Beware of False Teachers – And Be Aware You Might Be One!

Most of the more conservative to fundamentalist forms of Christianity place at least some emphasis on avoiding false teachers. The conservatives in every denomination – and those who claim not to have a denomination – can regularly be seen turning this weapon of religious competition against others.

Charismatics and Pentecostals warn against those who claim that spiritual gifts have ceased, Presbyterians and Baptists are prone to warn against those who claim they haven’t.Non-denominational Christians warn against the lure of denominationalism.

Catholics warn against departing from this historic faith. The Eastern Orthodox say the Catholics did precisely that around a millennium ago. Evangelicals accuse them both of liturgical formalism. And don’t even get me started on the appropriate age, form, and understanding of Baptism, or the Lord’s Supper.

These are just some of the bigger examples, but in every group, sub-groups and factions have emerged that focus on minutia and specific details that other have allegedly gotten wrong – making them dangerous heretics, allegedly.

As a one-time participant in such attempts at spiritual-rhetorical one-upmanship, and now as an interested observer and student of such behavior, there is one thing I find particularly curious:

Why do so few of those who take delight in finding fault in the beliefs and practices of others turn their critical gaze on the claims of young-earth creationists? It seems as though among the more conservative Christians, the claims of so-called “creation science” tends to get a free pass and is embraced with none of the critical scrutiny that is turned on those who are assumed or believed to be opponents.

I am interested in this for several reasons. To begin with, the fact that proponents of the YEC position have managed to fly under the radar of heresy-detectors in a range of denominations (and among a wide array of Christians who seem to agree among themselves on little else) is impressive, and figuring our how such a feat is accomplished would be useful information for those seeking to market their ideas to churches.

But more importantly, as someone who regards young-earth creationism as the worst sort of pseudoscientific and pseudobiblical bunk, I really do wonder what would happen if the sensitive heresy-detection antennas of fundamentalists and conservatives were actually to focus on YEC claims.

I suspect that they would not last long under such critical examination – however selectively critical and lacking in much-needed self-criticism those doing the examination might be judged to be.

And that, of course, is the crucial point. If there are any beliefs that deserve the labels of “heresy” or “false teaching,” the only way to avoid them is to be willing to subject the beliefs that you already adhere to or are inclined to agree with to the same critical examination and careful scrutiny to which you subject the beliefs of others, particularly those with whom you are predisposed to disagree.

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  • spinkham

    From what I’ve read of you, it seems you’ve been a biblio-idolator in the past too; you remember it’s not that easy. I wish it was.

    The shear quantity and strength of the lies and demonizing of others that is used to prop up a literalistic inerrantist view in many evangelical churches is impressive by any reckoning.  North Korea is the only example I can think of of a large scale brainwashing campaign that successful.

    I’m an atheist: You’re a liberal(at least that’s the label they would give you ;-). We are both “the other”, and might just as well be Satan himself. That’s the strength of the reality distortion field we’re up against here.

  • Michael Stephenson

    Dr. McGrath, could YOU be a false teacher?

    • James F. McGrath

      Some whose view of truth is not correspondence with evidence and what can be verified, but correspondence with a set of dogmatic beliefs that they shield from critical examination, do in fact view me in that way.  :-)

  • James F. McGrath

    I gave Rocky a somewhat snarky reply, and so let me add that I try to do one of the things that I think it is important to do to avoid ending up as a “false teacher”: I emphasize to students and other conversation partners that I might be wrong. No one should follow my thinking on the assumption that if I say it, it must be correct. I have changed my mind enough times that clearly at some points in my life (whether now, earlier, or in the future) I will be or will have been wrong. Investigating the evidence for oneself – and not just evidence that confirms what you hope to be true – is the best course of avoiding being duped, and worse, someone who then in turn dupes others.

  • James Pate

    I think that a lot of conservative Christians have a hierarchy of what differences of opinion are tolerable within Christianity, and which are not.  The Trinity, for example, is largely viewed as non-negotiable.  But old-earth creationists, while they may view YEC as wrong, don’t see it as a damnable heresy, or as something that contradicts orthodoxy. 

    Things may be more complex than I just presented it—-since some view evolution as heretical or as a disastrous view, whereas others do not.  But I do think that YEC gets a free pass because it’s not viewed as a dangerous heresy or as inconsistent with orthodoxy.

  • William

    Yesterday Ken Ham concluded his blog post with “God’s people need to repent of compromise and return to the foundation of the inerrant Word of God instead of building on the foundation of fallible sinful man.”

    No, the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ. Starting anywhere else may lead to, well, heresy.

