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17. Identifying False Teachers (1 Timothy 6:3-5)

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If someone spreads false teachings and does not agree with sound words (that is, those of our Lord Jesus Christ) and with the teaching that accords with godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing, but has an unhealthy interest in controversies and verbal disputes. This gives rise to envy, dissension, slanders, evil suspicions, and constant bickering by people corrupted in their minds and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a way of making a profit.

1 Timothy 6:3-5

What are characteristics of false teachers? How can we identify them?

In Matthew 7:13-14, Christ tells us how hard it is to enter the kingdom of heaven; he describes a narrow road leading to life and a broad road leading to destruction. False teachers are one reason many are on the broad road. In Matthew 7:15-16, Christ said: “‘Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves. You will recognize them by their fruit…”

In fact, one of the most addressed themes in the New Testament are false teachers and false teaching. Warnings about them abound in almost every New Testament book: the Gospels, Paul’s, Peter’s, and John’s epistles, etc. It is a major danger for the church, and it was certainly a danger in Ephesus. Paul warns about false teachers and teachings several times in 1 Timothy. In 1 Timothy 1:3, Paul urges Timothy to command the false teachers to stop teaching false doctrines. They were devoted to myths and endless genealogies and were abusing the law (v. 4, 7). In 1 Timothy 4:1-3, he warns of demonically inspired teachers who forbid marriage and certain foods. False teaching has been a threat in every age including the present. It threatens to keep many from the narrow road leading to salvation and instead leads them to the broad road of destruction.

How can we discern false teachers who threaten the flock? In 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Paul returns to the theme of false teachers and gives Timothy and the church of Ephesus characteristics of them so they could be protected.

Big Question: What are characteristics of false teachers as seen in 1 Timothy 6:3-5? How can we identify them? Also, by implication, what are characteristics of true teachers?

False Teachers Are Identified by Their False Doctrine

If someone spreads false teachings and does not agree with sound words (that is, those of our Lord Jesus Christ) and with the teaching that accords with godliness

1 Timothy 6:3

When Christ said, by their fruit we would recognize them, clearly, one of those fruits is their teaching (Matt 7:16). When evaluating a preacher or teacher, we must consider his or her doctrine. In verse 3, Paul gives several characteristics of false doctrine.

Observation Question: What are characteristics of false doctrine?

1. False doctrine often teaches rebellion.

First Timothy 6:3 can also be translated, If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching,” as in the NIV.

Interpretation Question: What is Paul referring to when he says, “If anyone teaches otherwise” (NIV)?

The context seems to refer to his previous instruction about slaves and their masters. In 1 Timothy 6:1, he calls for slaves to regard their masters “as deserving of full respect. This will prevent the name of God and Christian teaching from being discredited.” No doubt, many in the church thought Paul should have taught rebellion against the governing authorities. Sometimes masters mistreated their slaves; however, Paul said that slaves should respect and serve them. The government commonly persecuted Christians; however, Paul taught Christians to pray for their authorities and to submit to them (1 Tim 2:1, Rom 13:1-3).

The implication of Paul’s instruction is that many professing Bible teachers called for rebellion against authorities, which Paul didn’t teach. He taught submission to all authorities because they are ordained by God, even ungodly ones (Rom 13:1).

Certainly, this has been a trick of Satan from the very beginning. He tempted one third of the angels to rebel against God in heaven (Rev 12). He also tempted Eve both to rebel against God and to usurp her husband’s authority. Therefore, you will commonly find this teaching in the church and society. Satan, the usurper, tempts children to usurp their parents’ authority, wives to usurp their husbands’ authority (often quoting our freedom in Christ), and even for Christians to rebel against government. Yes, when government or any authority calls for us to sin, we should refuse. But even when we refuse, we should be respectful (1 Pet 2:17).

Authority marks our triune God: the Holy Spirit submits to the Son and the Father, and the Son submits to the Father, and therefore, authority and submission are built into the fabric of society. For that reason, Satan commonly seeks to incite rebellion. He whispers, “You can be like God” or “You can be your own God—your own authority.” Be careful of any teaching that promotes rebellion against authorities.

