The Pathology of False Teachers
by John MacArthur
Throughout history, deadly epidemics have ravaged mankind. In the fourteenth century, the infamous Black Death (an outbreak of bubonic plague) killed millions in Europe. Cholera, diphtheria, malaria, and other sicknesses have ravaged towns and cities. Our generation has witnessed the rapid spread of the fatal disease Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). More deadly than any of those diseases, however, is the plague of false teaching that has afflicted the church throughout its history. While illness may kill the body, false teaching damns the soul.
Like AIDS and the plague, false teaching has a definite, observable pathology—the elements of abnormality that characterize a disease. Scientists study the pathology of a disease to better equip themselves to recognize it and to combat it.
Every leader in the church should be a spiritual pathologist, able to discern deviations from spiritual health. Only then will he be equipped to diagnose the deadly disease of false teaching, and to do what is necessary to check its spread among his people. Paul warned of the subtle danger of satanic lies, describing their purveyors as
false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds. (2 Corinthians 11:13–15)
It takes careful discernment to see that the light is really darkness. Paul taught Timothy how to diagnose satanic darkness masquerading as divine light. Here’s how he described the key symptoms that identify those infected with the spiritual disease of false teaching:
If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:3-5)
The first symptom of false teachers is what they affirm. A false teacher “advocates a different doctrine.” False teaching may take many forms. It may deny God’s existence, or teach error about His nature and attributes. It may deny the Trinity. Error about Christ’s Person and work is also common in false systems. Those who deny His virgin birth, sinless perfection, substitutionary death, bodily resurrection, or future return show signs of a dangerous infection. False teachers also teach error about the nature, Person, and work of the Holy Spirit. Yet another strain of the disease of false teaching denies the authenticity, inspiration, authority, or inerrancy of Scripture.
At the same time, another mark of false teachers is what they deny. Their teaching not only affirms error, but also “does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 6:3). False teachers are not in agreement with spiritually wholesome and beneficial words. That believers need to pay attention to sound, healthy teaching is repeatedly emphasized in the Pastoral Epistles (cf. 1 Timothy 1:10; 2 Timothy 1:13; Titus 1:9; 2:1).
False teachers are not committed to Scripture. They may speak of Jesus and the Father, but the heart of their ministry will not be the Word of God. They will either add to it, take away from it, interpret it in some heretical fashion, add other “revelations” to it, or deny it altogether.
A third symptom of false teachers is their rejection of “the doctrine conforming to godliness” (1 Timothy 6:3). The ultimate test of any teaching is whether it produces godliness. Teaching not based on Scripture will result in an unholy life. Instead of godliness, the loves of false teachers will be characterized by sin (cf. 2 Peter 2:10-22; Jude 4, 8-16).
The attitude of false teachers can be summed up in one word: pride. It takes an immense ego to place oneself as judge of the Bible. Such egotism blatantly usurps the place of God. “Conceited” (1 Timothy 6:4) is from tuphoō, and it implies arrogance, an inevitable mark of false teachers. To set up one’s own teaching as superior to the Word of God is the epitome of arrogance. False teachers have an overinflated sense of their own importance, not hesitating to rebel against God and His Word. That merely confirms, however, that they are infected with a deadly spiritual disease.
False teachers are also exposed through their mentality. Although a false teacher may be filled with pride over his supposed knowledge, Paul says that in reality “he . . . understands nothing” (1 Timothy 6:4). All of his imagined intelligence, pretended scholarship, and supposed deeper insights amounts to mere foolishness to God (Romans 1:22; 1 Corinthians 2:9–16). Lacking insight into spiritual truth, his wisdom “is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic” (James 3:15). Those who know and believe the Word of God have far more insight into spiritual reality than the most educated heretic.
Instead of focusing on the truth, false teachers have “a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words” (1 Timothy 6:4). They indulge in pseudointellectual theorizing rather than in productive study of and submission to God’s Word.
