Is a layperson accountable to God for the teachings of his church?
Scripture has many warnings about false teachers and false doctrines. But what is the responsibility of laymen when they hear false teaching? Is a layperson accountable to God for the teachings of his church?
Responsibility of Elders
The primary guardians against false teaching and false teachers are the elders of the church. Their responsibility starts with the selection of elders who know the Word of God and are able to defend its truthfulness and confront those who teach error (1 Timothy 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9).
An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach . . . 1 Timothy 3:2 (NASB)
. . . holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict. Titus 1:9 (NASB)
The priority function of elders is to teach the Word of God. In Acts 6:1-4 the apostles stated that the priority function of elders was the study and teaching of the Word of God and prayer. Acts 2:42 teaches us that early church gathered to hear the apostles teach the Word. That is, the primary responsibility of elders is the teaching of the Word of God and to ensure that it is taught accurately. If a teacher in the church teaches error, the elders are to correct the error (Titus 1:9) and if necessary remove the teacher (Acts 20:28-30).
Responsibility of Teachers
Scripture also teaches that the teacher himself or herself is held responsible for what he or she teaches (James 3:1). Each teacher is to ensure that he or she knows the Word of God (Hebrews 5:12) sufficiently so that they are not “untaught” and do not “distort” the Word of Truth (2 Peter 3:16). 2 Timothy 2:15 challenges teachers to study hard and be serious in his or her teaching.
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. 2 Timothy 2:15-17 (NASB)
1 Timothy 1:6-7 is another warning against false teaching. In this passage we are told error occurs when the teacher lacks knowledge of the Scriptures.
For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions. 1 Timothy 1:6-7 (NASB)
False doctrines will also occur when a teacher seeks to entertain and please the people (Malachi 2:7-9; 2 Timothy 4:2-5). In summary, not only are individual teachers responsible for what they claim the Word of God means, but the elders are also responsible for what the teachers in their church teach.
Responsibility of Laymen
Individual laymen are also responsible for what they accept as truth and the false teachers they support. In Acts 17:11 we are told that God honored the Christians in the city of Berea for examining Scripture in order to determine if the apostle Paul was teaching truth. In sharp contrast, the Thessalonians were not as noble because they did not check out the apostle Paul.
Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Acts 17:11 (NASB)
This passage teaches Christians that God wants them to evaluate the teachings and the lives of their teachers and pastors. A Christian is not to blindly support whatever their pastor or teacher claims the Bible teaches. A television preacher once claimed that God was not a trinity. He said that God the Father had a body, soul and spirit. Jesus had a body, soul and a spirit and the Holy Spirit had a body, soul and spirit. Then added, “There are nine of them.” The congregation applauded and cheered at the wonderful new teaching. The congregation blindly followed their false teacher, who claimed that he revelation knowledge from the Holy Spirit, and not the Word of God. They were not good Bereans.
It is important to note that 2 Peter 2 is a warning about false teachers. It is written to warn Christians to be on guard against false teachers. In Galatians 1:6-9 the apostle rebuked the Galatian Christians for believing error when he said,
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! Galatians 1:6-9 (NASB)
These Christians had started to believe error. In Galatians 3:1 Paul exclaimed, “Who bewitched you?” That was not good news for the Galatian Christians. They had believed error taught by a pastor or some teacher. Then in Galatians 5:7-8 Paul declared,
You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you. Galatians 5:7-8 (NASB)
Finally, in Galatians 5:12 Paul wishes that the false teacher or pastor would mutilate themselves. He rejected the false teacher.
I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves. Galatians 5:12 (NASB)
Yet, Christians are often taught to believe what is taught. Here in Galatians the apostle Paul clearly challenges the individual Christians to evaluate false teaching and to flee from such teachers.
A very pointed example occurs in Revelation 2:14-15 where God speaks to the church at Pergamum,
“But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. ‘So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Revelation 2:14-15 (NASB)
This is an open rebuke to the church because they tolerated false teaching. Then to the church of Thyatira, God warned the church about false teachers and false teaching. Then He mentioned those who believed the error.
But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. Revelation 2:20 (NASB)
In verses 21-23 God then revealed that He had warned the false teacher to stop and declared that He would punish those who followed her. He said,
And I will kill her children with pestilence . . . Revelation 2:23 (NASB)
These passages reveal that God warns each individual Christian against believing false teaching and following false teachers. Christians are not to blindly follow their teachers, no matter how emotional and excited they become!
