Watch out false teachers (2 Peter 2:1-3)

He was popular on the preaching team, able to put things forward clearly and simply in an engaging way.  Then something began to shift. We noticed a change of emphasis. Then he began to speak with individuals and tell them that he wasn’t so sure. He did not come out directly and say that he was disagreeing with the Gospel. It came bit by bit. At first he wasn’t so sure that all of the bible was historically reliable (did it need to be?). Then he began to change his views on what Jesus’ message was until finally he admitted he did not really believe Jesus had existed at all.

False teachers can emerge in a local church as easily as on the national stage. We are of course aware of famous people who have gone astray.  In 2003, Steve Chalke published his book “The Lost Message of Jesus.” I am always cautious when someone announces that they have suddenly rediscovered the lost or hidden truth.  Chalke had been a prominent and popular evangelical speaker, doing on a national stage what my friend had achieved in a local church context. However, in this book, he began to challenge things. Oh he still believed that the Bible was God’s Word and we should listen to it. But was it as negative about sinful humanity as some made out?  Did Jesus really die to pay the penalty for our sins? Didn’t that sound like a form of cosmic child abuse? Challenged by some, Steve managed to maintain his place within the inner circle of evangelicalism, described by other leaders as a good friend, he was given platforms and column inches to continue to make his argument.

Roll forward to 2020 and Chalke has parted company with the Evangelical Alliance. He has rejected orthodox Biblical teaching on sexuality and in fact holds to  a liberal view of Scripture as reflecting an imperfect human conversation with God rather than God’s authoritative word.

Peter in this next chapter of his letter begins to warn about the risk of false teachers. He takes time to alert his first readers, and us, to the danger they pose and starts to give us some clues about how to spot them.

  1. False teachers are subtle and sneaky -they will add to God’s Word (2:1a)

Notice first of all, the contrast that Peter draws between false teachers and false prophets. There had been false prophets in the past who sought to lead God’s people (Israel) astray,  now there will be false teachers among God’s people (the church) today.  Why does Peter link false prophets in the past to false teachers in the future rather than more false prophets?

It is worth a little recap from previous weeks here. As I’ve explained before, some Christians are “cessations” and they think that gifts like prophecy and tongues died out with the apostles.  There is a right and important concern here, they do not want to undermine the authority of Scripture. However, personally, I think this case requires some special pleading. It seems to me that these gifts were intentionally given to the church.

A better way of seeing how Scripture is protected is to recognise the two types of revelation. General Revelation means that God’s character is constantly revealed in nature and human history.  I believe that in this context we will see people who are blessed by the Holy Spirit with insight, intuition, dreams, ability to discern hearts and even to get glimpses of future events.  However, Special Revelation is God’s particular revelation about who he is and his act of redemption in Christ.  In fact, without this special revelation, we cannot properly make sense of the world around us. 

What this means then is that because our primary need for living in the world today is the Gospel, so we need this special revelation which is now complete.  Now, someone who has a weird dream and it is just a weird dream or makes things up about you that are not true or predicts a future event which does not happen is easy to spot.  Moreover whilst they can do damage to individuals, their power to cause havoc is to some extent limited  if that is all they do.

The bigger danger for us is that someone will try to undermine or misrepresent Scripture. False teaching is the risk. In fact, even if someone is engaging in things like predicting the future, or they are claiming to have had a dream about you then the risk from them if they are false is that they will use these things to change your view about what God has said in Scripture. Even if they are proved right in their predictions and insights, we are still to reject them if they distort, question or replace the Scripture.

Schreiner also suggests that the particular danger in 2 Peter was from those who would deny altogether the possibility of prophetic word, that it is not possible to hear from God in a direct and infallible way at all so that they even refused the title “prophet” for themselves. Greek philosophy tended to de-personalise God and push him into the distance. This has been a recurring problem throughout history, Aristotle referred to God as the unmoved mover whilst during the 1600s deism took off in Europe where God was seen as a first cause but completely disengaged from creation.

 Such a problem resonates in a secular age like ours where philosophers refuse to accept that there is a God at all, never mind that he can speak to us and furthermore, as alluded to above, that even supposed Christian leaders undermine the authority of Scripture and thus God’s ability to speak to us.