False teaching also fails in its inability to produce unity (1 Timothy 6:4-5). The word battles of false teachers result in chaos and confusion. “Envy” is the inward discontent with the advantages or popularity enjoyed by others. It results in “strife,” which often manifests itself in the “abusive language” of slander and insult. The net result of false teaching is “constant friction.” False teachers constantly rub each other the wrong way. That helps spread their spiritual disease, much as sheep might rub together and infect each other. False teaching can never produce unity. Only the truth unifies.
The external cause of false teaching is satanic deception (cf. 1 Timothy 4:1). The internal cause, however, is the depraved or unregenerate mind of the false teacher. “The mind set on the flesh,” writes Paul, “is hostile toward God” (Romans 8:7). Such a mind does not function normally in the spiritual realm; it does not react normally to truth. Being natural men, false teachers cannot understand the things of God, which seem foolish to them (1 Corinthians 2:14). As a result, “God gives them over to a depraved mind” (Romans 1:28; cf. Ephesians 2:1–3; 4:17–19).
The spiritual condition of false teachers is critical; they are in a state of apostasy. “Deprived” (1 Timothy 6:5) indicates that someone or something pulled them away from the truth. That does not imply they were saved, but that they had contact with the truth. Like those described in Hebrews 6:4–6, they were thoroughly exposed to the truth, but rejected it.
Unfortunately, their prognosis is not hopeful. Their spiritual condition is terminal. Those who are deprived of the truth are headed for judgment. Hebrews 6:6 solemnly warns of such men that “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame.” Peter says that they bring “swift destruction upon themselves” (2 Peter 2:1). The severest hell will be reserved for those who, having been exposed to the truth, turned away from it (cf. Hebrews 10:26–31).
Finally, false teachers have a simple motivation: money. They “suppose that godliness” (1 Timothy 6:5, used sarcastically of their false piety) will bring them such gain. Unlike Paul, they cannot say, “I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes” (Acts 20:33). Put simply, they are not “free from the love of money” (1 Timothy 3:3).
The pathology of false teachers is clear. They deny the truth, and their teaching does not produce godly living. They are arrogant and ignorant of spiritual truth. They spend their time in foolish speculations that lead only to chaos and division. Having forsaken the truth, they face eternal destruction. And they serve money, not God. The church must take extreme care not to allow these men to spread their deadly disease. The resulting epidemic would be tragic.
(Adapted from The Macarthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Timothy.)
#1 Posted by
Jennifer Phillips | Friday, February 14, 2014at
Thank you for a great article! My prayer is not only that people are able to recognize false teachers, but that our leaders who love Christ would focus on just preaching the Word. Too many sermons at good and Godly churches focus on guilt, entertainment, motivation, and manipulation to market Christ to the Church. The measuring stick for many churches that DO NOT have false teachers has become church size, church programs, church involvement, church budget, and entertainment. It saddens me that so many churches are focused on all the "good things" they want to accomplish in the community or their church and forget about just preaching the Word and making disciples of those people God has given them, while leaving the results to God. I hope they can put aside emotional manipulation and distractions and focus on the job God has given them to do. It really is simple and they have made it complex - PREACH THE WORD. Don't manipulate God's word to fit or promote your agenda - no matter how good and worthy it is. They would do well to model this sermon from Grace to You.
#2 Posted by
Jennifer Phillips | Friday, February 14, 2014at
Just as false teachers are deadly, false disciples are deadly as well. The last thing a church with Godly leaders wants is false disciples. Attract sinners with the truth of God's Word and not your efforts to market your church. Better to have a few true disciples in your midst than many false disciples. Those whose heart has truly been changed will lead others to Christ, by the fruit of their lives, one person at a time.
#3 Posted by
George Canady | Friday, February 14, 2014at
Dear Dr MacArthur, I know you do not respond to your blog and may not even read comments but I would like to appeal to you anyway in hope to provoke you to thought. Some of my family is caught in the depths of this false teaching and at least one has seemed to have moved from a solid Christian orthodox position to the worst of the word faith and prosperity gospel. I pray for these family members to be saved as I do the wolves that teach them. Are my prayers in vein or should I hope for all men to be saved?
