They’re everywhere! Or at least, it seems that way sometimes. If your social media feeds and news stories look anything like mine, you know what I mean–article after article featuring today’s false teachers, written either to promote them, or expose them.
Many are rich and famous. Some are less well-known. They are nicely dressed, charismatic speakers. Under their belts are endless endorsements by churches and organizations. They don’t walk around with the label FALSE TEACHER on their forehead. Their blogs, books, sermons, songs, and other works can be cleverly deceptive.
So what do we do?
Well, we certainly don’t cower in fear. On the contrary–we can be comforted by the fact that heretics and deceivers are nothing new. They’ve plagued God’s people for centuries.
Even in the days of the Old Testament there were plenty of false prophets around–far more false ones than true ones. Then later on, the early church contended with wicked wolves who rose up to lead them astray. The apostles, preachers, and other faithful disciples had to constantly warn the people and instruct them in the truth. They shepherded the flock, guarding them against the schemes of the devil and his messengers.
So we are not left unarmed in this battle to maintain and defend the truth. The Word of God provides us with ample biblical guidance regarding false teachers, specifically how to
- Recognize them
- Understand them
- Protect ourselves from them
- Respond to them
- Warn others about them
Allow me to share with you some of these simple principles gleaned from Scripture, and how to put them into practice in our daily lives.
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. (Matthew 7:15-20)
One thing the Bible doesn’t say concerning false teachers is “ignore them.” We are told, over and over again, to “beware” them–to know how to spot the deceivers among us.
Here in Matthew 7, Jesus teaches us how to recognize them. Elsewhere, we are told to “test the spirits” (rather than blinding believing them) to see “whether they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). In Acts, the Bereans were taught by Paul, but they constantly tested what he said against Scripture (17:11). Many other passages describe the doctrines of heretics and instruct us to avoid them–both the teachings and the teachers.
But you can’t avoid what you don’t perceive in the first place!
So how do we distinguish the true from the false? Let’s follow Jesus’ words:
- “…which come to you in sheep’s clothing.” Christ indicates that false teachers are among us. We are sheep, and they don’t stroll in looking like wolves. They dress themselves up to look like one of us. They claim to be Christians, they use the Bible (though they twist it and malign it), and they may seem very appealing. That is what makes them so dangerous!
- “…but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” They are set out for our destruction. There is nothing innocent about them. If there were, Jesus would have called them goats, not wolves. Wolves are enemies of the flock of God and want to gobble us up. False teachers want to lead the church astray, and can be very effective at it. If we see many following after their ungodly paths, we know we’ve got a wolf at hand.
- “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” What is produced by these teachers and their “ministries”? Is it God-glorifying, or man-glorifying? Is it biblically sound, or riddled with falsehood? What about their lives? Are they living in unrepentant sin, yet still claiming to be a shining example of Christ? We have to tread carefully here. Behind their attractive outer appearance, do they hide rotten fruit?
These three points may seem overly simplistic–and of course the rest of the Word elaborates on them–but Jesus chose them specifically in order to guide us in discernment. He didn’t make it complicated. He didn’t say, “Trust your instincts,” or “Pray until God tells you if the person is good or bad.” He gave us a concrete, yet basic method for evaluating the teachers around us.
But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber. (2 Peter 2:1-3)
In addition to recognizing false teachers, we are also taught by Scripture some defining characteristics about them, including
- Their teachings
- Their methods
- Their fate
Knowing these things is important, not just to guard ourselves, but to comfort ourselves when we feel dismayed about the state of the church. Maybe we have friends or family who have started following false teachers, and we wonder why God allows these wolves to deceive so many. Remembering His coming judgment, and the eternity that awaits us–free of falsehood and deception–should bring us hope.
