Discerning and Dealing with False Doctrine
by J. R. Ensey

Let's look at II John 5-11 from various versions, focusing on verse 8:
(From the KJV): "And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another.
6 And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it.
7 For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.
8 Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward.
9 Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.
10 If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed:
11 For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.

(From the NIV): "And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another.
6 And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.
7 Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.
8 Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully.
9 Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.
10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him.
11 Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.
(From the ESV): "And now I ask you, dear lady —not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning —that we love one another.
6 And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it.
7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.
8 Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we [you] have worked for, but may win a full reward.
9 Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.
10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting,
11 for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works."

The writers of Scripture were very much aware of the development of erroneous doctrines and the proliferation of false teachers during the infancy of the church. Jesus Himself vigorously denounced false teachers and false prophets. He warned His disciples fourteen times to beware of those who would mislead them. The first words from Jesus' mouth when the disciples asked Him what the signs of the endtime would be were: "Take heed that no man deceive you" (Matthew 24:4). We are living in the time of the end and should take those words very seriously.

The apostles repeatedly echoed Jesus' admonition: "Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience...Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition...Little children, let no man deceive you" (Ephesians 5:6; II Thessalonians 2:3; I John 3:7). In other words, if we are deceived we have allowed it to happen. Paul added these words to the Colossians: "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ" (Colossians 2:8). John adjured us to not lose what we have worked for —and that would be so easy to do if we are not diligent.

Someone has scanned the Pastoral Epistles and determined that thirty-five percent of the letters to Timothy and Titus concern false teaching/teachers and the young men's responses to them. He admonished Timothy to "charge some that they teach no other doctrine" (I Timothy 1:3) —obviously meaning the doctrine that had come down from the original apostles and which Paul himself preached. Knowing that even Timothy himself could be moved from doctrinal steadfastness, the apostle charged the young pastor to "watch your life (lifestyle) and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers" (I Timothy 4:16). That is a message we need to hear more often today!

The Corinthians were warned of false doctrine and false teachers in this way: "For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you" (I Corinthians 11:19). The positive side of divisive heresies is that they reveal the true believers.1 The Galatians were likewise warned that the works of the flesh would include "heresies," or divisions over doctrinal matters (Galatians 5:20). Peter added his harmony to the chorus: "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" (II Peter 2:1). Paul had informed the Ephesian elders that "of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:30), a prophecy that began to come to pass in Paul's lifetime (I Timothy 1:18-20; II Timothy 2:17,18).



A. The Need For Discernment

The definition of discernment is "the ability to judge well; in Christian contexts, it is perception in the absence of human judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding." We need both of those aspects of discernment. It is a seeing beyond natural sight. It involves common sense and spiritual insight.

It is important to recognize the difference between this topic and the gift of discerning of spirits (I Corinthians 12:10). The gift has to do with supernatural determination of what is behind certain behavior or events. The discernment we are discussing may be aided by the gift at times but is basically vigilance, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom born of experience, observation and a love for the truth.

There would be little problem with false teachers if it were a simple matter for the average Christian to quickly identify them. If they came with a sign around their necks announcing themselves as false teachers it would be nice...

...But they often come as one of us...
...They may look like us...
...They may preach like us...
...They may praise like us...
...They may even call Jesus Lord...

...therefore it is sometimes difficult to identify them before they have had time to do their mischief among us. Jesus said that they would appear to people as righteous (Matthew 23:28) and Paul agreed (II Corinthians 11:15). Even "Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light" (II Corinthians 11:14). They come in "sheep's clothing" (Matthew 7:15). They come quoting the Bible, but twisting the Scriptures (II Peter 3:16) to fit their "revelation" or personal agenda. They may even perform miracles ("lying wonders"?), and enjoy a semblance of numerical success with multitudes following them (Matthew 7:21-23; et al.). Christians must remember that working miracles is not always the sign of a true prophet. John was the greatest prophet who ever lived yet he did no miracle (John 10:41; Luke 7:28). This is why discernment by the true Christian must always be operational.

