How To Recognize a False Teacher

It is no secret we live in an evangelical culture of confusion and false teaching filled with charlatans and deceivers. In our technological age of Facebook, Twitter, satellite television, and on-demand podcasts, there is no shortage of heresy. This heresy may manifest itself with subtle messages of the power of positive thinking to outlandish manifestations where people bark like dogs and have direct conversations with angels who sprinkle them with gold dust. Yet, in the midst of all of this evangelical pandemonium, nothing is new under the sun.

In 1 Timothy, Paul warn this young pastor about the insidious nature of false teachers who bring destructive heresies into the church. Jude also warns his readers that these ungodly people had “crept in unnoticed, who pervert the grace of God into sensuality and deny the Lordship of Christ.” (Jude 4)

What are some distinguishing marks of false teachers? How can we recognize them? Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:15-16: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits.”

Sadly, many popular spiritual leaders may not hold to heretical teachings, but by their partnerships and affiliations they lack biblical discernment. They themselves may not be false teachers but when they appear on certain programs, or join together for conferences or crusades, they demonstrate a possible slide toward heresy.

In addition, many of these teachers may value unity above doctrine and truth. They may be so concerned about uniting the “body of Christ” that they compromise core beliefs in favor of ecumenism. Ecumenism is the desire to join across denominational or religious boundaries while at the same time forfeiting clear doctrinal distinctives. For example, some may stress the need to include Roman Catholics into the definition of what it means to be the body of Christ and fail to see how the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church denies salvation by grace alone through faith alone.[1]

Let me suggest SIX distinguishing characteristics of false teachers. While it may be beneficial from time to time to actually name particular names of who to avoid, false teachers fluctuate in popularity and come and go. The hottest false teacher today may be tomorrow’s old news. Instead of listing these wolves by name, I want us to see from 1 Timothy 6:3-10 how Paul helps us identity the marks of a false teacher.

 1 Timothy 6:3–10

 If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

Mark One: Leaders whose teaching contradicts sound doctrine.

 1 Timothy 6:3 reads: “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ…”

The first distinguishing identifier of false teaching is blatant heresy that denies sound doctrine. Does the teacher hold to the absolute essentials of the Christian faith? Does the leader embrace the rich theology of the early creeds and confessions?

What is his or her view on (1) The Trinity (2) The Deity of Christ (3) The Humanity of Christ (4) The sinful nature of fallen man (5) The virgin birth (6) the substitutionary atonement of Christ (7) the resurrection (8) the exclusivity of Christ in salvation (9) salvation by grace alone through faith alone (10) the reality of eternal heaven and eternal conscious torment in hell and (11) the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of the Scriptures?

In regards to the Trinity, is he or she a modalist? That is, one who denies that there are three distinct Persons in the Godhead who are co-equal and co-eternal. In other words, does the leader view God as playing three modes of existence instead of the One God existing in three Persons?[2]

In regards to the Deity of Christ, is the leader an Arian? That is, one who denies that Jesus is fully God in the flesh. Does he or she believe that Jesus is actually the eternal Son of God, never created, but always existing in eternity past?[3]

In regards to the Humanity of Christ, is the leader a Gnostic? That is, one who denies that Jesus came in the flesh and that he simply “appeared” as a man.[4]

In addition, is there an overfascination or even worship of angels? Do they give personal stories about angelic encounters or travels to heaven where they have received some type of special knowledge to impart to the rest of us?

Colossians 2:18–19 reads, Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

Does the person boast more about “detailed visions” of angelic visitations than he or she does about Jesus and the gospel?

In regards to the sinful nature of man, is the leader a Pelagian[5]? That is, one who denies original sin inherited from Adam that makes all humans guilty in their trespasses and born under God’s wrath. Are we simply born a “blank slate” with a moral neutrality that learns to sin based upon our environment? Or are we born totally depraved with every faculty of our being tainted by sin which renders us guilty before a holy God in need of forgiveness?

In regards to work of Jesus on the cross, does the leader pay “lip service” to the bloody sacrifice of Jesus who propitiated God’s wrath against sin and down play the need for a perfect Substitute? Does the leader confess that God is just and must demand payment for sin through Jesus?

Does the leader deny the literal resurrection of Christ from the grave?

Does this teacher deny that Jesus is the only way of salvation? Does he or she use language such as this: “Jesus is the one of MANY ways to God” or “Jesus is the BEST way to God”. This language is deceptively slippery because it does not outright deny Jesus as the only way but fools people by saying He’s the “best” way—but there may be other ways as well?

Does he or she believe that salvation is by grace ALONE or faith ALONE or are there additional requirements that need to be met in order to be accepted by God such as practicing some sort of sacrament? Is there any human work that needs to be added to salvation that we must somehow contribute in order to be forgiven? This could include baptism, speaking in tongues, financial giving, or any other human work added on to faith alone in Christ.

Does this teacher believe in a literal hell as a place of eternal conscious torment for those who die in their sins and rebel against God? Does he or she bristle at the thought of God punishing sinners for eternity?

Does the leader believe the totality of the Bible to be verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore free of all errors in the original manuscripts. Do they pick and choose which parts of the Bible they prefer akin to a buffet line? Do they believe there is a fixed historical meaning of texts that do not change over time?

These are the dogmas of our Christian faith and to deny any one of them places you outside the bounds of historic, orthodox biblical Christianity.

 Mark Two: Leaders whose teaching does NOT promote godliness.

 1 Timothy 6:3 continues. . . “and the teaching that accords with godliness.”

Does the leader promote a licentious or antinomian[6] approach to Christian living? In other words, do they downplay the role of holiness and godliness? Do they neglect the Law of God to guide us in living moral lives?

