Let me give you some situations to imagine.
You visit the church that some Christian friends belong to and the sermon calls into question whether Jesus really rose bodily from the dead. What should you say over Sunday lunch? Your Christian Union (CU) at uni plans a joint-event with the chaplaincy – but you find that the chaplaincy website says that all religions are equally true. What should you do? Or coming right back to our own doorstep, your diocesan bishop publicly teaches that sex outside marriage isn’t always wrong in God’s eyes. What should we do?
None of us wants to appear judgmental or divisive or to hinder the cause of the gospel. So the easiest thing to do is: nothing. But it’s also the wrong thing to do. So what should we do when confronted with false teachers in the church? Perhaps the book of the Bible which answers that is 1 Timothy, so would you turn to 1 Timothy 1. Last week we began a sermon series on 1 Timothy 6. But let’s remind ourselves from chapter 1 what the main point of this letter is. 1.1:
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Saviour and of Christ Jesus our hope, To Timothy my true son in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer… (1.1-3)
Paul had planted this church in Ephesus and left Timothy to sort out some problems. And the no.1 problem was false teaching. And like us, Timothy would have shrunk from disagreement and confrontation. Which is why Paul had to say, ‘stay there’ rather than duck the job.
Now, that no.1 problem runs under the surface of the whole letter, but it re-surfaces in chapter 6. So would you turn over to 6.3. And if I had to give this passage a title it would be: ‘How to spot and reject a false teacher.’ And as we go through it, the primary application to us is that we are each responsible for spotting and rejecting false teachers. The secondary application is that we should each avoid becoming like them in any way. So,
First, WHAT MARKS A FALSE TEACHER (v3)
If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching… (v3)
Ie, what marks a false teacher is false teaching. Now you may think that’s stating the obvious. But if the Bible says it, we need to hear it – because we so often ignore the obvious. People so often say things like, ‘The teaching at our church can be way off – but the vicar’s very nice.’ As if only if he’s nasty could he possibly be a false teacher. People often think that if someone’s wearing a dog collar, or has a PhD in theology or gets invited to speak by a particular group, then they must be OK. But what marks a false teacher is what he teaches.
So, how can we know whether teaching we’re getting is true or false – eg, what’s said from this pulpit? Clearly, we need a test. And the test is in v3:
If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ… (v3)
So the aim of any Christian teacher – from preacher to personal evangelist; from Home Group leader to Holiday Club leader - should be to teach what the Lord Jesus Christ has given us to teach.
Have a look at this first picture:
It shows how God has revealed himself. The crown stands for God and the ‘J’ for Jesus now back with him in heaven. And God has made himself known above all by sending his Son into the world as a man 2000 years ago. Before that, God had to make himself known to a group of people who’d understand who Jesus was when he came - that’s what the Old Testament (OT) part of the Bible records. Jesus then came into the world, died on the cross to pay for the forgiveness we all need, rose from the dead and returned to heaven - and that’s what the New Testament (NT) part of the Bible records.
And when in v3 Paul says ‘the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ’, he didn’t just mean the words that Jesus himself spoke when he was on earth. He meant all the words about Jesus that God has given us in the Bible.
So the Bible is how God has revealed himself. So the test of any teaching is to ask, v3, does it agree with this book? That’s why we have Bibles here in the seats. That’s why we urge you to follow what’s being said in the Bible and test whether or not it agrees with the Bible. That’s why I often say: don’t believe or act on anything you hear - unless you’re convinced it’s a true explanation and application of the Bible.
So, next picture: a true teacher looks like this:
He ‘stands underneath’ the Bible as God’s written Word and treats it as having supreme authority. And his aim is simply to let the Bible speak for itself. Just turn back over to 4.13, where Paul says to Timothy: 13Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. So a true teacher will aim to say what the Bible says. He won’t add to it – eg, like the official Roman Catholic teaching about Mary. He won’t subtract from it – eg, the way liberals deny Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Nor will he be saying anything novel. He should constantly be trying to say it freshly, and out of a fresh experience of what he’s talking about – but what he’s saying should be as old as the Bible - which of course is always up-to-date, because God doesn’t change and our need for salvation doesn’t change, and the way of salvation doesn’t change.
Whereas, a false teacher looks like the
Instead of ‘standing underneath’ the Bible, he ‘stands over’ the Bible, in judgment on the Bible. He accepts what he finds acceptable in the Bible and he rejects what he finds unacceptable. Ie, he is the supreme authority. And what he teaches will therefore disagree with the Bible at crucial points. V3 again:
If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ… (v3)
Now Paul knew that true Christians do disagree on their understanding and applying of the Bible. Eg, some of us here think the Bible permits baptising the babies of Christian parents. Others of us think that goes against what the Bible says. But that’s a disagreement between true Christians - between people who agree on the primary matters of how you get saved – how you get put right with God through the death of the Lord Jesus. Baptism matters, but it’s a secondary matter – by which I mean you can hold either of those two views and still be saved.
