How to recognize false teachers

Core of the Bible podcast #32 – How to recognize false teachers

In this episode we will be exploring the topic of vigilance, and how we need to constantly be on guard against false teaching and exposing those who are leading others astray. For us to do so, we must be able to accurately identify them.

Yeshua stated it this way:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” Matthew 7:15-20

A way of paraphrasing this can be expressed as: Beware of deceitful religious impostors. You will recognize them for what they truly are by looking closely at the results of their words and actions.

Vigilance involves being on guard against all manner of deception to avoid following a false way.

Job 15:34-35 “For the company of the godless is barren, And fire consumes the tents of the corrupt. “They conceive mischief and bring forth iniquity, And their mind prepares deception.”

Ephesians 5:6  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.

1 John 2:26  These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you.

Romans 16:17-18  Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.

Colossians 2:8  See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.

2 Corinthians 11:3-4, 13  But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity [of devotion] to Christ. For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear [this] beautifully. … For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.

Believers are warned over and over again to avoid deception and be sure that they are not being led astray.

If it was true for them in their day, how much more this is timely advice in this current day and age! We have become inundated with information overload; we must carefully pick and choose the sources of our teaching to ensure we are remaining on the narrow path laid out for us.

This admonition of Yeshua to beware of false prophets was of utmost importance to his first-century flock, as the nation was full of those who would try to gain a hearing, and a living, from the ignorant and willing among them.

Mark 13:22 – For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.

1 John 4:1 – Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

Thankfully, Yeshua provided a touch-stone, a type of verification of identity of false teaching and those who promote it: “You will recognize them by their fruits.”  Their fruits are their actions and their words; do they align with what they are promoting? Do they align with the Word of God?

DETERMINING FALSEHOOD

The apostle Peter had no shortage of words for the deceivers that were prevalent in his day. What he has laid out in a few verses in his second epistle can provide us an outline of identifiers of false teaching.

2 Peter 2:1-3 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. 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.

In this passage, the apostle vividly expanded on describing more specifically what some of those fruits of false teachers are that Yeshua mentioned as the method of identifying them.

  • secrecy
  • denying Yeshua as Messiah
  • sensuality
  • greed
  • exploitation of believers
  • false words
  • speaking against the way of truth

What are the fruits of Bible teachers today? Can their doctrine and their lifestyles be matched up to this list that Peter has provided us? I believe that by taking a closer look at Peter’s outline and asking some relevant questions, we may begin to put together a picture of what these false teachers look like, how they act, and what they are erroneously teaching.

THE WAY OF TRUTH

One of the key indicators that Peter provides is that among false teachers the way of truth will be blasphemed. Depending on the version being quoted, this is variously represented as maligning or speaking evil of the way of truth. Since, as believers, we are very anxious to make sure we are following the way of truth, we can start with this identifier.

First, let’s see how the Bible defines this way of truth. Yeshua taught:

Matthew 7:13-14  “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. “For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

John 14:3-6  “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, [there] you may be also. “And you know the way where I am going.” Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.

So we see Yeshua identified himself and his teaching as being a key to understanding the way and the truth which leads to life.

The apostle Paul, when confronted by his accusers that he was abandoning the law of Moses, says:

Acts 24:14  “But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets…”

Based on these few passages, the Way (or the way of truth) can be discerned as “a way of life based on God’s word culminating in the teaching and life of his Messiah.” So if people are speaking against God’s Word or the Messiah as the fulfillment of his Word, they are blaspheming this way of the truth that God has revealed.

Now you might be saying, “Well how can Bible teachers be speaking against God’s Word or the Messiah? Isn’t that what they teach?” Well, it would seem so, but there are ways they can still speak against God’s word while claiming to teach it.

For example, many groups today teach that the law or sections of the law have been abolished and no longer apply to believers today; things like food laws or observation of the Sabbath, or God’s annual calendar days. They teach that Yeshua’s death on the cross did away with everything prior from the Old Testament; essentially three-fourths of the Bible they carry around has been nullified! But this maligns God’s Word and his Messiah, since Yeshua was very clear that this would not be the case.

Matthew 5:17-19  “Don’t think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished. “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

For something to be fulfilled is not the same thing as being abolished. Because there is so much confusion over these points, I will be doing some future studies on how we can know which laws have been fulfilled (but never abolished) and which ones are designed to be fulfilled only as we fulfill them in our lives. Understanding these distinctions brings the whole of God’s word into the vitality of our relationship with God. All of God’s Word is for all believers in all ages.

But this process of picking and choosing what we are going to follow from God’s word is one of the main ways that his Word is maligned and blasphemed today. We need to be on guard to identify these aspects with those whom we consider teachers among us.

