False teachers, abusers and cults (2 Peter 2:10-16)

I’ve spent some time on Faithroots talking about the problem of abuse and bullying in the Church.  This has been in response to some very public scandals in the last year or two relating to high profile church leaders and organisations. It also relates to things I have observed more widely in church culture.

High profile events include:

The removal of Mark Driscoll from leadership of Mars Hill Church Seattle and from Acts 29.  Driscoll was caught up in allegations of bullying as well as manipulating sales of his books. This year, it emerged that his successor, Steve Timmis  was also caught up in bullying and heavy shepherding allegations relating to his church and to Acts 29.

The fall from grace of a number of senior US church leaders relating to allegations of sexual impropriety and abuse. These include a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and also Bill Hybels, founder of Willow Creek Community Church and pioneer of seeker sensitive church.

There have also been serious scandals within Conservative Evangelical Anglicanism particularly serious allegations against John Smyth relating to Iwerne camps and to Jonathan Fletcher a prominent and influential London vicar.

We may feel uncomfortable talking about these scandals. The temptation is to minimise them as being about a few rotten apples. I don’t think we can do that for two reasons. First of all, as I have explained before, the nature of bullies and abusers is that they tend to be cowards and so they rarely function alone, the more cunning bullies who take the lead are also more adept at hiding so that it is their henchmen who tend to get caught first. We cannot assume that the problem is rooted out yet.  Secondly, for some time, a number of us have been observing and attempting to send out warning signals about trends we are seeing within evangelical culture, these include tendencies towards bullying and gang or lad culture on social media as well as problems with elitism and cliques within churches and movements.

Further, I think books like 2 Peter give us permission to talk about such things because here we see that such problems are not unexpected. The church is imperfect and so imperfect people get involved but also it’s love of grace and compassion makes it vulnerable to the attacks of manipulative wolves who find ways in and are drawn to the very vulnerable people that churches seek to care for and who are also drawn to the Gospel.  Further, Satan wants to attack and this is one of his tactics.

It is worth noting at this stage as well the similarities between Jude and 2 Peter, this has led people to conclude that one of the writers has copied from the other or alternatively that they are drawing on a common source. This is not a problem as we see throughout the New Testament (especially the Gospels) how writers draw on each other’s work. Additionally, this reinforces the point that this was a significant issue for the early church and we shouldn’t be surprised to see it today.

The major point in this section is that false teachers are primarily in it for their own gain and to meet sinful appetites. Therefore there is a significant connection between false teaching and abusive or exploitative behaviour. Sometimes we see this in overt heresy but even when not, there is a false teaching dimension to the behaviour of abusers because

  • It suggests a distortion of their understanding of the Gospel
  • If we teach both by our words and example, the abuse is itself a form of (false) teaching that draws people away from the truth about God and encourages them to believe lies about him.

So, bullies and abusers are to be taken seriously, confronted, stood up to, opposed but we are not to be frightened of them. Here are some further reasons why.

The arrogance of the false teachers demonstrated (v10b-11)

Last time, we saw that God will bring justice to those who oppose him whilst protecting and preserving his people. At the close of the first 9.5 verses we were told that God has a particular concern to bring justice to

“those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.” (v10a)

Notice how those things go together. There is a link between those who look down on and belittle authority and their desire to indulge their own desires. Why is that? Well part of this as we will see is spiritual, that these people are cut lose from God and his authority and so they pursue their passions as a form of idolatry. Secondly, I suspect that their desire to undermine authority relates to a desire to escape accountability so that they can pursue their habits and addictions unchallenged.

And so, these men (of course women can be false teachers and abusers too but so often it is men isn’t it?) are described as “bold” (10b) but this is nothing to do with courage. It is a boldness, an outspokenness, a recklessness that comes out of the mistaken belief that they are beyond challenge and can do whatever they please unopposed. Again, notice that they are wilful, this is not in ignorance but is an intentional defiance.

The nature of this defiance is demonstrated in that the false teachers think nothing of belittling “the glorious ones.” Whilst this phrase normally refers to the angels, the context here, and Jude’s similar reference where he talks about the Archangel Michael simply saying “The Lord rebuke you” to Satan suggests that we are specifically talking about fallen angels.

It is possible that the particular false teachers here belittled those principalities and powers by simply denying their existence. There is today a form of anti-supernaturalism that creeps in with liberal theologies. However, there is also a sense in which they were careless towards the way that their sinful behaviour exposed them and brought them within the influence of evil spirits.

I wonder if there has been a temptation towards a theoretical acceptance of evil spirits but a functional or practical “cessationism” with regards to the presence and work of the devil in the world among conservative evangelicals today that leads to a similar danger. We know that demons can’t possess Christians and also, rightly I believe that there was a specific concentration of demonic activity in Christ’s time and so we become careless about spiritual danger.

