If there's anything that drives me completely insane that goes on all over the church these days, it is the all-too-common occurrence of Christians abusing the term "false teacher."
Now, to be sure, there are real false teachers who really do wreak real havoc on real people. False teaching is dangerous on every level and the Bible charges us as followers of Jesus Christ to pointedly and unapologetically combat the issue, a command that the Scriptures are replete with. To just mention one such passage, Jude 1:3 instructs Christians to contend for the faith that was given to the church by the apostles, who wrote by the inspiration of the Spirit, and were eye-witnesses of the life of Jesus Christ or were closely associated with them, as men like Mark and Luke were.
Make no mistake, the Lord hates false teaching, as it misrepresents Him, makes a mockery of the truth that He especially has shown us in the Bible, distorts His beauty into a foolish and unimpressive idol, and more. If God, who is essentially good and wise, hates a thing and we as Christians who now have sanctified hearts and minds that treasure Him most can hate what is hated by God, then reason demands we hate what He hates. God isn't petty. He doesn't hate something like a recalcitrant little child who won't just accept vegetables and eat them.
Rather, God hates things because they radically fall short of cohering with His nature and His good design for the world. God is the most valuable, treasured, righteous, and beautiful being, which is why His supreme passion is for His own glory. There is no higher passion to have, and since God is perfect, unable by His nature to hold a substandard passion over a supremely glorious one lest He be Himself an idolater, He treasures His glory primarily. This drives His hatred of sin, one grievous form of it being false teaching.
I say all of that to preface the primary subject matter of this article, which is what is NOT false teaching. False teaching is a sure threat, but too often Christians have had the very unhealthy and unhelpful tendency to misdiagnose things as being "false teaching" and therefore those who teach them as "false teachers." It seems best to go ahead and give at least a satisfactory definition of what "false teaching" is. Working the definition out from the context of Biblical theology, it seems that false teaching may be defined as belief systems or doctrines that directly go contrary to fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, going radically off course from Scripture.
With that said, teachings and ideas that go in direct opposition to the doctrine of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, the divine creation of the world ex nihilo, the doctrine of sin, the nature of salvation (i.e. by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone), the sacredness of Scripture, and the realities of Christ's return and the judgment of sinners would be false teachings; I say it with firmness. Perhaps on another note, teachers and speakers that make a persistent habit of carelessly exegeting Scripture, taking passages of the Bible out of context, and twisting Scripture to justify ideas that are don't fit, and so forth may be reasonably called false teachers, as they show not one ounce of respect for the Bible, which is the inerrant, inspired Word of God, according to Christianity proper. People that are part of the Word of Faith movement, the New Apostolic Reformation, and forms "Christian" mysticism may therefore reasonably referred to as false teachers.
Also, members other religions and caricatures of Christianity like the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons would be emphatically engrossed in false teaching.
But, with all of that said, what are some things that often get misdiagnosed as "false teaching" by Christians who probably mean well, but need to stop for certain? I've here laid out just two, which are the two I have heard used most often.
1. Disagreements in Biblically unclear or philosophically difficult ethical matters
The Bible is replete with ethical imperatives that God has impressed upon the world, commands that come out of His essential goodness. We have the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus, the book of Proverbs filled with general truth guidelines for living in the world, and the New Testament is packed with ethical teaching that stems from the Old Testament and are explained and laid out in various ways, whether by the epistolary writings of the Apostle Paul or the beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew 5.
But when it comes to ethical situations, of course including some that wouldn't have come up in the time period in which Scripture was written, the Bible isn't always clear. To be sure, when the church comes to circumstances that aren't explicitly laid out in Scripture, the Bible has provided us with principles to guide our ethical considerations so we may tread that unsure ground with wisdom and prudence. These are often called "gray areas" depending on how explicit the Biblical principles are with respect to the consideration being examined. Some such gray areas are whether or not its morally permissible to pull the plug on a suffering family member, the morality of remarriage, and how to approach the ever so commonplace situation of media usage ethically. Christians can disagree on these, assuming careful thought and prayer has gone into the matter, and still be close, friendly brothers and sisters in Christ with no fighting.
To be fair, these ethical scenarios can be philosophically exhausting and very hard to parse through. It is good and helpful for friendly in-house debate, peaceful roundtable discussion, and close Bible study to go on between disagreeing believers with respect to unclear ethical matters, and so it is incredibly wrong for Christians to die on a hill, so to speak, when it comes to this and ostracize others as "false teachers" when disagreement takes place. There is a special place for that distinction, and this place is decidedly not one of them. Consider Paul's words in Titus 3:9 "But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless."
2. Disagreements in theological "gray areas" (i.e. the age of the earth, eschatology, etc.)
In addition to gray areas with respect to ethics and morality, the Bible is at times also very, very complex and tough to gain a grasp of when it comes to matters of theology, that is how to understand the theological message that God, through the inspired writer, is communicating in particular passages and themes in the Word. Some argue that the Bible is made to be understood, which is epistemologically true in a sense, but it also makes sense that since the Bible is the Word of God then it will be complex, multifaceted, and sometimes difficult to gain a full understanding of, since our minds cannot fully and exhaustively comprehend the Lord.
Ironically, the Bible says that about itself a few times, one such time being 2 Peter 3:15-16, which says "And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures." Two particular theological "gray areas" that are often the subject of unfortunate bickering and ostracizing are the age of the earth and concerns of the end times, which is called the study of eschatology.
The first chapter of Genesis, upon careful reading, shows itself to be a very artfully crafted Hebrew poem of how God in His sovereignty, wisdom, and power created the universe and the planet earth out of nothing. It renders all sorts of possible interpretations that do not jeopardize any doctrinal matter, yet believers sometimes viciously war over whether the earth is old or young. This is powerfully unfortunate. The beauty of the relationship between Scripture and science is that the Christian can follow the scientific evidence wherever it may lead and it won't harm his or her theology or the truth of the Bible, as it has been confirmed over and over and over again. The Biblical passages about the end times are extremely hard to understand and are filled with mention of some things then and some things later, some things poetic and other things literal. It can be mentally exhausting to wrestle with eschatology, though rewarding as well. When believers who don't know a great deal about what they themselves believe start crying "false teacher," there is highly unhealthy activity taking place. Romans 14 is a great place to go to see how not OK with this sort of name calling and labeling God is. Also Proverbs 6:16-19 says "There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him:haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood,a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers."
These are just two examples of times when believers often, unfortunately, break into labeling one another as proposing false teaching, which is an awful thing. Being labeled as a false teacher is a damning thing and should be done only when it is sure that the person has gone against clear-cut and fundamental Christian doctrine. Many have and it is good that they've been called out and the church has been made aware, but we must be very careful attention to detail on a Biblical and practical level before the words "they are a false teacher" or "that is false teaching" leave our lips. Disagreeing with a fellow believer in unclear ethical matters and in theological gray areas that are very difficult to reach a conclusion on, I say with great emphasis, does NOT make a person a proponent of false teaching. Many so-called Christian believers have been found out to be heretics and false teachers throughout history, but it is simply terrible to go that route and label a person on these particular matters mentioned in this article.
As the Bible says in Proverbs 29:20, "Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him."