Beware of false teachers. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Did you know that there are entire websites and ministries designed around the concept of identifying false teachers? As Christians, we are called to be “on guard” at all times. We are told that false teachers are everywhere, and we need to be careful lest we be led astray. But what exactly is a “false teacher”? How do we identify them? And is it possible to unknowingly be led away from the truth?
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Defining false teachers…
What if I told you that a false teacher isn’t necessarily defined by false teaching? Before you write me off and say I’m crazy, let me explain. Whenever a false teacher or prophet is mentioned in the New Testament, we find they all have one thing in common: poor intentions.
Ultimately, it’s the heart that defines a false teacher. Think about it this way. Jesus very clearly called the Pharisees out on their hypocrisy. He even referred to them as wolves and false shepherds in John 10. Jesus also told the crowds to do as the Pharisees taught, but to avoid behaving like them:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” – Matthew 23:1-3 (NIV)
The bottom line is this: the Pharisees were false teachers because their hearts were far from God, not because they were teaching false information.
The Bible also gives us a clear example of this situation in reverse:
But when Peter came to Antioch, I [Paul] had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile believers, who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. As a result, other Jewish believers followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. – Galatians 2:11-13 (NLT)
So should we write Peter off as a false teacher and negate his entire ministry because of this one error? Surely not! His heart’s desire was to teach the truth. He longed to please God. The situation needed to be dealt with, yes. And Paul confronted him face to face about it. But his error did not make him a false teacher because his heart longed to do God’s will.
Identifying false teachers…
Today, we throw around the term “false teacher” quite a bit. Many of us live in fear of being led astray. But the truth is that we have a promise from Jesus that His sheep know His voice. Not only that, but we can clearly identify the voice of a stranger. (John 10:1-16)
When asked about how to identify false teachers, many will respond by saying that we need to test their message against the Bible. And while it is true that we can identify false teaching this way, it’s not always the best way to identify a false teacher.
Since false teachers have impure motives, their message may, in fact, sound true and be in line with Scripture… (at least for the moment.) But Jesus wants us to stay away from false shepherds – people who are only in ministry for themselves, not for the sake of His sheep.
But there were also false prophets in Israel, just as there will be false teachers among you….In their greed they will make up clever lies to get hold of your money. But God condemned them long ago, and their destruction will not be delayed. – 2 Peter 2:1, 3 (NLT)
Those false teachers are so eager to win your favor, but their intentions are not good. They are trying to shut you off from me so that you will pay attention only to them. – Galatians 4:17 (NLT)
I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock. Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. – Acts 20:29-30 (NLT)
5 Spiritual Truths about False Teachers:
- The Bible can help us to identify false teaching (and we definitely should be testing all teaching against Scripture for this reason), but it’s the Holy Spirit who helps us to discern the hearts and motives of false teachers.
- Poor theology doesn’t necessarily make you a false teacher. Even the early church leaders had disagreements regarding basic theology and doctrine. And many of them changed their viewpoints throughout their ministries. I know that even my own theology has evolved throughout my life as I continue to learn more about God and His Word.
- A false teacher can sometimes be one who teaches sound doctrine and biblical teaching. The Pharisees are a perfect example of this. They taught the truth of the Law, but their hearts were far from God and they had prideful intentions.
- Remember to judge a tree by its fruit. Motives and intentions are what matters most when it comes to ministry. Not to undermine the importance of good teaching (which is very important); but in the end, God looks at the heart first and foremost.
- Trust the Holy Spirit in all that we do. God’s Spirit literally lives inside of us, and He is more than capable of guiding us into all truth. Trust Him when it comes to matters of teaching, theology, and leadership. He will NEVER lead you astray.
“When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.” – John 10:4-5
*Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.