We have learned that the church of every age is plagued by false teachers and their deadly doctrine. We have met seven of those false teachers and seen the devastation they bring. We have identified five tests we can apply to any doctrine to determine whether it is false or true. But this leaves us with some important questions: How does a church come to reject sound doctrine? How do we guard ourselves against false teachers and their deadly doctrines? How do we protect ourselves, our families, and our churches from their seductive lies? Thankfully, God has given us clear guidance in his Word, showing us how churches descend into deadly doctrine and how we may protect ourselves against it.
The Pattern of Deadly Doctrine
Most biblical scholars agree that 2 Timothy is Paul’s final letter. He has nearly come to the end of his life, so he picks up his pen to write once more to his young friend. In his last words to Timothy, Paul makes sure to warn him about the danger of false teachers. “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). In these verses he gazes into the future and describes a church being undermined and destroyed. This is not a prophecy of the death of a single congregation, but a general description of the death of a thousand. He outlines four steps that can progressively lead any congregation from health to death.
Step 1: Reject truth. Paul warns Timothy that people “will turn away from listening to the truth.” The first step in destroying a church is a corporate rejection of the plain teaching of the Bible. First, one individual turns away, and then another, until most of the congregation begins to question what they once held to be true. This may happen gradually, as distrust toward God’s revealed truth spreads. Or it may come swiftly, as love of the world chokes the fruitfulness of a congregation. Either way, what was once love of truth morphs into dislike and then disgust. What was once hatred of error becomes intrigue and then interest.
Step 2: Reject truth-tellers. As a church turns away from the truth, its members soon turn against truth-tellers. Paul tells Timothy that in that days to come, people “will not endure sound teaching.” Such people will no longer tolerate the teaching they once enjoyed. Because they have begun to question the truth, they will turn against those who boldly proclaim it. The very teachers who once drew and delighted them will begin to repulse them.
Step 3: Embrace false teachers. Once a church has rejected those who teach the truth, it will replace them with teachers who give them what they want to hear. “Having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” This church now desires novelty over truth, platitudes over exhortation. They want religion, and they even want the label “Christian,” so long as they can keep society’s respect and stay palatable to a godless world. So they invite false teachers to guide them into a deeper, fuller twisting of the truth.
Step 4: Embrace false doctrine. Once people have rejected truth and truth-tellers, and once they have found teachers who will lead them into twisting truth, they will “wander off into myths.” Now they will embrace full-out heresy. They will become so hardened in their sin that they will elevate error to the status of truth. In their rebellion, they will celebrate in the name of God the very things that God hates. Under the guidance of false teachers, they will fully embrace deadly doctrine. They will wander off, like sheep straying away from the watchful care of a good shepherd into a pack of wolves.
Paul outlines a tragic progression that begins with people growing weary and ashamed of truth. No longer willing to endure sound teaching, they get rid of the truth-tellers and accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions. Inevitably, they turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. Countless churches have been destroyed by this deadly pattern.
The Protection Against Deadly Doctrine
Remember that Paul is writing to young pastor Timothy to instruct him in protecting his congregation. How can Timothy guard his church against succumbing to false teachers and deadly doctrine? Should he study the methods of the heretics so he can anticipate their every move? Should he study the doctrine of the heretics so he can refute it point by point? Paul offers a far simpler solution: preach. “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).
The solution to false teachers and deadly doctrine is not to obsess with falsehoods, but to pursue truth. The church that remains faithful to God is the church that remains faithful to the Word of God. Here is how Paul tells Timothy—and each of us—to protect the church against the pattern of deadly doctrine.
Preach the Word. The church that wishes to remain healthy must preach the word of God. Preaching is only as powerful as its faithfulness to the Bible. The most faithful way to preach the Word is to preach expositorily (or expositionally), to ensure the point of a text becomes the point of the sermon. This form of preaching constrains the pastor to God’s Word and ensures the congregation that every word is drawn faithfully from the Scriptures.
Preach with persistence. The church is to persist in this preaching, to “be ready in season and out of season.” There are times when preaching the Bible is loved and considered effective, and there are times when it is hated and considered woefully ineffective. Today we hear from many so-called experts that expository preaching is dying, and that it will soon cause a church to dwindle and collapse. But this kind of faithful, Word-based preaching must be central to the church in season and out of season, when it is popular and when it is unpopular.
Preach for application. Preaching must involve an element of teaching the facts of the Bible, but it must also “reprove, rebuke, and exhort.” It must always have a practical dimension that addresses the heart of the listener and confronts his unbelief. Whereas teaching is meant to accumulate facts, preaching is meant to save souls, to transform lives, and to motivate holy living. Faithful preaching confronts and corrects false doctrine and sinful patterns of living (reprove, rebuke), and it trains and encourages those things that honor God (exhort).
Preach with patience. The church must continue such preaching “with complete patience…” A congregation must never grow tired of this kind of preaching and never lose confidence in its goodness and effectiveness. They must never ask their pastors to something beyond Scripture, never waver in their commitment to the faithful exposition of the Word of God as the very heart of Christian worship.
Preach sound doctrine. Finally, Timothy’s preaching is to have an element of doctrinal “teaching.” Preaching is to be full of Christian truth. It is to communicate all of God’s truth from all of God’s Word. People who turn away from God will not endure sound teaching, but those who follow God will require and demand it. The best preaching is full of sound doctrine and never contradicts sound doctrine. The kind of preaching Paul calls for teaches the whole counsel of God by preaching the whole Word of God.
The Call on Every Christian
Paul looks to a future in which people will not tolerate the truth, and he tells Timothy to remain faithful to his central calling—to lead the church with and through the Word of God. It was Paul’s charge to Timothy two thousand years ago and that charge continues today to you and to me. As God’s people living in an age of itching ears, we must remain committed to nothing less than the faithful, week-by-week preaching of God’s precious Word.
Individually, we are responsible to find and join such a church. Together, we are responsible to build such churches up and ensure they continue to faithfully preach God’s Word. The healthy church is the preaching church, the church firmly grounded in the Word of God.