Discernment is not suspicion, although it may involve some of that. Carefulness should be our watchword, but inaction is not the only other option. When suspicion is at work, watchfulness should characterize the "watchman on the wall."

Paul charged the Galatians that they should remain steadfast in the faith, even if he himself came back and refuted what he had formerly preached, or if an angel from heaven were to come and say something contradictory to what they had been taught (by him), they were to reject it (Galatians 1:8,9). He challenged the Ephesians not to be "carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive" (Ephesians 4:14).

When men come claiming that they have a new revelation, perhaps something that has been "hidden from all other readers of the Bible," then we should see the red flags of warning go up —regardless of how well they can articulate their "revelation" or move people emotionally.

A. What A False Teacher/Prophet Might Look and Sound Like

1. He may be passionate and excited about "something you probably have never heard before." I remember hearing one man proclaim as he began to preach, "What I am going to tell you today will blow your mind!" He was absolutely correct in that! What he said, however, has since been shown to be false and theological tommyrot.

2. He may claim a "new revelation." This is a common claim employed to establish credibility and add a ring of authority to his presentation.

3. With a touch of the esoteric, he may affirm that he and God have a "special relationship." He will often attempt to set himself apart from his brethren and the "ordinary" minister, usually an expression of spiritual pride.

4. He may demonstrate a love for himself more than for the truth. How many times does he use the pronoun "I"? "Pardon, your ego is showing."

5. He is often a "loner" who does not have sufficient accountability. Who does he associate with? Who does he consider his "elders"? Does he have some form of spiritual covering? To whom is he accountable? Those are legitimate questions that we sometimes hesitate to ask for fear of sounding negative or suspicious.

6. He may seek to evoke human sympathy for his cause by saying things like, "I have been castigated by some who don't appreciate new approaches to Christian doctrine...." Most are professional at setting up straw men and knocking them down.

7. He may have a record that would not be exemplary. Where has he been, what has he done, and what does his history reveal? Too many pastors are willing to offer their pulpits to those who are unknown and have not been proven. "Know them that labor among you..." (I Thessalonians 5:12).

We have erred in elevating men too quickly who were unproven —until their spirit and their message was confirmed. In doing so we violate the Scriptures —"Not a novice...a good report of them which are without...lay hands suddenly on no man...." These commands and qualifications are in the Bible and and if we violate or ignore them we are going to get burned.
Appearance alone is not the criterion by which teachers and prophets are to be known. We must ask: Do their lives back up what they appear to be? Behind the scenes, are they manipulative, ruthless, greedy, dishonest, two-faced, and full of "dead men's bones and uncleanness" (Matthew 23:27)? Are any of these character flaws reported by those who know them well?

Without the willingness to "try the spirits" as the Scriptures command —or if a pluralistic stance on doctrinal and lifestyle issues is assumed —the endtime church will be easy prey for deceivers and heretics.
I Timothy 6:3-5 NIV: "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. 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 and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain."

This is why we must never surrender our truth antennae!

B. What His Doctrine Might Look Like

1. It often ignores the obvious passage to focus on non-traditional obscure references.

2. It usually places excessive dependence on secondary sources.

3. Scriptures are taken out of context, or stretched beyond their reasonable limits.

4. It often attacks a fundamental apostolic doctrine or practice straight on, or sometimes subtly via a side door.

This may be partly because that, underneath, there is a liberal spirit that holds that the Bible is a "living document." In the last election, Al Gore posited that the United States Constitution is a "living document" that should be plugged into the values of the current culture. If it doesn't fit with today's values, then it should be adjusted to do so. That may be politically acceptable for some (not for me), but when that same pluralistic spirit bleeds over into the church, it is time for concern.