But what Paul’s on about in v3 is teachers who disagree not with others on secondary matters, but with the Bible on primary matters. Matters like the fact that Jesus was fully God and fully man. Matters like his death being a substitution in which he took on himself the judgment we deserve. Matters like his real, historical, bodily resurrection from the dead.
Now, just before we move on, notice the very end of v3:
If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching [or literally, teaching that accords with godliness]… (v3)
Godly simply means living in a way that pleases God. And a true teacher will not just teach about God, but about godly living.
So take, eg, the most recent high profile case of false teaching in our denomination. Jeffery John has been appointed Dean of St Albans. He’s had a sexual relationship with another man, but now says he’s not sexually active. And many people are acting as if everything was therefore OK. But he’s teaching that people should be having sex outside marriage. Which makes him every bit as much a false teacher as if he was still sexually active himself. And I don’t mention that to single out homosexual ungodly living as opposed to heterosexual ungodly living or something non-sexual like materialism. It’s simply the most recent high profile case to affect us.
So what marks a false teacher? Well, teaching their own ideas, rather than the Bible. Let’s spot that, reject that, and let’s not become like that ourselves.
Secondly, WHAT MAKES A FALSE TEACHER (v4)
If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. (vv3-4)
In a word, what makes a false teacher is pride, v4. And in vv4 and 5, Paul rips the mask off the false teachers to show what they’re really like - because it’s often so hard to believe that these nice men in dog-collars (or whatever) are false teachers.
Eg, the first false teacher I met was my school chaplain. I heard the gospel and came to faith in Jesus through the school Christian Union (CU) – run by another teacher. And soon after, I remember the chaplain asking me (in front of my friends), ‘So, Ian, when are you going to grow out of this evangelical Christianity?’ Ie, ‘When are you going to grow out of this simplistic message that no-one with a brain could possibly believe?’ (He’s now a bishop.)
False teachers sound so clever - and often are. And they sound as if they know so much more than you. But Paul says, if they disagree with the Bible, they’re conceited – proud, arrogant - and actually know nothing.
Eg, imagine that after the service you ask me if you can get me a drink. And I say, ‘Yes, please – coffee, milk no sugar.’ And off you go to the drinks table and ask for a coffee, milk no sugar. And the person says, ‘Oh, we’re out of coffee and milk, I’m afraid.’ And you say, ‘Well, could you get some more?’ And they say, ‘Well, it’s a bit inconvenient. It’s all the way to the kitchen and back - who’s it for?’ And you say, ‘For Ian.’ And they said, ‘Oh, just give him black tea with five sugars. He’ll be happy with that.’
There’s a certain arrogance in that, isn’t there? The arrogance that thinks it knows what I’m like and what I want - even when I’ve said otherwise – and that acts for its own convenience.
And that’s precisely the arrogance of the false teacher. God has told us what he’s like and what he wants through the Bible – above all that he wants us to trust in the death of the Lord Jesus so that we might be forgiven back into relationship with him. And the false teacher thinks that, at point after point, he knows better than the Bible. And he does that because frankly it’s more convenient to live with our own ideas about God than with the real God. But the God we invent with our minds doesn’t exist, any more than the Ian Garrett who likes tea black with 5 sugars exists.
So what makes a false teacher? Pride. The pride that hasn’t yet repented and said, ‘I am not the supreme authority in my life; Jesus is.’ So let’s spot that and reject that, and let’s not become like that ourselves. Let’s come to the Bible with the humility that says, ‘I’m wrong, the Bible is right.’ And where I find I have problems with the Bible and want to disagree with it, I need to say to myself, ‘The problem lies with me, not with the Bible.’
Third, WHAT RESULTS FROM A FALSE TEACHER (vv4-5)
Mid-way through v4:
He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth…
What results from a false teacher is disunity and distraction.
Look at this picture of the true teacher – now joined by others submitting to the Bible as their supreme authority:
If we as a family of believers try to stand under the authority of the Bible, we won’t agree on everything (eg, baptism). But we can agree on primary things – on the gospel. And we can agree to disagree on secondary things so that we can get on with reaching out to others with the gospel. Where people submit to the authority of the Bible, there can be unity and outward-looking purpose – like the Holiday Club venture next week.
But now look at the picture of the false teacher, again – now joined by others:
If a group of people have no shared authority – if each one is behaving as if he or she was the supreme authority – the result is v4:
controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth… (vv4-5)
Ie, disunity and distraction. And that was Paul’s’ fear for this church in Ephesus. Just turn back to chapter 1 again. 1.3:
As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies [infighting and knocking people down] rather than God's work - which is by faith [ie, outreach and building people up]. (1.3-4)
Now there are times when controversy is right and we must argue about words. Eg, the Bible word ‘justified’. To be ‘justified’ means to be ‘declared by God to be in the right with him’ - through Jesus’ death on the cross Whereas official Roman Catholic teaching would deny that. And I would argue as long as I had to about that word – because it’s absolutely central to the gospel. Paul isn’t saying, ‘We mustn’t argue about anything – we must get on with spreading the gospel.’ Because we have to get the gospel right first.
