Dancing with wolves: When false teaching is too close for comfort

The novelty of words … becomes especially useful when the truth is to be asserted against false accusers, who evade it by their shifts. Of this today we have abundant experience in our great efforts to rout the enemies of pure and wholesome doctrine. With such crooked and sinuous twisting these slippery snakes glide away unless they are boldly pursued, caught, and crushed. (John Calvin, Institutes I.xiii.4)

The fact that false teachers originate within orthodox Christian circles, and then part company, accords with what Scripture says about them. In the 16th century, however, the reformers recognized that deceivers did not always decamp from the church. They identified in the Church of Rome features absent from authentic Christian assemblies—notably, the preaching of the pure word of God. Even before that, there was a recognition among medieval thinkers that the church would not only be assailed by bloody persecutions from outside, and heretics from the margins, but also, that the last days would see corruption from within—from the heart of the mother church itself.

Evangelicals recognize theological Liberalism among “the enemies of pure and wholesome doctrine”, but we are often confused as to whether our liberal opponents are true believers with an adulterated faith, or counterfeit Christian infiltrates cloaked in virtue. If a denomination’s leadership reveals itself to be spiritually corrupt, genuine believers inevitably face compromises and experience significant personal tensions. True fellowship with the heterodox is less felt than feigned, and the responsibility to warn and protect the elect balances perilously against the opportunities to influence, mitigate or even win the suspect leaders. In this article, the issue of false teaching in the denominations is explored, together with some suggestions for response. I have faced these challenges within my own church contexts, which are examined as a case study in the second half of the article.

Pressing perils: The New Testament and the false teachers

While we may never be certain about the personal eternal standing of a liberal Christian leader, there is, nevertheless, a right and appropriate response to those who do not teach the truth. A good start is to look more closely at Scripture with the aim of determining just how the early church responded. A search through the New Testament reveals a surprising amount of material about the phenomena of false teachers. In the Gospels, it seems, they are just waiting to fall upon the church—constrained only by the authority of Jesus. In the epistles, they make their most dramatic appearance: in effect, the false teachers are off their leash.

In the New Testament’s depiction, they are less an incidental hindrance to the infant church than a recurring and ever-present threat. Consider this: the machinations of the false teachers were an important reason for the writing of Philippians, 2 Thessalonians, Titus and 1 John. In fact, John informs us in his first letter that “I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray” (1 John 2:26). Their activities were also the major reason for the writing of 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Timothy, and 3 John, a very important reason for the writing of 2 Timothy, and possibly even Hebrews, and occasioned virtually the sole purpose for the writing of Colossians, 2 Peter, 2 John, and Jude.

The menace they posed elicited pungent language: the false teachers are variously described as blind guides (Matt 15:14), fools, and whitewashed tombs; they are likened to snakes, vipers (Matt 23), ferocious and savage wolves (Matt 7:15; Acts 20:29), they are dogs and mutilators in one passage (Phil 3:2), dogs and pigs in another (2 Pet 2:22); they are brute beasts (2 Pet 2:12), unreasoning animals (Jude 10), offspring of the devil (John 8:44), and—especially in the synoptics—hypocrites. While false teachers often arise “even from your own” congregation (Acts 20:30), and reveal themselves by leaving the church fellowship (1 John 2:19), this is not always the case. Jude reminds us that “certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you” (Jude 4). Secrecy, indeed, is yet another of their traits, since the “false teachers among you … will secretly introduce destructive heresies” (2 Pet 2:1). Not only are they active secretly “slipping in” and busy “leaving” the church (often taking people with them), where they are able, they throw genuine Christians out (3 John 10). It is also clear that they can be notoriously difficult to detect, “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim 3:5).

Paul warned that the false apostles lording it over the Corinthian congregation ‘transform’ themselves: “deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor 11:13-15). It is interesting that the same term used of the devil in Ephesians 6:11—his schemes—is also used of the false teachers in Ephesians 4:14 (“the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming”). The methods of both are identical.

Lessons for serpent slaying

The New Testament writers are insistent that we are to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3), “guard the good deposit” that is entrusted to us (2 Tim 1:14), and “watch our life and doctrine closely” (1 Tim 4:16). Just as a bank teller has such a knowledge of the texture, colour and graphics of the genuine note that a counterfeit is quickly spotted, so too, as ordinary Christians become intimate with the truth, falsehood will be recognized (Eph 4:14). In keeping the false teachers at bay, this ‘banknote strategy’, it must be admitted, has met with a good measure of success among evangelicals (toiling within various liberal denominations), but on its own, it does not strictly represent the balance of Scripture