What should we understand about false teachers? Here are a few points from the Word:
- Judgment, condemnation, and wrath from God await them, if they do not repent. The truly wicked ones are already eternally damned: They “bring on themselves swift destruction… for a long time their judgment as not been idle” (2 Peter 2:1, 3). Jude tells us that these “ungodly men” were “long ago marked out for this condemnation” and are “wandering stars for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever” (Jude 1:4, 13).
- They use exploitive methods in their attempts to destroy the church. Their approach is purposefully deceptive and targeted at the weakness and sinfulness of the people. These include tempting us to covet, flattering us, tickling our ears, causing divisions through lies, distracting us from the truth, and entertaining us with futile things.
- Their teachings fit into the same old categories. There really isn’t anything new under the sun, and no false teacher has a truly “brand new” heresy to sell. The Word tells us what some of these categories are: false gospels, the preachers of which are accursed (Gal. 1:8-9); heresies and lies about Jesus Christ and God in general (1 John 4:2, 2 John 1:7-11, Jude 1:4); fleshly, legalistic, man-made religion (1 Tim. 4:1-5, Col. 2:8); profane, idle babbling and ear-tickling fables (2 Tim. 4:3-5, 1 Tim. 6:20-21), and wicked behavior paired with godliness for the sake of greedy gain (1 Tim. 6:3-5, Jude 1:11).
PROTECTING OURSELVES FROM THEM
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. For your obedience has become known to all. Therefore I am glad on your behalf; but I want you to be wise in what is good, and simple concerning evil. And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly. (Romans 16:17-20)
Just by recognizing and understanding false teachers, we are already in the process of guarding ourselves. But there are additional steps God gives us, through His Word, so that we can ensure we are safe from their deception and walking in the truth.
Here are some lessons we can learn from this passage in Romans 16. Paul warns the church of false teachers who use “smooth words and flattering speech” to mislead them. Here is his instruction:
1. “Note… and avoid them.” This is not the only place in Scripture where we are taught to avoid false teachers. We should never follow their teachings or willingly place ourselves under them. Saying “I just swallow the meat and spit out the bones” contradicts this mandate to avoid. Just because we may feel strong enough to discern, doesn’t mean we should allow their corrupt ways to infiltrate our minds on a constant basis.
2. “For your obedience has become known to all.” Avoiding false teachers isn’t enough. We must also pursue obedience to Christ. In fact, the more we focus on filling ourselves with God’s Word, loving Jesus, and striving for holiness, the less likely Satan will even find the opportunity to tempt us to go astray. We’ll smell rotten teachings a mile away and just keep running in the direction of truth and godliness. We’ll surround ourselves with sound, Spirit-led teachers of the faith and leave no room for wolves.
3. “Be wise in what is good, and simple concerning evil.” Here is a great lesson for all of us to put into practice. While we do need to be aware of some of the evil being taught, we should not obsess over it or fill ourselves with it! This is especially true of sexual immorality. No, we don’t need to watch dirty movies or learn about the latest sexual sins that unbelievers are committing in order to know that we must abstain from those things and be holy and pure. Focusing on what is evil more than what is good will only tempt us. Let’s grow in God’s wisdom, not man’s foolishness. It’s only by knowing the real thing that we can recognize the counterfeit.
4. “The God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly.” This is reassurance more than a directive, but it is important for us to remember–God is in control; He is powerful and sovereign; and He will execute justice. Satan and his children will not always attack the church. There is coming a day when he and all the wicked will be punished eternally, and we will enjoy God’s presence forever, with no more reason to fear.
Alongside these commands from Romans 16, we are also given similar instructions in other places:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:3-5)
Even though we may not be ministers in the sense that Timothy was, we can still apply Paul’s instructions to him to our own lives. We too should be watchful and persevere through suffering, while also just continuing on with the tasks God has given us. The best way to make sure we do not turn aside is to fix our gaze ahead of us, on Christ, and on fulfilling His will.
Similarly, Colossians tells us to
...walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving. Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power” (2:6:10).
