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By Elizabeth Prata

Should we pray for false teachers?Are false teachers and heretics the same thing?Can a false teacher repent?Can a heretic repent?

I’m asked these questions now and then. Since I do a third of my ministry here as discernment, it’s logical I get asked discernment type questions. I’ve wondered the same thing myself. I’ll answer in three parts. I’ll look at false teachers, then heretics, then whether either or both of them can repent.

First, let’s look at the question:

What is the difference between a false teacher and a heretic? Is there a difference?

God’s truth, it is the only thing that matters, the sole standard by which we live.. Yet from the beginning, satan has energized people (or serpents) to pollute the truth.

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. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned. (2 Peter 2:1-3)

The distinctions between what makes a teacher false and what makes a heretic can be muddy. Suffice to say, both are bad, but heresy is worse. Here, Mark Jones at Reformation 21 wrote:

What makes someone a heretic? This topic may be more important than we might think, especially in the world of online discourse. There is a distinction between willfully committing a soul-destroying heresy and committing a theological error.

Yet also this:

To call someone a “false teacher” is to say they are unsaved (see 2 Peter 2:1). …

But then again, Jones said, All heresies are errors, but not all errors are heresies I understand heresy in the way described by George Gillespie, a Scottish commissioner to the Westminster Assembly:

Heresy is a gross and dangerous error, voluntarily held and factiously maintained by some person or persons within the visible church, in opposition to some chief or substantial truth or truths grounded upon and drawn from the Holy Scripture by necessary consequence.

The key words above are “voluntarily” (not ignorantly) and “factiously” (not quietly, but “stubbornly” [see Ames]) in terms of the manner in which a heretic promotes his or her view(s). Conversely, we may hold to an error, but (thankfully) that error is not sufficiently severe enough that it overthrows the fundamental articles of the Christian faith. –end Mark Jones quote.

The Bible speaks a great deal on false prophets (Old Testament), false teachers (New Testament), and false doctrine. Every New Testament book except Philemon warns or says something about falsity.

As to the difference between a teacher teaching falsely and a teacher who is a heretic, for example, there’s Pelagianism (a notion that original sin did not taint human nature) which is a heresy, but teaching that one must eat or not eat certain foods is a theological error. It’s a false teaching but not necessarily a heresy that makes one outside orthodoxy.

A biblical example is Peter briefly ‘behaving’ falsely. Because his behavior had a teaching component, his behavior undermined the Gospel. Therefore, Paul said he must oppose Peter to his face. Denny Burk said, “In Galatians 2, Paul says that he opposed Peter for not being “straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (qq.”

As a side note I’ll mention here that Peter’s brief foray into falsity was a behavioral action. He was impacting the truth of the Gospel by his behavior- he withdrew from the Gentiles, not sitting with the Gentiles out of fear of man. Often when I write about a truly false teacher’s behavior, her defenders come out of the woodwork screaming that her behavior is an untouchable component because it’s (supposedly) ‘private’, i.e. separate from her teaching. No.

‘Stop judging our favorite false teacher’s behavior and lifestyle! It’s none of your business!’ Oh, yes it is, screeching harridans. Yes it is…

A Bible teacher’s or minister’s behavior is never separate from their identity in Christ, life AND doctrine matters, as Peter’s brief deviation into falsity shows and Paul’s immediate reaction to it.

Apollos briefly taught falsely. “Apollos was a man mighty in the scriptures who taught accurately about Jesus but who nevertheless was only familiar with John’s baptism. In Apollos’ case, his deficient teaching was an error of omission.” ~Denny Burk

Neither Peter nor Apollos could really be termed a false teacher because their theological error was brief and they immediately corrected themselves eagerly with open heart and with humility.

False teachers exist on a spectrum. They can be detected of course by examining their teaching, but if they have been confronted with truth to slay their error and they take some time to consider this, pray. If they take a long time and come out the other side with still believing and teaching the falsity, then they are false. If Peter and Apollos had continued teaching what they taught, after a while we must accept that they are not correcting their error and are false.

When is a false teacher a false teacher? It’s when he teaches falsehood. And the chief characteristic of his teaching is falsehood. ~RC SProul

In modern times, we have seen several known false teachers claim to repent. Naïve Christians should be wise as a serpent but harmless as a dove in these matters. Too many people take these claims of a false teacher’s supposed repentance at face value without a proper measure of wisdom and patience to see of they truly correct over time.

Costi Hinn here with a 1-minute tip on how to detect if a teacher’s repentance for teaching something in error is real or not. Remember, the chief characteristic of a false teacher is that their teaching is identified with error, i.e. “its chief characteristic.”

I would just add that I think there is in the New Testament a clear reservation of that title [false teacher] not just for one who teaches falsely but for one who is uncorrectable and who resists correction. ~Al Mohler

Next part: Heretics, what is heresy and what makes a person a heretic?

Sources consulted in researching this essay:

The Bible

John MacArthur Commentary on 2 Timothy 2:24-25

RC Sproul Critical Questions: What is Repentance?

Nathaniel Vincent: Puritan Treasures for Today: Turn and Live

Republished with permission from, featuring inspiring Bible verses about Heresy vs false doctrine: What are they? Part 1.

Republished with permission from

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