Teaching series from 2 Peter

Counterfeit Christian Leaders

2 Peter 2:1-3:2

Teaching t07768

Introduction

Brief reminder of setting. Up to now, Peter has been speaking for something—distinguishing features of authentic spirituality (chapter 1). Now he speaks against someone, and he really unloads! Read 2:1-22. This passage (along with a very similar one in Jude) contains the most denunciatory language in the whole New Testament—exceeded only by Jesus himself when he unloads on the scribes and Pharisees in Matt. 23.

Who are these people that elicit this verbal flame-thrower from Peter? They are not promoters of other religions or philosophies; they are counterfeit Christian leaders.

They are not merely misinformed about the message of Christ. They do not have the excuse of ignorance. They "have known the way of righteousness," but have "turned away from it" (2:21); "forsaking the right way they have gone astray" (2:15). They understand the message of the gospel and have seen the compelling evidence that it is true—and then have rejected it.

But they don't have the integrity to admit this. Instead, even though they know they have rejected Christ and his message, but they present themselves as true Christian prophets and teachers (2:1). They are counterfeits. The word "false" in 2:1 is pseudo—they are "pseudo prophets and teachers," "wolves in sheep's clothing" (Matt. 7:15). According to the Bible, the ultimate author of this strategy of deception is God's adversary, Satan (2 Cor. 11:13-15).

You might think this was an isolated phenomenon in the early church, but this is far from the case. Of the 22 New Testament letters (including Rev. 2,3), at least 17 contain explicit warnings against people like this. No sooner did the Christian movement begin than false teachers popped up all over the place.[1]

And this problem is not limited to the first century church. Jesus predicted that the entire Church Age would be plagued by false teachers, and that it will get worse as we get closer to his return (see Matt. 24:4,5,10,11,24,25). Students of church history can verify the fulfillment of this prediction—usually in waves—right up to the present day.

So here is our problem. We know that counterfeit Christian leaders exist—but how can you protect yourself from them? For that matter, how do you know that I am not one? If I was, do you think I'd admit it? Wouldn't I be more likely to warn you against false teachers? Here are some inadequate safeguards:

If you think that certain denominations are immune to it, you are really naïve. Whole denominations, started by great Christian leaders, have been overrun by these wolves to the point where true Christian leaders are hardly tolerated.

If you think that new groups are more likely to be counterfeit and that old groups are more likely to be genuine (or vice-versa), you don't know much about church history. There is no correlation.

If you think you can rely on anyone with a theological degree, you are mutton on the hoof! Some of the most destructive counterfeit leaders operate as seminary professors.

If you think you can rely on society's acceptance to guide you, you are in quicksand. The society of the first century viewed authentic Christianity as a dangerous cult. American society today views Mormonism in a favorable light, even though its central teachings are fundamentally anti-biblical.

Peter gives us a partial answer to this question, because his exposé of the counterfeit Christian leaders includes the four most common features. You can see three of them in the first three verses . . . 

4 common features of counterfeits

Re-read 2:1. Obviously, the key feature of a counterfeit Christian leader is that they distort who Jesus is and what he has done for us. Even if they have none of the other features, they are counterfeits if they do this.

Their teaching is "destructive heresy" because they "deny the Master who bought them." Of course they talk about Jesus, but it's a "different Jesus." Of course they present a "gospel" of what he has done, but it's a "different gospel" (2 Cor. 11:4).

The Bible says he is fully human and fully God (Col. 2:9), because this is necessary for him to be our Savior. He had to be fully human so he could represent us and die for our sins. He had to be fully God so his death could have infinite value and pay for all of our sins. Early counterfeits usually deny Jesus' humanity (GNOSTICS), while modern counterfeits usually deny his deity (MORMONS & JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES [angel]; JESUS SEMINAR [wandering sage]).

The Bible says Jesus' death has paid for all of our sins, so God's acceptance is a free gift bought by Jesus' work for us, not our works for God (1 Pet. 3:18). Counterfeits always attack this good news. Some deny that his death had any redemptive value (LIBERAL THEOLOGY); others insist that his work for us must be complemented by our works for God—either ritual observance (CATHOLICISM) or other good deeds (JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES).

