Are you falling prey to false teachings? — 5th Sunday of Matthew

A sermon on the Epistle reading for the Fifth Sunday of Matthew1, written and delivered in 2001.

Saint Theophan the Recluse2 was a holy bishop who lived in 19th century Russia. From his desert hermitage he wrote thousands of letters on a variety of subjects, becoming a beacon of Orthodox spirituality. In one of his letters he counsels a spiritual child of his who was impressed by an evangelical preacher passing through her village. The Saint very perceptively sensed that this preacher was a dangerous influence, and tells her in direct and effective language that he was not following the faith of the Church and that she was in danger of falling prey to his false teachings. We’ll delve on a few of the comments made in his letter.

A wolf wants to shepherd

This itinerant preacher taught about Christ and salvation in Him with enthusiasm, but this did not impress the Saint. He detected that although he was quoting the scripture and had Christ constantly on his lips, in essence he was deceived and was deceiving others in the process, preceded by many before him who had taught a false Christ, about whom the Lord and His Apostles warned us. The Saint uncovered his false teachings and steered his spiritual child, as he does with us, to the eternal truth, guarded in the holy Orthodox Church.

One of the points addressed by the Saint is the one we heard today in the apostolic reading,

“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”

What do these words mean? You too may have been approached at one time or another, as I have, by someone, who asked you if you have invited Jesus in your heart, and then urged you, perhaps with insistence, to confess the Lord with your lips, in order to be saved by such a confession. The Saint explains why you shouldn’t go along with a self-appointed preacher:

Such a confession, when done in vain, is contrary to the will of God... When it is done in an environment that is hostile to the faith and when the one who makes such a confession is in danger of suffering persecution and tribulation because of it—when one confesses Christ under such circumstances, he shows that he is ready to suffer martyrdom for Him... This is the confession that the Lord speaks about! (pp. 33-34)

Some of these things, my dear Christians, are not so obvious. That’s why we have shepherds; that’s why we have a Church: in order to be guided and helped to arrive at the truth that saves, and not fall victim to deception, and miss the most important, the most valuable and precious possession we have: our soul, and its salvation. We hear a lot of things from various sources, and perhaps we get confused at times: Who tells the truth? Who should we believe? Who should we follow?

Perhaps a few of us naively accept the teachings of other shepherds, who claim to be true shepherds, but who are really wolves in sheep’s clothing. Perhaps we have been persuaded that our shepherd is a false shepherd, and we mistrust his words. How are we going to know who is the true shepherd and who the false? Thank God, this should not be a great problem for us. Why? Because we have the Church and its 2,000-year history to go by, and the unfailing guide of the Saints, and the teachers of our faith.

Apostle Paul: a true shepherd

The Apostle curses those who teach a gospel different than his (cf. Gal. 1:8.9). This, then, must be a serious matter, wouldn’t you say? Just how different was this gospel they were preaching? Not that different. They believed in Jesus Christ. They worshipped the same God. They participated in the same eucharistic assemblies. They looked to the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. So in what way did they depart from the true gospel? They wanted to continue practicing their rituals and ceremonies, as prescribed by the Mosaic law. What was wrong with that? Didn’t the Lord say that He did not come to abolish the law, but to perfect it?

The Apostle Paul wanted the Christians to rely only on their faith in Jesus Christ, not on some requirements of the law, in order to be saved. He went to great lengths to show them that this was not a small matter, but that it touched upon their salvation. In today’s passage from the Romans we heard him say,

“Brothers and Sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened.” (Rom. 10:1-2)

Was the Apostle unbrotherly? Was he lacking in love when he called their zeal unenlightened and when he showed his concern for them that if they remained in their error they risked their salvation? Indeed not! To the contrary, he was showing them his genuine concern and sincere love.

Earlier in the same letter he expressed for them a love few of us can fathom, let alone follow and imitate. So concerned was he for the salvation of his people that he wished, if it were possible, to be cut off from Christ forever, if by such action his people would be saved (cf. Rom. 9:3). Moses too had offered to be blotted out of the book of life, if his people were not going to be in it as well (Ex. 32:32). St. Paul’s motives, therefore, were sincere and genuine. That’s why he labored so hard for their conversion—to no avail.

