Regardless of the country we live in we’ll find warning signs. Consider road signs warning of some danger. Tight curve ahead. Slippery when wet. No passing zone. Road construction ahead. Warning – bridge closed. Those assuming the warnings are merely suggestions for someone else will probably have results ranging from embarrassing to fatal. Our next step in our walk through 2nd Peter reveals some warning signs concerning our walk with Jesus.
Peter warns the flock, “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” (2 Peter 2:1–3, NASB95) Apart from external threats and temptations, the community of believers must also be aware of internal threats. Call these “False-flag” operations where a poser (knowingly or unknowingly) causes harm to the flock of Christ.
We must be aware before we get too far that not all wrong teaching is false teaching. Wrong teaching may be simply wrong. False teaching has a larger goal and specific intent. Wrong teaching can be corrected. False teaching won’t allow corrections, challenges, or sometimes even questions.
There are overlapping patterns in Peter’s warning. There is a pattern of cause, effect, and judgment. Along with a pattern of escalation which Peter may have observed in false teachers. A warning before we dive in. Peter’s goal is not to create a police force of heresy hunters but to arm the flock with knowledge. Notice that Peter leaves judgment in the hands of God. That judgment will be the topic of the next article in our walk.
Cause and effect
In these verses, I see three causes with three different effects leading to a singular judgment. There will be false teachers “who will secretly introduce destructive heresies.” If we look behind the words a bit we’ll find that the key is the introduction of instruction that adds or takes away from the simple message of Christ. It could be secretive and cunning or bold and brash. These are identified by their effect of ultimately “denying the Master who bought them.” It is fair to say that we can argue and even become tribal over some areas of teaching, but there is a main and plain to the Gospel that must be maintained in unity. For example, consider the extremes where either “everyone is saved” or “only those that walk according to this sin list are worthy.” If either is the case then the Good News is violated and destruction is at hand.
The second cause and effect pairing is sensuality leading to the Way of Jesus being maligned. Loose sexuality is a hallmark of many cults and false-teachings. But sensuality could have other meanings as well. For instance, some will boost self-centeredness to lead folks away from Christ-centeredness. We must be careful though to identify whether a good teacher simply fell to sexual temptation or whether their actions are a hallmark of false teaching. The effect is a maligning of the Gospel’s integrity and truth. Something I’ve seen over and over again when various scandals became news.
The final cause and effect is simple greed. “In their greed they will exploit you with false words.” Think con man, someone who spins a tale to take advantage of someone else. Some TV preachers are famous for this type of exploitation. Offering promises and hope in return for a donation while they live lavish lifestyles. But there are also small-time exploiters which have the effect of making us doubt anyone’s story. The result is the same, a fleecing of the flock.
Ladder of Escalation
I also see in these verses a kind of ladder, an escalation of false teaching. It begins simple enough. One miss-step that seems unimportant, but in some way reduces Christ and the Gospel. The next step feeds our desires and emotions more than leading us to God’s desires and His love. The final step exploits us in some way. Our guard is down and we’ve walked outside of God’s desires. We’re separated from the larger flock and are vulnerable although we may not see it. The voice of the Good Shepherd (John 10) becomes faint and drowned out by the voice of the thief. It all starts with that one simple miss-step that reduces Christ and the Gospel.
Breaking the Patterns
Again, the goal is not to inform or empower a new branch of the heresy police. The goal is to make us aware of the enemy’s top secret means and methods. To heed the road signs Peter left for us. Here are some questions to aid that awareness. Does a teaching reduce Christ in any way? Are steps or hurdles being added to the plain Good News of God’s grace? Does this teaching only tickle my feelings? Who is the center – me, the teacher, or Jesus? Who really gets the glory? How are issues of sensuality, temptation, and sexuality handled? Are they leaning towards legalism which stands in the way of the Gospel or towards permissiveness which removes the need for the Gospel? What are they teaching about money, giving, and receiving? How are they handling their own money? Does their lifestyle reflect the humility of Christ?
What we do about false teaching depends on the circumstance. If possible, fleeing that teacher or teaching is the most apt response. Don’t attend their conference, watch their show, or buy their books. If it is found in our congregation pray, pray again, and pray some more. Talk with leadership. Be willing to be corrected, there may be a basic misunderstanding that can be addressed. Again, we’re talking about false and not simply wrong teaching. Worst case scenario assuming that no change is possible it may be time to graciously leave. Most importantly – trust God to judge and punish false-teachers we’ve got more important things to do.