There is much talk today of false teachers and false prophets, and well there should be. The Scriptures warn us of these people especially in the last days. But when is a person’s teaching become so offensive and unscriptural that he must be labeled a false teacher? For example, Rick Warren believes the correct gospel but has formulated its presentation in such a pragmatic fashion that many people believe he has taken the “meat” and effectiveness from the message. Additionally he joins hands with unsaved people including gays and mormons in humanitarian efforts. He could be called shallow, or a compromiser, or even a liberal, but should he be called a false teacher?
And then there are conservative men who teach salvation through baptism and other forms of ceremonial sacramentalism, are they who we mean by false teachers? Some teach that man has no free will while others teach the opposite, are either of these people false teachers? See, the waters get very murky and it is easy to just throw an indiscriminate blanket over groups of people without a careful and Biblical comparison. If we are not careful we make those words just colloquial invectives and remove the seriousness that should accompany their use.
And that is my question, what standard is Biblical in calling a person a false teacher? There are those who call almost everyone a false teacher who don’t agree with them, but they are not serious contributors to this kind of discussion. And of course there are many who would never label anyone as a false teacher and they as well would not be productive in this discussion since they also are one sided. I grapple with this myself, not wanting to be hysterical and yet realizing there are false teachers today. It is an important issue because the sheep are being herded every which way in today’s doctrinal pastures and they must be warned and protected. Let us examine the major references to false teachers and prophets in the New Testament, there are others but these are the most descriptive and direct.
Mk.13:22 - For false Christs and false prophets shall rise, and shall shew signs and wonders, to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect.
Our Lord reveals that sometimes false teachers are able to do signs and wonders either real or false, and Jesus indicates that by these miracles these false prophets will seduce and draw people away from following Christ. There are a group of preachers today who specialize in signs and wonders or what they have constructed to appear as such. And people flock to see these performances which usually have token and shallow gospel presentations designed to make newsletters and mailing addresses in America. These people can easily be called false teachers and false prophets.
They also “prophesy” be speaking out in the first person as if God was speaking through them as a sign to the people. Can you imagine such things and yet people listen and believe almost anything they say, after all, it was God speaking. “Words of knowledge” also are spoken and they call out health conditions as if God was revealing this to them and it is meant to be a sign. In a crowd of thousands it is safe bet that someone will have a back problem or sore neck or diabetes, but thy never can give a name without an earpiece. And it seems strange that God never reveals adultery or some other sin because that would severely constrict the attendance for the next night. These men and women are false prophets and they have deceived many. But by the miracle of God’s grace I do not discount the fact that some can get saved at these meetings or even that some of these false teachers are saved themselves.
Acts 13:6 - And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Barjesus:
This man who was also called Elymas was interfering with Paul’s witnessing especially to the sheriff and Paul called upon God to make him blind which He did. Now this false prophet was involved in witchcraft and his main purpose was to turn people from the faith. In verse 10 Paul says he tries to “pervert the right ways of the Lord”. So the main substance of this false prophet’s intentions was to pervert the teachings of the Lord. Under this category we can see many today who are doing just that. Despite all the obvious teachings in the New Testament to the contrary, these false prophets teach that being right with God will bring monetary benefits. Giving will bring getting and in fact, God desires everyone to be wealthy.
It is of no little coincidence that this teaching did not arise out of a poor country but out of a hedonistic and capitalistic society. These people have perverted the ways of he Lord and they teach a false gospel of materialism and barely even believe much less mention the atonement. The false teachers benefit by having made merchandise of the people and many live in opulence while the followers remain deceived by their words and by their own greed. And the deception is so strong that even when some are exposed as deceivers by the world their “ministries” remain intact.
Another kind of false teacher that would apply here are those who teach that God’s grace frees us to live in any fashion that we so choose. With these men there are no Biblical parameters of separation from questionable and sinful activities because they have covered everything with a cheap grace. Now of course there are legalists who have a set of rules, but for this study I am dealing with those who pervert God’s ways and turn His grace into uncleanness and a lifestyle that brings bondage not freedom. They also are false teachers who have perverted the Scriptures.
II Cor. 11:13 - For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.
