- Recognizing False Teachers
Recognizing False Teachers
This may be the most important article I have ever written. Not because I have such insight but because the question is so contemporary – and urgent! The Bible frequently speaks of false teachers. Jesus said that they were wolves in sheep’s clothing. He suggested that they are ready to devour the flock (Matthew 7:15). We would all agree that they are to be avoided, but…
- How can we identify false teachers?
- How do we avoid them — and yet receive the message from true teachers?
- What are some of the good Bible Study resources?
2 Peter 2:1-3 NIV, But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. 2 Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. 3 In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories.
Sources of instruction
It has always been God’s plan for parents to teach the Scriptures to their children. In Deuteronomy 11:18,19, God directed parents to continually teach the words of God to their children. That assumes a responsibility for the parents to know the Scriptures and then teach them.
If we attend a local church, we are taught in Sunday School and during Bible study classes. Even the minister’s “sermons” include an element of instruction. The first public schools in America were taught by the church and used the Bible as a primer (see here).
Home Bible Study cells or groups are often a great source of instruction. Friends (often from a local congregation) meet during the week to discuss shared problems and interests and attempt to find answers in the Bible. Those who propose to lead can be held accountable if they begin to stray from commonly held doctrines.
There are friends and people of all walks of life quoting the “Good Book” and proposing that they understand its meanings who are glad to share their knowledge. Some may get it right and others may be misled themselves. Even President Obama recently tried it – and failed miserably (see here).
We are also taught by big name “teachers” or “pastors” who have daily (or more frequent) shows on TV and radio. (Some, including a prominent “pastor” who experienced two previous moral failures, have 24 hour cable and internet channels.) They lead crusades that pack out auditoriums and sell books by the millions. Even if we do not watch their shows or read their books, many of our friends will rehearse their teachings to us.
Major Bible sites allow you to read the Bible or find a special verse online. Some even offer smart phone apps to make the Bible available anywhere you have a mobile device. I especially like the free Bible app from YouVersion. It is one of the most downloaded apps of all times and offers a wide range of translations, versions, and reading programs. It also offers downloadable NIV and the “spoken word” in several versions.
Other sites, such as Bible Gateway, or the Bible Hub, offer services similar to Bible.com but also offer Bible study tools such as commentaries and dictionaries. These can be extremely helpful to those interested in deeper study of the Bible.
Devotional web sites such as the Chief Shepherd, Upper Room, or Our Daily Bread offer teachings for both lay persons and clergy. However, these sites must each be valued based upon the trust-worthiness of the author of each article. None of us has a perfect understanding of all the doctrinal issues in the Bible.
Facebook (and other social media) is filled with posts by well-meaning Christian people fostering their opinion of what the Bible teaches. Posts often include an admonishment that “if you believe in Jesus” (or similar) then you must share their picture/quote. Recently, a friend posted a motto from a self-described “psychic”. Evidently, he thought the phrase sounded Christian-like! Just one word… “beware.”
Internet-challenged Bible students check here. Personal and public libraries may include commentaries, dictionaries, and devotional materials. Again, these can be very helpful to those wanting to do a deeper study of the Bible. But, like all public sources depend upon our trust of the author.
Interestingly, many people form subconscious beliefs about what the Scriptures teach through the lyrics of popular Christian music. Have you heard the phrase, “My sins are gone! They were cast into the sea of God’s forgetfulness” (or something similar)? That is NOT a Scripture reference! For more about this, see the article, “Sea of Forgetfulness.”
Just because something is popular does not make it correct according to the Scripture. Unfortunately, much of the teaching from public celebrities does not line up with traditional Christian doctrine – or with the teaching of Bible-based churches and teachers. Even more confusing, some local churches have altered their teachings to align with the celebrities.
Who should we believe?
It all comes down to a matter of trust.
We have to trust our teachers. We can generally trust our local pastors and teachers. They are the people we meet and talk to. People that we know. We know their life, their everyday behavior, their sacrifices in ministry. These are the people who SERVE. If we find contradiction or error in their teaching, we can challenge them (privately) and resolve the issue to reinforce that trust. If we need counseling, encouragement, someone to visit us when we are sick or in the hospital, someone to conduct a wedding or funeral – these are the people we go to. Because we know that we can trust them.
Who can we trust?
It is more difficult to trust those with celebrity status. Living far away or moving quickly from one place to another makes it difficult to accurately assess the character of such public celebrities. And, the fact that someone may have experienced a miracle at one of their meetings does not infer that that person or ministry is 100% dedicated to serving Christ (Matthew 7:22).
Public celebrities are not approachable. Write to one of them and ask them to conduct the wedding for your daughter – or the funeral of your mother. IF they respond, it will likely be with a demand for cash. Everything about their public image is honed to perfection and oozes with the “I am perfect and correct” persona. As to their teaching, you can either take their word or not – no discussion allowed. if you do not agree with them, there is no recourse.
The common reasoning is that celebrities could not have attained such a position and following if they were not “from God.” Therefore people follow their teaching – not out of trust – but simply because they have celebrity status. If you have considered it that way, read Matthew 7:13,14.
Preaching vs teaching
I recently received an understanding about the distinction between teaching and preaching. I believe God revealed to me that we should “Preach the Word” (1Co 1:23) and “Teach the Scriptures” (Mt 28:19,20).
That sounds like a redundancy. It is not! The Word, of course, is Christ (John 1:1). Preaching Christ infers that the content of such preaching should be about Christ. It should be about the gospel. It should be about the good news. It should be about telling people about how Christ can save their souls!
In other words, preaching should be about saving souls and little else. Think Billy Graham. There is no denominational influence, no doctrinal debate, no personal gain. That is why Paul could rejoice over some men preaching Christ with false motives (Philippians 1:18). TV and Crusade preachers – who exclusively preach Christ and the gospel message – have my support.
Teach the Scriptures
Teaching on the other hand should be about the Scripture (the Bible) and its application to life. Jesus taught His disciples (Mt 28:19,20) to “make disciples.” That can be understood of preaching the gospel, but more so, it is about teaching all the things that Jesus said (Scripture) to those who accept the gospel message. That is the true job of every Christian on earth – make disciples – teaching them what the Scriptures say.
Although the Holy Spirit will teach you, His “teaching” is normally in the form of “remind[ing] you” of what you have already heard (see John 14:26). We can study on our own, but it is easy to get side-tracked (or even derailed) by the multitude of voices “teaching” us their wildly varied interpretation of the Bible. What we really need are trust-worthy, Bible-true teachers of Scripture!
The bottom line is that each of us has to decide whom we will trust as our teacher. I choose people who I recognize and respect and honor. I choose to follow their teaching and, with the leading of the Holy Spirit, allow God to guide me in the study of His word. That does not forbid listening to celebrity preachers as they preach Christ. But, if I hear one of them telling me to send my tithes to “My TV Pastor”, I change the channel.
Note: Dr. Lance Ketchum has published an article here that uses 2 Peter 2 to list six issues on false teaching. Although I do not subscribe to the comments he makes, the list of issues appears correct.