2. False doctrine disagrees with the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Interpretation Question: What does Paul mean by “the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ”?

There are various views on what this means.

  • Some believe this refers to false teachers having an incorrect Christology.

False teachers will often teach that Christ is not God or that he was not human. This type of teaching was common with Gnostics—an early Christian cult which attacked the church of Ephesus. John, who pastored the church after Paul and Timothy, said this in his epistle:

By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses Jesus as the Christ who has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God, and this is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and now is already in the world.

1 John 4:2-3

Gnosticism was influenced by Greek philosophy which taught that the body was evil and the spirit was good. Therefore, Gnostics believed that Christ could not have been fully God since he came in a human body—he was only a manifestation of God. They attacked both his full humanity and deity. He was something less than God and something less than human.

John said that anyone who does not acknowledge that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not from God. This refers both to him being fully God and becoming fully human. This is the problem with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and other cults. They teach an incorrect Christology—Jesus was an angel, not God, or something else that doesn’t fully agree with Scripture.

When testing doctrine, we must ask, “Does it teach a correct view of Christ—fully human and fully God?”

  • Others believe this refers to any teaching disagreeing with Scripture.

When Paul describes one who “does not agree with sound words (that is, those of our Lord Jesus Christ),” he probably refers to Scripture in general. Though many of Christ’s words are recorded in Scripture, Christ taught that all Scripture revealed him (John 5:39, Lk 24:27). He also taught that the apostles spoke for him. In Luke 10:16, he said, “‘The one who listens to you listens to me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” To reject apostolic doctrine is essentially to reject Christ’s words.

False teachers may do this in many ways: Some will teach that the Bible is full of errors and can’t be trusted. Others pick and choose what doctrines can be trusted. They say, “You can trust the Bible when it comes to salvation, but you can’t believe every word. You can’t believe the miracles and many of the stories. They are just meant to teach ethics.” Their belief about the Bible demonstrates the negative fruit that will come from their teaching. Christ said, “Man does not live by bread alone but EVERY word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). Paul taught in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “EVERY” Scripture is inspired by God. Not some.

When Satan tempted Eve, he tempted her by perverting God’s Word. He said, “Did God say you can’t eat from ‘all’ the trees in the garden?” By saying this, he added to God’s Word. And many false teachers do the same; they add laws and teachings of men—just like the Pharisees. Essentially, they declare that God’s Word is not sufficient; we need psychology, business principles, new age thinking, or extra revelation. But secondly, Satan took away from God’s Word when he said, “You will not surely die.” He removed instructions from God’s Word, as he tempted Eve to eat of the tree. And this is what false teachers do today—their teachings disagree with Scripture by adding or taking away from it.

When testing doctrine, we must ask, “Does this agree with Scripture?” Sadly, many people fall to the teaching of false prophets because they don’t know the Bible. Therefore, they are tossed to and fro by all types of doctrines. They are spiritual children (Eph 4:14). It is the spiritual young men and women who are strong in the Word of God that recognize Satan’s lies and defeat the devil (1 John 2:14). To recognize false teaching, we must know God’s Word.

3. False doctrine does not agree with godly teaching

Interpretation Question: What does Paul mean by stating that false teaching does not agree with godly teaching (v.3)?

False teaching will often teach license to sin (antinomianism)—freedom to disobey God’s law. Or it fails to produce holiness in the lives of those who follow it. This verse can be translated, “These teachings do not promote a godly life” (NLT) or “does not agree with…the teaching that accords with godliness” (ESV). Since false teaching is worldly and from the flesh, it cannot produce the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, and self-control. In Colossians 2:21-23, Paul says this about a specific false teaching attacking Colosse:

“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” These are all destined to perish with use, founded as they are on human commands and teachings. Even though they have the appearance of wisdom with their self-imposed worship and false humility achieved by an unsparing treatment of the body—a wisdom with no true value—they in reality result in fleshly indulgence.

When testing doctrine, we must ask, “Does it lead to holiness? Does it teach correct Christology? Does it agree with the rest of Scripture? Does it teach submission to authorities or rebellion?” While a true teacher is known for faithfully teaching God’s Word, a false teacher perverts it.

