In today's world when false teachers are left alone they can literally propagate error around the world in a short period of time. This puts countless souls in jeopardy of losing their souls. By "false teacher" we mean one whose doctrine is contrary to God's word. This person may have been challenged regarding his beliefs and practices, but then again he may have never been confronted. Admittedly, everyone makes mistakes. There is however a recognizable difference between a man who is sound in the faith who is mistaken on a small point and one whose core beliefs are wrong. The faithful gospel preacher will readily admit his mistake and correct it. Hopefully, the one teaching outright error will graciously receive correction. When the faithful approach a false teacher, it should be in the spirit of meekness and with the desire to see this soul saved (cf. Gal. 6:1). The correction should never be done in a mean spirit. Additionally, one should be sure of the facts in the case.
Over the years some brethren have misunderstood and consequently misapplied the Lord's instruction on how to go about rebuking error. A common idea is that before exposing a false teacher and his doctrine we must first personally address the man. It is affirmed that failing to do so is actually sinful. Where does such thinking originate? Usually, it is based on Matthew 18:15-17 which states - "Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.' And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector."
Notice, however, that this is not dealing with one publicly teaching error! Instead, it is dealing with a personal transgression between two brothers. While this passage does not deal with false teachers, its principle can sometimes be applied. That is, if possible, it is always a good idea to personally address one who is in error. Recall that Paul withstood Peter to his face in the presence of all the brethren (cf. Gal. 2:11,14). While this encounter was personal in nature, it surely was not done privately. Was Paul sinning by doing so? Certainly not. Jesus, on several occasions, exposed the error of the Pharisees to their faces (e.g., Luke 11:38-45). However, he also did so when they were not present (e.g., Matt. 16:5-12).
While it is a good idea to address these concerns personally, if possible, there are numerous examples where correction was offered from afar. Paul was not able to go to Corinth upon first hearing about the number of doctrinal and moral problems within that congregation. However, this did not stop him from writing a letter to those Christians telling them to make much needed correction. John was not able to personally confront Diotrephes, yet he still warned the brethren about this man's sinful conduct (cf. III John 9-11). Paul warned Timothy about the danger Hymenaeus and Philetus posed because of their false teaching. The apostle publicized their foolishness and made no apology for doing so. He put it in writing that - "Their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some" (II Tim. 2:17,18).
Because false teaching can overthrow the faith of some, it is imperative that error is exposed when first detected. This is what Paul wrote about in Romans 16:17,18 - "Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple."
Friends, sometimes it is expedient to correct a false teacher privately first, but this is not always the case and such a course of action should not be mandated. May we realize that Matthew 18:15-17 is fundamentally directed toward privately known sins. If false teaching is being spread publicly, taking action to quickly correct it in a public fashion is not wrong but needful in the church.