How Jesus Called Out False Teachers and Deadly Doctrine

When we respond to error by giving it the benefit of the doubt, we come close to committing the same error as false teachers: masking error as the truth.

It’s a good time to be a false teacher and to espouse deadly doctrine. And it will continue to be unless God’s people embrace their responsibility to defend the faith and protect the vulnerable. Jesus has left us with both the mandate and the model. Jesus shows that while polemics gains few friends (after all, it was the ones he rebuked who put him to death and the ones he warned who deserted him), it honors God and saves listeners from falling into the snare of deadly doctrine.

 

It’s a good time to be a false teacher and to espouse deadly doctrine. It seems that today’s most brazen heretic will be granted a hearing and, in all likelihood, a book deal. Novelty is appealing, orthodoxy boring. It’s the ones who sound the warning and issue the challenge that bear the risk—the risk of being labelled “haters.” There’s more patience for those who smilingly subvert the truth than for those who boldly defend it. Conviction is a sign of arrogance, while humility is expressed in uncertainty. Love, it seems, requires us to bear patiently with any amount of error. And this kind of love, we are told, is modeled after Jesus. Jesus did not judge, Jesus welcomed all opinions, Jesus would have accepted different kinds of teachings—so long as those teachings contained love and hints of truth.

A quick scan of the gospels, however, shows that this impression is a far cry from the Jesus of the Bible. It shows that society has reimagined Jesus through the relativism of our day. When Jesus interacted with people who were seeking, wandering, or misguided, he was invariably compassionate. He answered them with patience and gentleness. But when Jesus engaged with religious hypocrites and false teachers, he responded with righteous fury and bold conviction.

Today, those who love the truth must learn how to show such bold conviction through the old discipline of polemics—the practice of engaging in public debate and dispute. The purpose of polemics is not to score points or flex theological muscle, but to rebuke peddlers of error and to express concern for those caught up in their lies. Like the ancient heretics of Crete, today’s false teachers “must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (Titus 1:11). As we do this well, we imitate Jesus Christ who was a skilled polemicist.

We see an example of Jesus’ polemics in Matthew 23, where Jesus speaks to the crowd about the scribes and Pharisees. What unfolds in this scene is not private pleading but public censure. Jesus publicly addresses the deadly doctrine of these religious leaders for the benefit of their victims and potential victims. He holds nothing back. He does not make time to commend them for the things they do well. He does not temper his speech to give them the benefit of the doubt. Rather, he specifies their doctrinal error and unrighteousness actions, he labels them with strong but appropriate language, he warns of the consequences of their error, and he calls his listeners to reject the false teachers and their deadly doctrine.

Jesus Calls Out Their Doctrinal Error

These religious authorities were masking error as truth. Jesus confronts their error by telling the crowd, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:4). In the name of God, these leaders advocate a works-based system of righteousness that ignores and denies God’s free grace. Jesus gives them an example of their false teaching: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath’” (Matthew 23:15). They have reimagined the faith so they can maintain a religious veneer even as they blatantly break oaths. They adapt their beliefs so they can remain righteous according to the letter of the law even as they violate its spirit. Jesus identifies this as false doctrine and addresses it head-on.

When we respond to error by giving it the benefit of the doubt, we come close to committing the same error as false teachers: masking error as the truth. Like Jesus, we ought to love truth and love people enough to call out error for what it is.

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