#4 Posted by
Matthew Wilson | Friday, February 14, 2014at
Dear Pastor John,
Although I am not directly "in your flock," per se, it is undeniable that your ministry and the work of Grace to You have deeply transformed my life. You stir up within many people the need to speak God's Word with boldness and accuracy. Thank you!
Nevertheless, your emphasis regarding identifying and addressing false teachers and deceptive false doctrines seems to be laid at "leaders" feet rather than those of every Christian.
You wrote: "Every leader in the church should be a spiritual pathologist, able to discern deviations from spiritual health." Although I completely agree with you, should not every Christian be mature (or seek to be mature enough) to be a spiritual pathologist? As a father and husband, I believe that Bible dictates that I watch over and shepherd my own family, at least. Should I not understand God's truth well enough to identify and steer my family away from false teaching? Will not God hold me responsible for the spiritual care of my family?
The reason why I ask this question is because it appears that modern church culture has reserved much of this responsibility to its leaders rather than to laypeople. The pastor holds all accountability to spot what is false and address it. The layperson is assigned to quiet prayer alone. Perhaps, this is the way of things in churches because we have not taught laypeople HOW to address error in ways that are non-divisive. Maybe, pastors and church leaders just do not want to deal with that many voices. However, with so much error and subtle shifts away from God's Word and the true Gospel, I think it is about time that everyone learn how to do what you, and so many other leaders, are doing to contend for the faith.
#5 Posted by
Todd Farr | Friday, February 14, 2014at
I think 2 Peter 3:9 indirectly answers your question. Also, Jesus' response to His people, Israel, from Luke 19:41-44. The love and emotion that He poured out, only to be rejected. The same thing goes on today. People turning away from the Truth to pursue worldy and fleshly desires that false teachers are so adept at catering to. It's heartbreaking and prayer is often all we can offer.
#6 Posted by
Sterling Brown | Friday, February 14, 2014at
What a timeless truth that you have shared in this blog. It is quite unfortunate to say but in the church these false leaders have taken hold on certain positions in the church where I attend. They challenge and attack all who want to know and follow God's Word. They say things like "God's Word is ok however it is our efforts to win the heart of those around you that makes the true difference in convincing them on any subject." These leaders trust in their own methods and power when it comes to evangelism and edification of the church. In addition they are not convinced that the Scripture is sufficient for all matters of faith and life. This is the climate in which God has blessed me to teach His Word. It has not been easy I have been insulted and attacked numerous times but by His grace and through the power of His Spirit He has kept me faithful to the text. I just want to encourage anyone else out there to stand on the Word of God and He will take care of the results and will be glorified in our willingness to be faithful to Him. This world is becoming increasingly hostile to the Word of God with that said we should preach harder than we have ever before. Pastor John MacArthur I pray for you and the Grace Community Church family that you will continue preaching His truth without wavering. I praise God for you and the biblical community that He as given you, all of you encourage me to stand strong in the face of persecution and hostility. Thank you so much, I look forward to the day when we will all spend time praising Jesus Christ together in heaven. God bless.
#7 Posted by
Cameron Buettel | Friday, February 14, 2014at
You are asking a good question and one that allows me to provide further clarification. While many of the recent posts are primarily aimed at leaders, they are certainly not meant to suggest that other church members are absolved from exercising and practicing biblical discernment.
We should all follow the lead of the Bereans who "received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily" (Acts 17:11). Paul's commands to mark false teachers (Romans 16:17) and expose the works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11) were instructions to the churches in general and indicate that all Christians have some role to play. Jesus taught that the initial stages of church discipline should involve the offended party before progressing to church leadership if the unrepentance continues (Matthew 18:15-20).
Without a doubt, church leaders must lead from the front on these matters. But all members of the local church should also participate within their own realm of responsibility, and ever mindful of working respectfully within the parameters laid out by godly leaders in submission to Scripture.
