Recently I heard a well-meaning individual talking about the danger of false teachers in the church. As proof that false-teachers are active today, he cited the large number of church closings and church splits taking place in his community and in our nation. On the surface this seems logical, but as I considered his words I found myself disagreeing with the foundational assumption that would lead to this conclusion.
Now don’t get me wrong. I, of course, am also saddened by church conflict and very well aware that false teachers exist and are in the church today. However, I believe that the conclusion that churches in America today are splitting or closing because of false teachers is somewhat flawed. In order for this conclusion to be true, we have to make the following assumption: the churches in question are healthy, biblical churches to start with and then a false teacher enters its midst. Is this a safe assumption?
Certainly some churches face this tragic end. We know that the Bible warns that false teachers will enter in and seek to destroy God’s work in His body. However, I think that there is another biblical truth that we must consider as we observe many of these splits and closings: the truth also divides.
The same Jesus that said “I am the…truth… (John 14:6)” also asked, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division (Luke 12:51).” We think of Jesus as promoting peace and unity, but those are things He offers to his followers. To the world in general, He brings division. This division might be best understood through the use of a biblical analogy – light.
Light was one of John’s favorite metaphors for Christ. He called Jesus “the true Light which…enlightens every man (John 1:9).” Jesus also used this metaphor when He said in John 8:12, “I am the Light of the world.” What we find is that these three – Jesus, truth and light – become this interchangeable concept that confronts evil, sin and darkness. In the same way that light and darkness are always divided from one another, so will truth and falsehood always be. When the light of truth is introduced into the darkness of sin, division takes place. Truth is either accepted and transforms the darkness into light; or it is rejected and the darkness retreats, but remains darkness. Either way, light and darkness help us understand our initial principle that truth divides.
The way this relates to the above mentioned issue of church splits and closings is in the understanding that the institutional church is not necessarily aligned with the light. This may sound shocking, but it is something that Jesus predicted and expected. His teachings on the kingdom, particularly in Matthew 13, indicate that the earthly representation of the kingdom – the church- would grow so large and extensive that it would no longer remain pure. There would be individuals in this institution that claimed the name of Christ but who are not true followers or believers.
We see this exemplified in Jesus’ own ministry through the fact that His chosen group of twelve includes one who turns out to be a traitor. It is also heard in Jesus prediction that “not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21).” In this passage He describes people who have claimed to minister in His name and verbally acknowledge Him as Lord who He will still reject, saying “I never knew you.” These statements make it clear that the institutional church is not always the true body of Christ.
With this in mind, we return to our initial question: is it safe to assume that most church splits in America are caused by false teachers infiltrating healthy, biblical churches? I think the scriptural principles we have examined prove that the answer is no. Rather, I would suggest that many churches are splitting and closing because they are spiritually dark and unhealthy already. When these churches are left to themselves, the darkness consumes them and the church dies, while those who are true followers leave for places of light. Some of these churches have the light of truth introduced into the darkness and it causes conflict and division because it opposes the man-made gospel of tradition they have embraced.
When the Word of God is presented to these churches that have become nothing more than a religious club, it demands a response. They can accept the truth, repent of their sin and change their ways or they can reject the truth and drive away any who seek to live it and proclaim it. I believe this is the fate of many American churches today. While it is certainly still true that we should beware of false teachers, I think it is equally important to beware of false churches that have a form of godliness, but deny its power (2 Timothy 3:5). My prayer is that true believers will live out the truth of Christ in such a way that it shines a light in the darkness – whether that darkness be in the world or in the church.