The Bible says that our choice to receive Christ's gift is eternally significant because this is what takes us out of God's eternal judgment and into his eternal kingdom (Jn. 3:36). Surprisingly, most counterfeits deny the reality of God's eternal judgment, either through blatant universalism (LIBERAL THEOLOGY), or by teaching annihilationism (JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES) or various levels of heaven (MORMONISM).

If the Bible is so clear on these issues, how do the counterfeits get by with this? Peter says they do it through "false words" (2:3). The word "false" here is different from the "false" in 2:1 (pseudo). It is plastos, from which we get the word "plastic." They claim to believe the Bible, they use the Bible—but they use words that bend or distort the truth.

Sometimes they use biblical terms, but redefine them.

When I was an undergraduate student, I ran into members of the Unification Church before we knew what they taught. When I asked them who Jesus is, they replied "He is the Messiah." But as we talked further, I realized they were changing the meaning of that term. They didn't mean he was the unique Savior who came to die for our sins and return to set up God's kingdom. They meant that he failed in his mission because he didn't have children, and that Rev. Moon was the true "Lord of the Second Advent."

After receiving Christ, I attended an Easter service at the liberal Protestant church I grew up in. After hearing the minister preach on Jesus' resurrection, I asked him if he believed in Jesus' bodily resurrection. He tried to skirt the issue, but I persisted. He finally said he believed that Jesus' resurrection means that his love lives on through those who follow his example.

Sometimes they subtly undermine the credibility of the Bible by saying it is full of contradictions and mistakes, that it is a collection of myths written long after the events happened, etc. (see 1:19; JESUS SEMINAR).

Sometimes they press the Bible through their own interpretive grid which changes its message. These grids include additional scriptures (BOOK OF MORMON; DIVINE PRINCIPLE), authorized interpretations (PAPAL TEACHING; KEY TO SCIENCE & HEALTH), or even mistranslations (WATCHTOWER ON Jn. 1:1).

The main protection against counterfeit Christian leaders, then, is thorough familiarity with the Bible! Counterfeits prey on spiritually hungry people who are biblically ignorant. That's why Peter concludes his exposé with 3:1,2 (read). This is far more effective than studying the counterfeit groups.[2] The Bible also gives you the standard for detecting the other features, which are ethical distortions.[3]

Re-read 2:2. They will often promote sensuality as spirituality. This term (aselgeia) refers those who are given over to blatant sexual immorality and other debauched behavior. This was the case with these counterfeits (read 2:10,13,14,18; see also Jude 1:4).

Notice what happens when counterfeits do this (2:2). First, they draw a crowd because there are always lots of people looking for a spiritual rationalization for sensuality. Second, Christianity gets maligned by people who are morally sensitive and looking for a rationalization to reject Christianity.

There is a rich legacy of this in church history. Cerinthus promoted it on the grounds that Christ's kingdom will be filled with "unlimited indulgence in gluttony and lechery at banquets . . ." Rasputin was part of a long tradition of Russian Orthodox mystics (sterets) who taught that in order to gain a deeper appreciation and experience of God's grace, you must plunge more deeply into sin. In the 1970's, Moses David promoted sexual immorality as key to Christian love and outreach. One liberal Protestant don defends an adulterous liaison as 'in a real sense an act of holy communion.'"

Authentic Christian leaders teach and model sexual purity and temperance. They should be "above reproach" in this area (1 Tim. 3:2,3). If they fall, they should confess it as wrong and submit to church discipline and restoration—not justify it or insist on maintaining their leadership role (SWAGGART).

Re-read 2:3. Here is another common feature of counterfeit Christian leaders—they are often motivated by financial greed. See also 2:14,15. There's big money in religion, so we shouldn't be surprised that it is a favorite hunting ground for fakes! Nor should we be surprised when people are drawn to them because they promise them wealth.

EXAMPLES: Positive Confessionalist preachers ("Since wealth is proof of God's blessing, the pastor needs to be wealthy"); a local pastor's two million dollar mansions and closed accounting procedures; Jim Bakker's extravagances; Gene Scott: "It's none of your damned business what I do with the money you give. I'm God's depository!"

