What's the Difference Between a Bad Teacher and a False Teacher?

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Have you ever been listening to a sermon and thought, “Wow, this is bad?” Maybe it’s just the sermon overall, or perhaps it’s a specific statement the preacher makes that sets off your theology alarm and you know he’s wrong. I think we’ve all been there. Sometimes it’s tempting to just label the teacher a false teacher and move on. But does being wrong make someone a false teacher? Is there a difference between teaching something that is wrong verses teaching something that is false?

The New Testament church had many bad teachers.

Not every Christian in the early church were Pauls or Peters. There were many who were just plain bad. Paul describes some of these teachers as having bad motives for their preaching of the Gospel in Philippians 1:17. Even as bad as that is, Paul doesn’t go as far as to call them false teachers. He even thanks God that at the very least the Gospel is still being preached.

Even good guys can be bad teachers. Just look at Apollos. While Apollos would go on to become a proficient preacher, his beginning was far from it. Acts 18 shows us that he began preaching correctly about Jesus, but had some big blindspots on baptism as he only knew about John’s baptism. Then Pricilla and Aquila took him aside and instructed him to preach more accurately. He then went on to do some amazing things for Jesus. So even though he was missing some things and was wrong in a big area, he still wasn’t a false teacher. 

So what makes someone a false teacher?

Every description of false teachers that we have in the New Testament begins with one key idea. 2 Peter 2:1 states, “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” Jude’s description is very similar in verse 4, “For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” 

John describes false teachers as “those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh in II John 7. Anyone thinking this is eschatological, isn’t doing the research. This is referring to a form of gnosticism that was present in the era. It taught that Jesus wasn’t truly human as they believed anything earthly or physical was evil. Dr. Daniel Akin writes, “…John was dealing with some type of docetism that denies the fleshiness of Jesus Christ.” So this was an attack on the human nature of Jesus Christ.

Being a False Teacher is to reject the Gospel in some form. 

A rejection of the Gospel is always part of the description of a false teacher in the New Testament. There are many other factors that fit into these descriptions, but the common denominator is a rejection of Jesus. The bad teacher might not get everything right, they might not even get most things right, but they do get Jesus and His Gospel right. There is a huge difference between bad teachers and false teachers. While all teachers are to be held to a high standard, or as James says judged with “greater strictness,” we should be careful not to lump bad teachers in with these false teachers. Bad teachers are brothers in Christ. They, like Apollos, should be shown the errors in their teaching and encouraged to make appropriate changes. 

False teachers on the other hand are not brothers in Christ. They may be around Christians as both Jude and Peter tell us, but false teachers are not truly part of us. John says in II John 9, “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God.” Not only are they not believers, but Paul goes as far as to call them (the peddlers mentioned in II Cor. 2) servants of Satan in II Corinthians 11:15. This is why John tells us not to have anything to do with them in II John 10 and Paul condemns them to eternal damnation in Galatians 1:9. 

We should be very careful to not attribute all of the consequences reserved for false teachers to just anyone. These things are very serious. One must be sure that the Gospel is being compromised by a teacher before throwing around the label of false teacher. On the other hand, we should also not be scared to call someone a false teacher when it becomes clear they are teaching a different Gospel. Men like T.D. Jakes who doesn’t believe in the Trinity is a false teacher. Joel Osteen who preaches a gospel of materialism is a false teacher. Rob Bell who has erred in many theological areas is a false teacher. Steven Furtick who repeatedly shows that he doesn’t care about what God says in the slightest is a false teacher. 

So next time you hear something that makes your theological spider-sense tingle, ask yourself is this coming from a bad teacher or a false one. And then act appropriately. Either confront the brother who is in error or reject the servant of Satan condemning him and his “gospel” to Hell. 

- Dean

Cited Sources:

1. 1,2,3 John by Dr. Daniel L. Akin