Application Question: What are some of the prevalent false teachings attacking the church? How have you experienced them?

False Teachers Are Identified by Their Attitude—One of Pride

he is conceited and understand nothing…

1 Timothy 6:4

Moses was called the humblest man on the earth (Num 12:3), and Christ was characterized by his humility, as he humbled himself by becoming a man and dying for our sins (Phil 2:6-8). Jesus calls for all to come to him because he is “gentle and humble” in spirit (Matt 11:28-29). However, false teachers are marked by conceit. The word “conceited” is derived from a root which means “smoke” (cf. 1 Timothy 3:6). “The verb means ‘to puff up like a cloud of smoke.’ In English slang, we would describe such a person as ‘blowing smoke,’ or ‘full of hot air.’” 1

Like Satan declaring that he will be like the Most High (Is 14:14), false teachers are consumed with themselves and their ideas. The false teacher Simon, the sorcerer, claimed “to be someone great” (Acts 8:9). Peter described false teachers as “speaking high-sounding but empty words they are able to entice” (2 Peter 2:17). They may do this by boasting about their wealth, their spiritual experiences, or their new revelation. They commonly exalt themselves before others. In contrast, when sharing about his exalted experiences, Paul called it folly in 2 Corinthians. By sharing about his visit to the third heaven, his tribulations, and revelations of God, he said there was nothing to be gained by boasting, as he shared about them in third person (2 Cor 12:1). He only shared to show that he could boast, even as the false teachers attacking Corinth (2 Cor 11:5).

William Barclay adds an excellent comment about the pride of the false teacher:

“His first characteristic is conceit. His first aim is self-display. His desire is not to display Christ, but to display himself. There are still preachers and teachers who are more concerned to gain a following for themselves than for Jesus Christ. They are more concerned to press their own views upon people than they are to bring to men the word of God.” 2

God fights against the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). The false teacher is rejected in part because of his pride. It keeps him from submitting to God and the wise counsel of others. He seeks a following and for his name to be exalted, instead of the Lord’s; therefore, the Lord opposes him.

Application Question: How have you seen or experienced spiritual pride in false teachers or others? How can we protect ourselves from the temptation towards spiritual pride and instead develop humility like Christ, Moses, and Paul?

False Teachers Are Identified by Their Propensity towards Controversy and Discord

…but has an unhealthy interest in controversies and verbal disputes. This gives rise to envy, dissension, slanders, evil suspicions, and constant bickering …

1 Timothy 6:4-5

The false teachers’ pride leads them to an “unhealthy” interest in controversies and verbal disputes. “Unhealthy” can literally be translated “sick.” Their love for some brand of false teaching has developed a spiritual sickness in them. They are consumed with controversies over words. Certainly, we get a picture of this in 1 Timothy 1:4, where Paul describes the false teachers in Ephesus as devoted to “myths and interminable genealogies.” Instead of advancing God’s work, they promoted “useless speculations.”

John MacArthur said, “False teachers do little more than quibble over terminology. They indulge in pseudointellectual theorizing rather than in productive study of and submission to God’s Word.”3 Kent Hughes describes his ministry to those promoting error:

I have spent endless hours with such people, who cannot or will not grasp the plain meaning of a sentence or a paragraph in its context but rather fix on a word or sound bite and give it a definition that defies lexicons, history, and logic. Nothing dissuades them. Nothing informs them. They understand nothing—and they enjoy it!4

One of the ways, false teachers are identified is by their unhealthy interest in controversies over words and terminologies. It is one thing to study God’s Word to understand it, but it is another to study it for controversy and speculations. This only represents a lack of faith.


Observation Question: How does Paul describe the discord false teachers are prone towards?