The false teacher will bring in additional teaching or ideas, literally they lead in from aside.  Whilst the word itself does not necessarily carry negative connotations, the context and how the word is used elsewhere in Scripture is negative suggesting a secretive, hidden agenda. 

Their teaching is destructive, heresies lead astray from the Gospel or distort it. This brings destruction and division into the church now but it also leads to destruction because those who entertain false teaching end up rejecting the good news and therefore ace judgement when Christ returns.

  • False Teachers are arrogant – they will challenge Christ’s authority (2:1b)

My friend who I mentioned at the start, spent a lot of time when preaching, upbraiding the congregation about our lack of serious concern about loving one another. The Gospel, he argued was not individualistic. I think that may well have been one of the roots of his eventual rejection of it. You see, whilst he was telling us about the social implications of the Gospel, he was also disparaging the church family. He preferred his own company. Taking the Bible seriously would have challenged him and his own behaviour so it was easier to dismiss the Bible.

There is an arrogance to false teaching, it can easily be disguised with the right words and the right language. The Steve Chalke approach sounds so humble at the start doesn’t it as he claims to be the one who isn’t dogmatic and is wrestling with Scripture. Yet what we see in both cases is that the person’s own philosophy is beyond  challenge. False teachers are rarely willing to debate. Try tweeting a disagreement to Chalke, no matter how politely worded, the likelihood of a response is minimal. 

Mike Ovey used to frequently challenge his students: “Are you willing to let God’s word disagree with you?” False teaching is intended to blunt Scripture’s sharpness so that we are not irritated by it or provoked by it when it disagrees with us calling out our idolatry, making us uncomfortable, challenging our cultures and our behaviours.

This arrogance reaches its high point when the false teachers  even “deny the master who bought/redeemed them.”  Does this mean that they are actually saved, and legitimately in the church? It is most likely that this simply describes their appearance as part of the church, but it Is possible for someone who has truly come to Christ to fall into sinful behaviour and false beliefs. Whilst they will then be eventually restored, they do a lot of damage to themselves and to others.

However, it is unlikely that someone who has been redeemed by Jesus can consistently and knowingly deny him but this is what a false teacher does. This was seen frequently in the early church.

Arius was a pastor who began to argue that Jesus was not God. Most false teaching seems to be rooted in the idea that the true God is unknowable and distant. So, for Arians, the idea that God would take on human nature and live among us was an abomination.   Arius believed that Jesus was a supernatural being, a kind of god, elite among the angels but not the eternal Son.  In his desire to defend God’s holiness, he denied the deity of Christ, rejecting the master who redeemed him.

Gnosticism and Docetism on the other hand whilst agreeing that the divine was distant and unknowable put the emphasis elsewhere, they believed that Jesus could not be truly human. So he must have appeared in human form but remained a spirit being. It could not then have been Jesus but an imposter who died on the Cross in his place.

Pelagius believed that our free will and responsibility for our own sin must not be diminished. Therefore he argued that Christ’s death was an example but that each of us must choose to act in a way that atones for our own sins.

Every time we see a heretic speaking in history, we realise that in someway they are undermine Jesus, questioning his identity or downplaying what he achieved at Calvary. So, it is no surprise that Steve Chalke goes badly wrong at the point of trying to understand who Jesus is.

Chalke makes too mistakes. First of all, he attempts to define God by the characteristic of love. The Bible teaches that God is love. However that is one of his attributes. God is not a complex being where you can chop bits off or add bits on to him. Each attribute is essential to his character and identity. So we cannot talk about God being love without also seeing that he is holy, just, eternal, all powerful etc. Chalk risks reversing the statement so that not only is God love but love is God. God and Jesus are then defined by our understanding of love.

Secondly by talking about Christ’s substitutionary atonement as cosmic child abuse he diminishes the horror of abuse by turning it into a catch phrase with which to sell books and he diminishes the status and identity of Jesus. Yes Jesus is “The Son” but he is not a helpless, passive child. He is no junior partner. Fully divine, all powerful and eternal, it is as much the Son’s will as the Father’s that he should take our place and die.

