Someone once said, “Wolves look good dressed up in wool.” That is a very true statement indeed. Jesus Himself said in Matthew 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” As we consider the threat of false teachers, what should be the response of a shepherd of one of God’s flocks? Should false teachers be named openly? Is that the proper response or is that sinful?
Some people argue that it’s a slanderous thing to name people openly when calling out heresy. Others suggest that we must tread lightly and be very cautious in these areas. What path is most acceptable in the sight of our Lord? That’s the real question we must consider when we stand in the pulpit with the open Bible. As we consider the challenges of preaching in a world saturated with heresy, we labor for the glory of Christ and the joy of God’s sheep.
Calling Names – The Positive Side
John MacArthur once said, “The teaching of a false prophet cannot withstand scrutiny under the divine light of Scripture.”1 When a pastor stands in the pulpit and shines the light of the gospel upon false teaching and names the names of false teachers, this can be very beneficial to the congregation on several different levels. New Christians can see the dangers that are lurking, even in the most unsuspected places such as the shelves in the “Christian” bookstore. When the names of false teachers are not veiled, the sheep of God’s pasture are able to see the wolves clearly. It provides the children of God an advantage as they watch for their souls and the souls of their own household.
In short, the positives of actually naming names will protect the church from serious doctrinal error. False teachers are depraved morally and entrapped by their commitment to viciously attack and oppose the pure gospel of Christ. More than one church in the pages of history has been assaulted by false teaching. To name the names of false teachers is a responsible thing to do. It may violate the tolerance code of our modern culture, but it protects the church, exalts Christ, guards the gospel, and reveals error.
Calling Names – The Negatives
I recall preaching a message several years ago where I was distinguishing the true gospel from the health, wealth, and prosperity teachings. I decided that I would name names as I illustrated the dangers of that doctrine. When I went down a list of false teachers, I recall a woman abruptly got up from her seat and left the room. She wanted to meet with me the next day in my office and when we talked she explained that she was offended by the fact that I had called a specific person a false teacher. When I provided clear evidence from the Scriptures, she was unwilling to submit. This woman was not a member of our congregation. She had been visiting for several weeks and as a result of this, she never joined our church. When you call names from the pulpit, you do run the risk of growing at a slower pace than some of the more ecumenical congregations.
When a Christian is sitting in the pew and he hears the name T.D. Jakes or Joel Osteen called from the pulpit as a false teacher, it could lead him to research their name, ministry, teaching, and perhaps a book they have written. Now, that may not be the case for the majority of the congregation, but what about that inquisitive young Christian that’s merely checking them out? Could calling names be harmful to the Christian who has no exposure to their ministry until their name was called from the pulpit during a sermon designed to expose the health, wealth, and prosperity doctrine?
Calling Names – A Biblical Argument
In 1 Timothy 1:3, Paul instructed Timothy “remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine.” Interestingly, different doctrine is the combination of two Greek words, didaskalia“to teach” and heteros, which means “of a different kind.” The point Paul was making is clear. Don’t allow teachers in Ephesus to deviate from the path of the true gospel.
In Titus 1:11, when referencing false teachers, Paul said to Titus, “They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.” In other words, one of the biblical qualifications of an elder is one who is able to stop the mouths of heretics. Therefore, one of the basic duties of a pastor is to protect the church from heretics – those who pervert the gospel. In 2 Timothy 3:13, Paul warned Timothy by describing the false teachers as, “evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”
Several times in Paul’s writings we find that he actually named the names of false teachers.
- In 2 Timothy 1:15, Paul named Phygelus and Hermogenes. These men are thought to have served as elders and had denied the faith.
- In 2 Timothy 4:10, Paul named Demas as a man who had deserted Paul because he loved the world.
- In 2 Timothy 4:14, Paul named Alexander the coppersmith. He was apparently a threat to the church at Ephesus and was an enemy of Paul and the gospel that Paul had labored to preach.
Did Paul’s name calling harm Phygelus and Hermogenes? Sure, it probably led Timothy to go back and report this to the elders in Ephesus and it’s likely that these men would have experienced a damaged reputation as a result. Was this the right call by Paul? What about Demas who had literally deserted Paul as he was in the Mamertine prison awaiting execution? Did the fact that Paul called his name to Timothy harm his character? While this was a personal letter to Timothy, it would have been made known to the wider church community at some point. Could this have damaged Demas? When Paul called out Alexander, the metal worker who had opposed Paul in Ephesus, did that harm his industry?
As we think through the reasoning of Paul’s name calling, we must realize that Paul was not willing to stand aside while the depraved wolves devoured God’s sheep. He was a man of strong conviction and he possessed a pastor’s heart. He wanted to protect the church and he desired to guard the gospel. Two different times in two different letters, Paul commanded Timothy to guard the gospel (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14). The preservation of the gospel was at the heart of Paul’s decision to call out specific false teachers and enemies of the cross.
In conclusion, pastors and bloggers should make the aim of their ministry Soli Deo Gloria and the guarding of the true gospel. If a person is proven to be a false teacher by their doctrine, it would be irresponsible to veil them to the Christian community. As ministers of the truth, we have an obligation to guard the good deposit that has been entrusted to our care in order that their message does not spread like a deadly disease (2 Timothy 2:16-17). We must make sure that we use the words “heretic” and “false teacher” in the most careful way as possible. When labeling people we must utilize wisdom and discernment. These labels can damage people and their character. If we error in our judgement, it can leave lasting damage upon the individual. If a person is indeed a false teacher, the label serves them well. May our writing and preaching exalt Christ and shut the mouths of false teachers. However, as we write and as we preach, if we labor to teach the true gospel, it will expose false teaching as a red barn in a green field. We don’t need to be experts on all world religions, but we must seek diligently to know God as we see Him revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
According to J.I. Packer:
The mark of the false prophet or teacher is self-serving unfaithfulness to God and His truth…There are teachers in the church today who never speak of repentance, self-denial, the call to be relatively poor for the Lord’s sake, or any other demanding aspect of discipleship. Naturally they are popular and approved, but for all that, they are false prophets. We will know such people by their fruits.2
Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Josh Buice
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1. John MacArthur, Matthew 1-7, Moody, 1985, 471.
2. J.I. Packer, Your Father Loves You, Harold Shaw Publishers, 1986, 9/19.