What Is a False Teacher?

In recent years, discussion has centered on who is a false teacher. Among non-institutional brethren, the discussion about who is a false teacher began when Edward Fudge raised the issue in the early 1970s when he advocated unity-in-diversity. The discussion was renewed when brother Ed Harrell wrote his article entitled “Homer Hailey: False Teacher?” (Christianity Magazine, November 1988, 6-9). In the context of his defense of brother Hailey, brother Harrell wrote, “A false teacher is surely one whose dishonest motives and/or ignorance distinguish him from the sincere brother who has reached an erroneous conclusion.” Since this time, there have been several articles written among us which affirm that one is not a false teacher just because what he teaches is false. Rather, he is a false teacher because of his base character.

The same argument was made by Leroy Garrett and Carl Ketcherside in their defense of unity-in-diversity. Whether or not one agrees with Garrett and Ketcherside, he cannot deny that their redefining the term is a critical part of the unity-in-diversity doctrine.

What does the word “false teacher” (pseudodidaskalos) mean? The word “false teacher” only occurs in 2 Peter 2:1 which says, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.” Those who assert that false teacher refers to the man’s character, not his doctrine, use the context of 2 Peter 2, which describes the various moral failures of the false teachers of Peter’s day, as proof that “false teacher” refers to a “bad apple.” However, verse 1 tells us by the appositional phrase “who privily bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them,” what the phrase means.

But, there is additional evidence as well. Other passages use similar modifying words to describe the teacher. Consider the following:

1. Teachers of good things. Paul wrote, “The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things” (Tit. 2:3). One may not have picked up on this word reading the KJV, but the Greek word is kalodidaskalos which corresponds very nicely with pseudodidaskalos (2 Pet. 2:1). What are kalodidaskaloi? Are they persons with good character? Obviously the KJV translators did not think so; they translated the word “teachers of good things.” The ASV translates it “teachers of that which is good.” Apparently the translators understood the word to define the content of what is being taught.

2. Teachers of the law. Another word that has the same kind of construction as pseudodidaskalos is nomodidaskalos, “teachers of the law.” The word appears in three passages in the New Testament:

And it came to pass on a certain day, as he was teaching, that there were Pharisees and doctors of the law sitting by, which were come out of every town of Galilee, and Judaea, and Jerusalem: and the power of the Lord was present to heal them (Luke 5:17).

Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people, and commanded to put the apostles forth a little space (Acts 5:34).

Desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm (1 Tim. 1:7).

“Teachers of the law” does not mean teachers whose moral character corresponds to the Mosaical Law. Rather, the word means those whose teaching has for its content the Law of Moses.

3. Teachers of a different doctrine. The noun form of this word does not appear in the New Testament, but the verb form heterodidaskaleo appears in two places:

As I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, when I went into Macedonia, that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3).

If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness (1 Tim. 6:3).

Noun forms of the word appear outside the New Testament. A heterodisdaskalia is “a teaching of error” and heterodidaskalos means “teaching error” (Liddell & Scott 590).

4. Teacher of holy things. The word hierodidaskalos which also appears outside the New Testament means “a teacher of holy things” (Liddell & Scott 695).

5. Chorus teacher. The word chorodidaskalos which appears in secular literature means “the person who trained the chorus to dance and sing, so as to prepare it for public performance, the choir master” (Liddell & Scott 1735).

The same grammatical form as appears in the cases mentioned above is used for pseudodidaskalos. No wonder Liddell & Scott (1754) and Thayer (675) define the word as a false teacher. Their definition corresponds with the other uses of similar compound words using the word teacher. The word defines the content of what is taught, not the moral character of the one who is teaching it.

Until recent years brethren clearly understood that false teacher meant one who teaches what is false. When we applied the term to men such as Billy Graham and the Pope, we were not assaulting their moral character; we were challenging the content of what they preach. Since brother Hailey taught his doctrine on divorce and remarriage, men have been actively working to redefine the word “false teacher” so that it means the character of the teacher, not the content of what is taught. Then a very subtle change occurs. Those who examine the teachings of a brother, expose his doctrine as false, and call upon brethren to mark such a man (Rom. 16:17-18) are identified as men of bad character (not teachers of false doctrine). They are identified as factious men in the sense of Titus 3:10-11 and, because their character is bad, they are the “false teachers.” The result is that the one who teaches the truth is a false teacher and the one who teaches error is not a false teacher! The one who teaches the truth is to be exposed, quarantined, and ex-communicated. The one who teaches error is pictured as the hero who rides into the sunset on a great white stallion wearing his white hat. The one who exposes his error is picture as a dastardly villain taking potshots as the great hero of faith (for an example of this portrayal, see Ed Harrell’s book, The Churches of Christ in the Twentieth Century: Homer Hailey’s Personal Journey of Faith). Isaiah described such when he wrote, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (Isa. 5:20).

By Mike Willis

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