#8 Posted by
Brad Kennedy | Friday, February 14, 2014at
Pastor MacArthur's sermon "How to Think and Act in Evil Days" Part 2 is an excellent resource to remove your anxiety and help with your dilemma: "If it were not for God loving His enemies, there would be no Christians"
#9 Posted by
Matthew Wilson | Friday, February 14, 2014at
Thank you very much for the clarification. I figured that Pastor John had more than just leadership in mind but I wanted to be sure.
I think where my wife and I find this issue unclear is when subtle variances are introduced into church teaching and practices. Lately, this has presented itself in choice of congregational music. Mind you, I am not objecting to style of music -- we, both, like a wide variety of music. But, lyrics are becoming more and more important to us.
Tying this with some of Dr. Justin Peters comments regarding "Jesus Culture" music out of Bethel church in Redding, CA (about 2 hrs north of us), we are finding that many evangelical churches are borrowing the music of organizations that promote false teaching. Almost without a bat of the eye, Christians are drawn up into the singing without really evaluating the lyrics. The songs are popular; therefore, they must be good doctrinally...right? Not always.
This type of subtle introduction of music or practice that helps promote false doctrines elsewhere should be identified and addressed also. Yes? This is not blatant sin such as that of Matthew 18:15-20. I think most music & church leaders do not chose these tunes with malice and deceit in their hearts. So, should it be handle the same way as is discussed in Matthew 18? It does not seem so.
Nevertheless, little steps and minute shifts toward doctrine, lyrics, and practices that are used by false teachers can eventually destroy the sound teaching and practices of churches. So, I feel that even these little moves away from doctrinally grounded aspects of our churches must be identified and corrected early in their development. It just seems to be a sticky situation.
#10 Posted by
David Smith | Friday, February 14, 2014at
Matthew Wilson #9
The issue of music is an interesting one. If you check out the background of the writers of some of the great hymns of the church, you'll find a wide range of doctrinal positions, some of which you'll almost certainly have strong disagreements with, even if their hymns are sound. But there is a view that as the writers are long dead it doesn't really matter.
Contemporary music is a different matter because it is often closely associated with certain churches. Do we reject Shout To The Lord because it came from Hillsong? I don't feel strongly about that, possibly because that church is so doctrinally vague and it's not really associated with any particular beliefs.
On the other hand, Bethel Redding and Bill Johnson are so far off the rails that I regard them as highly dangerous and I wouldn't want to promote them in any way. So I have a very big problem with their music.
My approach may be illogical but that's how I feel. I may have to change it. It's partly because, where I live, I don't see Hillsong having any real affect on churches, but Bill Johnson's false teachings are quite influential.
It's worth noting that the song list for Grace Community Church includes material by charismatic authors, so I presume John MacArthur is OK with it.
As you say, a difficult situation, and one to be handled with wisdom, discernment, and, above all, love and grace.
#11 Posted by
John Anderson | Friday, February 14, 2014at
Today I looked out the window of the kitchen and saw small bunches of green on the vine maple trees. It was exciting. We have had a long, wet cold winter and new green vegetation is a sign of the coming spring, a start to new life and sunshine and warmth. It is a time when sap returns and brings life. I was very excited. I went outside and further examined the “green.” Up close I could see that it was old stuff. It was not what I thought. I was small clumps of green moss! Not new, not full of new life, but from a distance it looked exciting. There was even some lichen (a composite of a fungus and an organism capable of producing food by photosynthesis). It produces life from within itself. It does not come from the roots and the tree sap. It is not a part of the life of the tree. Lichens do their own thing. It is not even a true moss! Many lichen are poisonous or not digestible by humans only by some “animals.”