  • Ryan T Jones

    I am concerned that you are conflating beliefs and attitudes towards beliefs. So you say you could be wrong. If Ken Ham said he could be wrong, does that now make him okay in your book?

    • James F. McGrath

      It wouldn’t mean that what he was teaching was either in line with what the Bible says or what other relevant evidence shows to be the case. But it would make him seem less like a manipulative, deceptive charlatan, and more like someone who may be wrong, but is cautious and self-critical enough to realize that they might be wrong and thus to encourage people to investigate the evidence not just that support their claims, but that might tell against them.

  • BobC


    As you know there are several reasons you might think that why YEC is accepted without compromise in just about every Christian denomination (nondenominational is a denomination as well).  My basic belief that this cannot be reinterpreted to allow for evolution of any kind.   Primarily this is due is the concept of death and the heritage of man.  If an evolutionary model is acceptable then immediately the entire concept of death coming into the world by the the disobedience/sin of Adam is impossible because death will have had to occur for millenia before man even existed.  Then the genealogy of Christ comes into question as are a large number of other historical links in Christianity that have their roots in Genesis.  Plain and simple, without the direct creation of all things by God as plainly stated in the 1st few chapters of Genesis all of Christianity collapses and there is no reason to believe any of it at all.   This is why YEC “goes under the radar” as you say because it is the only possibility, given the catastrophic impact of not holding this doctrine has on everything else. 

    I am not aiming to get into a debate about evolution versus creation other than if you are trying to harmonize the two it will never work out because then you have to start stair stepping new explanations for all of the items in Genesis and their myriad connections throughout all of the scriptures.  The point being is because someone does not want to believe a core tenet of Christianity, but wants to believe a questionable scientific explanation (that if you question it gets rebuffed as idiocy, but never answered) of the origins of man instead does not make it a false teaching.  What it makes it is a road block you have set up for yourself to believe it (Christianity) at all.    Simply put if God was great enough to create any earth at all why could He  not create an old earth?   If he could create man and make him a living soul, why would he make him an adult?  If creation is to be true then that shows God did create fully mature elements and ecosystems as man was fully mature according to scripture. Why could God not put the light in place between  us and the stars when the heavens were made?  Why could He not be so above man that man has no way on this earth or in his experience to remotely understand how any of this would be possible? If you don’t think there is a God powerful enough to create then this is merely a cloaked argument for atheism and the supreme rein of man as the sole intellect in the universe.

    Lastly, the bible does not tell us everything there is to know, but all we need to know about God.   This is not an argument for blissful ignorance, but it is an argument for belief in scripture and interpretation of the world through it and not the scripture through the world. Does it actually change your world whatsoever if it evolved over billions of years or if it is a young earth? It does not change what is does it? However if you can dump creation then man suddenly becomes something other than God’s creation does he not?  The base case comes down to whether you want to believe a man generated science that will not admit to itself or anyone else that there is a huge faith component in evolutionary logic and unwillingness to examine the monstrous holes in its own theory, but chooses rather to ridicule and suppress any study to the contrary.

    • James F. McGrath

      Bob, your comment unfortunately contains an incredibly large amount of misinformation. The claim that nearly all Christian denominations reject evolution is simply false – evolution-rejection is more characteristic of newer groups whose very existence might, if one were being uncharitable, be pointed to as evidence of their penchant for sectarianism and lack of concern for either Christian unity or the historic Christian faith. Young-earth creationism’s roots are largely in Seventh Day Adventism, from where it spread elsewhere.

      The characterization of it as compromise is likewise inaccurate, unless you are also going to characterize as compromise rejection of the existence of a dome over the Earth, the sun’s literal movement across the sky, the fixity of the Earth, the attribution of reasoning to the heart rather than the brain, and everything else in the Bible that reflects earlier views on matters about which modern science has forced us to depart from views assumed to be literally true by Biblical authors.

      I would encourage you to look into the evidence for evolution, from Christians like Francis Collins who actually know something about the subject, and stop listening to charlatans like Ken Ham who have expertise neither in science nor in Biblical studies. If you have been told that science is a big conspiracy covering up the huge flaws in its understanding, with them able to fool everyone except a handful of people with no scientific expertise who criticize them from the sidelines, then I would encourage you to consider the possibility that you yourself have been listening to false teachers – and ones whose claims will immediately appear implausible to you if you take the time to actually think about what they are saying – about the Creator, as well as about their brothers and sisters in Christ who work in the natural sciences and almost all of whom accept that the evidence for evolution is substantial and persuasive.