Over the past few years, we have repeatedly seen famous pastor-teachers cross very public waterfalls from enormous heights. Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek, resigned in April 2018 after allegations of sexual harassment and abuse of power.
James MacDonald, founding pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, was fired in February 2019 for creating a culture of fear and intimidation and for allowing financial mismanagement. Hillsong East Coast pastor Carl Lentz was fired in November 2020 for ‘moral failures’, including adultery, and is now standing accused sexual abuse.
As an Anglican priest and professor of theology, I have seen these stories emerge with deep sadness and not a little anger. My frustration is not only for the people and communities hurt by these leaders, but also for how the lives of these pastors have contradicted and undermined the gospel they preached. I am forced to examine my own life too.
Although the details of the stories vary, all of them were men who had the “right” doctrinal content in their books and sermons. Yet they had denied Christ and led people astray by their actions long before their failures were publicly known. These pastor-teachers confessed Christ with their mouths but denied him with their bodies. They were (and are) a different kind of false teacher: heretics of the heart.
The example of Mark Driscoll, whose story is today revisited in depth through The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast — is illustrative of my point. It denies the full humanity of women in word and deed, defends secular views on gender and sex, rages with unrepentant pride, engages in habitual self-promotion, and manipulates and mistreats others. Why, then, has he been able to avoid being denounced as a false teacher for so long?
In his head, he might have what many consider good doctrinal content. But he teaches with his whole person—Of words and deeds — not just explicitly named doctrines. And it is his incarnate teaching that stumbles the weak, leads many astray, and leads countless others away from Christ.
The story serves as a useful point of reference. The early creeds encapsulate both the gospel and basic Christian doctrine. They contain what Christians were delivered– what the word “tradition” means – and also what the church has concluded is essential to preserve and pass on.
Christians have believed and confessed these basic teachings or doctrines for two millennia. And we must continue to do so, not in a pronounced way, but in a convinced way of heart and mind. The church has learned through the ages that to deny the fundamental doctrines of our faith is to deny Christ.
Indeed, anyone who teaches against the fundamental doctrines of our faith can rightly be called a false teacher. But that’s not the only way to deny Christ.
Yes, the New Testament speaks of false teachers whose doctrine denies the essential elements of the apostolic gospel. The apostle Paul condemns and often warns against those who refute the gospel through the content of their instructions (see Gal. 1: 6; Col. 2:20; 1 Tim. 1: 3). But there are also cases where a false teaching is equated with a behavior, a practice or a way of life.
Consider, for example, the Epistle of Jude (and its parallel in 2 Peter 2). We like to quote Jude’s exhortation to “fight for the faith which has been entrusted once and for all to the saints” (v. 3, NRSV throughout). But what exactly does this faith imply?
Jude continues: “For certain intruders have infiltrated among you, people who once were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into debauchery and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (v. 4).
Jude encourages us to face the ungodly and licentious life. The emphasis on practice continues throughout the remainder of the short epistle, adding further detail to the denial of the faith of false teachers. They “defile the flesh, reject authority” and participate in “acts of ungodliness” (vv. 8, 15). In addition, they “are grumblers and malcontents; they indulge in their own lusts; they are bombastic in their speech, flattering people to their advantage ”(v. 16).
In short, the false teachers whom Jude warns against deny Christ not necessarily by their doctrine but by their behavior.
One of the strengths of the evangelical movement in the United States has been the emphasis on orthodoxy, or just doctrine. Despite the unstructured nature of evangelism, its leaders, churches, and institutions have long sought to teach and worship properly. As they should. But there is also a long-standing historical myopia regarding the embodiment of the doctrine in daily practice. We see this most clearly, perhaps, in the history of American racism and evangelicals.
Consider, for example, evangelical pastor-teachers like George Whitefield, who not only enslaved black people, many of whom were Christian brothers and sisters, but also fought to secure the institution of slavery in the state. from Georgia.
Also think of pastor-teachers like Douglas Hudgins, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, and one of the most influential Southern Baptist preachers of his day. He obstructed the civil rights movement and vigorously resisted integration efforts, which led his church to ban black Christians from religious assemblies.
Even when we take into account their multi-layered historical contexts, it is still astonishing to study these men and their indifference to the suffering and liberation of black people. It may be logical, then, that Whitefield, Hudgins, and others have kept doctrine and practice largely separate from one another.
At least in part because of this story, some evangelicals have adopted false or simplistic assumptions about the connection between the two. But, like historian Jemar Tisby noted recently, “We must understand that theology is not just stated but lived.”
Indeed, relegating Christianity to the realm of doctrinal propositions inevitably leads, as the theologian William Cavanaugh said, “limit[ing] the reach of Christian faith from the believer’s entire body to the space between the ears.
Those who take this more compartmentalized approach often assume that good doctrine will inevitably lead to good practice. This is simply not the case. Conversely, some believers mind their actions regardless of the doctrinal commitments that underlie (or contradict) those same behaviors.
Fundamentally, orthopraxy and orthodoxy are inseparable. Right action is fueled and directed by biblical and theological truth. And orthodoxy only has meaning and substance when it is embodied in a faithful practice. We cannot have one without the other. They go together.
Our Lord preached good news which involved the full integration of belief and action: “If you love me, you keep my commandments”(John 14:15, emphasis added to all). “Whoever therefore hears these words from me and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock ”(Matthew 7:24). Or, quite simply, “Follow me” (Luke 5:27; John 1:43).
It is not surprising that Jesus told the apostles before His ascension to “make disciples of all the nations” by baptizing them in the Trinitarian Name and “teaching them to obey everything I have ordered you ”(Matthew 28: 19-20). Her life and ministry make it clear that what we teach others includes both what is on our mind and what we do with our bodies.
But how exactly do we use the label “false teacher” for those who deny Christ and lead people astray with their lives?
To begin with, we will need to consider more than the content of their sermons, lectures or books and also look at the shape and pattern of their life. On the one hand, it seems so obvious. But it is nonetheless essential to protect the church from false teachers.
In the Book of Titus, Paul lists Christian virtues such as hospitality, self-control, and love of the good as the foundation of a overseer’s ability to “preach with sound doctrine” (1: 8-9) . (Interestingly, there is no mention of personality, charisma, or the ability to speak in any of the pastoral epistles.)
Certainly when we view a person’s lifestyle as part of what potentially qualifies them as a false teacher, then leadership assessment becomes very complicated very quickly. As a pastor and teacher, for example, I am keenly aware of my weaknesses and failures. Examining my life would be difficult and even painful. But I should do it anyway.
The cleansing fire of God’s judgment is for our good. And a life characterized by continuous, unrepentant and anti-Christian practice, especially among leaders, results in denying Christ and the power of the gospel. We see the enormous consequences of this kind of heresy every day, but we don’t always call it that.
To be clear, I’m not calling on us to “cancel” anyone. My hope is that the church can better assess the corrupt practices that characterize a leader as a false teacher, even if that person espouses all recognizable elements of Christian orthodoxy.
Indeed, if the church is to do the job of distinguishing true teachers from false — and I think we should — then we are called to do so in a manner faithful to the examples of Christ and his apostles.
Jesus said that “each tree is recognized by its fruit” (Luke 6:44). Maybe it’s time to start believing it and act on it.
Emily Hunter McGowin is Assistant Professor of Theology at Wheaton College. She is the author of Quivering families and an upcoming book on the Christmas season (InterVarsity Press).