But where believers are agreed on the gospel – and that is a very precious thing we have here – we need to avoid any unhealthy controversies and quarrels, as it says back over in 6.4. In meetings and Bible studies and conversation, we need to discuss the Bible and what it means and how it applies to us today. And that will kick up disagreements. But as leaders and members of groups - or just in conversation - we need to be careful that our discussions don’t fall into this trap. Eg, when I lead my Home Group, I’m constantly thinking, ‘Is it necessary to pursue this issue that’s come up? Will it be helpful for everyone?’ Sometimes it will be, sometimes it won’t. And likewise when I’m not leading, if an issue or question occurs to me, I think, ‘Is it necessary for me to air it here? Will it be helpful for everyone?’
I’m not saying we shouldn’t air disagreements. I’m just saying let’s take care how we do that. Let’s be sure that it’s necessary and helpful and that important truth is at stake. Let’s beware just wanting to win an argument, or wanting to get people agreeing with us and taking sides.
So, what results from a false teacher? Disunity and distraction. So let’s spot that and reject that, and let’s not become like that ourselves. We have a huge privilege of unity and purpose in the gospel here. Let’s continue to work at it and protect it. And the best thing you can do towards that is: have your ‘Quiet Time’. Read your Bible, cultivate the habit of submitting to God through it. And if we’re all doing that, we’ll submit to God as a whole fellowship more habitually, too.
Fourth, WHAT MOTIVATES A FALSE TEACHER (6.5)
Look at the very end of 6.5. Paul says these false teachers:
… think that godliness is a means to financial gain.
Do you ever hear about false teachers in the church – bishops, pastors – and wonder, ‘Why are they even in it? What’s in it for them?’
Well, for these false teachers in Ephesus, what was in it for them was money. You may think it odd to be in Christian ministry for the money, but false Christian ministry can generate a lot of money – witness the American televangelists or some of the bogus healing ministries around. And even a bishop or pastor, who may not be getting much relative to the world, may not have anything else to go to. So although they leave the truth behind, they don’t leave their jobs behind because at least it’s comfortable. Income. House. Pension.
Now the solution is not to provide no money. Turn back to 5.17:
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, "Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain," [one of the Bible’s many deliberately humbling descriptions of the Christian ministry.] and "The worker deserves his wages." (1 Timothy 5.17-18)
But then look over to 3.3. In a paid minister, we’re to look for someone who is – very end of 3.3 – ‘not a lover of money.’ Someone obviously prepared to sacrifice money for ministry. Someone whose requests concerning money are transparently to do with needs not luxuries. Someone who models contentment with what they’ve got.
But widening the application, it’s possible for all of us to do ministry for ‘gain’. Maybe not for money. But for recognition. Or influence. Or for what we ourselves get out of it. That’ll be the battle for many of us next week during Holiday Club. It’s so easy to see that group of youngsters as a bunch of instant fans, instant followers. So easy to see whatever you’re doing up-front as stardom rather than service. We are bottomless pits of mixed motives. And we need to keep saying to ourselves, ‘I’m here to serve God and these people.’ God and these people. God and these people. Not to serve me.’ Ministry is not a means to gain. And yet look at 3.13, to end with:
Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.
Isn’t that lovely? If we go after gain in ministry, we’ve lost the plot before we’ve begun. But if we go after ministry (= serving), then the ‘spin-off’ is the ‘great gain’ of growing in faith ourselves. So, the reward for ministry is others coming to faith and growing in faith. The ‘spin-off’ gain of ministry is us growing in faith as well. It’s the kind of ‘win - win’ situation that God loves to create.
So what motivates a false teacher? Simply something other than the glory of God and the good of others. So let’s spot that and reject that and let’s not become like that ourselves.
So coming back to where we began, it would be easy to say nothing to your friends about their church over Sunday lunch. Easy to say nothing to the CU committee. Easy to please the denomination. Because none of us wants to appear judgmental or divisive or to hinder the cause of the gospel. Which is why Paul emboldens us by unmasking the false teachers. He says: they’re the judgmental ones – sitting in judgement on the Word of God. They’re the divisive ones – splitting the church because they’ve left the truth but won’t leave their jobs. And they’re the ones who not only hinder but wreck the cause of the gospel.
This is Paul’s unmasked portrait of them. Let’s believe it. Let’s use it to spot and reject false teachers. And let’s avoid becoming like them in any way.