According to the Bible, false teachers are a deadly menace, not just an annoyance or distraction. Such wicked messengers attacked the Israelites, drawing them away from God’s law. Jesus warned his followers about them, calling them “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” And the apostles confirmed and clarified the Lord’s warnings, labeling false teachers “dogs” and “evil workers.”
Such strong language reveals the mortal peril of prophetic error. Truth is the Christian’s life blood. Knowing it sets us free. So, if we fall prey to Satan’s lies from the mouths of the liars he employs, we cut ourselves off from life-giving, freedom-winning truth.
Maintaining biblical balance
We’ve talked about the “two ditches” analogy before. It’s the idea that there are two equal but opposite errors on either side of a biblical truth. It’s easy to steer into one or the other without realizing it.
For example, you might think it’s okay to sin because repentance is easy. Or, you might avoid repenting of sin because you fear the difficulty of returning to God. The better, safer way is to stay in your lane. Be forgiven, but don’t go on sinning (Jn. 8).
This analogy applies to false teachers as well. One “ditch” into which you can drive is heresy hunting, finding error in every teacher and arguing over every minor doctrinal point. The other ditch is turning off your spiritual discernment and embracing any teacher in the name of peace and unity.
But we Christians cannot, should not unite over that which the Bible calls us to divide. Similarly, we should not cause division over non-essential matters. Staying in the driving lane requires the right mix of discernment and discretion.
The mature Christian calls out false teachings and teachers when they pose a true spiritual threat, but remains watchfully silent over issues of personal preference or stylistic difference.
Thomas Brooks was a good pastor who loved his flock. His care for his readers emanates from his text. Here in chapter 7 he provides seven characteristics of false teachers. Brooks beckons his readers inside the protective fence of spiritual discernment, wisdom, and truth.
1: False teachers are man-pleasers
A false teacher is more interested in his listeners’ happiness than their holiness. A sigh of satisfaction is more pleasing to his ear than a cry of mourning. He would rather hear laughter from a well-timed joke than an “Amen!” from a well-spoken truth.
In the classic stage play Arsenic and Old Lace, the opening scene features an elderly woman hosting a local pastor for lunch in her home. The woman gushes over the man’s preaching style, remarking his sermons are more like “happy little talks.”
It has been said: “Sermonets make Christianets.” In other words, the spiritual maturity of a congregation doesn’t tend to rise above the preacher’s call. Another saying, the origin of which is lost to repeated quotations, is: “Soft preaching makes hard hearts, while hard preaching makes soft hearts.”
Like an “evil surgeon who skins over the wound but never heals it,” the false teacher feeds his hearers’ desire for self assurance at the expense of self examination. By contrast, the faithful teacher understands the Word of God is good for teaching, correction, rebuke, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
If the best thing you can say about a particular teacher is that he entertains you, he might be false.
2: They mark faithful saints as enemies
Another possible sign of a false teacher is the manner in which she addresses concerns about her doctrine. Of course, a teacher can’t spend all their time answering criticism. But attacking the questioner’s motives, character, or spiritual state is not a healthy response.
One tactic to watch for is relegating a poor doctrinal stance to a matter of taste or preference. “You’re just not used to my style,” she might say. Or, she might assert the falsehood you detect is a mere cultural or linguistic nuance. “This is how we do things here. You just want me to be like your favorite preacher. Learn to embrace other kinds of teaching.”
Eventually, a false teacher will mark you as a troublemaker or causer of division, standing in the way of soul-winning. But the apostles write it is actually those who veer from biblical teaching who divide the body of Christ.
Paul warns in Romans 16:17: “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.” And Jude says: “‘In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.’ It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 18-19, ESV).
Errant doctrine could be more than a sign of a poorly trained teacher. It might reval a person who is not truly part of the Church. In bringing their fault to light, then, it is not you who needs to repent.
3: False teachers make up their own doctrines
“God told me” is one of the great lies foisted up on undiscerning souls. False teachers have done more damage in the name of personal revelation than we could measure.
You can be certain of one thing: God has never told a teacher to utter anything that contradicts what he has already revealed in Scripture. God would never approve a teacher who commends what the Bible condemns or allow what the Bible abhors. No prophet or pastor may dispense a doctrine that overrides what the Holy Spirit has already said to the Church.
A clear sign of an inventive teacher is a never-ending parade of positive affirmation, predictions of blessings and favor, promises of abundance and prosperity. A faithful teacher, on the other hand, understands that he must sometimes warn, admonish, or even rebuke his hearers.
The gospel is, of course, always good news. But its implications may sometimes require hard words.
