“False brethren” are twice spoken of in the New Covenant, both times by Paul (2 Corinthians 11:26; Galatians 2:4). Who were these “false brethren”? What practical lessons can we glean from the mentioning in scripture of them?
A common view is that these were brethren, but they were not behaving very brotherly. Clearly, there were brethren of disappointing behavior then, and surely there are now. Multitudes in Asia abandoned Paul, while he was imprisoned (2 Timothy 1:15-18 cf. 4:16). Demas was a sad disappointment (2 Timothy 4:10). Some brethren were fickle (Galatians 1:6). They ran well and then got tripped up by false teachers (Galatians 5:7). Diotrophes was too desirous of preeminence to work with John (3 John 9).
Another view is that these were not brethren at all, only pretending to be. McGarvey, “certain Jews, who were members of the church and yet not Christians at all, but had entered the church to further Jewish interests, and who were… spies of the Jews (Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, p. 257-258). Crouch, “They were likely Jews, pretending to be Christians… they were enemies of the cross in the guise of friends… to take away our liberty from the law of Moses which we have in Christ, that they may bring us into bondage to the Jewish law (Studies in Galatians, p. 17). Franklin Camp speculated that these were those who John would write, “They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19).
This second view seems to fit. Consider these points: (1) 2 Corinthians 11:26 speaks of “false brethren.” Yet, earlier in this same book, and even this same chapter “false apostles” are mentioned (2 Corinthians 11:13). Clearly, these weren’t misbehaving apostles. They were not apostles at all. Consistency would seem to suggest the same concerning “false brethren.” (2) Paul lists “perils among false brethren” separate from “the care of all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:26 cf. 11:28). (3) These “false brethren” are said to have “sneaked in” (Galatians 2:4 NASB), or “came in by stealth” (Galatians 2:4 NKJV). They clearly were binding the Mosaical law on Gentile converts (Galatians 2:4 cf. Acts 15:1, note the distinction between “certain men” and “the brethren”).
It seems at least possible to me that the early church had to deal not only with Jewish and other opposition from without, but that they also had to deal with Jewish infiltration. Such tactics are not unheard of even in this day.
The early church did something that should be done more today. They introduced faithful brethren with a letter of commendation (Acts 18:27; Romans 16:1-2; 1 Corinthians 16:10; 2 Corinthians 8:16, 23-24; Philippians 2:19-24; Philippians 2:19-24; 2 Corinthians 3:1-3). Such letters no doubt solidified trust and confidence in the one coming into a local church and it helped the local church and her elders avoid a plague of problems.
We need to be cautious. We should not use people in classrooms, Gospel meetings, ladies day, youth programs, to fill the pulpit, etc. without truly knowing with confidence who they are, and in what they believe and for what they stand. If we don’t have first hand knowledge, a letter of commendation from a faithful member or church is both Biblical and beneficial.