In our study on the subject of spiritual warfare we now turn to address those deceivers, whether knowingly or unknowingly, who have infiltrated Christian gatherings or who generally make a public profession of Christ. We have already seen how this deception of Satan comes by way of false teachers and false professions, in other words shepherds and sheep, operating under the guise of genuine followers of Christ. Typically, they are either self-deceived or are purposefully deceiving. Regardless, God in His wisdom has provided the means and methods for addressing these wolves and has given His people the responsibility of implementing them.
We want to begin again with false prophets/teachers, which Scripture also refers to as hirelings or wicked shepherds, those who have infiltrated Christian gatherings or places of influences for the purpose of leading many astray. We’ve already noted the numerous warnings that Scripture provides in order to alert believers of the genuine dangers that false teachers can bring. As a counter to these wolves, God has tasked His shepherds with refuting false teachers and thereby protecting the sheep, just as Paul gathered the elders of Ephesus together and warned them of incoming wolves (Acts 20:17-38). One of the men who Paul had charged with teaching the gospel in Ephesus was his young protégé, Timothy.
Paul writes to Timothy twice, each of which include a reminder of how he is to deal with false prophets/teachers. In the opening of 1 Timothy 1 we learn the purpose of Paul leaving Timothy behind in Ephesus was to address the rise of false prophets and teachers, just as he had warned them earlier (Acts 20:17-38 cited above). These particular wolves had apparently been guilty of teaching false doctrine having to do with genealogies and the law. The effect of their teaching was leading to vain speculations and discussions essentially taking the focus off of Christ and living a life pleasing to Him. The continuation of these error may have even led to a shipwreck of faith (1 Timothy 1:19). Paul exhorts Timothy to instruct, that is to teach by way of commanding, these false teachers to stop promoting errors. He was to command them, but with an aim of, “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” which runs counter to the false teachers. The pattern of countering false prophets and teachers, as we will see below, is with the truth of God’s Word. As a reminder that addressing false prophets and teachers is indeed a key emphasis of spiritual warfare as we have seen, Paul encourages Timothy to, “wage the good warfare.” (1 Timothy 1:18).
Paul returns to the subject of false prophets and teachers, specifically noting the effects that they have on professing believers, in chapter four of his letter. In what might be considered a prophetic or eschatological section he writes,
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.1 Timothy 4:1-5
As we learned in our opening posts, we have a clear relationship between deception from Satan (teaching from demons) and his effect on false prophets/teachers. The counter to this is again the instruction in good doctrine and the example of a holy life. As a soldier might benefit or gain from physical training, godliness in this warfare is much more effective and lasting. In 1 Timothy we have again seen that false teachers and their doctrine is to be countered with doctrinal truth and the practice of holiness, not memes, snarky one-liners, or other worldly means. Rather the weapon is God’s Word and a life lived pleasing to Him.
In his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes a general reference to the Lord’s bondservant instructing them in the following:
Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.2 Timothy 2:23-26
The direction from the Lord is for His people, specifically His shepherd-teachers, to be well-versed enough in Scripture to teach, but also able to endure evil, presumably that which accompanies erroneous teaching, for the purpose of correcting these opponents with gentleness. The emphasis is on using doctrinal correctness to oppose doctrinal error. There is no mention of physical weaponry and no mention of any other means (memes, insults, slander included) outside of the truth from God’s Word. While some have determined these false teachers refer to those outside of a Christian fellowship, we ought to note carefully the remainder of the passage which clearly indicates a reference to those inside, “come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” In accordance with what we’ve already seen, here we have another example of the influence of Satan on those who spread evil by way of false teaching. The counter for this is for those whom God has entrusted with knowledge of His Word to confront them. As the men of a village might defend her against a prowling lion or invading marauders, so too ought men of God personally and verbally refute false teachers with the weapon of God’s Word.
Additionally, writing to another of his young protégés, Paul instructs Titus in the function of overseers to include holding, “firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Titus 1:9 Therefore, there are those shepherds whom God has gifted and instructed to be well-versed in sound doctrine for the purpose of refuting and rebuking, those who teach contrary to it. In a very real sense, all believers should be well-versed in God’s Word so as to be able to discern false teaching and reject it, as we will see.
It should be obvious that so far we have seen zero call for physical confrontation, the taking up of weapons, or altercations of any kind. Quite the contrary as our last passage instructed the Lord’s servant to correct with gentleness with the hope that they might come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil. A perfect illustration of this, particularly as it pertains to erroneous teaching inside, concerns the confrontation of Paul with Peter, as cited in Galatians 2:11-14. In this passage, Peter comes down from Jerusalem to Antioch where Paul and Barnabas have been ministering (Acts 13:1) and has been integrating with the largely gentile fellowship, including eating with them. However, when other men from Jerusalem, identified as those from the circumcision party (Acts 15:1-5), came to Antioch, Peter withdrew himself from fellowship of the gentile believers. At this time, divisions of this sort were particularly grievous and injurious to the body of believers, who had been purchased with the blood of Christ which had removed any boundaries to fellowship (Ephesians 2:11-22) and united them as a body. Peter’s behavior was therefore hypocritical and contrary to the gospel. As a result, Paul follows the pattern of addressing false teachers, whether their error is in doctrine or practice, by confronting Peter to his face, “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?'” Paul then proceeds to combat this practice with a clear exposition of the gospel (Galatians 2:15-21).