4: They major in the minors
In Jesus’s day, the Pharisees spent countless hours debating minor doctrinal points. Their rabbis, each gathering to themselves groups of adherents, contradicted and confounded one another about the correct way to interpret and obey the Mosaic law. What one teacher would consider a “work” and therefore forbidden on the Sabbath, another might allow. Thus, these factions condemned one another, each considering themselves the true children of God.
You see evidence of this in the Pharisees’ criticizing the disciples for picking and eating grain on the Sabbath, or condemning Jesus for healing a man on God’s holy day. Jesus saw these hypocrites for who they were, knowing they justified themselves through their law keeping instead of their faith.
Today’s false teachers emphasize emulating Jesus’s actions at the expense of believing in him for salvation. They give scant attention to trusting in what Jesus has done for us because they’re so focused on telling us to follow his example. Of course, true Christians become more like Christ with each passing year of life. But that increasing resemblance comes as a by-product of faith, of the Holy Spirit’s work in us as we obey him in love.
You might recognize a false teacher if all they ever give you is to-do lists without ever reminding you of Christ’s words on the cross: “It is finished.”
5. False teachers are all style and no substance
Brooks pulls no punches, likening false teachers to “strumpets” who paint themselves with colors to hide the dangers of their bad doctrine. The Old Testament prophets frequently used the allegory of prostitution to describe how the Israelites behaved with pagan idols. Here, our author asserts it is the peddler of lies from the pulpit who plays the whore through the disguise of beautiful speech
There is nothing inherently wrong with oratory skill. George Whitefield, possibly the greatest English-speaking preacher in history, moved his hearers to tears and cries with his dramatic sermons. Modern teachers like Billy Graham and John Piper are known for their verbal prowess and emotional delivery. But the heart of trustworthy teaching is always biblical doctrine, whether delivered with flourish or in a boring monotone.
A crafty deceiver can easily manipulate an undiscerning audience with style and emotion. You’ll know a false teacher if they move you to laughter or tears without ever convicting your heart over sin or comforting your soul with the gospel.
6: False teachers build followings, not Christians
A false teacher, not being a faithful dispenser of the gospel and its implications, is more concerned with image and influence. The size of their following ranks above the maturity of their followers. The style of their wardrobe and worship music takes precedence over the substance of their ministry.
One of the greatest tests of a church is the death or departure of its pastor. If the congregation collapses over the loss of its leader, you may conclude that Christ was never its center. Churches that place all their hopes on one man will rise and fall with that man’s ability to carry the weight of the entire congregation on his shoulders.
A massive, worldwide church network recently lost one of its top leaders to marital infidelity and abusive behavior. Another pastor in this organization tried to assuage the stunned congregation with these words: “We have lost our general; we have not lost the war.”
There is not a single place in Scripture where a pastor or teacher is likened to a military leader. Those under a general’s command must obey his orders, even at the risk of their own peril. Rather, a biblical pastor is a shepherd, a guide, a caretaker, a servant, an “under-rower” as Paul likened himself. The good teacher gives himself to his flock, not the other way around.
When the top-down, visionary leadership model that is so common today fails, the ripple effects of disaster can reach beyond the visible church organization. Disillusioned members may not only walk away from the church, but from Christ himself. Instead, faithful teachers who model their lives after the Lord’s humble and self-sacrificing ministry point other believers to Jesus instead of themselves.
7: False teachers use people
At the end of this section, Brooks mentions Crates, who “threw his money into the sea,” rather than be lured into a life of wealth. This is Crates of Thebes, a philosopher who lived during the third and fourth centuries B.C. There is some dispute whether the man truly destroyed his wealth or gave it away. But it is certain he lived his convictions, focusing on self improvement and freely offering his advice and counsel to anyone who needed it. Crates’s fellow citizens apparently loved the man and welcomed them into their homes, even though he often entered uninvited.
How interesting that Brooks uses a secular example in comparison with so-called Christian leaders who “make merchandise” of their followers. Here was a man devoid of the Spirit, yet freely giving of himself for his community. Yet in false teachers we often find those who exchange lies and inventions for the wealth of the flock they are supposed to feed and nurture.
Taking these qualities together, we see in false teachers a lack of Christlikeness and a dereliction of their duty and calling. The New Testament displays a line of apostles and prophets pouring out their lives for the sake of the church. Their love and care for fellow believers stands in opposition to the wolves about whom they warned and admonished.
Do you sit under a good, faithful teacher? Does your pastor feed you richly from the banquet table of God’s word? Do your church leaders display the humble, self-sacrificing attitudes and actions of the Lord Jesus? Don’t let another day go by before you thank them, pray for them, and seek ways to support their trustworthy service.