Authentic Christian leaders teach and model financial integrity. Fruitful Christian workers should normally be paid so they’re able to live at a reasonable level (1 Tim. 5:17,18). But they should be above reproach and free from the love of money (read Titus 1:7), which includes living a modest lifestyle, generosity in personal financial giving, and the integrity to make spiritual decisions that are free from considerations of personal financial advantage. They will teach their flocks the importance of giving financially to God's work, but they will not use pressure tactics, and they will practice open accounting procedures.

Lastly, counterfeit Christian leaders frequently abuse their authority over their followers. Peter may allude to this in 2:10 ("despise authority . . . self-willed") and 2:18 ("speaking out arrogant words of vanity"). They usually do this in two ways.

First, they promote sectarianism by teaching or implying that their group is the only truly Christian group. No other groups can be trusted, and the only safety is in this group under this leader's influence. John condemns Diotrophes for this in 3 Jn. 1:9,10.

Second, they teach or imply that all major life decisions should be approved by them and the leadership structure they over which they preside. Paul rebukes the Corinthians for submitting to this in 2 Cor. 11:20.

I saw many from my generation who had an authority vacuum in their lives get sucked into authoritarian cults that cut them off from their families and ran their lives (CHILDREN OF GOD; MOONIES; JONESTOWN). Unfortunately, the same thing is still happening today (DAVID KORESH & BRANCH DIVIDIANS).

In an autonomous culture like ours, we have to be careful not to gut Christian leadership of all authority. The Bible gives church leaders have legitimate authority to provide positive direction for the church, and to call on their flocks to be radically committed to Jesus—even enacting church discipline when biblical absolutes are at stake.

But they should respect the Bible's limits to their authority. They should teach biblical principles in every area of life, but protect their flocks' freedom and responsibility for who they may date or marry, what they read and watch, where they should live, what jobs they should hold, etc. They should also encourage their people to read and listen to other authentic Christian spokesmen, and to be involved in other authentic Christian ministries.

2 important responses to this problem

Don't let counterfeits make you cynical about Jesus Christ. The fact that you have been ravaged by counterfeits doesn't prove that there is no genuine Jesus who is well worth your devotion. Only precious things are worth counterfeiting. Call out to him, tell him you want to find him, start reading his Word.

Reach out to those who have been affected by counterfeits. Jude ends his similar warning with this challenge (read Jude 1:22,23). Don't write off your neighbors and family members who have been caught up in counterfeit Christianity. Pray for them, show them God's love in practical ways, discuss theological issues gently and respectfully. Many of us in this room were under the influence of counterfeits, but are following Christ today because Christians cared about us enough to do this with us.

[1] See Rom. 16:17,18; 1 Cor. 15:12; 2 Cor. 2:17; 11:13-15; Gal. 1:6-9; 5:10-12; Phil. 3:2; Col. 2:16-23; 2 Thes. 2:1,2; 1 Tim. 1:3ff.; 4:1-5; 6:3-5; 2 Tim. 3:1-8; Titus 1:10-16; 3:9-11; Heb. 13:9; 2 Pet. 2:1-22; 1 Jn. 2:18-26; 4-1-6; 2 Jn. 1:7-9; 3 Jn. 1:9,10; Jude 1:4ff.; Rev. 2:2,15,20. Back

[2] "The American Banking Association once sponsored a two-week training program to help tellers detect counterfeit bills. The program was unique—never during the two-week training did the tellers even look at a counterfeit bill, not did they listen to any lectures concerning the characteristics of counterfeit bills . . . All they did for two weeks was handle authentic currency, hour after hour and day after day, until they were so familiar with the true that they could not possibly be fooled by the false." Ben Patterson, Waiting (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989), p. 153. Back

[3] Why does ethical distortion often accompany doctrinal distortion? Because the key issue is submission to God's authority. Those who reject God's authority in matters of doctrine usually do so because they want to reject his moral authority over their lives. Doctrinal corruption provides the justification for moral corruption. Back