False teachers by definition teach false doctrine. Usually, we imagine that this means that false teachers deny certain concepts like the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the Second Coming. Yet second Peter challenges the idea that false doctrine only means denying true ideas. In Peter’s second letter, false teachers primarily are called such because of how they live. For Peter, false doctrine can mean denying true concepts or denying our Master by our behaviour.
Christianity is a way of life
Jesus called Christians to a way of life (Matt 4:17), and the earliest Christians followed “the Way” (Acts 9:2; Acts 22:4). Peter calls the Way, the way of righteousness (2 Pet 2:21). Christian teaching, Christian doctrine is a way of life. Certainly, Christianity demands that we confess certain concepts like Jesus died, was buried, and rose according to Scripture.
But that doctrine matches what is equally important to confess: that we are called to a certain way of life. Paul calls lying, for example, contrary to sound doctrine (1 Tim 1:10). So doctrine not only includes concepts like Jesus rose from the dead but behaviours like telling the truth.
Peter describes false teachers by their behaviour because this is their teaching
Peter writes, “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Pet 2:1). False teachers rise from the church and they bring in destructive divisions (i.e., heresies) which can amount to denying the Master. What does this look like?
Peter answers by giving general categories of behaviour: “And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words” (2 Pet 2:2-3) The result of their actions is condemnation: “Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep” (2 Peter 2:3). The following table illustrates Peter’s emphasis on bad behaviour and not the affirmation nor denial of concepts:
|Sensuality (2 Pt 2:2, 7, 10)
Way of truth blasphemed by actions (2 Pt 2:2)
Greed (2 Pt 2:3)
Exploit by lying (2 Pt 2:3)
Peter defines false teachers by their actions since their actions teach. The way of Christianity is a way of life, a way of repentance (2 Pet 2:21). So false teachers deny the Master by not submitting to the Master’s will which includes chastity, a love of people (not money), and honesty. Sound doctrine informs our whole life (see 1 Tim 1:10).
The content of this false teaching was not so much that these teachers taught incorrect concepts about God. Rather, they (perhaps) taught correct concepts for greedy gain, which makes them false teachers. Their life denied the Master.
Peter’s emphasis here recalls Jesus’ words in Matthew 7. Jesus speaks of teachers who will call him Lord, preach in his name, and even cast out demons (Matt 7:21-22). But Jesus does not know them because they fail to attain a righteousness greater than the Pharisees (Matt 5:18). This righteousness look like a singular devotion to God expressed in the beatitudes: meekness, mercy, peacekeeping, and so on.
The rest of 2 Peter 2 confirms that false teachers deny the Master by their way of life because Peter cites the story of angels intermarrying with human women from Genesis 6 to make his point. These angels committed sins of sensuality. He also speaks of Sodom and Gomorrah and the inhabitants’ “sensual conduct” (2 Pet 2:7). And Peter especially highlights “those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority” (2 Pet 2:10). Peter illustrates how false teachers among the church will look and act.
Peter continues to describe the “unrighteous” who at least overlap with false teachers
Peter continues to describe the character and actions of “the unrighteous” (2 Pet 2:9), which likely represents a broad category that also includes “false teachers” (2 Pet 2:1) because of the threefold designation that they are destined for punishment (2 Pet 2:3, 9, 17). For the sake of economy, this chart illustrates how Peter describes “the unrighteous” and “false teachers”:
|Promise the weak freedom (2 Pt 2:19||Bold (2 Pt 2:10)
Willful (2 Pt 2:10)
Don’t tremble while blaspheming angels (2 Pt 2:10)
Like irrational animals etc., they blaspheme in ignorance (2 Pt 2:12)
Suffer due to wrongdoing (2 Pt 2:13)
Count it pleasure to revel in daytime (2 Pt 2:13)
Revel in deception while feasting with true believers (2 Pt 2:13)
Eyes full of adultery (2 Pt 2:14)
Insatiable desire for sin (2 Pt 2:14)
Intice unsteady souls (2 Pt 2:14)
Hearts trained in greed (2 Pt 2:14)
Accursed (?) (2 Pt 2:14)
Forsake right way (2 Pt 2:15)
Go Astray (2 Pt 2:15)
Follow Balaam by loving gain from
wrongdoing (2 Pt 2:15)
Loudly boast of folly (2 Pt 2:18)
Entice the weak by sensual passions (2 Pt 2:18)
Live in error (2 Pt 2:18)
Are slaves of corruption (2 Pt 2:19)
Despite having the knowledge of Christ, they entangle themselves in sin (2 Pt 2:20)
The weight of false teaching or being unrighteous falls on behaviour since how we act demonstrates our Christian doctrine since Christianity is, in the language of Peter, “the way of righteousness” (2 Pet 2:21). In 2 Peter 3, Peter seems to change topics. But if he still has false teachers in mind, then here they deny the concept of Jesus’ Second Coming in order to follow their sinful desires (2 Peter 3:3). If false teachers are in view, then they here choose to deny truth for the sake of sin.
Peter only represents one witness to the Bible’s teaching on what constitutes a false teacher. John definitely highlights how denying that Christ came in the flesh makes one a false believer (1 John 4:2). So denying true concepts can reveal someone to be a false prophet. But from the Sermon the Mount to Jude and to the letter to Timothy, the Bible remarkably gives weight to false teaching as false living.
Christian doctrine includes both concepts (Trinity, Incarnation, Second Coming) as well as the life that Christ calls us towards. At the Last Supper, Jesus gave a new command to the church: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
To the same degree that we hold fastidiously to the cross, we must hold fastidiously to the command of love. Given this clear biblical teaching, we might wonder if the greatest heresy alive today is this: a lack of love.