But is the practice of confronting false teachers, prophets, and shepherds only relegated to other teachers or shepherds? Is there anything for the body of believers to do when these cases arise, as surely they have and will continue? In the New Testament there are two primary books (letters) that specifically deal with the dangers of false teachers, 2 Peter and Jude. Both letters give extensive warnings by highlighting the characteristics, as well as the doctrinal and practical errors of false teachers.
Peter’s second letter, written under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is simply addressed to believers generally, “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” In the opening of the letter, Peter reminds his audience of the gospel and subsequently Christian characteristics that accompany it. He then proceeds to emphasize the reality of apostolic witness to the risen Christ, true prophecy revealed from God, as well as the inerrancy, infallibility, and inspiration of Scripture. With this foundation underfoot, he devotes chapter 2 to a warning on the dangers of false prophets and teachers. As Peter proceeds to give a detailed description of these wolves, using colorful language to be sure, he also reminds his audience that the Lord knows how to deliver judgment upon them while simultaneously delivering His people from the trials of evil, a fact that is historically buttressed through several cited examples. As chapter 3 (remember chapter breaks were not original) begins, we note a shift back to the assuredness of true prophecy from God which warned on the dangers of scoffers in the last days as the time of God’s final judgment, restoration, and preparation of the New Heavens and Earth approaches.
It is with all of this that Peter brings his letter to conclusion with the all important therefore. 2 Peter 3:14 begins the conclusion of the letter by exhorting believers to live diligently with hope for the future fulfillment of God’s promises, holiness in a fallen and corrupt world, and at peace despite the turmoil that surrounds. Under this general exhortation, he further warns on the dangers of those who twist the Scriptures to their own destruction (false prophets and teachers), particularly the writings of Paul. Subsequently, the responsibility of believers is to not get caught up and swept away in their errors, leading to instability in the faith. Instead, the counter is for believers to, “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” In other words, the general exhortation to believers faced with the reality of false prophets and teachers is to ensure the stability of their own faith. They (we) are to be filled with hope of the fulfillment of God’s promises, but also to be on guard, discerning, and avoiding the trap of false teachers. Rather than do nothing or be ignorant, the charge is to grow in grace and knowledge. That means using the opportunity of false prophets and teachers to grow in the knowledge of Christ.
Similarly, Jude, the brother of James and Jesus, had intended to write a letter, again to believers generally, about the gospel and those things common to salvation. However, the Holy Spirit had other plans and directs Jude to write, “appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints”. Jude 3 The base for this word carries the idea of a “place of contest” or “stadium” while the root means “to carry on a conflict, contest, debate, or legal suit”. Combining the ideas then, and avoiding exegetical fallacies, it seems reasonable to envision a gladiator type arena where a debate, in this context of the faith, is to take place. Implied is that this will indeed be a struggle, not a half-hearted effort, rather all-out war with the expectation of death. It is for this reason, contending, that Jude supplies a vivid description of false teachers, along with examples of punishment, as in our 2 Peter passage. At his own conclusion, Jude also provides an exhortation for how believers are to respond to the presence of false prophets and teachers. In Jude 17, he begins with a reminder that the apostles prophesied that in the last days there would be scoffers, just as we saw in 2 Peter. These scoffers would (will) be divisive and devoid of the Spirit.
In contrast, the charge for believers is not to take up arms, not to attack with wicked tongues, impotent memes, or other worldly methods. Rather Jude exhorts believers with the following:
- Build yourselves up in the faith
- Pray in the Spirit
- Keep yourselves in the love of God
- Wait, and we might imply hope, for final salvation at Christ’s second coming
- Have mercy on doubters
- Snatch others out of the fire
- Show mercy, with fear, hating the garment of flesh (worldliness)
This list of exhortations is quite different from what we might expect to follow such a strong word as contend. With the visual of a gladiator in an arena, we may be tempted to conclude that a taking up of arms, physical, virtual, or otherwise, would be required for such a defense of the faith. Instead, just as we saw with Peter the emphasis is on strengthening one’s own faith, extending mercy to those who doubt, evangelism, and the practical outworking of denying the sinfulness of the flesh.
Scripture could not be clearer on how to deal with false teachers, which as we are seeing falls definitively within the realm of spiritual warfare. False prophets and teachers who deceptively infiltrate Christian gatherings, lead ministries, or otherwise have influential platforms are to be personally, directly, and verbally confronted with the Word of God by those whom God has gifted and tasked with teaching and shepherding. Further, the general exhortation for all believers in these instances of wolves is to counter false teaching with truth in order to build up one’s own faith, which includes the sharing of one’s own faith, snatching others out of false teaching’s grip.