Again, false teaching does not agree with godly teaching or lead to godliness; therefore, it only leads to pride, controversy, and specifically, discord. Paul describes this discord in five ways:

  1. False teachers are prone to envy. Envy means resentment of other people’s gifts or successes. Because false teachers are prideful, they only want to see their own success and hate it when others succeed. How different from Christ who taught that he who wants to be great must be the servant of all (Matt 23:11)—somebody who wants to bless others.
  2. False teachers are prone to dissension. This can also be translated strife. It is a spirit of competition and contention.
  3. False teachers are prone to slander. They abuse rival teachers.
  4. False teachers are prone to evil suspicions. Where true love trusts, does not hold a record of wrongs, and covers a multitude of sins, they instead constantly think the wrong of others. They think people are out to get them or that they always have wrong intentions.
  5. False teachers constantly bicker with others.

Though this is true of false teachers, we must realize that they are all fruits of the sinful nature; Galatians 5:19-21 describes the acts of the flesh as, “…hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, murder…” When we are not abiding in the Word of God, these fruits will manifest in our lives. Like the false teachers who have rejected the truth, if we do not live in the Word, we will bear the fruit of constant friction in our relationships. Instead of trusting, forgiving, and covering others’ sins, we will constantly slander, envy, and fight.

One of the ways, we can discern a false teacher is that their ministries and relationships will be marked by constant discord instead of peace. While false teachers are marked by doctrinal controversy and discord, true teachers lead the body of Christ to unity (cf. Matt 5:9, Eph 4:11-13).

Application Question: Why are false teachers prone to doctrinal controversy and discord with others? How have you seen or experienced this? How can we keep the fruit of constant discord from being borne in our lives?

False Teachers Are Identified by Their Apostasy from the Faith

and constant bickering by people corrupted in their minds and deprived of the truth

1 Timothy 6:5

When Paul uses the two descriptors “corrupted in their minds” and “deprived of the truth,” he seems to be identifying their total apostasy from the faith. These false teachers are not truly born again and therefore they are led into false teaching.

In describing an unbeliever’s mind, Paul says:

because the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so.

Romans 8:7

The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.

1 Corinthians 2:14

The natural mind is at enmity with God’s law; it cannot truly understand it or accept it. However, true believers have been given the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). They have an anointing so they can understand what God’s Word teaches (1 John 2:20). Christ said his sheep hear his voice, and they will not follow the voice of another (John 10:4-5.). True believers will not be led into damning teaching, and if they are, God will bring them back. However, false teachers don’t have the ability to discern biblical truth. They have depraved minds and have been deprived of the truth.

The word “deprived” comes from the word “apostereo,” which means ‘to steal,’ ‘rob,’ or ‘deprive.’ The passive voice of the participle indicates someone or something pulled them away from the truth.” 5 These teachers once knew the truth. They might have been raised in the church and maybe even pastored. But eventually, they were led into false teaching and away from the truth. They became apostates.

This doesn’t mean that they were ever truly saved. It means that they were thoroughly exposed to it and then eventually rejected it. They are like the people in Hebrews 6:4-6:

For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become partakers of the Holy Spirit, tasted the good word of God and the miracles of the coming age, and then have committed apostasy, to renew them again to repentance, since they are crucifying the Son of God for themselves all over again and holding him up to contempt.

Some believe this describes a believer who lost his salvation. However, it is better to see this passage as describing somebody like Judas, who was never saved. Judas was enlightened, as he learned from and followed Christ. He tasted of the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, and the powers of the coming age, as demonstrated by his casting out demons and healing people. However, he fell away and never returned. Christ taught that he was not clean like the other disciples (John 13:11) and that he was a devil (John 6:70). He was like those who prophesied and cast out demons in Matthew 7:23; Christ says to them, “I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!” They were never saved and neither were these false teachers.

Apostasy—falling away from the faith—marks false teachers. They have corrupt minds and, at some point, were robbed of the truth.

Let us understand that this can happen to us as well. Paul, in fact, warned the elders in Ephesus about this possibility in Acts 20:28-32:

Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I am gone fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Even from among your own group men will arise, teaching perversions of the truth to draw the disciples away after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears. And now I entrust you to God and to the message of his grace. This message is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

Some of the false teachers in Ephesus were previously elders. They ate, drank, and ministered with Paul and Timothy; however, at some point, they fell away. If we are going to protect ourselves, we must “watch out” for ourselves and be devoted to the “message” of God’s grace.

While false teachers are identified by apostasy, true teachers are identified by their faithfulness to God.