The view that we are only to teach the flock faithfully and simply ignore the false teachers is not supported in the New Testament. Rather, we can discern a three-pronged response. Firstly, we find a doctrine about expressly expecting and preparing for, false teachers. “But there were also false teachers among the people” counselled Peter in reference to Ancient Israel, “just as there will be false teachers among you” (2 Pet 2:1). Throughout the New Testament, the language is pressing and imperative: we are entreated to “watch out” (Matt 7:15)—in fact, to “watch out that no-one deceives you” (Matt 24:4; Mark 13:5); “I urge you, brothers” wrote Paul, “to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned” (Rom 16:17); to “be on your guard” (Mark 13:9,23; Acts 20:31; 2 Pet 3:17), so that you will not be “carried away” (2 Pet 3:17; Heb 13:8). “Dear children”, implored John, “do not let anyone lead you astray” (1 John 3:7), not even an angel from heaven (Gal 1:8). Paul reminded Timothy that “the Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Tim 4:1), and “the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim 4:3). “Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears” about these “savage wolves”, Paul reminded the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:29-31).

Secondly, the New Testament is emphatic about our responsibility to purposefully deal with the false teachers. “As I urged you”, Paul wrote to Timothy, “stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer …” (1 Tim 1:3). Of the talkers and deceivers, he wrote to Titus, “they must be silenced” (1:11), even pressing him to “rebuke sharply” the brothers so that the Christians on Crete would “pay no attention … to the commands of those who reject the truth” (Titus 1:13,14). Paul dealt persistently with them, not even giving “into them for a moment” (Gal 2:5), since some of the false teachers were “zealous to win you over” (Gal 4:17). Neither are we to tolerate their activities with patience and silence—as if this were a virtue on our part: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness”, writes Paul, “but rather expose them” (Eph 5:11).

While the circumstances and the nature of our response may differ, our responsibility to purposely act—to instruct and rebuke—does not change. The church at Pergamum is censured by Christ in Revelation (“nevertheless, I have a few things against you”)—apparently for not dealing with the heresies in its midst (Rev 2:14-16). While John tells us to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1), we should note that the church at Ephesus was commended because “you cannot tolerate wicked men [and] that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false” (Rev 2:2).

Thirdly, we are not to cooperate with the false teachers in any way. They will only “bring the way of truth into disrepute” (2 Pet 2:2) and be a hindrance to gospel work. In fact, we are to “keep away from them” (Rom 16:17), “have nothing to do with them” (2 Tim 3:5); indeed, in some cases they “will have nothing to do with us” (3 John 9). Don’t waste your time on them, said Jesus, “Leave them; they are blind guides” (Matt 15:14). Furthermore, it appears doubtful that we should ever financially support them. What John warned of a group who did not acknowledge Christ is surely applicable to “anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ”: if such person comes, “do not take him into your house or welcome him”. And furthermore, “anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work” (2 John 9-11). Paul mentions the menace of false brothers in the same breath as he does the dangers of shipwrecks, floggings, and bandits (2 Cor 11:23-26).

The New Testament writers were not being malicious toward the false teachers. In fact, their determined stand had the objective of not only protecting the flock, but of jolting the apostates into seeing their error. In one case, Paul advises that we “gently instruct” certain men “in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil …” (2 Tim 2:25,26). We are not to affirm and comfort them in their corruption, but to dissuade and challenge them lest they face the sticky end, the “swift destruction” (2 Pet 2:1), appointed for the false teachers, “for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever” (2 Pet 2:17; Jude 13). In fact, to fail to warn them means, as I understand it, that we may be held accountable for their blood (Ezek 3:16-21).

Case study: my diocese

The witness of Scripture is so stark and confronting that it can be tempting not to apply it to one’s own situation. Surely my church does not require such drastic measures! I have struggled with such tensions in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, where I have served for many years. The following discussion is the result of a mounting sense of discomfort at how evangelicals (myself included) have responded to false teaching in our midst. Melbourne provides a case study of how Liberalism affects a denomination; sadly, it is an example that could be repeated in many denominations across the Anglican world and beyond.

In Victoria, it is quite surprising to observe the marked reserve with which clergy, as a matter of course, regard the upper echelon of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne: rare, indeed, are the times they congregate without conversation bordering on the seditious. Yet private convictions—that is, those declared openly and explicitly in safe evangelical circles—are strikingly at odds with views expressed before the wider Anglican public. Indeed, in public, the tone is almost uniformly respectful, deferential, and approving.

Beside genuine personal respect, a part of the reason for the discrepancy has to do with the long-standing strategy of conservative Christians in Melbourne to work for orderly change within the system and not to unnecessarily antagonize the bishops. But another reason is plain fear: opinions thought to impugn the orthodoxy of that leadership are likely to be interpreted as rebellious. Those who question the right of the diocesan administration to ‘correct’ Scripture on moral issues are not uncommonly confronted with a posture of outrage. Nevertheless, ordinary believers are often puzzled about whether a line is ever to be drawn. Cooperative dalliance by evangelicals toward liberal elements in the Diocesan administration might be strategically appropriate, but it is strangely at odds with the response of the first-century church toward false teaching—and a long way from Calvin’s programme in which the snakes were to be “boldly pursued, caught, and crushed”.

