Recognizing False Teachers
There are a lot of religions for people to follow today. Eastern religions are spreading all over the world. Extreme cults (that lead to tragedies such as the mass suicides of the Branch Davidians in Texas and Heaven’s Gate in California) continue to appear. Other more established cults continue to spread their message by door-to-door canvassing. And then there are numerous spin-offs from established denominations, that over-emphasize one aspect of biblical truth at the expense of all others.
While false teachers seem to characterize these religions, the Bible says, “Beware of false prophets” (Mt. 7:15 NIV), because they can also appear in any church. They are also referred to as “false teachers” and “false apostles.” All of them will be called “false teachers” in this series.
False teachers are mentioned somehow in all except two of the 27 books in the New Testament. For example, Christ warned against the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Gospels. The Book of Acts tells us of false teachers who promoted idolatry, occult practices and Jewish traditions. In the Epistles, many verses warn of false teachers within the Church, including two whole books, Galatians and Jude. And much of Romans urges believers to turn away from Jewish legalism.
The most common word used to describe false teachers is that they are deceivers, who lead people astray. They distort the truth in order to draw followers after themselves (Acts 20:30), and make them zealous for their cause (Gal. 4:17). False teachers can leave a trail of destruction, like savage wolves among sheep (Acts 20:29). They can also bring teachings from demons (1 Tim. 4:1).
Paul reminded those in Ephesus daily for three years to “be on your guard” against false teachers (Acts 20:31). The Bible indicates that the best defense against false teachers is to become mature in the Christian faith.
A Sign Of Maturity
The immature are “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14). They are blown off course like a sail boat in a storm. However, the mature are not deceived or blown off course because they “have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14).
The Three Tests
It is important to evaluate those that promote a new or different teaching. In fact, all teachers should be tested “to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn. 4:1). In a more general sense, believers should “test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Th. 5:21-22).
The church at Ephesus must have heeded Paul’s warning, as it was commended: “I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false” (Rev. 2:2).
There are three clear tests for recognizing false teachers: the Jesus Test, the Gospel Test and the Fruit Test.
The Jesus Test
The Jesus Test for distinguishing good from evil states that, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist … This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 Jn. 4:2,3,6).
Similarly, the Bible also asks, “Who is the liar? It is the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist – he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1 Jn. 2:22-23). Such people do not agree with what the Bible says about Jesus Christ (2 Jn. 7; Jude 4).
In Matthew 16:13-16, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This conversation occurred after Christ warned the disciples of the false teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
So, the question to be answered in the Jesus Test is this: Who is Jesus Christ? False teachers deny that Christ is the divine Son of God, believing him to be nothing more than a great teacher. Some of those who fail the Jesus Test are: Animist, Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian Scientist, Hare Krishna, Hindu, Jehovah’s Witness, Humanist, practicing Jew, Mormon, Muslim, New Ager, occult worshiper and Scientologist. All these groups worship physical things or follow false beliefs (Rom. 1:23,25; Col. 2:8; 1 Tim. 6:20). Christians believe that Christ is divine and human (Jn. 1:14; 10:30; Phil. 2:5-8), sinless (Heb. 4:15), eternal (Jn. 17:24), and the Creator (Col.1:16). Jesus is truly unique.
The Gospel Test
Besides believing in a different Jesus, the Bible also states that false teachers promote a different gospel: “For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted … such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:4,13).
To the Galatians, Paul writes: “I am astonished that you are … turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:6-7). He then states that these false teachers were “trying to pervert the gospel of Christ” and should be “eternally condemned” (Gal. 1:7-9). These strong words are repeated to emphasize their importance.
So, the question to be answered in this test is: What is their gospel? The Bible says that the root cause of all our problems is that everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s requirements – resulting in death (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). The only means of rescue is salvation by faith in Christ (Eph. 2:8,9). “Different gospels” do not present this truth. They either add to it or take away from it, and Revelation warns against this tampering with aspects of the Gospel (ch. 22:18-19; 1:5; 4:11; 21:1-22:6).
A “different gospel” may also deceive by using words similar to the true gospel, but giving them different meanings. Three examples are the works gospel, the pleasure gospel and the greed gospel.
The works gospel adds extra requirements to the true gospel, such as the rules and regulations of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Mt. 16:5-12). Simply put, it says there are things you must do to get saved and stay saved.