Would the mantra of this false teacher be something like this: “You really like to sin, and God really likes to forgive. . . so keep on sinning your heart out because after all God will still forgive you.”

This dangerous thinking makes one think he or she obtains a “get out of hell free card”, which allows unlimited pleasure in sinning. They bank on God’s “automatic forgiveness” instead of stressing holiness, godliness, and repentance that leads to life.

 Peter echoes this idea in 2 Peter 2:1–2: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.

Mark Three: Leaders whose teaching focuses on inflating their ego or drawing attention to their charismatic persona.

 1 Timothy 6:4 continues: “. . . he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing.”

Paul warns Timothy that if a false teacher denies sound doctrine and godly living, he is focused on promoting his or her own agenda instead of God’s glory.

Again, Peter urges us to recognize false teachers in 2 Peter 2:18: “For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error.

Look closely at the ministry leaders and determine if they are in it to make a name for themselves? Do they promote their “brand” with an overemphasis on making much of themselves or on God? Who is the center of attention in their ministry? Do you see evidence of one who is puffed up with conceit? Do you see an inflated ego that needs to be stroked? Do you see the leader’s charismatic persona as the driving force behind their teaching, or is God’s glory and His Word front and center?

Mark Four: Leaders whose teaching enables depraved minds to continue to be deprived of the truth.

 1 Timothy 6:4–5 reads: “He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.”

Many false teachers attract goats/false converts/lost people who show no evidence of regeneration. These followers are not discerning and display a depraved mind that is not shaped by a biblical worldview.  False teachers continue to keep them deprived of truth so that they will remain in a state of depraved and wicked thinking.

Does the leader show evidence of a following of godly, maturing believers who hold to sound doctrine, use wise discernment, and show forth the fruits of regeneration?

In other words, is the false teacher an “enabler” of lost people to remain in a state of lostness? Is he or she a manipulator? Is dispensing the truth of God’s Word first and foremost in the ministry or is there an unhealthy addiction to having masses of people flocking to the church or ministry?

While large numbers in and of themselves are not inherently bad, an overzealous fascination with gaining numbers at all costs through pragmatic marketing or deceitful tactics demonstrates the modus operandi of many false teachers. They are more concerned with making sure people continue to support their ministry than they are with teaching truth.

2 Timothy 4:3–4 says, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

Is the spiritual leader guilty of “itching ears” that turn people away from the truth and into the abyss of unbiblical myths?

Mark Five: Leaders who greedily seek financial gain instead of godly contentment.

 I Timothy 6:5 says of false teachers, “imagining that godliness is a means of gain.”

1 Peter 5:2 urges pastors how to lead the church: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;

 Does the spiritual leader show evidence of seeking shameful gain through financial manipulation? Is the ministry focused on “sowing a seed” that only helps the false teacher remain on top of the pyramid scheme where he or she gets richer and richer? Is there an over emphasis on money and finances and seeking God’s blessing financially?

Here is a strong warning: The health, wealth, and prosperity Word Faith movement is a false gospel and almost everyone who is on Christian broadcasting falls into this camp.

2 Peter 2:3 says, “And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.”

Mark Six: Teachers who lead people to desire riches and love money plunge their followers into ruin.

1 Timothy 6:9–10 says, “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”

How much teaching and preaching focuses on the glory of Christ, repentance, taking up one’s cross and denying self, embracing suffering, and displaying the fruit of the Spirit versus money, riches, power, popularity, and prestige?

False teachers prey upon those less fortunate by promising them wealth and prosperity if they just have enough “faith” to claim their miracle. When the miracles do not happen, the frustrated follower is left thinking it is his or her fault because he or she must not have enough faith or the supposed “anointing” to get what God has “promised” to them.

Paul provides a strong warning at the end of 1 Timothy in regards to materialism and greed. In 1 Timothy 6:17, he writes, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.”

In conclusion, the book of Hebrews tells us the importance of using discernment. Hebrews 5:14 says, “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”

You and I must have our powers of discernment trained by constant practice. We must be diligent to recognize false teachers. We must be established firmly in sound doctrine so we can hold fast to the trustworthy Scriptures. We must pray for those trapped in false belief systems that God would graciously rescue them through the gospel. We must be wary when a religious leader who claims to have sound doctrine has affiliations and partnerships with those who do not all for the sake of “unity”.

Jesus prayed for our unity in John 17, but not at the expense of the truth.

Hear the words of Jesus in John 17:17–21: Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.  “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

May we all be sanctified in the truth of God’s Word so that we can faithfully hold fast to the gospel and by our unity in that truth, the world might believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord!

[1]The Council of Trent in 1546 enforced this statement: “If anyone says, that by faith alone the sinner is justified, let him be anathema (which means damned to hell). The current Catechism of the Catholic Church also teaches this.

[2]Modalism claims that there is one Person who appears to us in three different forms or “modes”. This is sometimes called Seballianism as well named after a heretic Sebellius who lived in Rome. Modalism denies the personal relationship between each member of the Trinity that is clearly taught in Scripture.

[3] This heresy was named after Arius and was condemned at the Council of Nicea at 325. From this heresy came the clear articulation of the Deity of Christ in the Nicene Creed.

[4]Apollinarianism is the heresy that Jesus had a human body, but not a human mind—only a spiritual mind. This was rejected by Council of Alexandria in 362 and Constantinople in 381

[5]Pelagius was a fifth century monk in England who taught that man has the ability to obey God’s commands and can take the first and most important steps toward salvation on his own. This was denounced a heresy in 418 AD at the Council of Carthage.

[6]The word “antinomian” comes from two Greek words, “anti” which means “against” and “nomos” which means “law”. In other words, an antinomian rejects the role of God’s moral law in the life of the Christian as a guide for holy living.

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