Methods of Divisive Teachers

by Doy Moyer

Deceit is nothing new. Those who subversively gain followings, start new movements, and cause divisions are masters at it. Scripture warns us of this problem, so we should consider some common elements in the methods of divisive teachers. Every element listed may not be in every divisive teacher, but these are characteristics commonly found among them:

  • They undermine current leadership. They won’t let elders in on their agenda to change things; wolves wouldn’t want to let shepherds know what they are up to. Instead, they manipulate leadership to get what they want until the time is right to make a more telling move. This may result in their pulling several people out of the present congregation in order to start a new one more conducive to the positions to which they have progressed.
  • They equivocate terms in their teaching and discussions. They are vague enough that they can maintain plausible deniability if they are questioned. They protest how much they’ve been misunderstood, yet they fail to clarify what they are saying so as not to be misunderstood. They work in the fog of ambiguity. Clarity is their enemy, especially in the earlier stages of their movement away from truth and others.
  • They play on the emotions of those who have been hurt. They know how to manipulate and work feelings. They court the bitter and the angry. They will tell those who are hurting that they understand and that they’ll show them genuine Christianity. They gain the trust and following of those who are hurting.
  • They play the “martyr card” for themselves. They tell people how much they have personally been mistreated and disrespected by others. They foment bitterness and anger toward brethren. They gain sympathy for themselves so that people will feel some sense of pity for them and perhaps support them in their efforts.
  • They teach their divisive ideas secretly so that others won’t know exactly what they think, but only those who have been pulled in close. Open, public teaching is the enemy of their efforts. They present a different public picture of what’s being taught than that done in private. However, the problematic clues often come not so much in what they teach publicly, but in what they refuse to teach publicly. They may avoid publicly teaching the doctrines they hold that they know would cause problems (e.g., not believing baptism is necessary), saving those rather for the closer friends in private. Yet they will also avoid teaching doctrines they know the group does adhere to when those run counter to their more private ideas (e.g., certain moral questions, God’s authority, etc.).
  • They throw in enough “sound” teachings so that no one would believe that they are actually creating a rift in the congregation. This is partly why, when the division finally comes, many will be shocked that it happened.
  • They constantly criticize and complain about brethren and teachings. They might do it gently at first so others won’t be suspicious, but by the time they are ready to break off, they begin speaking more bluntly. The root of bitterness springs up, causes trouble, and defiles many (Hebrews 12:15).
  • They present themselves as very loving and concerned, especially at first. They want others to think that they’re only doing what they do because they care, after all. As long as no one crosses them, they’re seen as wonderful and kind. Yet woe to those who do cross them. Their love is selective at best, but sooner or later, hatred begins to show more than any claims of love. “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth” (James 3:14).
  • They begin speaking in “us” vs. “them” language. Rather than being part of the group, they separate themselves from the group by their terminology.
  • They dismiss and cut off friends and mentors who represent the views from which they are trying to distance themselves. They go down their new path secretly at first without seeking advice or counsel, even though at one time they would have respected these former friends. Instead, they undermine the influence of those who might disagree with them and fail to put their views to the test of others who may challenge them.
  • There will likely be a few popular writers who express what they want to say. They quote these authors extensively (perhaps even more than Scripture), at first just to consider, but showing they are not alone in their views. Then they’ll deny being overly influenced. They want to be seen as original and deep thinkers, but their reliance on particular authors betrays their desire.
  • They will act like they are really “in the know,” especially compared to those whom they now consider ignorant. They might mock and ridicule those who differ, thinking to be humorous while demonstrating their hatred.

Once they start their new group more compatible with their desire and doctrine, that group itself may become a bridge for others to depart even further from the truth. There should also be no surprise that groups like this may themselves divide since the doors have been opened to ambiguity in doctrine and practice.

When the time is right, everything comes to light and these teachers are in a position to make their move. They now bring with them several brethren, divide the church, and leave behind a swath of destruction and heartache, while many are left scratching their heads in disbelief. The damage is done. We do well, then, to remember the following passages:

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds” (II Corinthians 11:13-15).

Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16).

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep” (II Peter 2:1-3).

“For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).

Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (Romans 16:17-18).

False. Deceitful. Inward wolves. Secretive. Destructive. Exploitive. The effects of these men are not pretty. They are purveyors of the works of the flesh. The example of how Jesus taught should stand out in sharp contrast: “I have spoken openly to the world; I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together; and I spoke nothing in secret” (John 18:20).

Now the temptation here is to start looking at others with suspicion, and certainly if teachers begin manifesting traits or behaviors like the above, they need to be challenged and, if unrepentant, marked (Romans 16:17-18). Yet we should think about personalizing this as a test of our own honesty:

  • Am I undermining current leadership (or the whole church) by not telling them what my goals and agendas are? Am I being honest with my goals? Do I want to be open concerning what I’m trying to accomplish with my teaching?
  • Do I speak in vague terms because I have a fear of saying what I really believe? Do I fail to clarify what I’m saying? Do I find myself constantly telling others how misunderstood I am?
  • Do I find myself playing on the emotions of others, especially if I know they’ve been hurt and are vulnerable?
  • Do I say things that indicate self-pity? Am I regularly letting others know how badly I’ve been mistreated, hoping perhaps to gain sympathy for why I’m slowly breaking away from the brethren?
  • Do I teach or push ideas subversively and secretly to others that I’ve pulled in close — things that I know would get me into trouble if it were public? Am I willing to have my position tested, or do I shun discussion if I think I’ll be opposed?
  • Do I fail to consult with those I’ve previously respected in order to help me with my perspective, or do I find myself pulling away from them because I know they wouldn’t like the direction I’m going?
  • Have I been feeling anger and resentment toward other brethren, my former mentors, or other teachers?

On we can go. The point is, not only should we be looking out for deceitful teachers, we need to be careful that we aren’t unwittingly becoming one of them ourselves. “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (I Timothy 4:16).

Be careful how you hear (Mark 4:24). Wolves are out and about. Let’s not join the pack.

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