Therefore, is a layperson accountable to God for false teaching in his church? The answer is no! He or she does not have the responsibility that the elders and individual teachers and pastors have in terms of avoiding error. But he or she is responsible to identify false doctrine and to avoid the false teachers who teach it. False teaching includes more than a wrong view of salvation. Note that in 2 Timothy 2:17-18, Paul said Hymenaeus and Philetus were teaching error about the future resurrection. They were false teachers about future things. Such men were to be avoided.
It can take one to two years to evaluate a church in order to understand the doctrines that the pastor teaches. The official doctrinal statement published by the church sometimes does not reflect the actual teaching of the pulpit. It is clear from Scripture that every individual Christian has the responsibility to attempt, not solve, to correct one who teaches error.
Unfortunately, many Christians lack sufficient knowledge of the Bible to determine what is false teaching. Sometimes false teaching is obvious and blatant; but at other times, it is subtle. Often it starts with a false presumption. Sometimes it is a wrong understanding of history, culture or an inadequate knowledge of the original languages that leads eventually to error. But the uneducated Christian sitting in the congregation trusts the seemingly sincere preacher or teacher. Then the error becomes easy to believe.
Additionally, minor differences of interpretation and application are common but should not be considered false teaching. One pastor may believe that every Christian has one spiritual gift. Another pastor may believe that the Holy Spirit gives each believer a combination of spiritual gifts. Such differences are insignificant. This is speculation which Paul warns against (1 Timothy 1:3-7). What is important is that the believer uses whatever gift(s) he or she is aware of. Hebrews 6:10-12 teaches us to minister to one another.
When minor differences exist, that is not the time to leave a church. But when more serious differences in doctrine exist, that is another issue. The difference between Covenantal Reformed Theology and Dispensational Reformed Theology is a serious issue. The Reformation was largely fought over the doctrine of Soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, or how one is saved. The conclusion was that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. One cannot be saved by works and, consequently, one cannot lose his or her salvation by failing to do some work(s) or committing more sin. In our behavior did not save us, then it should not unsaved us.
The Reformation failed to address the Catholic doctrine of future things or Eschatology. Consequently, many denominations and churches still believe in amillennialism. Therefore, some teach an amillennial reformed theology which is usually called covenantal theology. They have combined the correct view of salvation with an wrong view of the future and it is called convenantal reformed theology, which is also know as “Replacement Theology.” It claims that the church has replaced the nation of Israel and Israel has no earthly future. They teach that the next event in God’s future timeline is the Second Coming of Christ and then the eternal state. In sharp contrast dispensational reformed theology teaches the correct view of salvation and believes that the church and Israel are distinct and that Israel still has a future kingdom awaiting them. This view includes the rapture of the church, the tribulation, second coming of Christ, a one thousand year kingdom on earth, great white throne judgment and then the eternal state. For more information about the differences in these two major conflicting theologies, please read “What do most reformed theologians teach about the future? — Amillennialism and Premillennialism.” It is also important to know that the early church fathers such as Origen, Eusebius, Tyconius were premillennialists.
In conclusion, convenantal reformed theology will dramatically reinterpret every Old and Testament prophetic passage and those parables and teachings of Christ that deal with the future in order to make Scripture appear to fit their theological framework. If Scripture does not fit their framework, they typically reinterpret the text symbolically to make Scripture fit. They have symbolically interpreted Scripture in order to retain their covenantal-millennial belief. The difficulty with symbolically reinterpreting Scripture is that the meaning is determined by the creativity of the one proposing the symbolic meaning. Dispensational reformed theology in sharp contrast holds to a more literal understanding of Scripture. Therefore, the decision to remain under a pastor or teacher who holds to the convenantal reformed theology framework is a serious decision. An individual will be guided by their understanding of Scripture.
1. John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue. Biblical Doctrine. Crossway. 2017. p. 885.
Suggested Links:What do most reformed theologians teach about the future? — Amillennialism and Premillennialism
Bible Teaching For Spiritual Maturity
A Call: Teach The Bible
How can I go deeper in the things of God?
What does tolerate mean in Revelation 2:20? – They tolerated Jezebel
Is it okay to be friends with a false teacher?
When should a person leave a church?
Should I leave since I do not agree with the doctrine of the church?