Application Question: Have you ever known someone who fell into false teaching and away from God all together? How did it happen?

False Teachers Are Identified by Their Motive—Profit

and constant bickering by people corrupted in their minds and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a way of making a profit.

1 Timothy 6:5

Finally, Paul deals with the motive behind the false teachers’ ministry. It is not to glorify God or to build the kingdom of heaven. In simple terms, it is “profit.” It can also be translated as “gain” in the ESV. They imagined that “godliness is a means of gain.”

Interpretation Question: What does Paul mean by profit? It could mean at least two things.

1. False teachers are pre-occupied with financial profit.

In John 10:11-13, Christ said that when the wolf comes the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep, but the hireling just runs away. Many false teachers focus exclusively on making money. Peter compared them to the false prophet Balaam. In 2 Peter 2:15, he said, “By forsaking the right path they have gone astray, because they followed the way of Balaam son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness.” They minister in order to receive pay.

However, Paul declared that he “I have desired no one’s silver or gold or clothing” (Acts 20:33). He also at times refused support from churches so they could not accuse him of greed (1 Cor 9:15-19). Sadly, many ministers and ministries promote themselves with the primary goal of making money.

Be careful of ministries and teachers that focus on money. Should pastors get paid? Yes. Should church members be cheerful givers? Yes. However, ministries should not focus on money—they should focus on God and serving others. Be careful of ministries and teachers who are pre-occupied with money.

2. False teachers are pre-occupied with personal profit or self-help.

Though financial gain seems to be primarily what Paul refers to by “profit”—considering that he moves to the dangers of loving money in the next section (1 Tim 6:6-10); these teachers also might be focused on personal profit in general. In these ministries, God is sought, not for his face, but for his hand. They are consumed with the blessings of God instead of the glory of God. Their focus is probably helping others become wealthy, healed, and positive people. These things are not bad in themselves, except when they become the primary reason we seek God.

The Bible becomes a self-help book, and people listen to these teachers’ sermons so they can gain things instead of knowing God and building his kingdom. This was not Christ’s focus in teaching. He told all that if they would follow him, they must hate their father, mother, wife, children, brother, sister, and even their own life. They could not be his disciples without taking up their crosses (Lk 14:26-27). People from ministries that focus on personal profit typically have shallow faith. They are unprepared for the trials of life and often become angry at God when they come (cf. Matt 13:20-21). Many ultimately fall away from the faith like the false teachers they sit under. When the Christian life does not bring “profit,” Christ is no longer worthy of following.

Like Christ, Paul taught that all who wanted to be godly in this world would suffer (2 Tim 3:12). He encouraged Timothy to suffer with him like a good soldier of Christ (2 Tim 2:3). And he also taught that we should rejoice when going through suffering because it produces perseverance, character, and hope (Rom 5:3-4). Biblical Christianity does not teach the eradication of trials but the redemptive nature of them and that God is sovereign over them (Rom 5:3-4, 8:28, Jam 1:2).

Be careful of ministers and ministries that focus on personal gain and not God himself. This cripples worshipers and makes them vulnerable in trials. True teachers are not motivated by profit.

Application Question: In what ways have you seen ministers or ministries that focus on profit—financial or personal?


What are characteristics of false teachers? How can we identify them?

  1. False Teachers Are Identified by Their False Doctrine
  2. False Teachers Are Identified by Their Attitude—One of Pride
  3. False Teachers Are Identified by Their Propensity towards Controversy and Discord
  4. False Teachers Are Identified by Their Apostasy from the Faith
  5. False Teachers Are Identified by Their Motive—Profit

1 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1995). 1 Timothy (p. 240). Chicago: Moody Press.

2 Teacher’s Outline and Study Bible - Commentary - Teacher’s Outline and Study Bible – 1 Timothy: The Teacher’s Outline and Study Bible.

3 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1995). 1 Timothy (p. 241). Chicago: Moody Press.

4 Hughes, R. K., & Chapell, B. (2000). 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus: to guard the deposit (p. 146). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

5 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1995). 1 Timothy (p. 242). Chicago: Moody Press.

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