Sometimes we are tempted to measure our success by counting numbers—or others are tempted to measure our success by counting numbers. It is a temptation we must resist. St. Paul does not count his converts; he counts his hardships:

“Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked” (2 Cor. 11:24-25).

No. Ours is the sowing—the growing is the Lord’s. But sowing we must do, including over trodden paths, among thorns and over rocks, lest we be faulted for the lack of growth, instead of the soil.

Before the Apostle closes his letter to the Romans he appeals to them one last time to watch out for and avoid those who cause dissensions and oppose the true teachings that they had learned from him, cautioning them that these people may be smooth talkers but their tongues are full of deceit (cf. Rom. 16:17-18). Elsewhere he uses very strong language:

“The Spirit expressly says that in the last times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron” (1 Tim. 4:1-2)

If we have genuine love for each other we must guard each other from deceitful and hypocritical tongues and from false teachers. We must appreciate the teacher who tells us the truth, although it may not be popular and may sound offensive.

Rational sheep need to question

If therefore someone comes to you and poisons your mind, telling you, “What your shepherd teaches you is contrary to the Orthodox faith,” all you have to do is to compare it to the teachings of the Saints and the Fathers of the Church. If, for example, your shepherd teaches,

  • “You must go to confession to receive forgiveness of your sins”; or,
  • “Obey and submit to your spiritual father”; or,
  • “You cannot partake of the offering in another church that does not share our beliefs”; or,
  • “Heresy cuts you off from God’s grace”; or,
  • “There is no baptism and there are no sacraments outside the Church”; or,
  • “You cannot disagree with the teachings of the Church, even slightly”; etc.,

you must test these teachings against the teachings of the Church—not according to some self-appointed teacher or a false shepherd, but according to the faith of the Church, to determine if the teachings are accurate.

The faith of the Church is not a matter of picking and choosing. That’s called heresy. We embrace the faith of the Church wholeheartedly, in its entirety, without reservations—and without criticism. “Beloved,” writes St. Jude,

“being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the Saints” (Jude 3).

St. Paul likewise warns us,

“Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13).

May we all receive discernment from above and divine illumination and strength to follow the gospel of truth without vacillation, in order “to bring about the obedience of faith” (Rom. 16:26) to all people of good will. Amen.

photo by T.H.

  1. Epistle Reading: St. Paul's Letter to the Romans 10:1-10

    BRETHREN, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified. Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on the law shall live by it. But the righteousness based on faith says, Do not say in your heart, "Who will ascend into heaven?" (that is, to bring Christ down) or "Who will descend into the abyss?" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach); because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.

  2. Saint Theophan was the son of a priest, who later wrote that the best way to bring up a child is to be involved in the life of the Church. He attended seminary and pursued theological studies, after which he was tonsured a monk and was later ordained a deacon and a priest.

    He taught philosophy, psychology and Latin at the Academy and eventually became dean. At 44 he was consecrated bishop. After 25 years, however, he retreated to a poor monastery cell in the desert, where he remained for the last twenty-eight years of his life. The following is from his farewell speech to his flock:

    Do not get me wrong that I part from you. The love I have for you would not let me go, were it not for an irresistible longing for a loftier life... I will always pray that the Lord grant you every good, keep you from all calamity, secure your salvation... You have learned the path and the means of salvation. I can only remind you of the advice of the Apostle Paul to Timothy: “Keep what you have received.” Guard against false teachers. Stay away from all those who do not agree with what the Church teaches, no matter what their position or titles may be... Correct faith attracts Divine Grace. With its help, the pure in soul can see God even in this life and can have a foretaste of the blessedness to come.

    A short biography of Saint Theophan can be found in the letter referenced above, Preaching Another Christ: An Orthodox View of Evangelicalism (Orthodox Witness, 2001)

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