How did we go liberal?

Many, if not most, evangelical leaders in this country had their faith formed partly by Bible-based student organizations such as the Inter-School Christian Fellowship (ISCF) or Crusaders in secondary schools, or by one of the evangelical student groups on tertiary campuses. Few of those involved with campus groups would not have experienced more than one strained discussion with the theologically liberal Student Christian Movement (SCM). As young Christians, we learned about the gospel: the extent, depth and deceitfulness of our sinful ways, the extraordinary grace of God in providing the atoning sacrifice of the perfect man and Son of God, and the nature of faith, both in salvation and Christian living. From time to time, our friends in the SCM doubted, disputed, denied, deprecated or augmented one or more of the central aspects of the gospel.

People couldn’t be that bad, they would argue; a good God couldn’t possibly reject someone eternally; hell was metaphorical, and, at worst, temporary; other religions also revealed valid roads to God; the social and gender implications were under-emphasized and needed sustained attention; salvation was also political; the ‘reading’ of the text by the poor had to be taken into account; the Bible was a mere guidepost for living, a resource of useful aphorisms, not a manual for obedience. And we needed to be more sensitive and make room (according to our SCM friends) for those with different life experiences who found themselves unable to affirm ‘literalist’ views of the Bible. Our teaching programme needed to be ‘balanced’ by including teachers who represented a variety of views and outlooks and traditions. We should join with other groups on campus so that we “would be stronger” and show the world a united Christian front.

As young Christians, we also struggled to learn about right behaviour and right relationships, the Christian view of marriage, our response to temptation, what it meant to trust God and to search for his will in our lives. Sexuality was a major area in which our SCM friends thought our views unhelpful and inflexible (the term used then was ‘legalistic’) and our attitudes overly puritanical (we had ‘hang-ups’ about sex). It was not only doctrine that kept the two groups distinct and separate; it was behaviour—and whether we should be supporting or challenging (the pejorative term used then was ‘judging’) those Christians who practised or taught from ‘alternative moral platforms’.

When I was elected in 1994 to the Council of the Diocese of Melbourne, I was amazed to find that the views that predominated there were little different from those encountered among liberals two decades ago. The Council’s priority for funding irrelevant ecumenical ventures, and lack of enthusiasm for evangelism were all familiar echoes of past SCM sentiments. In one case, a call for the Council to warmly support a proposed visit to Australia by Billy Graham was met by audible groans; one member voiced that the same welcome should also be accorded the Dalai Lama. But this should have been no surprise: after all, many students nurtured in the SCM had simply graduated to important responsibilities within the administrative machinery of several denominations. Nevertheless, it was deeply disturbing that years after we buried the SCM on the campuses, here they were, their theological structure intact, firmly in control of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne. And now we were playing the game by their rules.

Being part of ‘The Church’

Being a member of Council of the Diocese was like being part of a university Evangelical Union, where all the office-bearers and decision-makers were SCM liberals or non-Christians. For someone used to the warm gospel and Scripture-honouring culture of an evangelical congregation, this came like a plunge into cold water. Moreover, it was expected that, now that we were part of The Church, a more ‘mature’ attitude was demanded—a realization that we all had to work together for a common cause, in partnership, with brotherly forbearance. Henceforth, unity was paramount; cliques and parties abominable; respect and appreciation for the riches embedded within other theological positions a cherished goal.

This sacrifice of orthodoxy for unity has translated all the way down the line. Under the present administration, I believe that a virulent catholicization has been proceeding apace in the Diocese of Melbourne: the congregation and its concerns have given way to diocesan and denominational concerns; the language and theatre of catholic ritual are presented as normative; an odd doctrine of the church (namely, that the bishop is the actual head of each congregation)—less anglo-catholic than pre-reformational—is espoused as unexceptional. Evangelical ministry trainees must all attend silent retreats as part of their ordination preparation, while compulsory post-ordination training sessions are often led by influential liberal Anglicans. The content of clergy conferences, synod sermons and primatial pronouncements (regularly printed in the Melbourne Anglican) assist in acclimatizing curates to the new order. The overall effect is to shift the locus of Anglican Christianity away from the Reformation focus of the authority of Scripture. The day-today policy programme of the Melbourne Diocesan regimen betrays the subtle, yet unmistakable shift to the centrality of bishop, diocese, and tradition.