Some liberal thinkers feel that the Bible is also a "living document" that should stay in step with cultural mores and trends. Even some Apostolics are tempted to say, "Don't you think that Pentecostal theology is still evolving, even the Godhead? Do you think we have all the light that God means for us to have? Don't you think we could get more light?" Such statements and questions are cause for concern. The truth is: We have all the light God is going to give. We have the Word, the special revelation of God. What Jesus said has been there since the days of His ministry —for two millennia. What Paul and Peter and John said has been in the Scriptures all along. God is not going to reveal anything to anyone that is in conflict with that Word.

This smacks of the "light doctrine," that people in various times during the Christian age have had varying amounts of scriptural "light." The problem has never been light, but sight to see the light: "Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not; But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them" (II Corinthians 4:1-4).

5. It may have tentacles (not obvious at first) that reach to the fundamentals.

The "divine flesh" doctrine, for example, affects not only the Godhead, but baptism, the resurrection, the future hope, etc. The current Preterism theory removes the hope of the rapture, distorts the future resurrections and judgments or eliminates them altogether, and dissolves the millennial reign of Christ into a morass of subjective symbolism. Any of us can be off some in our eschatology since a good deal of Scripture employs symbolism, but the safest hermeneutic encourages literalism as far as possible. We should take a lesson from Paul when he denounced in writing those whose eschatology had blatantly written off a future resurrection, saying that it was already past (I Timothy 2:20; II Timothy 1:17). Their position was destroying the faith of some. When a doctrine destroys "the blessed hope and the glorious appearing" of our Lord (Titus 2:13), we should know that it is error.


A. Boredom - One of the great temptations of this technological age where everything is expected to be immediate is to become bored with traditional teaching —not just with eschatology but with doctrine in general and lifestyle standards that have been in place for generations.

B. Shallow interests - Many are not rooted and grounded and therefore unconvinced in their own mind about fundamentals. They would rather hear some pop psychologist talk about self-esteem than be reminded of the necessity of faithfulness to the truth. Lectures on healthy eating or the latest exercise moves are more popular Bible studies. "To each his own," they are apt to say. Romans 14:5 says, "One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind." That is OK for "days" but not for doctrine!
Often people are deceived because they don't know the questions to ask of the preacher. Perhaps they haven't paid enough attention to their pastor —or their pastor has not paid enough attention to them and to the Word. Churches that are built on sensationalism are shallow and flighty. Those constructed on solid Word teaching will be around when the others have drifted into heresy, apostasy, or disintegrated.

C. Curiosity - The Athenian spirit is running wild. Something new and different sells better so it is made to sound like discovery that others know nothing of. And if it has anything to do with the future, it will captivate many for studies show that is one of the top interests of virtually everyone in America.



A. False doctrine will lead to disintegration

I mean the disintegration of faith, of one's relationship with God, and the loss of confidence in other brethren and ultimately oneself. Doctrinal error is like a stray mutant factor in the physical body that attacks and decimates other cells around it. False doctrine has the same effect in the body of Christ and virtually always leads to carnal living —even if its teacher has the appearance of strictness. Cults often demand strict adherence to an austere lifestyle.

Error begets more error. It multiplies. False doctrine or moral failure will motivate one to establish or find a theology that accommodates his lifestyle. How important it is for a religious organization to move quickly in heading off false doctrine! It is often allowed to linger, deferring as long as possible to those involved —supposedly in the spirit of brotherhood and mercy —but in the process we allow the leaven to creep throughout "the whole lump" and many are defiled as a result. Pluralism has no place in a republic or in the church of the living God. There is no room for varying philosophies, different doctrines, and a myriad of lifestyles.

