Alright, hands up; who has never been wrong? Exactly! Other than a couple of smart alecks (I won’t name names but I know who you are), nobody’s hand is up. The same is also true for our theology, or beliefs about God. There are things that I once believed about God that I have come to realize are wrong. What’s more is there may well be things in my theology today that one day I’ll look back on and shake my head at. But that doesn’t make me a false teacher.
Both the Old and New warn about not listening to false teachers and we need to be discerning. But sadly there are some who believe it is their responsibility to decry those who they believe have “fallen into error” and brand them as “false teachers” demanding the rest of Christianity write them off. But Paul makes it very clear that we ought “not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” (1 Corinthians 4:5)
So we’re not to judge (scripture is also clear about how to confront someone who has sinned, but that’s for another time), but we still need to guard ourselves against false teachers or prophets. I’ve combed through the Bible and come up with six characteristics exhibited by false teachers.
- Personal lives are inconsistent with their message and/or there is a lack of fruit of the Sprit. (Matt 7:15-20, James 2:18, 3:13-18)
This is about character and integrity, but it’s more than that too. It’s also how they treat those around them. Are their lives consistently characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, self-control, gentleness, and faithfulness?
- Try to lure people away to follow them. (Acts 20:30)
When someone is more concerned about building their own kingdom than seeing the kingdom of God built that’s reason for concern.
- Self-preservation. (John 10:12-13)
When the going gets tough do they sacrifice their own comforts and wellbeing for the protection of others?
- Exploitation of followers. (2 Peter 2:1-3)
They promote their own needs and interests on the backs of those who follow them.
- Turns attention away from Jesus. (Deut. 13:1-3, Acts 13:6-8)
This and the next are foundational. A teacher of the truth will always turn hearts and minds towards Jesus, even if it costs him or her.
- Refuses to acknowledge Jesus came in the flesh and is from God. (1 John 4:1-3)
This is one of the non-negotiables when it comes to faith. Jesus is fully God and fully human and no one comes to God except through him.