For the longest time in ministry, I was always taught by older and more experienced men that a pastor should not use names when calling out false teachers. There is an agreement to some degree because no one is a perfect theologian. No person has perfect doctrine, and varying disciplines of hermeneutics influence each person. However, there is disagreement because there is a need and Biblical justification for calling out false teachers by name [at times].
Before looking at the reasons and Biblical support for calling out names, the term false teaching needs to be clarified. A false teacher is not someone you disagree with on specific points. A false teacher is not someone in a different denomination that may not share tertiary positions of eschatology or certain [church/denominational] traditions. To label someone a false teacher over such matters is serious and potentially slanderous, which, of course, is sinful (Psalm 101:5, James 4:11, 1 Peter 2:1). Lastly, a false teacher is not a person who has made an error. Each pastor, who takes their vocations seriously, spends hours in their study, working through the text. In preparing a sermon, they utilize original languages, lexicons, and commentaries to assist with where they are landing. Sometimes, a thought may be carried to the degree that in trying to articulate the doctrine or position, there was an error with orthodox understanding. When this happens, and it is brought to the attention of the individual who wrote or spoke such things, and that individual makes a correction, there is no issue. In short, it often just takes making the correction, addressing it, and learning as one moves forward.
Sadly, there is no correction within many dangerous movements such as the Health, Wealth and Prosperity [heresy] sect, faith healers, and those who hold to modalism [heresy]. Even though many of these “teachers” would not align with the Christian faith’s [historic] core doctrines, such as the Trinity, the person-hood of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of justification by faith alone and Scripture, they are accepted into mainline denominations. Perhaps this is because church history, the councils and creeds which addressed the importance of core doctrinal positions has been forgotten. Any teacher who purposely teaches on matters that go against the fundamental truths of Christianity [denying core doctrines] is a false teacher.
So, to clarify, a false teacher is not a teacher in error who is willing to be corrected – a false teacher is a teacher who is in serious error and refuses to be corrected.
You may think, “OK, but why do we need to cause division? Why can’t we just let people believe what they want?” A straightforward answer is from John Calvin, “A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.” Now, if someone were to speak badly about a loved one or make statements about someone we knew were not true, it is expected that a person would speak up in defence of the truth. Since this is true, why would it be different with Jesus? Now, the more affirmative answer, Scripture.
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel, which is not just another account; but there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, even now I say again: if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! (Gal 1:6-9)
First – the εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion), or Gospel, is the information that is joyful and regarding what was accomplished. More specifically, the news of the coming of the Messiah. (1 Corinthians 15:1-4, Ephesians 2:8-9, 1 John 4:10).
Second – ἀνάθεμα (anathema), something that is detested or an object of cursing.
When the Trinity, Jesus Christ, being truly man, truly God, justification by faith, and the atonement are falsely taught, another gospel is presented, and it is most serious. Aside from this and a more practical illustration would be the water test. If a person were thirsty and was offered a bottle of water to drink, but they have been informed that a couple of drops of poison may have contaminated the water – how many would gladly drink from the bottle? Not many, as the potential for fatal harm is present. Therefore, people should consider the same severity as the poison of false teaching.
Now that this has been determined, is it acceptable only to call out the false teaching or the false teacher?
The Apostle Paul often had to deal with false teachers, and he uses strong words such as “false apostles, deceitful workers” (2 Corinthians 11:13), relating them to Satan appearing to angels of light (2 Corinthians 11:14). Peter also warns against false teachers who bring in destructive heresies and even denying Christ (2 Peter 2:1-3). Granted, no names are mentioned in those passages, but they provide strong cautions about the false teachers. If these are not satisfactory, then Matthew 7:15-16 is sufficient with Jesus’ warning against false prophets, who are wolves in sheep’s clothing. A little more indirect is Jesus calling out Herod as a fox, a reference to a devious person (Luke 13:32).
Becoming more direct now, with actually using names. There are examples in which individuals are recorded in Scripture being called by name. For example, there was a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. His teaching was attracting people, such as Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, to the point that Paul and Barnabas were summoned to hear the word of God. Paul was full of the Holy Spirit and called out Bar-Jesus as deceitful, a fraud, the son of the devil and an enemy of righteousness (Acts 13:4-12). Another account that is recorded in Scripture is [once again] Paul correcting false teaching. He charges his young apprentice to fight the good fight, to keep a good conscience and calls out two who made a shipwreck of their faith and have been handed over to Satan. Those two are Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Timothy 1:18-20).
So yes, false teaching is indeed called out in Scripture, and yes, there are times when the text will use names. Today, in the spirit of unity, Evangelicalism has deemed addressing false teaching and calling out names as divisive. But the reality is doctrine does divide. It divides the truth from the wrong. So what do we take from this? Scripture does provide examples of false teaching being called out, and at times false teachers by name are called out. The matter of false teaching is severe and cannot simply be swept under the rug. Saying this, we should not go on the “witch hunt” and consume ourselves by attacking every person we disagree with. At the same time, we cannot bury our heads. If you come across a teaching that appears to be false, first, make sure you understand it correctly. Then, take it to your pastor or elders for their input. Pray about how to address it, and if the matter calls for a public calling out – ensure it is done in love and by Scripture. Remember this one thing, most times, false teaching is preferred (2 Timothy 4:1-5). You will find it is those who speak up are the ones who will be attacked as divisive – this is why it is essential to be covered by a healthy church and much council.
For the pastors wondering if they should use names? Well, this is up to each one, but Paul had no issue, and as a pastor, I have and will continue to call out the more prominent names of false teachers to warn others what a viper looks like, to avoid their bite.
In his Grace, Steve
Alexander Souter, A Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1917), 99.