I personally heard an elder proclaim, "We can absorb some false prophecies and false brethren. We are big enough to handle them." How different from the apostles, and even from voices of the past, like C. H. Spurgeon: "I am no man's enemy, but I am the enemy of all teaching which is contrary to the Word of the Lord, and I will be in no fellowship with it." In the fourteenth century one rat was brought aboard a ship from an eastern port bound for Europe. That rat was infected with the bacterium Pasteurella pestis. He also had fleas. Those bitten by the fleas were infected by the plague. Within three years almost 40% of the population of the Continent had died. Something as small as a rat could decimate a continent. "Despise not the day of small things." "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump." A rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel. And yet we pridefully say, "It doesn't matter if we are off a little on a fundamental." It does matter. It spreads. Didn't Paul say that Hymanaeus and Philetus' teaching that the resurrection "doth eat like a canker" (II Timothy 2:17). False doctrine doesn't only affect the perpetrator; that spirit seeps into the body and defiles others. It is like bitterness: "Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled" (Hebrews 12:15).

B. False Doctrine Makes the Church Vulnerable

We now see some of our young ministers dropping the holiness message in the effort to "save" everybody. They may wind up not saving anybody. Being impressed with people in the town who say "you are too strict and we would attend your church if you would just lower your standards" is not a justifiable approach to evangelism. It won't be long before such a pastor slides into compromise on fundamental doctrine so even more people can be considered "saved."

Wolfgang Mozart, the famous eighteenth century musician lived in small, upstairs flat in Vienna. He wrote fabulous music, but his style was not popular then. His publisher pled with him, "Write pop music and we will sell it and make you wealthy." His response: "I will never compromise my standards!" It is said that he and his wife would dance to his music to stay warm when there was no fuel! He died poor at the young age of 35 —of a fever and complications brought on by malnutrition. He paid the ultimate price for his convictions! Is music more important than truth? Mozart's commitment shames us who hold truth so lightly.

That reminds me of a man in the 5th century BC by the name of Nehemiah. He came to Jerusalem to reconstruct the walls. The enemies of that work tried to get him to stop work on the wall several times:

•They mocked him on two occasions (2:19; 4:1-3)

•They threatened a military attack (4:7-23)

•They attempted to lure him outside of the wall to Ono (but that is what he said..."Oh, no!").

•Sanballat threatened him with false charges ("You are trying to set yourself up as king by building these walls. You have some political agenda, and I am going to report it to the king if you don't come down and consult with me!") (6:1-4)

•A hired prophet tried to get him to discredit himself (6:10-14)

•Tobiah sent spies to Jerusalem and wrote Nehemiah letters in order to frighten him (6:17-19).

He never quit; he never gave in. Perhaps some people don't think there ought to be any walls. They see them as restricting them to one side, reducing their liberty and freedom. The walls were not to keep people in (there were several gates), they were to keep the marauders, the Huns and Goths, the villains, the car bombers, the suicide bombers, the terrorists —those who want to play havoc with the people of God and destroy the kingdom from within —out!

C. False Doctrine Will Put the Brakes on Revival

What was it that caused the demise of the early church? They were making great strides until compromise, false doctrine, and false brethren infiltrated the body of Christ. Those factors put the brakes on the church and extinguished revival.

D. A Parallel From Nature

The National Geographic story of the Central American orchard spider is an apt illustration of how false doctrine affects the body of Christ. A wasp stings it in its mouth, then while it is unconscious, it deposits eggs on the belly of the spider. The spider awakens, not realizing anything has happened, and goes on about its web-spinning. Then at midnight, something goes wrong with the wiring in its brain. The spider starts doing strange things, actually doing the bidding of the wasp larvae on its belly. It starts spinning a web back and forth from one point to another rather than its usual web pattern, making a strong cord. The spider suddenly stops in the middle of the strand, waiting. By this time the wasp larvae has become like a spare tire on its belly and begins to suck the life juices from the spider. When this is done, it drops the lifeless form into the brush, makes a cocoon and attaches itself to the strong cord of silk the spider made, to hang there until the full grown wasp emerges from the cocoon and flies away.