Now as a context Paul warns in II Cor.11:4 of men who will come preaching another Jesus and another gospel other than the one that Jesus gave to Paul directly. These people are very dangerous and the most potent aspect of their deception is that they profess to be preaching the same gospel as Paul and the same Jesus as revealed in Scripture but they are not. This can range from the delusional Mormon teaching about who Jesus is all the way to the most subtle nuance that actually changes the perception about who Jesus really is. Sometimes the same words can be used in such a way as to alter the definition of the Savior’s person and mission and therefore it becomes toxic just by a slight departure from sound Biblical teaching. There are many of these false teachers alive and well today who have not found the Jesus of Wesley and Spurgeon and Whitefield fulfilling and relevant to this generation and have massaged His image into one that appeals to us in this post modern world.
Now many today are quietly and with deft dismantling the atoning aspect of Jesus’ work and transferring it into one that seeks to affect a kingdom change on this earth by use of acts of kindness and a general unity among all the different religions and peoples. They teach that Jesus’ work and desire today is not focused as much on the historical understanding about saving souls, but it is now a sociological metamorphosis that makes this world a better place in which to live and sees people treating each other better. The teeth of redemption has been removed and in fact some teach that redemption can be found in places other than Jesus. These are false teachers who Paul says are transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.
II Pet.2:1 - But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.
And Peter gives another description of these false teachers that even deny Jesus. This denial comes in open and clandestine forms, one completely denying Jesus altogether while others claim to embrace Him but deny Him by their teachings. Teaching about God’s Son is serious business that requires the most careful and sacred motivation that seeks to reveal Him as He is, not packaging Him as a nice fit in this western culture. Jesus did not come to make this world better and as a matter of fact He predicted this world will continue to get worse and worse.
I personally believe these “damnable heresies” that Peter mentions are those that alter either who Jesus was or what He accomplished or both. And this is very fragile and can even be twisted by a different focus rather than an open departure. When we focus on the humanitarian works of Christ we run the risk of diminishing, though not denying, His redemptive work which was the primary reason for His incarnation. It doesn’t take long when our focus is diverted before we have constructed some kingdom spreading doctrine that envisions a better planet rather than a gospel spreading commission that seeks and saves that which was lost. And that is a damnable heresy that seems so heart felt and compassionate but in reality is a lie from the core of hell itself.
I Jn.4:1 - Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
John points us to those who would deny or question or even alter the incarnation. These false teachers are in concert with the spirits of anti-christ who seek to deceive people about Jesus in many different ways. And today the church has been tarnished by all these many different views of who Jesus is and what He desires, and like going through a doctrinal house of distorted mirrors there are hundreds of caricatures of the Risen Christ that resemble the lusts of men and not the revelation of the Spirit. When Jesus asked, “Who do men say that I am?” he was exposing their confusion, but when the Spirit reveals Who He is we will proclaim “You are the Christ, Son of the Living God!”.
This issue of false teachers has always been important in maintaining some semblance of truth in the church but it has never been more important than it is today. And be wise about the pervasiveness of the evil one’s deception and manipulation because in the midst of sincere confrontation concerning error he will simultaneously attempt to have us devour one another. Have you ever seen hungry lions devouring a kill? Sometimes the frenzy gets so intense that they attack each other and so it so often is with Christians. It is a catch-22 about which we must be vigilant so that our stand for God’s Word never disintegrates into a scortched earth advance that has discernment about error but little discernment concerning true brothers and sisters in Christ. It is a challenge that requires spiritual maturity and measured rebuke and includes a very careful use of spiritual invectives such as false teachers and false prophets and the like.
It is so easy to be ambivalent about the growing apostasy and just as easy to create a verbal swath of destruction that refuses to prayerfully distinguish between all the many different levels of seriousness but treats any issue the same and in so doing we lose credibility and any unity that may have been preserved. And our discernment will necessitate a delicate sensitivity that rejects unfounded and easy broad strokes of a self righteous verbal brush. There will be many times we are uneasy or unsure about certain men and their teachings, but we cannot give in to lazy research or the magnetism of their gentle personality. But in the end there is no easy answer and while we should pursue unity it cannot be at any cost, division is inevitable.
There are false teachers and false prophets roaming the evangelical landscape today and they must be identified with boldness and humility, rebuke and love, truth and grace, and let us pray that the Spirit will use the danger of these times to drive the church collectively and individually back to God’s Word to drink its milk and eat its meat. We have grown complacent in our journey to seek His face and hide His Word in our hearts, come, let us return like a deer to the brook and drink fully and often to the only spring that can provide life to our bones.
II Tim.3:5 - Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.