Followers of the pleasure gospel “never stop sinning” and entice others by “appealing to the lustful desires of the sinful human nature,” while they are “slaves of depravity” (2 Pet. 2:13-22). They “change the grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 4).
Those caught up in the greed gospel “think that godliness is a means to financial gain,” despite the warning that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” that causes people to “wander from the faith” and “pierce themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:5,10). Examples of the greed gospel would be the “health” and “wealth” gospels so prevalent today.
The Fruit Test
It is God’s will that we be fruitful. Jesus said “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing … I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (Jn. 15:5,16).
Jesus warned, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them” (Mt. 7:15,16,20). He also said, “Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briars. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:44-45).
So, the question of this test is: What kind of fruit is evident? Is the divine nature or the sinful nature most evident? The former is characterized by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The sinful nature may involve idolatry, sexual immorality, selfish ambition, pride and dissension (Gal. 5:19-23).
A related question would be: Is there evidence of spiritual growth? For example, in another book that deals with false teachers, John writes, “It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us” (2 Jn. 4).
It can be seen that the three tests get at the core of Christianity. If we use them to distinguish good and evil, then there are two possibilities, a pass or a failure. The consequences of these are now considered in turn.
Those That Fail The Tests
False teachers within the Church are a serious issue because they lead to divisions rather than unity (Rom. 16:17; Ti. 3:10; Jude 19). The biblical response is to warn them twice and then “have nothing to do with them” (Ti. 3:10). For example, at Galatia Paul resisted false teachers by not giving in to them for a moment and standing firm against them (Gal. 2:5; 5:1). He also opposed Peter, a fellow-worker, to his face when Peter failed the gospel test (Gal. 2:11-13). The reason for this is that false teachings can spread as yeast works through a batch of dough (1 Cor. 5: 6-7; Gal. 5:9).
False teachers within the Church should be confronted (Ti. 1:13; Rev. 2:2), in order to silence them and stop their influence on other believers (1 Tim. 1:3; Ti. 1:11). If they do not cease, they should be expelled in order to avoid contaminating the local church (Rom. 16:17; Gal. 4:30; 1 Tim. 4:7; 2 Tim. 2:21). This also applies to those practicing sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:1-13). It is the method to be followed when contending for the faith (Jude 3). Elders are responsible for this – they are to be on their guard and protect the church as a shepherd protects the sheep (Acts 20:28-31). They should not ignore false teachers, hoping they will go away.
We should not welcome or help false teachers from outside the church, as this causes us to share in their wicked work (2 Jn. 10-11). This is consistent with keeping ourselves from idols (1 Cor. 10:14; 1 Jn. 5:21). We should also “have nothing to do with them” (2 Tim. 3:5). In all situations involving false teachers we must remember this warning: “Do not be misled: Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor. 15:33).
Those That Pass The Tests
We need to make sure we correctly identify those that pass the Jesus Test, the Gospel Test and the Fruit Test. For example, John told Jesus, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Jesus replied, “Do not stop him. No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk. 9:38-40). The disciples were rebuked for using the wrong test. Likewise, we should be careful not to use the wrong test when assessing other believers. It would be wrong to treat other believers as false teachers, just because they are “not one of us.”
It is interesting to note that the Lord told Peter in Corinth, “I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:10). Likewise, God has people in every town and nation, and we should not be afraid to associate with people who pass the tests, otherwise we become like Peter in Galatians 2. If God accepts them, we should too (Acts 10:34-35; Rom. 15:7).
Finally, we should test ourselves: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5).
Do we live as though Jesus is God? Do we add to or take away from the gospel of salvation by faith in Christ? Do we drift into different gospels such as that of works, pleasure or greed? What sort of fruit is evident? Is there spiritual growth?
The Bible contains all the principles we need to live the Christian life. Yet it is possible to over-emphasize minor parts of the Bible and under-emphasize major parts. It is wrong to build a major theology from a Bible passage taken out of context. For example, there are numerous verses in the New Testament about loving one another – a major part of the Christian faith (Jn. 15:17) – while there are only a few about speaking in tongues. It would be wrong to act as though speaking in tongues was a more important issue than loving one another. As has often been said, we should never major in the minors!
Published, July – September 1998