I look at what is going on is some of the Christian circles today and it is very much similar. On the outside it looks good, but taking a close look it is not new and not full of life! Some are calling for a “new reformation”, others say they have a “new perspective on Paul”. If one wasn’t to look closely at what they are saying it might look ok. After all these are scholars but no, they are Pharisees. They believe their own lie. They are moss; they are lichen. What they are saying is not new. It comes from false prophets or people that are puffed up with themselves. It comes from a young and restless group that think they have to find something new to make a name for themselves, to make money, or to keep their “Christian organization” financially afloat. It comes from people that say they are in “gospel–centered churches.” Well, in my book, they have made a name for themselves. It is not new. It is old moss. It is lichen. The name is “false prophet” and the Bible talks about these. Thank you Grace Community Church, John MacArthur, Phil Johnson and the other staff that are not afraid to tell that it, after a close look, is “old moss”. It is moss that drips not with fresh water but with lies. It is not new and not full of life. It is a way that leads to death. Look close and you can see it for yourselves. Remember the gate is narrow! Old moss does not bring new life and does not come from the very root of our beliefs.
#12 Posted by
J. Kevin Gossett | Friday, February 14, 2014at
Dr. MacArthur, as always...thank you so much for sharing the truth on this holiday of "love"; it is actually rather a nauseating holiday for me since my regeneration some 4 and 1/2 years ago. The love that is celebrated on this day is such a reflection of the flesh that it is almost intolerable. It is not at all the love of God - agape love - but is wholly worldly love: superficial, self-serving, commercialized, unsustainable, and only given if equally received. Thank you for presenting truth in the midst of a day of total deception.
#13 Posted by
Russell Aubrey | Friday, February 14, 2014at
A comment in reference to John's use of 1 Timothoy 6: 3-5, - last nine words -and directly related to yet another Creflo Dollar distortion. I'm quoting the following example from Dollar's journal for personal study, 2009, page 50, and labeled by Dollar, "The Prosperity Adventure." OK, it's all about cash, but get ready because he mixes in some truth, and he' very, very slick. Oh, so slick.
"You do not have to worry where your next meal is coming from or how your bills are going to be paid when you know your God. Your job (here it comes, first volley) in God's system, is to seek His way of doing things, which means sowing seed (Bingo!) (Here comes the second volley) When you focus your efforts on being a seed-sower, everything else will be added to you. (Oh, that's slick, yes?) (Here comes some truth) There is nothing too hard for God (Oh, boy, he uses that truth to set up his third volley - get ready) and as long as you have seed in the ground (There you go - now, the next, fourth volley is also backed by some truth - get ready) and are living you life in obedience to His Word, (fifth volley coming now) you have a harvest of abundance coming your way!" This guy is slick. Did you know he has called himself "Creflo Million Dollar"?
Well, now, it wasn't that long ago when the 700 Club had him as a guest - just gushing all over him - at least Pat was. I sensed that Terry Meeuwsen, who interviewed him, was a little uneasy about his appearance on the show, but it's only a guess. She is probably fond of her job, and who can blame her. But, again, she just appeared, in my opinion, to be uneasy. Now, one would think Pat would know better, but nope. Go figure. Yes, John MacArthur, all you say about these clowns and thieves is true.
#14 Posted by
David Lee | Saturday, February 15, 2014at
There are SO MANY good points in this post that it's hard to say what stands out the most. It did strike me though that a truly unified body of Christ, united in the truth of the words of the Bible, does not have to put the word "United" in it's name. Unity is inherent, not just wishful thinking.
- "False teaching also fails in its inability to produce unity (1 Timothy 6:4-5). The word battles of false teachers result in chaos and confusion."
#15 Posted by
Marcia F. Mcgurr | Saturday, February 15, 2014at
thank you Pastor john for your faithful preaching of the word of God to makeus discerning disciples. My question is DO the false teachers exist to draw away the unregenerate and false church members ,those seeds that did not fall on good ground?
#16 Posted by
Jay David | Saturday, February 15, 2014at
I am not surprised that all my comments and questions from the "Calling Out the Wolves" blog was just summed up here by Pastor-Teacher John MacArthur. The excerpts used and the way that John writes from his years of cataloged books is so cut and dry, there is no dust left unsettled. I have Grace to You bookmarked on my laptop, installed on my cell, and listen to 45 years of archived sermons from Pastor John with no questions left unanswered by the time I'm done listening his sermons.