QUESTIONS FOR EVALUATING TEACHERS

Regarding the other characteristics or fruits of false teachers that Peter warns about, here are some questions to consider that may provide further insight into false teachers and their doctrine.

Secrecy or stealth (v. 1): Are the teachers promising a secret message “just for you” or for only a limited few among the group? Do they promote secret practices that only certain people can be privy to? Do they have a hidden agenda that underlies a more favorable public message? Do they have a different lifestyle in private than they are in public? Hidden motives and secrets are a key indicator of false teachers.

Denying Yeshua as Messiah (v. 1): the word means to contradict or disown Yeshua. Is Yeshua not central to their doctrine? Is Yeshua just one path among many to God? Do their teachings contradict what Yeshua taught, but still sound “biblical” and reasonable? This applies to what we previously mentioned about speaking evil of the Way.

Sensuality (v. 2): the word conveys more of a meaning of rejecting restraint, committing acts or saying things that are shocking to public decency. Are these teachers’ lives bad examples on public display? Are expressions of riotous behavior acceptable within the group dynamic? Are clear commands of God being downplayed or eradicated?

Covetousness and Greed (v. 3): Are they constantly asking for money to assist in their “ministry” and for goods and properties that do nothing in the cause of helping those in need or sharing the good news of the kingdom?  Do they live a lavish lifestyle on the contributions of the congregation? This ties closely with the next indicator of exploitation.

Exploitation (v. 3): This word also implies “to trade in,” as if their followers are a commodity to be used. Are they taking advantage of believers’ trust through their greed? Are they manipulative and seeking to be in control? Are the members of the group being pressured to donate unreasonable amounts of their time and money to support their lifestyle?

False words (v. 3):  Are they making false promises that never come to pass? Are they creating artificial or fictitious scenarios to lure people further into deception? Simply put, are they just making stuff up and passing it off as God’s truth?

Yeshua declares the end of false teachers or “every tree that does not produce good fruit” as being “cut down and thrown into the fire,” (Matt. 7:19). While they may look good on the surface, they will not survive their worldly aspirations designed only to better themselves. While the context of Yeshua’s statement applied to the coming destruction of the corrupt system of his day, in no way does that diminish God’s view of those who are promoting falsehood and tradition over the Word of God today.

Psalm 119:29, 128  Remove the false way from me, And graciously grant me Your law [torah]. … Therefore I esteem right all Your precepts concerning everything, I hate every false way.

Believers are right to hate every false way when we recognize it. This is a built-in zeal for righteousness that believers cultivate as they yield to God’s Word and the inspiration of his Spirit. This zeal yearns for the truth to be known and for right ways to prevail over injustice and deception.

Instead of simply going along with these aberrational doctrines and practices, we should be vigilant and dedicated to exposing the falsehood of their teachings. We need to be bold enough to confront and expose these unfruitful deeds, as Paul explains to the Ephesians.

Ephesians 5:6, 11, 15-16 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. … Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; … Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.

CONFRONTING FALSE TEACHERS

To expose these falsehoods is to rebuke and chasten the ones who hold to deception, demonstrating the falsity of their claims so that others will not be mislead by them. Those who blatantly teach falsehoods need to be aggressively confronted and shown to be in error. This was the pattern of Yeshua and his disciples.

Yeshua did not hesitate to confront the error of the religious leaders of his day.

Matthew 23:27-28, 33  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of impurity. “In the same way, on the outside you seem righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.  … “Snakes! Brood of vipers! How can you escape being condemned to hell?

Matthew 21:12 – Jesus went into the temple and threw out all those buying and selling. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves.

The early believers also carried this essential teaching of Yeshua into their congregations. We have already seen how Peter called out false teachers; and here we can see how Jude, in like fashion, and almost the same wording as Peter, expressed the need for this vigilance among believers. The whole letter of Jude is essentially a diatribe against false teaching. Here are some excerpts:

Jude 1:4, 8, 11-13, 16, 19  For some people … have come in by stealth; they are ungodly, turning the grace of our God into sensuality and denying Jesus Christ, our only Master and Lord.  … In the same way these people ​– ​relying on their dreams ​– ​defile their flesh, reject authority, and slander glorious ones. … Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, have plunged into Balaam’s error for profit, and have perished in Korah’s rebellion.  These people are dangerous reefs at your love feasts as they eat with you without reverence. They are shepherds who only look after themselves. They are waterless clouds carried along by winds; trees in late autumn ​– ​fruitless, twice dead and uprooted. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shameful deeds; wandering stars for whom the blackness of darkness is reserved forever.  … These people are discontented grumblers, living according to their desires; their mouths utter arrogant words, flattering people for their own advantage. …These people create divisions and are worldly, not having the Spirit.

