWH’s return to Israel in Jesus’ own time (see Matthew 13 and parts of 21-22).
- And his prophecies of imminent judgment and destruction on Jerusalem are read as descriptions of the “end of the world” (see Matthew 24-25 and the related discussion in this podcast).
In the same spirit, we’ve heard Jesus’ warning about “false prophets” as a divisive and ominous declaration that there are bad guys among us who must be exposed and expelled. Was Jesus really trying to fill us with anxiety and suspicion, or is there something else at the heart of his message? It just so happens that the immediate literary context of Jesus’ “false prophets” teaching is the “Sermon on the Mount,” wherein he admonishes his listeners not to worry and not to judge others. So what is his point about these “wolves in sheeps’ clothing”?
The collection of teachings we call the “Sermon on the Mount” was Jesus’ way of fleshing out his core message, the coming of the “Kingdom of God” to earth and what life, religion and (what we call) politics would look like within that new reality. It was an overwhelmingly positive – even joyous – message, but it carried with it a harsh critique of the status quo in Jerusalem. In Messiah, God was returning to his children Israel, and he found them mired in anxiety and greed, prone to violence, suspicious and judgmental. Jesus was calling his fellow countrymen to repent of those old ways and to join him in a new way, a “narrow way” chosen by few.
It’s at the end of this “Kingdom Discourse” that Jesus issues his warning about “false prophets” and their failure to produce “fruit.” On the one hand, he is calling out his nation’s leadership for failing to produce the fruit of the Kingdom of God (peace and justice), but he’s also doing something remarkable that gets to the heart of this whole matter: he is offering himself up for scrutiny. Jesus invites his listeners to follow him and trust him that, in the end, his way is truly God’s way and will produce real fruit.
Jesus isn’t just calling names or drawing a line in the sand, he’s calling all eyes and all judgment onto himself and his message, onto his every word and deed. Are we prepared to put ourselves in the same position when we point the finger at others?
Behind You! It’s a False Teacher!
“1 Now the spirit declares that in the later times some people will abandon the faith and cling to deceitful spirits and demonic teachings 2 perpetrated by hypocritical false teachers whose consciences are branded with a hot iron.” (1 Timothy 4)
So maybe Jesus wasn’t talking about the church, but these dudes certainly are. The epistles are a collection of letters written by the apostles and leaders of the early church movement to various colleagues and congregations. They give us glimpses into the lives and challenges of the first Christians, where the chaos of Jewish/Gentile relations and the specter of persecution often led to strong rhetoric and fierce division. And so today, when many in the church are eager to set boundaries around acceptable beliefs and practices, passages like the one above provide a convenient template for condemning and dismissing an offending party. Hey, the Bible warned us there would be “false teachers” with “demonic teachings!” But if we do our homework and learn to appreciate these incendiary passages in context, well, we learn some stuff. You know the drill.
First, it’s very important to remember what these epistles represent. These are not catalogues of universal teachings to be memorized and obeyed for all time. This is ancient correspondence, letters between apostles and elders and congregations. When we read 1 Timothy or Ephesians or 2 Peter or Judah, we’re literally reading someone else’s mail. They reveal much and may even teach much, but they are not designed to function outside of their natural habitat.
Some of Paul’s letters (like Romans and 1-2 Corinthians) were intended to be read aloud to a specific congregation, and they address crises and challenges faced by that group. In the case of 1 Timothy and the passage quoted above, we’re reading a private letter from Paul to one of his younger colleagues, one that may have never been intended to be read by anyone else. Try reading the letter with this in mind, and you might be surprised how candid and even how negative Paul comes across. He insults members of Timothy’s congregation by name and condemns various groups inside and outside the church using the harshest of terms. This is not a criticism of Paul, but simply an attempt to be as honest as possible about the text as it really is, not necessarily how tradition has handled it.
So, in a brutally honest and private communication, Paul warns Timothy about “hypocritical false teachers.” And what “demonic” things were these false teachers teaching?
“3 They forbid marriage and teach people to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by people who believe and know the truth.”
The “false teachers” in Paul’s world are the ones who are placing boundaries around “acceptable” beliefs and practices! Specifically, these were Christians who insisted that Gentile believers had to adopt certain Jewish observances or be excluded from the “family of God,” which Paul insisted was open to everyone. It’s very ironic, then, that Paul’s warnings would be co-opted today by those seeking to impose boundaries of their own.
The language of “false” or “heretical” belief is more often than not employed today to stifle or condemn differences of opinion that fall well within the spectrum of historical “orthodoxy.” But it’s much easier to (literally) demonize a different point of view than to engage with and be stretched or challenged by it. Instead of imposing boundaries and stifling faith, Paul fiercely defended the simplicity and openness of his gospel message. In the opening of this same letter he described it like this:
“5 The goal of such teaching is love – the love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.” (1 Timothy 1)
False teachers, then, like false prophets, are the ones who fail to produce real fruit like love and sincerity. And, like Jesus’ warning, Paul’s carries a positive inference: if false teachers impose boundaries and divide God’s people, then follow me for the way of true love and unity and freedom. We are probably never justified in using the “false” labels on our ideological enemies. If we dare, we’d better be ready to back it up with some fruit of our own.