According to the apostle Paul, the presence of false prophets and false teachers within the church is an unavoidable evil with which God’s people will have to deal until Jesus returns, banishes sin forever, and reigns with his people (see Rev 21:8). Before leaving Ephesus, Paul warned the elders of the church there about fierce wolves who would mercilessly attack the flock.
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:28-29).
In light of the danger these wolves posed, Paul exhorted the shepherds to “pay careful attention” to themselves so they wouldn’t come under the sway of false teaching or become guilty of propagating heresy. They were also to pay careful attention to the flock because these sheep were constantly susceptible to the attack of false teachers. Perhaps most concerning is Paul’s reminder that these false teachers would arise from within the church. Their presence, therefore, would be difficult to discern.
A Necessary Work
While it may not be our favorite topic on which to reflect, it is vital to our spiritual health, the health of our fellow brothers and sisters, and the health of the church corporately to be aware of and rightly identify false teachers. Speaking to all his disciples (not just pastors and leaders within the church), Jesus said, “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” (Matt 7:15-16)?
The implication of Jesus’ statement is that his disciples would be able to identify false teachers and that it was their responsibility to do so. The means of identification would be what Jesus calls “their fruits.” We will discuss the nature of these “fruits” in subsequent posts.
“But I Don’t Want to Be Judgmental!”
But you might wonder: Isn’t it pharisaical and judgmental to identify false teachers and draw people’s attention to their sin and compromised teaching and lifestyle? It could be. A Christian under the sway of self-righteousness could take sinful delight in exposing these kinds of charlatans and nurse an attitude of spiritual superiority through their so-called work of discernment. They could tend to overlook their own sin and make the fatal mistake of thinking that their transgressions aren’t as evil as the false teacher’s. “I thank you, Father, that I am not like that false teacher.”
Yes, there are those whose ministries and lives are spiritually lopsided because they spend the bulk of their energy and time spotting false teachers but don’t appear to have the balance of personal delight in Christ, practical good works, and growth in the fruits of the Spirit. As the word “beware” indicates, discernment is a serious and important business, but it is intended to flow from a love for Christ, an enjoyment of the truth, and genuine concern for believers and unbelievers. If the whole of our Christian life is spotting false teachers, we will be likely become harsh, self-righteous, and unbalanced in our Christian life and experience.
But calling out false teachers and warning others about their ministry and giving evidence of their compromised life and teaching is not necessarily pharisaical, self-righteous, or judgmental. When Jesus tells his disciples to be aware of false teachers and to identify them by their fruits, he assumes that this can be done without sinning. Jesus warns against judgmentalism (Matt 7:1-5), but he also instructs is people to make righteous judgments (John 7:24).
When Paul instructs us to avoid those who have a form of religion but deny its power, he assumes that we will be able to identify people who are characterized by self-love, love of money, slander, and pride. Paul expects genuine Christians to be able to recognize when someone professes to know the Lord but who is abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, and without self-control and then strides to avoid such people (2 Tim 3:1-7). Paul even names Hymenaus and Alexander who, in the context, seem to be more than just lay-Christians (see 1 Tim 1:19-20). He names Demas who had deserted him because he “loved this present age” (2 Tim 4:10). Jesus names false teachers both corporately (Rev 2:6) and individually (Rev 2:20).
A Humble Work of Discernment
It is possible, then, to do this work of discernment with humility and out of obedience to God’s Word, the desire to protect God’s people from destructive false teaching, and the aim to further of the great commission. It is possible to call out false teachers while also keeping a close watch on ourselves and walking near to Jesus (see Jude 22). It is possible to take note of another’s sin while being not falling into a false security.
Paul, for example, had no problem telling the Corinthian church about Israel’s sin and warning them to avoid it. But he also reminded them to take heed lest they should fall (1 Cor 10:12). He also told the Philippians about those who were once professing Christians who were now enemies of the cross, but he did so “with tears” (Phil 3:18-19). Paul was deeply angry with the false teachers in Galatia (Gal 5:12), but he was able to write about the fruit of the Spirit without hypocrisy (Gal 5:22-23).
The sin and heretical teaching of false teachers, therefore, should anger us. But it should also grieve us, humble us, and provoke us to action.
With these preliminary thoughts in mind, we will turn in the next few posts to consider the marks of a false teacher.
See Costi Hinn, “I Thank you, God, that I am Not Like the Prosperity Teachers,” https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/god-prosperity-preachers/