If we don’t have this same type of view of false teachers, we are destined to be weighted down with bad doctrine in every generation. We need to be bold enough to confront these teachers and to hold them accountable to the truth of God’s Word and the Way of Messiah.

HELPING OTHERS WHO ARE CAUGHT UP IN FALSE TEACHING

Now, as much as I would love to end on such a fiery denunciation of falsehood, I feel compelled to provide further insight on the general membership of believers who have become caught up in their rhetoric. Because we know how destructive falsehood can be, it is quite natural for us to become emotionally upset with those who promote doctrine and beliefs that are not true. However, in the same way we are commanded to be vigilant in confronting teachers of falsehoods, we are also commanded to be respectful and balanced toward those who may be led astray by them. As believers it is our duty to call out the false teachers among our ranks, but to be helpful with love and gentleness to those who have followed false teaching.

To this end, Paul encouraged Timothy to select leaders who could be firm, but not bullying or quarrelsome.

1 Timothy 3:2-3  An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, self-controlled, sensible, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not an excessive drinker, not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome, not greedy.

2 Timothy 2:23-26  But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses [and escape] from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.

Paul intimates here that those who are holding to falsehood are in need of “coming to their senses.” The word is used to describe those who are in need of sobering up from intoxication. They have become captive to false ideas that cause them to act in ways that are adversarial to the will of God and the way of truth.

Confrontation is never easy; if it is, then you’re not doing it right, or you have some further self-examination to do. Confronting falsehood effectively takes maturity and diplomacy, which is why Paul was instructing Timothy to ensure that potential leaders have qualities of balance and maturity.

This level-headedness was sorely needed in the volatile environment of first-century Palestine where conflict, both civil and religious, was rampant.

INTERACTING WITH FALSEHOOD AROUND US IN OUR CULTURE

Our current environment, at least here in the American society, appears to be moving in a similar direction. While our primary focus of correcting falsehood should be aimed at those within the ranks of the Kingdom of God, we are equally challenged with the turbulence of the current secular age, where mere opinion and personally-defined rights are flaunted and shouted as if they were to be recognized as legitimate by all. Bitter divisiveness exists on every topic where vanguards of common sense and respectful dialogue are thrown to the ground and savagely trampled. It is tempting and easy for us to fall into the same pattern of degradation of communication in an effort to stem the onslaught of so much negative and false information.

However, we are called to a higher standard in our interactions with others, especially those outside the kingdom. We are to be doers and makers of peace, not dissenters stoking the flames of bitter rivalry and mistrust. It is our job to resist without engaging, to simply stand firm while holding out the truth of the Way.

Our message is a message of hope and peace which cannot be adequately communicated by the tip of the sword.  We have to remember that those outside the kingdom do not hold to the same standards, values, or worldview we have. To try to force them to adopt ways that are foreign to them only fans the flames of bitterness, distrust, and mockery they may feel towards us. Freedom of speech, whether theirs or ours, is no right to force others to adopt personal and subjective views.

Instead, we need to exhibit love towards those around us in an effort to demonstrate that we are not their enemies, but their helpers desiring only what’s best for them. We have to believe that the message and wisdom of the Bible, exemplified through our loving actions, is capable of drawing and leading them toward God.

Matthew 5:14-16 “You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. “No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

SUMMARY

We have much work to do in being vigilant about the truth of God, especially when it comes to confronting false teaching. Look at the fruits of your teachers: what they promote or endorse, how they esteem the Word of truth. By reviewing the principles outlined by Yeshua and his disciples, we can become more aware of the falsehoods being promoted within the kingdom, and emboldened to confront false teachers with wisdom and diligence.

Our brothers and sisters who have been led astray also need to be confronted, but in gentleness and with love, as many times they have only been doing what they have been taught or brought up to believe.

Our vigilance needs to be not only in identifying and overcoming falsehood within our ranks, but equally toward being faithful with outsiders in exhibiting the truths we have come to know and believe in. This can be a challenging balancing act: guarding and protecting the inside while actively promoting the truth on the outside, and accomplishing both with the balance of wisdom and love.

Yet this is our lot in life, our calling. As masterfully and aggressively as Yeshua fought for truth within the ranks of the leaders of Israel, he equally demonstrated a compassionate quest for sharing that truth with the lost and wandering sheep. Our goals should align with his in each culture and generation. This is how the kingdom is not only maintained internally, but how it grows externally. Our vigilance in these areas provides for the continuation of the truths of God’s message to all people for all time.


If you enjoy these daily blog posts, be sure to visit the growing archive of the Core of the Bible podcast. Each week we take a more in-depth look at one of the various topics presented in the daily blog. You can view the podcast archive here. Questions or comments? Feel free to email me directly at coreofthebible@gmail.com.

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