Further, in contemporary contexts I think we see a form of triumphalism in which people speak about their ability to crush and rebuke Satan which seems to suggest a greater confidence in their own spiritual authority than it does in the spiritual armour provided by God, the holy Spirit as our advocate and the finished work of Christ.  Again, this links to a view of the spiritual world including spiritual gifts and even the Holy Spirit himself as simply being resources at our disposal to use for our own ends.

This is contrasted (v11) with the angels who leave judgement to the Lord. This is even though they are stronger and more powerful, note that whilst this could refer to their strength and power relative to the false teachers, it is more likely that Peter here refers to their status relative to demons. The demons are spiritual beings, fallen angels and therefore carrying something of the nature of angels and yet they are diminished first through their fall and secondly because they are already a defeated enemy. However, God’s angels see that judgement rests with the Lord and so do not overstep their responsibilities.

That’s the central point isn’t it? It’s not about our understanding of our gifts or of the status of the enemy here. It is a recognition of boundaries and responsibilities. It is a recognition too that the enemy is first and foremost hostile to God and so vengeance is his. Therefore our attitude and behaviour here points to whether we think the world revolves around us or around God.

 The judgement and fate of the false teachers is declared (V12 -13)

In verse 12, Peter compares the false teachers to animals. The sense here is that although they set themselves apart as intelligent teachers they lack wisdom. They are like brute beasts, governed by their passions and with little awareness of the true picture of life, its purpose and meaning.  In other words, they lack reason and revelation. Continuing the image of animals, Peter compares them to animals being hunted unaware that they are soon to be captured and their destruction is close.  Again this points to their complacency.

The imagery then is of these men who think they are wise, who set themselves up as the teachers but in fact are fools. They presume to teach but they are actually blaspheming because their understanding of who God is proves to be distorted. 

I think that is the point about false teachers. They may put on the air superiority claiming to be in the know either due to a level of intellectual superiority or by special revelation but in fact they are ignorant. The Bible talks about the fool saying in their heart that there is no God and that is primarily to do with moral wisdom, however, I believe that rejection of the truth about God hinders our ability to think rightly too.

Romans 1:21-23 says that:

For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

This is what we see here as well.  So first of all, I think this shows how when someone is so focused on their cravings, it affects their judgement. We know this as a general truth.  Attention is either distracted from processing things by urges or worse still, the person is so focused on fulfilling their desired goal that they have tunnel vision and are simply not able to consider information that does not fit into their thinking and priorities.

Secondly, I think it is helpful to say at this point that whilst the arguments of cults and heresies often sound clever at the start and are pressed passionately, they rarely stand up to the most rudimentary of questioning. Again, there is no need for church members to be afraid of false teachers if properly taught.  Just don’t be panicked or hurried into agreement especially by a deluge of data. Take time to carefully check the arguments properly back. Put Bible verses into their context and you will discover how shallow the arguments are.

We are then told in verse 13a that the false teachers are repaid wrong for wrong doing.[1] The sense here is not that they suffer an injustice because they have been unjust but simply that they receive their just deserts, they are paid the wage that exactly reflects the work they have done. Romans 6:23 tells is that the wages of sin is death. I think this is the sense here, that they will suffer the condemnation of death, the judgement of eternity in hell because they have both sinned and led others into sin.

The Cravings of the false teachers denounced (v13b -16)

From v13b, Peter goes on to elaborate further on the lusts and desires of the false teachers.  He starts by telling us that they enjoy revelling in daytime. In other words, the time of day for working hard becomes a time for indulging their personal passions and addictions. This may suggest literal lack of self-control, that they are getting drunk in the day time and/or metaphorically that instead of using the time wisely for good and for God’s glory, they use it to please themselves.

He then describes them as “blots and blemishes” in other words, they spoil and stain. If believers are to be washed white as snow and if the church is the bride of Christ washed clean and made ready for her groom, then the false teachers bring stains that spoil the perfect beauty.  Again, pay attention to this, the false teacher will often claim to be improving things, restoring and reforming the church but in fact they are harming it.

Notice as well, the shocking place where this staining and spoiling happens. Peter tells us that they feast with the believers and deceive them. Jude 1:12 describes the feasts as “love feasts” referring to a meal at which the Lord’s Supper would be celebrated. The false teachers are able to deceive their way right in to the heart of church life. This is the place where they can distort teaching and it is also the place where they can take advantage of close fellowship to prey upon the vulnerable.

I would add that you will find the false teachers are not just interested in intellectual discourse. The way they get in is not just via the pulpit. In fact, we can guard the pulpit whilst leaving the church vulnerable to other areas of attack. They will get involved in pastoral care, visiting, giving and receiving hospitality and youth work. 

In verse 14, our attention is drawn to the lustful nature of their cravings as they seke satisfaction and yet are never satisfied. We are told that their eyes are full of adultery and that they entice the unsteady or vulnerable. Specifically here, we are talking about people who are vulnerable to temptation.

You know, sometimes churches are tempted to see the rules and regulations around safeguarding (whether children or vulnerable adults) as frustrating red tape. However, when we realise that false teachers target in this way, we begin to realise that a concern for safe-guarding is in fact central to our duty as leaders and part of how we love the church and honour God.

