The apostle Paul hated counterfeits. He knew when he launched new churches opponents of the faith would soon pop up with false teachings. Some even followed him directly—as in his trip from Thessalonica to Berea—just to stir chaos (Acts 17:13).
Jesus anticipated this sort of thing in his parable of the weeds (Matt. 13:24-43): “The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil.” Fruitless human weeds always strive to choke out real growth.
At one level we’re thankful for the counterfeits because they forced Paul to write corrective letters—his main New Testament writings—to oppose false teachers. It’s a silver lining to Satan’s constant opposition to God’s truth.
Paul, for instance, wrote his letter to the Galatians when Judaizers followed up his mission trip with Barnabas to the region. These counterfeit teachers insisted that Jewish circumcision is necessary for salvation—and they had an impact. Paul, in turn, confronted “those who unsettle you” (Gal. 5:12).
Think, too, of the Thessalonians who were fed nonsense about Christ’s return by false teachers. And there’s more. The Corinthians were confused about church leadership and spiritual gifts. The Colossians had teachers telling them to reject the reality of Christ’s physical body and his deity. And so on. Even in Rome—a place Paul didn’t reach until after writing his epistle—Law-promoting Jews were busy distorting truths offered by Paul’s colleagues, Aquila and Priscilla.
So here’s a promise to all who know and love Christ; and enjoy a godly Christian fellowship: don’t expect the peace to last for long. Someone will soon be lobbing false teachings in your direction!
Paul, then, was speaking from experience when he called on his beloved friends and fellow-elders in Ephesus to “be alert” because, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).
The lesson is especially important today as we live in a post-supernatural world. Spiritual warfare can be too often reduced to a religious tag for various personal struggles. And the young field of psychology seems inclined to move the wily Devil into retirement as a superstition from the past. Most believing therapists certainly know better but by now a naïve disbelief in Satan is well rooted in lots of settings.
So, how seriously do we take Paul’s warning against strong church personalities who reshape Bible truths? “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:13-15). Paul didn’t soft-pedal the problem.
We can speak of the battle between God’s ways and Satan’s counterfeits in Bible terms as “the Truth” versus “the Lie”—but translations too often soften this opposition so we miss it. A literal rendering of Romans 1:25, for instance, is: “they exchanged the truth about God for the lie.” So, too, the reading in John 8:44-45 is muted; as is Ephesians 4:25 and 2 Thess. 2:11-12, that all have “the lie” in the underlying Greek text.
Let’s tackle this Truth versus Lie conflict by asking what the Bible elevates as it’s highest priorities and then test the health of a given church or church movement by how well they align with Bible priorities. We have space here for just one example.
Think of the “great commandment” as Jesus engaged a man’s question, “‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” [Mt. 22:36-39].
Love is the defining measure Jesus offered. He even made it a test of true discipleship: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” [John 13:35]. And Paul gets it as we read in 1 Corinthians 13:13, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” It’s also listed first in the items that display the Spirit’s effective presence in a soul: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” [Gal. 5:22].
What does a Christian or a Christian community entangled with weeds look like by comparison? In Galatians 5:19-21 we read Paul’s counterpoint list of qualities: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” Some of these are all too common among us.
What, then, should we make of this back-and-forth battle of the “true seed” of Christ—his faithful followers—and the “weeds” of his Enemy that appear in Christian circles? One option is to take church discipline seriously. And an overlapped option is to face church splits and broken relationships so “it might become plain that they [those who lack Christ’s love] are not of us” [1 John 2:19].
It’s like changing diapers or, in a sharper analogy, like a surgeon forced to amputate a dead limb. Growth in the church will come only when authentic faith is the defining quality of a given Christian friendship or church community. It’s a part of (eternal) life. And it comes by loving the Truth, no matter where he takes us.