This is a sermon manuscript of the second in a two-part series on the role of pastors in the church. The first part dealt with three duties of a pastor: to teach, model, and nurture. This second part deals with a fourth duty of a pastor, which is to protect the flock.
When my family moved to the town of Bow, we were delighted by the wildlife around us. We saw a porcupine in the driveway, baby racoons in a tree, and deer meandering through the woods. We even saw a big black bear lumbering in our backyard. But one animal that especially fascinated us was Mr. Fox—reddish-brown, gaunt, and noiseless, waving behind him an elegant bushy tail. We would crowd to the window if someone announced that they saw him.
A few weeks ago, however, our attitude on that fox changed completely, for just one reason: we decided to get egg-laying chickens to lay eggs. And to our surprise, they have become dear to us, almost like pets. That means that Mr. Fox is no longer an interesting feature of the Bow wildlife. Instead, he is a threat to what is valuable to us. Because predators exist, it’s not enough merely to nurture the things we value. We must also defend and protect them.
The same is principle applies to the duties of pastors. Not only must pastors teach, model, and nurture their church; they must also guard against certain people whom Scripture refers to as “savage wolves.” Of course, these people are called wolves, not because they have sharp teeth and an appetite for fresh meat, but because they teach twisted truths and have an appetite for followers. Another term for these wolves is false teachers.
Why is the issue of false teachers a concern for everyone? First, because doctrine shapes life. Some people tend to downplay the importance of doctrine. “Doctrine divides,” they say. “Let’s focus on what we can do together instead of the beliefs that separate us.” Some churches and groups even go so far as to say that they really don’t have a specific creed. Thankfully, that idea is holding less and less weight in a world in which we are seeing that creeds and doctrines really are a matter of life and death. In fact, the more we can be clear about them, the better. In our city, creeds are literally on a street level, in the form of yard signs and bumper stickers. For example, it matters deeply whether, on the one hand, you believe that God created all human beings in his own image and that they thus equally possess intrinsic dignity; or whether, on the other hand, you believe that certain races possess more worth than others. Everyone should be concerned about what kind of doctrine people are teaching.
Second, the issue of false teachers is a concern particularly to church-going people because false teachers come from churches. In our text, Paul said that people would come “from your own selves.” Keeping in mind that he was speaking to a group of pastors, we find this even more sobering.
Finally, this issue is of universal relevance because some motivation of false teachers are common to all. You might never be a cult leader, but you might have in yourself what motivates cult leaders—a craving for admirers and followers, a hunger for to get out of other people what can benefit only you. In thinking about this, I recalled that profound theological treatise, Madagascar I. In one scene, Alex the lion begins to realize that he is a meat-eating predator. He feels an appetite for the flesh of other animals. To his horror, his vision begins to change, and he sees his friend the zebra, not as his striped companion, but as a raw, juicy steak. In sum, then, we’re not dealing with something abstract, distant, and impersonal. We’re dealing with something concrete and contemporary, right within these walls, and even closer, within our own hearts.
Identifying False Teachers
From this passage, then, we will consider (1) how to identify false teachers and (2) how to defend against them.
Who False Teachers are Not
First, let’s rule out what false teachers are not. A false teacher is not someone who is merely untaught. In the book of Acts, we read of a highly competent preacher named Apollos. Hailing from the intellectual center of the ancient world, Alexandria, this man had gained quite an audience. When two Christians, Priscilla and Aquila, heard him preach, they realized that what he said was accurate but incomplete. He was “eloquent,” “competent in the Scriptures,” “had been instructed in the way of the Lord,” and was “fervent in spirit” (18:24-25). But he “knew only the baptism of John” (18:25). So they taught him, and he continued to be a powerful advocate of the gospel. They did not say, “There goes a false teacher. He’s not preaching the whole counsel of God! Let’s oppose him.” Instead, they engaged with him and found him to be an eager learner; thus both Apollos, his hearers, and the cause of Christ continued to advance.
We should also bear in mind that a false teacher is not someone whom we consider to be a rival. Often, when leaders become obsessed about the size of their following, they began to feel jealous about the size of other leaders’ followings. Then a very devious tendency begins to arise, which is to cast shade on the person who seems to outshine them. They point out peripheral differences—perhaps in someone’s preaching style, choice of music, associations, or theological emphases—and turn these differences into reasons that leader is dangerous and should be avoided.
In contrast to this narrow-hearted competitiveness, the Bible presents examples of big-hearted generosity. In a letter to a group of Christians who were comparing him to Apollos and Peter, and dividing into factions over their favorite Christian celebrity, Paul wrote, “Who are we? We’re just servants through whom you believed” (1 Corinthians 3:5). Barnabas also is an amazing example of gospel-informed magnanimity. At one point, he and Paul got into such a big conflict that they had to split up and go their separate ways. Still, neither of them tried to detract from the other, although I could imagine how two preachers could have used such a conflict to invent a bigger issue than there really was. Paul could have said: “Watch out for that Barnabas guy. His message might sound good, but he was willing to compromise by taking along with him someone who had deserted us on our missionary journey.” And Barnabas could have said, “Paul is smart and motivated, sure; but he doesn’t give people second chances. He wouldn’t let John Mark join us on our next missionary journey. I don’t know what kind of followers he’ll have, but I worry—I just worry for them. Perhaps the most astonishing example of this big-heartedness comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Writing from prison, Paul referred to some people who were preaching “Christ from envy and rivalry . . . thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.” “What do I think about this?” Paul asks rhetorically, then replies: “Whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:15-18). There’s an incident recorded in the gospel of Mark that neatly summarizes this gospel-informed bigheartedness. John came to Jesus and told him: “We saw someone casting out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” In reply, Jesus said, “Don’t stop him, for whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:38-40). We must be careful not to let a spirit of jealousy incline us to label other leaders as false teachers.
