False teachers come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the most deranged cult leader to the most winsome television preacher. Too many professing Christians are duped into embracing heretical ideas or endorsing spiritually dangerous movements. Some of these movements even pass themselves off as evangelical.

If you’re a pastor, chances are at least a few of your church members have flirted with false teaching at some point in their spiritual journeys.

Of course, false teachers aren’t a recent phenomenon; they’ve been trying to undermine the gospel and corrupt God’s people since the earliest days of the church. Titus 1 shows us that Paul’s protégé, Titus, had to deal with the threat of false teachers among the Cretan Christians in the middle of the first century.

Serious Spiritual Threat 

More than likely, the false teachers in Crete were unbelieving Jews foisting some sort of legalism on the church. In the latter part of Titus 1:10, Paul identifies them as part of “the circumcision party,” while verse 14 says they were “devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth.” Paul counters in verse 15 by arguing that purity is directly tied to belief rather than ritual. Further, he suggests unbelief results in defilement. Whatever the exact form of this legalistic heresy, Paul was concerned its teachers were contradicting the gospel and endangering God’s people.

Many dangerous doctrines contradict the gospel in our own day. Some argue the gospel is about trusting God to bring about worldly prosperity. Others suggest it’s possible to accept Jesus as your Savior while ignoring his claim to lordship over your life. Increasingly, some advocate homosexual marriage, ignoring both the Scriptures and 2,000 years of Christian moral and theological reflection. Some believe Christianity boils down to serving others or fighting for social justice—good things to be sure. But they say little about sin or atonement. Dangerous doctrines come in different shapes and sizes, but they have what Danny Akin calls “heretical math”—adding to, subtracting from, multiplying, or dividing the gospel— as their common denominator.

Bad Theology Often Equals Bad Morality

In Titus 1:6–9, Paul reminds Titus about the type of godly character that should exemplify the life of an elder, including a list of vices to be avoided. Then, in verses 10–16, he provides a laundry list of the false teachers’ sins, demonstrating how much they differ morally from godly pastors.

In verse 10, Paul writes, “There are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party.” They weren’t working according to God-ordained authority structures. There’s a reason so many false teachers today begin new movements or work as independent ministers through television or the internet.

In verse 11, Paul says the false teachers spread their views for “shameful gain.” We don’t know who supported these false teachers or how they supported them. All we know is financial gain motivated them. Many false teachers today accumulate great wealth by selling their bad doctrine to deceived people. (Think private jet.)

In verses 12–13, Paul quotes from a Cretan philosopher named Epimenedes to further drive home the bad character of the false teachers: “One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true.” A couple of things about this passage make some Christians squirm at first reading.

First, is Paul claiming this pagan philosopher is a true prophet? No, he’s simply saying that what Epimenedes had to say proves true in this particular case. We do the same thing when we say someone “turned out to be a prophet.” Paul is a missionary, and in this letter he’s doing the same thing he did in Acts 17 at the Areopagus: contextualizing his message by meeting people where they are on their own cultural terms.

Second, is Paul a racist because he agrees with the philosopher’s sweeping criticism of the Cretan people? Again, the answer is no—but this is a fair question. Epimenedes’s proverb was so common in the ancient world that the Greek word kretizein was used as a synonym for liar or cheater. While Epiminedes was criticizing Cretan people in general, Paul is saying the old adage about Cretans is true of these false teachers since they are liars and cheaters who can’t be trusted. They’re living up to the stereotype. They’re quintessential Cretans.

Paul gives the false teachers a devastating diagnosis in verses 15 and 16:

To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.

These false teachers who so care for ritual purity are the opposite of pure. They’re warped in their mentality and their morality. They claim to know God, but their actions deny him. They’re detestable and disobedient and unfit for any good work. They’re unbelievers posing as Christian teachers. They’re wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Paul writes in verse 11 that the false teachers were “upsetting whole families” with their teaching. This could mean exactly what it says, which is certainly bad enough. But the word the ESV translates as “families” could also be translated “household,” which in this context would likely mean “house churches.” Regardless of whether Paul is referring to families or house churches, the main point is the same: the wolves were preying on sheep.

There’s absolutely nothing cute or innocent about heresy. Eternity hangs in the balance.

Responsibility of Elders

Two important verses sandwich Titus 1:10–16. In verse 9, Paul says an elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine.” He later writes, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine” (2:1). Both verses suggest elders must understand biblical doctrine and be able to effectively communicate that doctrine to God’s people. Timothy calls it being “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2).

When we look at the various qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we notice that for the most part these traits should characterize mature Christians in general. The single ability not all Christians possess, but that must characterize an elder, is the ability to teach God’s Word faithfully. Elders, and any who aspire to the ministry of the Word, need to spend a considerable amount of time studying the Bible and learning sound doctrine so they can teach it to the people God entrusts to them. This is one reason why Christian colleges and seminaries are so important, why sound conferences can be so helpful, and why every pastor should be a lifelong theological learner.

Paul indicates it’s not enough simply to commend sound doctrine; elders must also confront false teachers and counter bad theology. He says elders must “rebuke those who contradict” sound doctrine (Titus 1:9), and four verses later tells Titus to “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). In other words, elders must be ready to “call a spade a spade” when it comes to false teaching.

Triaging Theology

Admittedly, we must be careful how we do this. After all, not every bad doctrine is equally dangerous. As I understand the Scriptures, doctrines such as infant baptism, female pastors, the continuation of prophecy, and true believers falling from grace are all aberrant doctrines, but I think sincere and even mature Christians affirm each of them. Though I believe each of these views is wrong, none of them is a damnably incorrect heresy such as rejecting the Trinity, arguing Jesus was just a man, denying substitutionary atonement, or denouncing the bodily resurrection.

Many readers will be familiar with Al Mohler’s helpful analogy of “theological triage” in which he speaks of first-order, second-order, and third-order doctrines. First-order doctrines are the core claims of Christianity that define true faith from counterfeit faith; think the Trinity, the incarnation, substitutionary atonement, and bodily resurrection. Second-order doctrines lead to different denominational traditions; think baptism, polity, miraculous gifts, and gender roles. Third-order doctrines are those theological opinions that honest Christians can disagree about and yet still be a part of the same church or group of churches; think the millennium, the extent of the atonement, and the age of the earth. Theological triage doesn’t solve every dispute. We might disagree over whether the age of the earth or gender roles is second-order or third-order. Nevertheless, it’s a useful tool for helping to determine the difference between wonky doctrine and damnable heresy.

Highest Stakes

Not every Christian leader who is wrong is a wolf, which is why elders must navigate incorrect doctrine with a charitable attitude toward godly people we believe are wrong in some of their beliefs and practices.

But when an elder sees a wolf, he must be prepared to “out” that wolf to the sheep for their own spiritual safety. False teaching is a matter of eternal life versus spiritual death.