It’s a good time to be a false teacher and to espouse deadly doctrine. It seems that today’s most brazen heretic will be granted a hearing and, in all likelihood, a book deal. Novelty is appealing, orthodoxy boring. It’s the ones who sound the warning and issue the challenge that bear the risk—the risk of being labelled “haters.” There’s more patience for those who smilingly subvert the truth than for those who boldly defend it. Conviction is a sign of arrogance, while humility is expressed in uncertainty. Love, it seems, requires us to bear patiently with any amount of error. And this kind of love, we are told, is modeled after Jesus. Jesus did not judge, Jesus welcomed all opinions, Jesus would have accepted different kinds of teachings—so long as those teachings contained love and hints of truth.
A quick scan of the gospels, however, shows that this impression is a far cry from the Jesus of the Bible. It shows that society has reimagined Jesus through the relativism of our day. When Jesus interacted with people who were seeking, wandering, or misguided, he was invariably compassionate. He answered them with patience and gentleness. But when Jesus engaged with religious hypocrites and false teachers, he responded with righteous fury and bold conviction.
Today, those who love the truth must learn how to show such bold conviction through the old discipline of polemics—the practice of engaging in public debate and dispute. The purpose of polemics is not to score points or flex theological muscle, but to rebuke peddlers of error and to express concern for those caught up in their lies. Like the ancient heretics of Crete, today’s false teachers “must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (Titus 1:11). As we do this well, we imitate Jesus Christ who was a skilled polemicist.
We see an example of Jesus’ polemics in Matthew 23, where Jesus speaks to the crowd about the scribes and Pharisees. What unfolds in this scene is not private pleading but public censure. Jesus publicly addresses the deadly doctrine of these religious leaders for the benefit of their victims and potential victims. He holds nothing back. He does not make time to commend them for the things they do well. He does not temper his speech to give them the benefit of the doubt. Rather, he specifies their doctrinal error and unrighteousness actions, he labels them with strong but appropriate language, he warns of the consequences of their error, and he calls his listeners to reject the false teachers and their deadly doctrine.
Jesus Calls Out Their Doctrinal Error
These religious authorities were masking error as truth. Jesus confronts their error by telling the crowd, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:4). In the name of God, these leaders advocate a works-based system of righteousness that ignores and denies God’s free grace. Jesus gives them an example of their false teaching: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath’” (Matthew 23:15). They have reimagined the faith so they can maintain a religious veneer even as they blatantly break oaths. They adapt their beliefs so they can remain righteous according to the letter of the law even as they violate its spirit. Jesus identifies this as false doctrine and addresses it head-on.
When we respond to error by giving it the benefit of the doubt, we come close to committing the same error as false teachers: masking error as the truth. Like Jesus, we ought to love truth and love people enough to call out error for what it is.
Jesus Calls Out Their Unrighteous Actions
The religious authorities teach error as truth and, in consequence, act hypocritically. As Jesus warns the crowd of the doctrinal error of these leaders, he tells also of their ungodly actions. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). And again, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean” (Matthew 23:25-26). Jesus lays bare the unrighteous actions of false teachers.
Some may find it difficult to reconcile Jesus’ love and his bold rebuke in this scene, but this betrays a dangerous tendency to separate God’s love from his relentless demand for truth. It dishonors God when we call unrighteousness good (Isaiah 5:20). It honors him when we, like Jesus, call unrighteousness evil.
Jesus Calls Out Their True Identity
Having called out their unrighteousness, he appropriately describes and labels the false teachers. In Matthew 23 alone, Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees “hypocrites” sixtimes. Besides that, he calls them “blind guides,” “blind fools,” “blind men,” “whitewashed tombs,” “sons of those who murdered the prophets,” “serpents,” and “brood of vipers.” You get the point. Jesus does not shy away from calling false teachers exactly what they are. “Jesus meek and mild” sinlessly expresses divine wrath toward those who would speak truth in the name of error, who would teach doctrines of demons under the banner of heaven.
It is true that we must always avoid slandering someone by calling them what they are not. But it is equally true that when God is slandered by false teachers who claim to teach in his name, we must call them out for what they are.
Jesus Calls Out Their Coming Judgment
Jesus ensures his listeners know the full gravity of this deadly doctrine. He knows that adhering to such faulty teaching will have the most dire consequences, so six times he repeats the word “woe.” This is a word of divine judgment, of abject misery that portends a final, miserable end. “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matthew 23:32). They will not, and neither will those who submit to such odious error.
As we have explored throughout this series, false doctrine is deadly doctrine. It leads both teachers and hearers to destruction. It is good and loving to warn them of this destruction, so that “they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:26).
Jesus Calls His Listeners Toward Truth
Jesus exposes the deadly doctrine and unrighteous actions of these false teachers. He appropriately describes those who espouse it, and he lays out the consequences of such error. However, polemics is not merely confronting error, but also teaching truth. And orthodoxy is not merely knowing the truth, but also submitting to it. For these reasons, Jesus appeals to his listeners to turn away from the absurdity and inconsistency of error toward God’s truth. Contrary to the scribes and Pharisees who do all their deeds to be seen by others, Jesus tells the crowd: “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12).
If Jesus’s listeners will only apply reason and logic, they will see that this teaching cannot be true and that these actions do not promote righteousness. They will reject what is false and gladly accept what is true. They will put aside false doctrine and religious hypocrisy to instead embrace sound doctrine and godly living.
It’s a good time to be a false teacher and to espouse deadly doctrine. And it will continue to be unless God’s people embrace their responsibility to defend the faith and protect the vulnerable. Jesus has left us with both the mandate and the model. Jesus shows that while polemics gains few friends (after all, it was the ones he rebuked who put him to death and the ones he warned who deserted him), it honors God and saves listeners from falling into the snare of deadly doctrine.
I am indebted to Conrad Mbewe for his outline of this passage.