Characteristics of False Teachers

Mike Willis
Danville, Indiana

The book of 2 Peter was written because of Peter's concern about the influence of false teachers. Consequently, he described the characteristics of false teachers so that God's people could recognize them. Those characteristics are not limited to one group of men of one period of time; they are the characteristics of false teachers of all time.

Not every false,. teacher will manifest every characteristic revealed by Peter. We would err to conclude that a man is not a false teacher if he manifests only 7 out of 10 characteristics. Nevertheless the attributes of false teachers are uniform to such an extent that these traits appear over and over. Let us study these characteristics:

1. They bring in their doctrine privately. "There shall be false teachers among you, who privily bring in damnable heresies" (2:1). False teachers do not operate above board. Rather, they work in secret, from house to house. What they preach from the pulpit is ambiguous and tenuous. When, someone asks them specific questions about what they are preaching, they cry, "You misunderstood me."(1) In the meantime, these men work secretly among the members, spreading their damnable heresy. After enough members have been "converted" to his false doctrines' the false teacher will take over the church.

2. They bring in damnable heresies. "There shall be false teachers among you, who privily bring in damnable heresies" (2:1). The false teacher does not merely bring in poor judgment; he brings teaching which, when obeyed ' brings a person into damnation because it causes a man to sin or leads to a rejection of biblical doctrine. "These heresies destroy the soul; they bring ruin both to those who are led astray and to the false teachers themselves."(2) These are not the differences in judgment of Romans 14 which should be tolerated because God receives the ones teaching and practicing the items under discussion (Rom. 14:1-3). These are doctrines which destroy the soul, leading to eternal damnation.

3. Their doctrines appeal to the flesh. "And many shall follow their pernicious (aselgeia: lascivious; NASB renders it "sensuality") ways" (2:2). They "walk after the flesh" (2: 10), have "eyes full of adultery" (2:14), and "allure through the lusts of the flesh" (2:18). Peter reminds us that false doctrine has an appeal to the flesh.

False teachers are still spreading their doctrines which appeal to the flesh today. They preach a doctrine which allows mixed swimming, social drinking, gambling, divorce and remarriage for any reason, church sponsored recreation, etc. They "tickle the ears" of the worldly church members, preaching a message which they want to hear.

4. They are covetous. "And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you" (2:3). "An heart they have exercised with covetous practices; cursed children: which have forsaken the right Way, and are gone astray, following the way of Balaam. the son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness." (2:14-15). The false teachers accommodate their message to the audience - preaching what the audience wants to hear rather than what they need to hear. Because of their love for wealth, they preach a non-offensive message.

As I have witnessed apostasy occur for twenty years, I have noticed that the false teachers are attracted to the larger churches where the salaries are greater. False teachers do not hunt for small churches of 20-30 members to live on menial wages. This is not to imply that every preacher for a larger church is covetous or a false teacher; that simply is not true.

5. False teachers despise authority. Peter said that false teachers "despise government." The word "government" is kuriotetos, "here it seems to stand for all forms of authority."(3) They manifest a disrespect for authority and those in positions of authority (such as elders).

6. False teachers are arrogant. "Presumptuous are they, self-willed, they are not afraid to speak evil of dignities. Whereas angels, which are greater in power and might, bring not railing accusation against them before the Lord. But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed speak evil of the things that they understand not" (2:10-12). False teachers manifest an arrogant spirit. They know more about how to preach than any who have gone before them, even when they have had less than five years of experience. They show no respect for the men who have served the Lord's cause before them, not hesitating to speak disparagingly of them.

They constantly challenge the "traditional" manner of doing things.(4) Such challenging of tradition is born of arrogance, a disposition that says, "I know better how to do things than all of the wise men who have gone before me." The false teachers who kick against the boundaries of authorized traditional practices usually go beyond tradition to kick against the boundaries of inspired law.

7. False teachers are self-willed (2:10). A man cannot serve as an elder if he is self-willed (Tit. 1:7). A self-willed man is a man bent on having his own way. False teachers will destroy a church in pursuit of their own way. I have known men who disrupted churches, running off brethren, over matters which they themselves label as "judgment" (such as whether or not the name "church of Christ" should be placed on a sign in the front of the church building).

8. False teachers use rash (2:10) and flattering speech(2:18). They "speak evil of things they understand not" (2:10) and use "great swelling words of vanity" (2:18). They flatter brethren for a purpose - to promote themselves.

9. They promise liberty. "While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brougahh in bondage" (2:19). False teachers have always operated under the banner of freedom and liberty. The abortion leaders call themselves "pro-choice"; the homosexuals promote "gay liberation"; those who are redefining the role of women describe their movement as the "women's liberation movement. "

What is true with these more conspicuous examples of "promising liberty" is also true of the more subtle forms of false teaching. They want to "free" God's people from "Church of Christ tradition" and brotherhood watchdogs who are "guardians of the party." While promising their followers liberty, these false teachers lead brethren into damnable heresy, into subjection to the devil.

The Condition of These False Teachers

Peter described these false teachers in these terms: (a) they deny the Lord that bought them (2:1); (b) they are under judgment of God (2:3); (c) they shall perish (2:12); (d) they are cursed children (2:14); (e) the mist of darkness is reserved for them (2:17); (f) they are in worse condition than the alien sinner (2:20-22). Hence, these false teachers are lost, doomed to everlasting hell.

The Threat to Souls

The danger which these false teachers posed was not confined to themselves. They also posed a danger to others. Peter was concerned that "many follow after" (2:2) their damnable heresies. He knew that false teachers "beguile unstable souls" (2:14) and "allure through the lusts of the flesh" (2:18). He was concerned, not only for the souls of the false teachers, but also for those who might be influenced by them.

The reason an epistle such as 2 Peter had to be written was the danger these false teachers posed to other Christians. Good, honest and sincere Christians can be deceived and led into damnation.


Those who think that all of the false teachers died in the first century are mistaken. Those who think that false teachers are no danger to their local congregation are naive. We need to be aware that false teachers are still busy spreading their damnable heresies which lead men into eternal damnation. May we never forget the danger they pose to the church.


1. If a teacher is continually being misunderstood, he either cannot communicate his ideas or is intentionally stating them ambiguously. In the former case, he should not be allowed to teach because his is not "apt to teach" (he is unqualified). In the latter case, he should not be allowed to teach because of the false doctrine which he is preaching in veiled language.

2. B.C. Chaffin, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 22, p. 43.

3. Chaffin, p. 45.

4. "Tradition" simply means that which is handed down. That which is handed down can either be right or wrong. In this context, the traditions which are meant are those right practices of judgment which have been tried and proven by brethren for many years. Traditions which are not authorized by Scripture should be challenged and changed.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 19, pp. 578, 598-599
October 5, 1989