Last week Joe Carter (not that Joe Carter) published an insightful article on the allure of broken wolves. It got me thinking about false teachers in the history of the church.
And by “false teacher” or “wolf” I don’t mean everyone who disagrees with me on a point of theology. As a Presbyterian, I think Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals are wrong about some important things, but deviating from Westminster Confession of Faith does not make you another Arius or Pelagius. A false teacher or a wolf is someone who snatches up sheep (John 10:12), draws disciples away from the gospel (Acts 20:28), opposes the truth (2 Tim. 3:8), and leads people to make shipwreck of the faith and embrace ungodliness (1 Tim. 1:19-20; 2 Tim. 2:16-17).
Several years ago I did a series on heresies and heretics. Preparing the messages helped me understand church history better and more carefully articulate the orthodox faith. It also helped me notice some patterns (and non-patterns) related to false teachers. I discovered that church history can teach us a lot about wolves.
1. Wolves don’t usually know they’re wolves.
While some false teachers are knowing hypocrites who borrow religious language to fleece the flock, most errors in church history have been promoted by those who sincerely thought they were doing the work of God. As far as we can tell, Pelagius was not a big jerk. The Donatists were entirely earnest about the faith. We shouldn’t think that wolvish teachers and bloggers are trying to lead the sheep astray. People can be entirely sincere and still genuinely mistaken.
2. Wolves can quote the Bible.
It’s hard to know for sure what ancient heretics were like because most of what we know about them comes from the orthodox opponents writing against them. And yet, judging by the controversies left behind, we can assume that Arius knew his Bible. The Trinitarian and Christological debates of the early church, not to mention the soteriological controversies of the Reformation, involved people on both sides quoting Scripture. That doesn’t mean every viewpoint was right. It means that theology can come with Bible verses and still be wrong.
3. Wolves tend to be imbalanced.
Imbalanced may not be the right word. I’m not suggesting truth is always the golden mean between obvious extremes. What I mean is that false teachers have a tendency to let the big themes of Scripture silence specific verses. Wolves ignore the whole counsel of God. They like to take themes like love or justice or hospitality or law or grace and then round off all the edges of Scripture to fit this one big idea. The problem is not in trumpeting this glorious truths. The problem is that their understanding of the truth gets truncated, and the application of the truth gets one-dimensional. This often leads to unbiblical conclusions that can sound biblical. Such as: If God is love, then we can’t have hell or moral demands that make me (or my friends) feel uncomfortable or unfulfilled. If Jesus ate with sinners, then we should not be overly concerned about sin. If God is sovereign over all things, then we shouldn’t evangelize. General truths pressed through to unbiblical conclusions.
4. Wolves are impatient with demands for verbal clarity.
False teaching thrives on ambiguity. It eschews careful attention to words and definitions. The Arians were willing to live with doctrinal imprecision. It was Athanasius and the orthodox party that insisted on defining terms. And they insisted on saying not just what was right but what was wrong. Good shepherds are willing to define and delimit. Don’t trust teachers who love to emote more than they love to be clear.
5. Wolves come in different shapes and sizes.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to settling theological disputes. We will not be discerning if we imagine that false teachers are always Pharisees or always libertines. Or if we assume they are always too rigid or always too loose. Sometimes the truth is either/or: there is only one God, salvation is by faith alone, there is no other name under heaven. But sometimes the truth is both/and: one God in three persons, fully God and fully man, divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Sometimes error comes because we pay insufficient attention to an important issue. At other times, the problem is wasting time on “foolish controversies.”
We can’t solve all our problems the same way. We can’t always assume the more conservative answer is the best, or that the liberal answer is always true. If we are flexible in some places, it doesn’t mean we should be flexible in every place. If we are rigid over there, it doesn’t mean we need to be just as rigid with this issue over here. Wolves and false teachers don’t know how to use wisdom to settle different disputes in different ways.