Tolerance is not a universal virtue; very often it is no virtue at all. For example, Scripture is uniformly intolerant of false teachers (false prophets in the Old Testament). By contrast, the proper treatment of the lost is to preach the gospel to them; the proper treatment of erring brethren is to bring Scriptural reproof, rebuke, or correction to them. In both cases, much compassion and patience are enjoined. But where false teachers are concerned, while there may be occasion or opportunity to minister, the overriding requirement is that genuine believers separate from them.
Three marks of false teachers. In the sixth chapter of his first epistle to Timothy, Paul distinguishes three characteristics of false teaches. First, they “teach otherwise” (v. 3). That is, they teach a different doctrine from what is found in the Word of God (even though they may use the Bible to propound that doctrine). Second, they “consent not to wholesome words” (v. 3). That is, what they teach does not agree with the clear, literal interpretation of the Bible. Third, they “consent not . . . to the doctrine which is according to godliness” (v. 3). That is, their teaching and preaching will lack an emphasis on holiness and their lives will display a pattern of sin.
Six characteristics of false teachers. Having offered three qualities that define false teachers, Paul further identifies them by revealing their character and its fruit. First, they are “proud” (v. 4). They are “inflated,” so full of themselves that they have no room to be instructed, much less corrected. Second, they know nothing (v. 4). They do not understand truth. The definition of the word suggests that they have no acquaintanceship with sound doctrine. Third, they “dote” “about questions and strifes of words.” They delight in argument; they create their own extra-biblical religious terminology; and by so doing, they undermine the authority of Scripture and focus attention on themselves and their interpretations as authoritative. This third characteristic results in several additional distasteful characteristics, including “envy, strife, railings [“abusive language”—NASV], evil surmisings, perverse disputings” (vv. 4, 5a). Fourth, they are “men of corrupt minds” (v. 5). Their thinking is thoroughly rotten; they are devoid of anything spiritually wholesome. Fifth, they are “destitute of the truth” (v. 5). They may use words and phrases from the Bible, but they do so in such a way that the truth of the Word is utterly destroyed. And sixth, they suppose that “gain is godliness” (v. 5). This final characteristic may have two implications. To their followers they promise that temporal gain is the reward of faith and obedience. For themselves, they are serving for the sake of gain and not for the blessing of their deceived followers or for the glory of the Lord.
One response to false teachers. When these marks and characteristics manifest themselves, they proclaim their bearers to be false teachers. In such an instance, Paul offers one response: “from such withdraw thyself” (v. 6). As some scholars note, these words are not found in the “better” manuscripts. But as one commentator rightly observes: “the idea expressed is self-evident.” And indeed, in his second epistle to Timothy, Paul says virtually the same thing. Regarding those “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof,” he directs Timothy that “from such turn away” (3:5).
False teachers are not to be tolerated or even debated. They must be rebuked, denounced and avoided. All teaching and preaching that purports to be truth must be gauged by Scripture. No one should consider himself capable of continually resisting such error. Therefore, Scripture mandates separation from false teachers.
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