It can be a dangerous thing to walk into a Christian bookstore. It can be a dangerous thing to listen to Christian radio or watch Christian television or attend that big conference. It can be dangerous because the Christian world is polluted by so much bad teaching. There are so many leaders who claim to be teaching truth when they are, in fact, teaching error. The healthy, growing Christian must learn to tell the difference.
This is not a new phenomenon. Wherever there have been good teachers, there have also been bad ones. We see an important example in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, pastor of the church in Ephesus. We do not know all the particulars of the situation, but from what we can reconstruct we can draw important warnings and applications for our day.
Paul has just described the depravity of humanity and warned about enemies to the church that will inevitably arise in these “last days.” He then focuses in on a certain group of enemies and their willing victims. “For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:6–7). Paul describes both enemies and victims here—false teachers and the women they corrupt. He offers five characteristics of these women.
They are weak. Paul is not suggesting that there is an intellectual inferiority among all women but that there is a moral weakness displayed within this group of women. They are not mental simpletons but spiritual weaklings. They are people who have had opportunity to grow in the faith but have neglected to do so. Instead, they have allowed themselves to become the disciples, the captives, of untrustworthy teachers.
They are burdened by guilt. The false teachers are able to gain access to the hearts and minds of these women through the gateway of guilt. Perhaps it is guilt for sin the women committed before or since conversion, or perhaps it is guilt they feel for their inadequacy as wives, as mothers, as women, as Christians. Either way, they have never been set free from the guilt of their sin and now accept the solution offered by these false teachers.
They are led astray by evil desires. Some see these words as indicating that the false teachers are leading the women into sexual immorality, but it is more likely that Paul simply means to indicate that they are being controlled by sin rather than being led by the Holy Spirit. They are giving free rein to their evil desires. Combined with their guilty consciences, this leaves them in a vulnerable condition.
They are always learning. These women are constantly learning from the false teachers. The desire to learn and to keep learning is a good one, of course. But their kind of learning is unhealthy because it eschews firm answers and focuses instead upon unbiblical answers or no answers at all. It denies what is clear and focuses on what is speculative. It leads to grave instability.
They are never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Because these teachers do not teach what is consistent with God’s revelation, the women never arrive at the truth. Even though they are always learning, they never come to firm, settled convictions. They never appropriate the truth that can set them free from their guilt and never submit to the Spirit who can destroy their evil desires. They are weak or backslidden or perhaps lost altogether.
These women have fallen victim to false teachers. The teachers are creeping into their homes, sneaking past pastors and husbands, most likely by doing their work during the day when the women are available and others are occupied. Once in, they take these women captive, enslaving them to sin and error and despair. They promise they are teaching truth when in reality they oppose the truth. They insist they are being godly when in reality they are utterly disqualified to open their mouths.
This is a sad picture of women who have neglected God’s means of grace and protection and instead allow themselves to be victimized by false teachers. They feel the weight of sin and guilt, they feel the burden of their inadequacy before man and God, and they are, in that way, easy marks for someone who arrives with a cheap and easy gospel. These teachers are no doubt assuring them they aren’t so bad after all, that the solution is just to do more, to do better, to try harder, to follow the program.
In that way, these first-century false teachers prove themselves close relatives to twenty-first-century false teachers. If in that day the false teachers were men, today they are men and women. If in that day the teachers went from door-to-door, today they go on the printed page or the digital screen. If in that day they crept into houses when no one was looking, today they slip unseen between the covers of books or through slick videos and popular conferences. Still they seek out weak women who are burdened by guilt and led astray by evil desires, and through constant teaching—another book, another program, another conference—they promise cheap solutions. Yet somehow all that learning never leads to a knowledge of the truth, to a settled reliance upon God’s sure revelation. Somehow joy still eludes them. And, lest we think this applies to only women, we do no damage to the text to extend it to men for we, too, are vulnerable.
The harsh reality is that the greatest danger to the church usually comes from within the church. More harm is done by “Christian” books than by non-Christian ones. More harm is done by “Christian” teachers than by Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses or atheists. Those false teachers are always nearby and always looking for new ways to creep in unawares. Even today they prey upon the weak and vulnerable.