I do have one problem, I can't get enough of all that I have learned and been shown from God's Word - clarity and understanding like never before from the GTY website.
In saying that, does anyone have a problem finding a local church that preaches such sound doctrine as Grace to You? I can't right now. Not even close.
Does anyone else have that problem? If so, what are we to do? I know were supposed to go to church. Is it a problem that I make Grace to You my church for now, because I find churches around me to be watering-down or of not sound doctrine or truth?
#18 Posted by
Linda Harris | Sunday, February 16, 2014at
Yes, indeed thank you, Pastor John, for your excellent teaching on this issue -unfortunately the problem is worldwide, the UK has embraced much heresy over the last decades, satellite tv having reached millions of homes, and many US 'biggies' mentioned above, are household names among British Christians. I am writing from Italy, and have noticed that among the Italian evangelical ministries, the preaching usually centers around God's great love(true), but omits His other attributes to the point where we seem to have a lopsided picture of the Real God of the universe. Little mention is ever made of sin, usually we are told 'not to worry, God knows we're only human', my question is, 'would this be a form of false teaching? ' It seems like a shift from the full picture.
#19 Posted by
Joe Radler | Monday, February 17, 2014at
Can "fruits" really help us discern between a true believer who is struggling with sin and fighting to overcome a fallen nature and a false believer who is deluded into thinking they can have Jesus as savior without submitting to him as Lord?
We all know people in our churches (and it may even be ourselves) that have accepted Jesus as their "Savior", but who don't appear to follow Him as their "Lord" in any meaningful way.
These people might help their neighbor once in a while or volunteer with the church or even do many "good" things that look like spiritual fruit... but then go home and beat their children and curse them to their face; in the best case, they are ok parents but "God" plays no part in their decision making or life when not "at church" officially. In other words, they are hypocrites leading a double life; perhaps adhering to the letter of the law OR perhaps assuming somewhat of a license to disregard the law in light of the salvation they believe is theirs anyway.
Is this a true believer who is struggling with sin or a false believer who is deluded?
How can we tell based solely on fruits?
#20 Posted by
David Smith | Monday, February 17, 2014at
Joe Radler #19:
I'm not sure I can answer your question, but I can tell you that every single christian is a work in progress. None of us will reach perfection until we reach heaven. I believe this is the Biblical position - look at some of Paul's comments about himself.
The more I get on in life, the more convinced I am that we all need God's forgiveness every day. And I'm sure the main thing God wants is for us to admit that we are sinners and fall short of his standard. That's the first, and often the hardest, step in repentance. So I guess a sign of false conversion is someone who appears to be perfect and doesn't admit their failings. Unbelievers generally don't see themselves as needing God. But that's just my two cents.
#21 Posted by
Desiree Cammardella | Monday, February 17, 2014at
This is in response to Jay David - I have been blessed with a great church in Clearwater, FL and we are pretty much aligned with Dr. MacArthur doctrinally. But, maybe try Moody Bible and see if they can advise on a solid church? Before I came to mine, I felt the same way and now feel so blessed every week being in such a biblical environment, focused on obedience, glorifying the Lord, walking in humility, Berean indeed. But, you are right, the norm nowadays seems to be conformance more and more to the world.
#22 Posted by
Brad Weidenhammer | Tuesday, February 18, 2014at
Re: #11 by John Anderson,
I am a little late into this discussion but hoping for a response from John to clarify something.
I agree with you John, that the "New Perspective on Paul" is "another gospel" (in my opinion) but those who are calling for a "New Reformation" are not that far off the mark. Could you elaborate on why you think calling for a new reformation is wrong.
The first reformation was certainly needed due to extreme deviation from the truth of the word. Is that not happening again now? And would you not welcome a similar correction?
Curious about this.
#23 Posted by
Jeffrey Weis | Wednesday, February 26, 2014at
Comment deleted by user.