False doctrine does the same thing to the church. Its sting can paralyze us long enough to take over our minds where we may find ourselves spinning a web for someone else's "revelation." At the midnight hour, we may find ourselves in the middle of the strand, waiting for that which has a hold on us to drain the life from our body —ultimately dropping us into the brush of apostasy below. This is why Paul said, "Hold fast the form of sound words..." (II Timothy 1:13).


A. The Bible is the rule of faith

We are obligated to consult the Scriptures on this question. What did the apostolic church do when they confronted false doctrine and the purveyors of heresy? The apostle Paul was not hesitant to face the offenders and encouraged his protégés to do the same: "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 rather than God's work —which is by faith" (I Timothy 1:3,4 NIV).

Spiritual authorities (elders) are to confront those teaching false doctrines. Paul gave these instructions to the church in Rome: "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple" (Romans 16:17,18).

B. Those in immorality or false doctrine were to be marked

Paul sometimes "marked" them by calling the names of offenders (I Timothy 1:20; II Timothy 4:14). Care has to be taken here let we libel ourselves in this litigious age. The first "marking" should a meeting with them for the purpose of identifying the problem and possible restoration (Matthew 18:15-20; Galatians 6:1). If there is no resolution of the matter a second person is to be brought in as an observer and/or a corroborating witness.

If those who were thus identified and confronted refused to recant their false teaching, then the church body, or perhaps a representative group from the body, makes a determination which may result in a separation: "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us" (II Thessalonians 3:6).

Fellowship was to be severed.

C. Separation or disfellowshiping was a discipline aimed at restoration

Paul instructed Titus thusly: "A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject" (Titus 3:10). In other words, if after the second confrontation and admonishment he persists in his heresy, he should be "rejected." That would be the equivalent to being "disfellowshipped" in our vernacular. The apostle elaborated on this command in other letters. He reminded the Corinthians: "I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler —not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves" (I Corinthians 5:9-13 NASB). We are reminded here that the church is to judge those who are a part of it.

The Bible instructs us to separate ourselves from one who is flawed morally or in serious doctrinal error, who will not listen to reason and the admonition of the church.2 Such judgment is meant to motivate offenders to repent of their wrong, not to destroy them completely (II Thessalonians 3:15). We can apply modern sociological theories to the problem but the scriptural way is God's way, and it is the method that works long-term. Those who handle the matter are instructed in Galatians 6:1: "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted" (NKJV).

According to Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

The solidarity of the early Christians (Acts 4:32) produced a bulwark defense against a hostile world. In time sects and heresies arose, but by and large, the believers were "of one mind and one accord." The historian noted that as soon as they arose, the disciples were diligent to detect the errors of any false teachers which came along and "expel them from the society of the faithful."

Our responsibility is to restore if possible, but if it is not possible, then we have to take the action prescribed by the Bible. Any of us would rather be one who is ready with compliments and praise than he who must confront heresy and its purveyor(s), but with authority comes responsibility. Praise given when correction is demanded could put one into the category of those scorned by Jude who were guilty of "flattering people for the sake of gaining an advantage" (Jude 16 NASB).

Leadership has a solemn duty to protect the body of Christ: "For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:27-30 NIV; emphasis mine). It is neither a pleasant task nor one that that is preferred. It is one assigned to us by the Lord Himself.

May the modern apostolic church not be slack in its duty to discern and deal with false doctrine and its perpetrators—intimidated by neither peers nor personalities, or tempted to partiality.

1. There are often some positive benefits to heresies which arise in the church. As Paul says, they will manifest the truth lovers and the true believers. Throughout church history we can see that certain heretics have forced the church to define, or in some cases, redefine, their founding principles. Many great theological works were produced by men who would possibly have never done so without the surfacing of false teachers, persons with new "revelations," and blatant heretics who challenged biblical orthodoxy.
2. "But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican" (Matthew 18:16,17). For more on the pivotal passage of Matthew 18:15-20 and how it is to be applied to Christians today, order The Principles of Church Discipline by J. R. Ensey.

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