For the past several years, we’ve watched over and over as famous pastor-teachers go through very public falls 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 enabling financial mismanagement. Carl Lentz, pastor of Hillsong East Coast, was let go in November 2020 for “moral failures,” including an adulterous affair, and now stands accused of sexual abuse.
As an Anglican priest and theology professor, I have watched these stories emerge with deep sorrow and not a little anger. My frustration is not just for the people and communities harmed by these leaders but also for the way these pastors’ lives contradicted and undermined the gospel they preached. I am compelled to examine my own life too.
Though the details of the stories vary, all were men who had the “right” doctrinal content in their books and sermons. Yet they had been denying Christ and leading people astray with 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 now being revisited in depth through The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast—is illustrative of my point. He denies the full humanity of women in both word and deed, advocates for profane views of gender and sex, rages with unrepentant pride, engages in habitual self-promotion, and manipulates and abuses others. Why, then, for so long was he able to avoid being denounced as a false teacher?
In his head, he might have what many consider to be the right doctrinal content. But he is teaching with his whole person—words and deeds—not just explicitly named doctrines. And it is his embodied teaching that causes the weak to stumble, leads many astray, and drives countless others away from Christ.
History serves as a helpful reference point. The early creeds summarize both the gospel and core Christian doctrine. They contain what Christians were handed on—what the word “tradition” means—and also what the church has concluded is essential to preserve and pass down.
Christians have believed and confessed these core teachings or doctrines for going on two millennia. And we must continue to do so, not in a mouthing-the-words way but in a conviction-of-the-heart-and-mind way. The church has learned through the ages that to deny the core doctrines of our faith is to deny Christ.
Indeed, anyone who teaches against the core doctrines of our faith can rightly be called a false teacher. But this is not the only way to deny Christ.
Yes, the New Testament speaks of false teachers whose doctrine denies core elements of the apostolic gospel. The apostle Paul often condemns and warns against those refuting the gospel through the content of their instruction (see Gal. 1:6; Col. 2:20; 1 Tim. 1:3). But there are also instances when false teaching is equated with behavior, practice, or a way of life.
Consider, for example, the Epistle of Jude (and its parallel in 2 Peter 2). We love to quote Jude’s admonition to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (v. 3, NRSV throughout). But what exactly does this faith entail?
Jude continues: “For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (v. 4).
Jude encourages us to confront ungodly and licentious living. The emphasis on practice continues through the rest of the short epistle, adding further details about false teachers’ denial of the faith. They “defile the flesh, reject authority,” and participate in “deeds of ungodliness” (vv. 8, 15). Also, they “are grumblers and malcontents; they indulge their own lusts; they are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage” (v. 16).
In short, the false teachers Jude warns against are denying Christ not necessarily through their doctrine but through their behavior.
One strength of the evangelical movement in the US has been an emphasis on orthodoxy, or right doctrine. Despite the unstructured nature of evangelicalism, its leaders, churches, and institutions have long sought to teach and worship rightly. As they should. But there is also longstanding historical myopia when it comes to the embodiment of doctrine in daily practice. We see this most clearly, perhaps, in the history of racism and American evangelicals.
Consider, for example, evangelical pastor-teachers like George Whitefield, who not only enslaved Black people—many of whom were Christian sisters and brothers—but also fought to secure the institution of slavery in the state of Georgia.
Consider also pastor-teachers like Douglas Hudgins, pastor of First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi, and one of the most influential Southern Baptist preachers in his day. He obstructed the civil rights movement and vocally resisted integration efforts, leading his church to ban Black Christians from religious assemblies.
Even when we account for their multilayered historical contexts, it’s still astonishing to study these men and their indifference to Black suffering and liberation. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that Whitefield, Hudgins, and others kept doctrine and practice largely divorced from each other.
At least partly due to this history, some evangelicals have embraced false or oversimplified assumptions about the connection between the two. But, as historian Jemar Tisby said recently, “We have to understand that theology is not merely stated but lived.”
Indeed, relegating Christianity to the realm of doctrinal propositions inevitably leads to, as theologian William Cavanaugh says, “limit[ing] the range of Christian faith from the entire body of the believer to the space between the ears.”
Those who take this more compartmentalized approach often assume that right doctrine will inevitably lead to right practice. That’s simply not the case. Conversely, some believers attend to their actions without caring about the doctrinal commitments that undergird (or contradict) those very behaviors.
Fundamentally, orthopraxy and orthodoxy are inseparable. Right action is fueled and directed by biblical and theological truth. And orthodoxy is only meaningful and substantive when it takes on flesh in faithful practice. We cannot have one without the other. They go together.
Our Lord preached good news that assumed the total integration of belief and action: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15, emphasis added to all). “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock” (Matt. 7:24). Or, very simply, “Follow me” (Luke 5:27; John 1:43).
It’s no surprise that Jesus told the apostles before his ascension to “make disciples of all nations” by baptizing them in the Triune Name and “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). His life and ministry make clear that what we teach others includes both what’s in our heads 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?
For starters, we’ll have to consider more than the content of their sermons, conference talks, or books and look also to the shape and pattern of their lives. On the one hand, it seems so obvious. But it’s nonetheless essential to protecting the church from false teachers.
In the Book of Titus, Paul lists Christian virtues like hospitality, self-control, and love of goodness as the foundation for an overseer’s ability to “preach with sound doctrine” (1:8–9). (Interestingly, there’s zero mention of personality, charisma, or speaking ability in any of the Pastoral Epistles.)
Certainly, when we consider someone’s pattern of life as part of what potentially qualifies them as a false teacher, then leadership assessment gets very messy very quickly. As a pastor and professor, for example, I am acutely aware of my weaknesses and failings. Scrutiny of my life would be difficult and even painful. But I should do it anyway.
The purifying fire of God’s judgment is for our good. And a life characterized by ongoing, unrepentant, anti-Christian practice—especially among leaders—results in denying Christ and the power of the gospel. We are seeing the enormous consequences of this kind of heresy every day, but we don’t always name it as such.
To be clear, I’m not calling us to “cancel” anyone. My hope is that the church might get better at assessing corrupt practices that qualify a leader as a false teacher, even if that person espouses all the recognizable elements of Christian orthodoxy.
Indeed, if the church is going to do the work of discerning true teachers from false—and I think we should—then we’re called to do so in a way 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 we start believing him, and act accordingly.
Emily Hunter McGowin is an assistant professor of theology at Wheaton College. She is the author of Quivering Families and a forthcoming book on the season of Christmas (InterVarsity Press).