Rebuking False Doctrine

The original temptation was framed “Did God actually say…?” (Genesis 3:1 ESV). Throughout biblical and church history, false doctrine surfaces whenever God’s Word is questioned and other sources of doctrine/teaching are embraced. Evangelical Christianity believes that the Bible is the supreme and final authority in matters of faith and conduct. The Bible is what God actually says. False doctrine/teaching is departing from what the Bible affirms. Not all doctrinal matters have the same critical importance and we must practice what Al Mohler calls “theological triage” (see my post on “How do we decide whom we can work with”). But first-level doctrines define Christianity and departure from the Bible’s teaching on these matters results in a different religion. So false doctrine is an important matter.

False doctrine/teaching is a prominent theme in Paul’s letters to his church-planting partners, Timothy and Titus, yet we never find the phrase “false doctrine” or “false teaching.” He does describe it as “what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Timothy 6:20). Paul simply refers to the false teaching as a “different doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3, 6:3) or sums it up as “whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:10). In Galatians 1:6-9, Paul warns against a “different gospel.” There is an authoritative message of the Apostles that is not to be changed and is to be guarded and passed on to others. A “different gospel” or a “different doctrine” is to be avoided and rebuked vigorously.

While Paul notes some characteristics of the different teaching, he does not detail the specifics. Andreas J. Köstenberger comments:

Paul’s concern in his LTT [Letters to Timothy and Titus] isn’t primarily to describe the respective type of teaching – with which his apostolic delegates would have been thoroughly familiar – but to refute it.

Köstenberger, Commentary on 1-2 Timothy and Titus, 33.

Paul describes some characteristics of both the teaching and the teachers of “different doctrine” that help us see why he is so concerned to refute it. We should note that he is concerned with both the false ideas and lifestyle. The “different doctrine” is characterized as “myth, endless genealogies which promote speculation rather than the stewardship from God which is by faith” (1 Timothy 1:4). It involved “vain discussions” (1 Timothy 1:6) and “quarrels about words” (2 Timothy 2:14). There appears to have been an ascetic element to the false teaching (1 Timothy 4:1-3) and in Crete a Jewish flavor to the myths (Titus 1:10, 14). The “irreverent babble” of the false teaching leads people “into more and more ungodliness” (2 Timothy 2:16). False teaching is like gangrene in contrast to sound doctrine which is healthy. The “different doctrine” departs from the message God revealed through the Apostles. In short, it questions God’s word like the original temptation in Genesis 3 and follows myths and speculations as substitutes for God’s clear word.

Teachers of a “different doctrine” are arrogant and quarrelsome. They desire to be teachers of the law but lack understanding (1 Timothy 1:7). They “devote themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). The teachers of false doctrine are “puffed up with conceit” and have “an unhealthy craving for controversy” (1 Timothy 6:4). They are motivated by financial gain which causes them to wander from the faith (1 Timothy 6:5-10). The lifestyle, as well as the teaching of the false teachers, is at odds with the gospel.

“They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (Titus 1:16).

In departing from the “sound doctrine” of Paul and the other Apostles, the false teachers are “deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13) much like Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 when they listened to Satan questioning God’s word.

Paul does not tolerate “different doctrine” in the church. He commands Timothy to charge the false teachers not to teach different doctrines (1 Timothy 1:3). He wrote to Titus that they must be silenced (Titus 1:11). Titus is to rebuke the false teachers sharply. There is to be no compromise. The rebuke aims towards restoration “that they may be sound in faith” (Titus 1:13). So while the rebuke is to be sharp, the desire is that false teachers would see their error and turn back to the truth that God has revealed. The manner of the rebuke is not to imitate the style of the false teachers. Paul writes:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponent with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

2 Timothy 2:24-26 ESV

Faithful guarding and teaching sound doctrine is primary for church planters. But rebuking false teachers and correcting false doctrine is also essential because of its departure from God’s word. In essence, false teachers question what God has actually said and substitute their speculation. We need to rebuke false teachers sharply but gently desiring that God’s grace will correct and restore them.

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