Under this pressure, many evangelicals in the inner ruling circle have either buckled and conformed (there are some sad stories here), or retreated to safer territories (parish ministry). Obvious dissentients have not always been dealt with gently. By 1996, the treatment of evangelical members of Diocesan Council had reached such depths of contempt that it was exposed publicly to Synod. Diocesan Evangelist David Beales believed the degree of “unbelief, hatred and fear” in the Melbourne Diocese so intense, a day of fasting should be proposed.1

The repercussions of this catholicization programme, however, are potentially far-reaching. On the surface, the new policy presents as a programme that respects different traditions. But the new ecclesiology can never be content—can never succeed—with anything short of the annihilation of evangelical claims to doctrinal purity, and with the spread of the notion that the church is not only composed of a variety of authentic and diverse spiritual traditions (no matter how distorting and disdainful of Scripture), but that the whole church should partake and enjoy these benefits—evangelical congregations included.

In reality, this new doctrine of church entails a programme that takes contrary and irreconcilable theological traditions and attempts to mesh them on the basis of their lowest common denominator. Therein lies the problem: biblical Christianity (Evangelicalism) cannot be improved, adorned, tidied-up, or cleansed. It can only be compromised. When you add other authorities to enrich ‘Scripture alone’, it is no longer ‘Scripture alone’; when you add sinful behaviour to the charter of our freedoms, you only enslave. Just as white paint mixed with brown produces brown paint, so biblically pure doctrine cannot be made any purer; admixtures can only contaminate.

Trailing closely behind the programme of catholicization—on its coattails—has marched a theological Liberalism of a most malignant and alarming mould. What is clear is that the exponents of the old SCM theology—theology born amid those contentious, if apparently innocent, questionings of orthodox Christian beliefs by clever students—have matured and developed over the decades. The doubts about hell and final judgement have blossomed into full-blown universalism; ecumenical dialogue has ripened into closer fellowship with non-Christian religious traditions (the so-called ‘deeper’ ecumenism); alternative readings of Scripture have evolved into textual cynicism and the subordination of Scripture to contemporary social theory; the social gospel has been updated to an intolerant and dogmatic political correctness. And what about those youthful equivocations about sexual purity? Among the many ‘benefits’ in store for Melbourne Anglicans who celebrate and enjoy these ‘authentic spiritual traditions’ is the broad acceptance of homosexual practice.2

The transparent contempt with which leading liberal churchmen held Evangelicalism (and which displayed itself in several fiery sessions on the Council) was, in my view, evidence that many had actually grasped the eternally irreconcilable nature of the two completely antithetical systems. Evangelicalism, it sometimes seemed clear, could never be directly incorporated, tamed or reasoned with; it could only be manipulated for wider liberal ends.

Towards reform in the liberal denominations

As I examined the way false teaching was confronted in Scripture, I became convicted that the approach of evangelicals in my diocese needs to be reconsidered. I believe we have reached the limits of purely ‘administrative’ solutions to the problem of entrenched heresy within denominational cores, and I cannot see any biblically defensible argument to sustain support for the current ‘softly, softly’ strategy. It is not a case of being ‘politically sensitive’: our need for transparency is a gospel issue. Our silence is read by the flock. If we think otherwise, we fool ourselves.

If I understand the Scriptural data aright, evangelicals need to carefully review the whole range of relationships they enjoy (or endure) within their denominational structures. If it is correct to cite that almost dreadful passage in 2 Corinthians about being yoked together with unbelievers (6:14-7:1) when counselling congregational members considering marriage to non-Christians, surely it is right to apply it to the context in which it was more directly given: the yoking of churches with unbelief or paganism. But it is not necessarily a case of an outright breaking of relationships within denominational structures as it is of re-aligning or repositioning those relationships: our work with liberals is in finding and presenting the gospel to them and seeking faithful submission to Scripture. We do not work with them. For what possible purpose would the wolf and the shepherd cooperate?

Finally, we should make no mistake: the false teachers and leaders within spiritually corrupted denominational structures, wherever they may be, are a most determined and formidable force. Standing for gospel imperatives will not be easy. All genuine Christians within denominations, therefore, need to play their part exercising discriminating judgement in regard to their financial support. Church vestries should probe boldly in determining whether assessment contributions to denominational bodies and structures will be clearly gospel-bound—if only to act faithfully in accord with the wishes and intents of generous givers. It is neither wrong nor unreasonable to aim for clear certainty about the purposes of fund transfers to denominational administrations. If necessary, such probings and investigations should be made public to the congregation. In most cases, when large-hearted evangelical laymen and women themselves get to see the irrelevant and antigospel purposes to which their sacrificially given contributions are often diverted, they will assuredly be more astute about the direction of future generosity.


1 ‘Diversity Without Hostility’, Melbourne Anglican, Nov 1996, p. 4. and ‘Urgent Need for Repentance’, Melbourne Anglican, Nov 1996, p.9.

2 Archbishop Rayner chose the subject of homosexuality for his recent synod sermon, “Homosexuality—how do we judge?”, reprinted in the Melbourne Anglican, November 1998.

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