Here we learn to continue in the faith, holding on to the truth we’ve been taught, and remembering who we are in Christ. We don’t need the traditions of men because we are “complete in Him.” And there is nothing more false teachers can offer, because in Christ is the “fullness of the Godhead.” We also don’t need to fear their so-called authority, because Christ is the one who commands “all principality and power.”
Lastly, 1 Timothy 4:7 says that we must “reject profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise [ourselves] toward godliness.” After rejecting the lies, we should focus our energy on growing in obedience and holiness.
RESPONDING TO THEM
What happens when false teachers are no longer a generalized group, but a specific list of individuals–with names and personalities? What if we actually encounter them, face to face (or computer to computer)?
Once again, the Word gives us precepts to help us navigate these difficult situations.
- Make sure we know the truth–not just hearsay. If someone warns us about a false teacher, we should look into it–only as much as necessary–to validate his or her warning. Don’t just blindly believe what people tell you. God loves truth, and hates slander and lies.
- Assume the best until proven otherwise. Love always hopes, the Bible tells us. We should be hopeful that perhaps we are wrong about this teacher, and certainly not gleeful if we learn that he or she is promoting falsehood! If someone claims to be a Christian, we shouldn’t automatically treat them with hostile suspicion. Caution is understandable, but prematurely jumping on the “She’s a heretic!” bandwagon is not.
- If the person is truly a false teacher: pray for her, exhort her to repent and believe in Christ, and then avoid her teachings. If we find out someone is actively teaching heresy and leading the church astray, we must take time to pray, as we are commanded to for our enemies. Then, if we have the opportunity, we can appeal for that person to repent and trust in the Lord. But as we saw earlier, we should not develop a close relationship with that person or follow her teachings. The Word clearly commands avoidance.
- Be kind; don’t ridicule the teacher or make unwarranted personal attacks. This is true for anyone we disagree with. While we do not have to be “nice” the way the world describes it, and while we should not shy away from the truth, we also should not fall into meanness, prideful disdain, or humiliating the person. Personal attacks, particularly based on the absence of fact, are not only sinful, but useless and dumb. Let’s not give any reason for others to take offense at us, outside of the natural offensiveness of God’s truth.
WARNING OTHERS ABOUT THEM
Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ. (Jude 1:3-4)
Here in Jude, the Word tells us to “contend earnestly for the faith”–to guard it and defend it in the face of false teachers.
Pastors, as under-shepherds of God’s flock, are especially called to use their rods and staffs to protect the people from heresy. But we all, as Christians, should–by our words and lives–promote the truth of Scripture.
But what does this look like practically? How do we properly address false teachers with others?
Here are a few questions to guide us, before we call out a false teacher on social media or through any other means:
1. What is our motive in sharing about this false teacher? Is there any malicious intent behind it, or do we purely want others to not fall into their deception? Do we find delight in what we are exposing, or do we grieve over it? Our motive should be first and foremost, to love God and love our neighbor–not to hate on the teacher.
2. Is it necessary? Warning others is a fruit of loving them, for sure. But endlessly reporting the ongoing sagas of false teachers may not be necessary. In fact, it may draw needless attention toward them that could be put to better use elsewhere. It can also cause bickering and debates that are unedifying.
3. Has it become our sole focus? Are we also spreading truth? This is self-evident. As we saw earlier, the more we propagate the truth, the more easily others will see the deceptions for what they are.
4. Are we promoting and sitting under godly teachers? Same principle as #3.
5. Are we growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, and helping others do the same? 2 Peter 3:18 says, “You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Essentially, after doing all we can to avoid falsehood and warn others, we need to move on. We need to center ourselves on growing in Christ and bearing fruit for His glory.
Above all, let’s not allow false teachers to make us afraid or discouraged, or to distract us from our ultimate purpose. If we don’t give them that power, then no matter how strongly they call out to us, we can’t be bothered–we are far too busy enjoying God and glorifying Him forever.