I also want to again draw your attention to the link between false teaching and abuse. You see this is Peter’s point, whilst someone may fall into error in ignorance and whilst someone may even set out with good motives, what we have seen time, time and time again is that corrupt teaching leads to abusive and cult like practices because false teachers quickly discover that they have the ability to manipulate and control in order to fulfil their own desires.

Again, it is for this reason that I consider some of those who have been caught in high profile scandals as false teachers not just as people who have fallen ethically. Of course, it is possible to fall into sin like David did but when we see unrepentant and persistent sin going on among leaders particularly when it is manipulative and controlling then this is not just about their personal failing but their public teaching. Because of the subtlety of their tactics they can appear incredibly orthodox and yet they are proclaiming and living by a distorted gospel.

Let me use the examples of John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher to demonstrate this. Both men held to reformed evangelical theology and were able to sign all the doctrine of faith that they might be asked to. They had a reputation for solid Bible teaching, they held to penal substitution and justification by faith to the point where some opponents of reformed theology have argued that these doctrines must themselves lead to abusive behaviour.  Yet think it through carefully. These men were enjoying sadomasochistic, homo-erotic activities, they indulged their own desires and manipulated their victims in to a place where they could take advantage of them. How did they do this? Well they didn’t do this by drawing the men in on the basis of mutual physical attraction and shared enjoyment. Rather they used spiritual justification. The punishments were forfeits as they sought to spur one another on in holiness. Now how do you get from the finished work of Christ entirely of grace to a system of sanctification where young men are compelled to experience torture and shame that hurts and embarrasses at the time but also leaves a lifetime of pain and shame ahead.  The answer is you cannot. So, their teaching, the words they used to justify behaviours will have distorted and added to the Gospel. Further, the traumatic effect of the experience those lads and young men had at the hand of these men will have distorted how they saw the Gospel too,

It is intriguing and distressing in equal measure to see that false teaching relates so closely to sexual indulgence and sexual abuse. However, I believe we should see the cravings as not limited to sexual longing. There is a general craving for money, sex and power

Jude compares the false teachers to three examples in the Old Testament, Cain, Balaam and Korah. Peter limits himself to just one example comparing the false teachers (v14-16). The false teachers have gone astray from the true path and this has led to them imitating Baalam. We meet this character in Numbers 22. The Israelites are on their way to the promised land and they reach Moab where they camp. The Moabites summon help from the Midianites but they are still afraid of Israel, so they send representatives to see Balaam.  He is a prophet or soothsayer. They ask him to curse Israel and offer him money if he will. Balaam wants the money but finds he is unable to curse God’s people. He explains to his paymasters that this is the case, he can only say what God has decreed. He cannot go beyond Yahweh’s word.

Even when he tries to go to curse the people, God speaks through Balaam’s own donkey and tells him that he must only prophecy the words God gives him. So, he goes to the leaders of Moab and Midian and prophesies blessing on Israel

Desperate for the money, he employs trickery. He concludes that if he can get Israel to fall into sexual immorality and idolatry then God will curse them.[2] Here we see that when someone gains a lust for money, sex or power then they will not stop at anything to get those things.

Conclusion and final application

It is sad that the history of the church and of induvial churches is littered with stories of those who got a foothold in order to cause mayhem. Again and again we see the link between false teaching and abusive, controlling and cult like behaviour.

There are some practical lessons here. The main one is that  if we want to fulfil our responsibility to protect Gods’ flock then:

  • We need to be ready to stand up to bullies and abusers. We need to recognise the serious spiritual nature of their abuse. This means we need to prioritise a healthy diet of God’s Word.  The best protection against false teaching is to be rooted in God’s Word.
  • We need to be good observers, to have an eye on what is going on and to be able to spot detail.  Work on the basis that there’s no such thing as coincidences, so when you see apparent coincidence, be curious and ready to find our what really happened.
  • Proper, godly, loving Biblical church discipline needs to be employed as part of what we do to safe guard the church.

Abusers are wolves. Sometimes they appear overtly as wolves, sometimes they appear in sheep’s clothing and sometimes they appear as shepherds. Their aim is always the same, it is to benefit themselves, to gain power and pleasure at the expense of the church.

Elders and pastors in the church have a specific responsibility. Again and again in Scripture we are warned that wolves will come. Our responsibility is to feed the sheep and guard them, to provide and protect. It is important that we take stock of how we are doing on both counts.  We are accountable. Paul when speaking to the Ephesian elders could confidently declare that he was innocent of any blood on his hands. Can we?

Church members need to be alert to the danger from the wolves. The best way to stay safe, is to stick close to Christ and to stay close to each other, watching out for one another. It alsom means learning to recognise good leaders, genuine shepherds and being well fed on God’s word so that you too are equipped to stand firm.

[1] Unrighteously for unrighteousness.

[2] Revelation 2:14, Numbers25.

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