Finally, a false teacher is not someone who is mistaken or temporarily wandered off the path. This happened to Peter in an especially bad way. He stumbled into hypocrisy, and even brought others along with him. Paul had to confront him and give him a public rebuke. Still, Paul didn’t call Peter a false teacher. True, Peter would have been a false teacher if he had ignored Paul’s rebuke, and continued to persuade others toward this hypocrisy. But it was a temporary lapse; not a fixed direction.
Who False Teachers Are
This passage teaches us to identify false teachers by (1) where they come from, (2) what motivates them, and (3) what they say.
First, where do they come from? Paul tells the Ephesian pastors that some false teachers might come from the outside, but others would arise “from among your own selves” (20:30). He’s looking into the eyes of those who would, in a short amount of time, turn out to be false teachers. It’s as if he’s saying, “Don’t think you’re safe just because you’ve blocked off all the entrances. Because the enemy might be right among you.”
Second, what motivates them? What are they after? One motivation is suggested in verse 30: “To draw away the disciples after them.” But other motivations given throughout Scripture are worth mentioning as well. Besides a craving for influence and followers, we read of the appetite for wealth (2 Peter 2:3, “greed”) and sex (2 Peter 2:14), “entice by sensual passions of the flesh”). To put it bluntly, the motivations of wolves turn out to be one (or a combination) of the following: influence (more followers), money, sex. If we could put it into words, their driving impulse could be sloganized as: “It is more blessed to take than to give.”
Third, what do they say? Paul says that they “speak twisted things.” This indicates that the content of false teaching is not necessarily outright falsehood. Instead, it is truth bent just a bit. It’s straight enough to escape notice, but bent enough to throw everything off.
A question worth asking here is this: why can’t leaders draw disciples away after them without bending the truth? Why not just use the truth of the gospel to draw a crowd of followers who are willing to pledge their unquestioned loyalty, to open their wallets, or to give them the sex they demand? The reason is this: the good news about Jesus, when preached fully and accurately, attaches people’s ultimate loyalty, not to the preacher, but to Jesus alone. This is because the gospel is the good news that Jesus alone has the love and power to rescue people from their misery. On the other hand, when a person wants to bind people’s loyalty to himself, he must put a subtle twist on the truths of the gospel. For example, he might rightly point out the moral decline of the U.S., but then point to a political leader or system as the final solution (if not if so many words, at least functionally). He might obsess over what he perceives to be the doctrinal corruption of other churches. He might make people feel disloyal if they listen to someone else. You can see how subtle this is! To attract people, he must present something that they feel to be true because it speaks to a felt need and offers a plausible solution, and even uses terms they already associate with positive things—like “Jesus,” “heaven,” and “salvation.” But to bind people to him, he must twist that truth. That is why, as Paul says, they speak “twisted things.” Twisted things can be truths in the wrong proportions, such as, in Paul’s day, an obsession with “myths and endless genealogies” (1 Timothy 1:4). Or they can be truths with the wrong conclusions, such as the teaching that God’s grace liberates us to a create our own moral values (Jude 4). Whatever the “twist” is, the effect is guaranteed not to produce genuine love, as Paul put it: “The aim of our charge, is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).
Defending Against False Teachers
The New Testament provides abundant instruction on how to deal with false teachers, but Paul’s emphasis here is on the need to “be alert.” It is striking that Paul follows up the exhortation to “be alert,” not with further descriptions of false teachers, but with a reminder of the message about God’s grace, Paul’s personal example, and a quotation from Jesus. What each of these have in common is the emphasis on giving. Paul was entrusting (giving up) the Ephesian pastors to God, as the only one who could protect them. Moreover, he was reminding them of the message about God’s grace—that is, the news that God it is God who gives salvation. Paul reminded them that he had worked hard in order to give, not take from them. And he concluded his speech with the quote from Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
What does this have to do with defending against these false teachers? It is this: the best way to defend against being led astray by false teachers is to make sure you are truly grasping and resting in the truth of the gospel, which teaches us that salvation comes from the God who gives himself to rescue us. In other words, if you are not letting your heart be continually shaped at the deepest level by the radical self-giving love of Jesus for you, you will be vulnerable to messages that offer other ways of finding meaning and validation. The only message that is able to strengthen you and guarantee your present and future security is the “word of his grace”—that is a continual heart-level reminder of the “Chief Shepherd” who gave himself for you.