Responding to false teaching
I doubt any of us would be put off walking through a field of sheep grazing happily on the grass. A field of wolves might be a different matter. For as long as there have been sheep and wolves, there have also been false teachers in the life of the church. False teachers are described as those wearing sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ferocious wolves (Matthew 7:15). Take a moment to read through these passages to remind yourself of the presence of false teachers in the early church - 2 Peter 2:1-3, 1 John 4:1-3 and 2 Timothy 3:1-9.
A biblical challenge
Now stop and take a moment also to read Jude’s short letter. It’s only 25 verses! Jude, correctly called Judah, was one of Jesus’ brothers. While he didn’t follow Jesus during his lifetime, he did become a travelling teacher and missionary in the years that followed Jesus’ death. In his letter, he writes to other Jews who have decided to follow Jesus, encouraging them, in their time, to contend for or defend the faith in the face of opposition that he has heard about. It’s so important, that he changes the original topic of his letter to them, to focus on this opposition.
He challenges, not so much false teaching, but what he sees as people following a way of life that has left the road that God also intends for us to follow. His particular focus is on money and sex, so nothing new under the sun there! He takes his Jewish hearers back to examples from their history when people rebelled against God. He concludes, by using vivid analogies, that these people are shepherds who only feed themselves, clouds without rain, autumn trees without fruit, wild waves of the sea and wandering stars. Just let those images sink in for a moment.
The cause of false teaching
Having highlighted the problem, Jude now explains the strategy to contend for the faith. Firstly, remember the basic issue and cause of the problem (Jude 1:17-19). At its heart, the false teaching is arising because people are following their own natural instincts rather than the work of the Spirit. They are seeking to find room to express their desires, and therefore develop teachings that give permission to practise those cravings. Over and over again, church history has shown that however sophisticated the false teaching may sound, at its root – as often as not – is a basic desire to endorse the indulging in a certain kind of behaviour. That does not mean that we should dismiss the intellectual arguments or assume that everyone who stands against Christian teaching is immoral or wanting to be immoral. But there is an inner driving force that is beyond the merely intellectual. And it is to that basic issue that we must appeal and to which we must speak, and with grace and truth. A Bishop I once knew, said that we must inhabit the place of “gracious orthodoxy”. Amen to that!
Secondly, focus on building up your own faith (Jude 1:20,21). The greatest defence is to move confidently forward. And the greatest way to counteract false teaching is to make the true teaching of the gospel so attractive and winsome through the lives of joy and peace that we live.
One of my foundational passages in the New Testament is 1 Peter 3:15-16:
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”
It shows how if we live distinctively gracious lives, others will notice and ask us why we are like that. Then we have the opportunity to say why.
There is no place for being contentious and ungracious in our response to people with whom we disagree. But we are instead to “keep ourselves in God’s love” as we “wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring us to eternal life.” (Jude 1:14-19) Building ourselves up in our faith, with love and mercy, and praying in the Holy Spirit: these are the Christian characteristics that adorn the gospel of God and make it attractive.
Thirdly, be merciful to those who doubt (Jude 1:22,23). Do not be unkind or argumentative with those who are attracted to the false teaching. Do not go after them with anger and aggression. Do not dismiss their concerns out of hand. We need to show kindness, even as at the same time we disagree with the false teaching itself. This requires steady and careful listening to our friends, colleagues and family.
He is in control
Fourthly, be assured of God’s final victory (Jude 1:24,25). Despite the great danger of false teaching, the real problem it is, and the concern that it brings, God’s victory is not in doubt. He is “able to keep us from stumbling and to present us before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy.” Fear the false teaching, but do not fear that it is going to win. Contend for the faith, but not with anxiety or panic. God will win. To Him be the glory.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2022 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the Winter 2022 edition of Ascend