Calling out false teachers is not unloving but rebuking your leaders for doing so might be


“For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain.” (Titus 1:10f)

Bishop JC Ryle, back in the 19th Century, highlighted eight symptoms of false doctrine that combine to make us particularly susceptible within our churches to errant teaching. Note how each symptom is still present in the modern world and affects the contemporary church. I wonder whether any of these are present in your own church?

I was particularly intrigued by symptoms 4, 6 and 8. Not least because (certainly #4 and #8) are so at odds with what Paul clearly teaches in Titus 1:11, 13b. I have lost track of the number of times I have heard folk say how unloving it is to call out certain pernicious, but subtle, pedlars of false teaching. Yet how much do we really love the sheep if, in a bid to avoid hurting the wolf, we let him devour the flock? Paul does not mince his words on this issue: “[false teachers] must be silenced”, “they subvert whole families” and we must “rebuke them sharply”.

When seeking to be faithful to what Paul commands in Titus 1, it is not the accusations from the wolves that hurt the most. One does not expect to hear the false teacher proclaim the virtues of the one trying to silence them, not least when they are “teaching for shameful gain” as Paul expects many will. Wolves will indeed attack the shepherd when he is trying to stop them from eating the sheep. No, the real source of hurt comes in the accusations from members of the flock who have been taken in by the false teacher. Those really sting.

These things come in many different forms. One such way is, when the shepherd seeks to guard the sheep, to simply deny the problem and insist the wolf teaches no such thing. Never mind that the shepherd has been put in place by God to keep watch over your soul (Heb 13:17), the sheep know better. It is tantamount to calling the shepherd a liar. To state, in direct contravention of a leader who has your best interest at heart (in a way no other teacher – good, bad or otherwise – possibly can), that the false teacher says no such thing is to call your minister/elder/friend a liar.

Before making these sort of statements – or standing our ground – we should ask the following questions:

  • Why would your minister/elder make it up if the teaching is really quite good?
  • Why would your minister/elder bring it up, when the potential fallout is so difficult to deal with, if this isn’t serious error that is damaging to your soul?
  • Have you fully looked into the issue? That is, have you read and seen all the information your minister/elder has seen? Have you requested to see it before presuming him wrong?

Another such way this happens is when we are presented with information we simply refuse to consider. No amount of solid bible teachers, good academics or biblical preachers telling you this wolf is a false teacher will change your mind. There is no article or discussion of the issue that will let you agree. It is a settled position that the insidious false teaching will not be challenged in your mind. It may be that you feel you have benefited in some way from the books, podcasts, blogs and articles of the false teacher. Never mind that they may have led you astray without you realising, or they may have affected your thinking in unbiblical ways, your sense that you have been helped (whether this is true or not) trumps the thoughts of the leader God has given specifically to you to make sure you stand firm in gospel truth.

Before going down this line, here are some questions to ask:

  • Why would a series of good, respected gospel preachers all line up to call out this particular teacher?
  • Am I open to hearing I might be wrong or have misunderstood the teaching I believe has benefited me?
  • Am I allowing my inner-feelings to take precedence over the words we read in the Bible? If so, how am I allowing the Bible to act as final authority in my life?

Nobody other than a sociopath enjoys calling out false teachers. Only someone who is mentally unhinged gets a kick out of calling out error knowing that people in your congregation may be subscribing to heterodox views. It is neither fun nor invigorating to know that one may be calling out ingrained beliefs or addressing as wrong deeply held convictions. To rebuke the source of false doctrine is, ultimately, to rebuke the teaching as it has taken root in the hearts of the hearer. Nobody sensible envies that task.

This means that when your leaders call out such things they aren’t doing it because they enjoy it. They do it because they care for you and they want to be faithful to God’s word. Amongst their highest concerns is the purity of the gospel and the word of God. It is that which drives them to call out false teachers and it is this which, despite potential fallout, causes them to say these things regardless. Nobody wants to hurt anybody else’s feeling but, in the grand scheme of things, what are a few hurt feelings if they keep you from walking to Hell in comfort?

It is no more loving of your leaders to ignore the deleterious false doctrine to which some subscribe than it is for a shepherd to ignore a wolf wondering around the fold. If your leader calls out a false teacher, it is almost certainly not because they enjoy doing so. They are seeking to love you as best they can by keeping you away from the sort of teaching that will do enormous damage to you. This is the motive that drives them and, next time you hear your leader call out your favourite preacher or author for teaching a false gospel, this is the motive you should keep firmly in your mind. It is not unloving for your leaders to call out false teachers but rebuking them for doing so might just be.