  • False teachers lead people astray causing the Gospel to be slandered (v2)

Verse 2 says that many will follow after the false teachers in their “wicked teaching” (NLT), rendered by other versions as  shameful ways (NIV) sensuality (ESV) or licentious teaching (NRSV). We may even translate it as “filth”.   The word used often refers to sexual sin.  There is a link between false teaching and sinful behaviour. In fact, false teaching is often used as a means to excuse wrong doing. In my two starter examples we saw that, false teaching there was used as a means to justify giving up on care for the body and participation in church life in one case. In the other, it has been consistently used through the late 20th and early 21st century to justify same sex relationships. 

Our Faithroots motto is that “What we believe affects how we live.” So a false teaching will affect behaviour. If for example, I lose sight of God’s love then I am likely to be harsher in my treatment of others. A false belief can lead to abuse. It works the other way round too so that if I am in sin then this can lead to a corruption of a healthy doctrine. In fact, we can miss this point.  So for example, what we see with some of the abuse and bullying situations that have come up recently around Iwerne and Acts 29 do have theological implications but rather than it being bad doctrine shaping behaviour, it may well be that a good doctrine has been distorted in people’s minds by their sinful thoughts and actions.

The offer of a way of living is often what attracts people to false teaching. Sometimes as in this case it is the offer of “licentious” lifestyles.  At other times, people will seek out legalism because of the certainty that such a code offers.

The result of this is that the Gospel gets slandered. Notice how Peter employs the phrase “The way of truth” reminding us that

  • Jesus referred to the Gospel as the narrow way.
  • Jesus described himself as “The way, the truth and the life.”
  • The early church was often referred to as “The Way.”

People can see when the church is hypocritical. Even when they disagree with our ethics, they still react strongly to it. I remember a work colleague telling me about a particular church. They said “I’d never go in there. It’s full of hypocrites. They are all gossiping with each other and sleeping with each other.” Whether or not this was true, they had certainly got a perception of the place.

We need to ensure that our words and our behaviours are characterised by godliness.

  • False Teachers are motivated by Greed but they are already condemned

Now Peter turns to their motivation. There is often a link between false teaching and  money. Think about how the prosperity teachers put such an emphasis on tithing, promising health and wealth proportionate to what you give them. Consider as well how one of the causes of the Reformation was corruption within the church at the time. The Pope was using indulgences where you could pay for prayers to relieve people from purgatory in order to enrich his coffers. One preacher, Tetzel used to famously say “Every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul form purgatory springs.”

Yet there are other ways in which people can be greedy. Sometimes it is for money, sometimes it is for power and control, sometimes recognition, popularity and for people to be dependent upon them. Sadly, false teachers often seen sexual gratification. All of these things are marks of spiritual abuse.

Peter then announces that the false teacher’s judgement has “not been idle.” They already stand condemned and justice will come. The idea here is that God has long planned their justice. Their destruction is not sleeping but actively on its way.  The sense, as we will see later is of complacency. The false teachers think they have got away with it, they are beyond God’s reach. They mock and taunt the church.

This may be seen as theologically distant in that they have managed to justify their behaviour and dismiss scripture so that the words are emotionally distant from them seeming unreal and chronological distant. Nothing had happened in 30 plus years, the apostles were dying out. The false teachers believed judgement was not only a long way off in the future but that it was never going to happen. Every day that they got away with it they relaxed a little bit more.

They were foolish to be complacent, judgement was and is coming.

Conclusion

Peter prepares the early church for false teachers so that they will be ready for them. There is a particular responsibility on elders to guard the flock from wolves (false teachers).  Elders do this in three ways

  • By feeding and equipping the church so that its members ae spiritually strong and able to recognise and withstand danger.
  • By keeping watch over the flock – in other words, keeping a watch out for those who are in danger of being led astray. It means being alert to where people’s vulnerabilities and temptations lie.
  • Being alert to danger and being able to spot the enemy’s attacks early. This means that we need to be well informed both about Scripture/doctrine and about the particular types and common root causes of false teaching.

All of us have a responsibility to be alert. Often false teaching will appear attractive but it leads only to destruction.

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