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What is a False Teacher?

HomeFalse TeachingsWhat is a False Teacher?

The Bible has a lot to say about false teachers. Apparently, it was a serious problem in the first century. It’s a serious problem today as well. Before we try to learn whether any person is a false teacher, we need to discuss the why’s and how’s. Please read this page before you read the List of False Teachers.

Why should we care about false teachers?

Christians should care about false teachers because the New Testament tells us to watch out for them, to identify them, and to correct them.

The early church was concerned because people are harmed by false teaching. We should be as concerned as they were, because people are still being harmed today. In fact, there is far more false teaching today than in the 1st century. Good theology makes trusting God easier, and bad theology makes trusting God harder. That’s the reason GodWords exists: to help people trust God by learning what Jesus actually taught. False teachers make trusting God harder, so they should be exposed.

False teachers distort what Jesus taught. It’s important to remember Jesus’ words from John 8:31-32: If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. If you don’t know the truth, you can’t be free, so – logically – people who believe a lie are being kept in bondage.

What makes me an expert?

I don’t claim to be an expert. I’ve studied these things for over 40 years, but that’s largely irrelevant. The question is whether a preacher or teacher accurately represents what Jesus taught. Every Christian should, at some point, become mature enough to spot the errors of false teachers. Yes, sometimes it takes a bit of work. No, it’s not something that requires anyone to be an expert.

My credentials don’t matter. I’m not asking you to take my words to heart. I’m asking you to start here, and do your own research. Don’t trust me. Read and hear what others teach and compare that with Scripture. We should all be like the Bereans that Luke mentions in Acts 17:10-15:

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

I do not run a ‘discernment ministry.’ I’m not claiming to have any kind of special revelation. What I write here is information that any other Christian can know by studying the Bible and listening to those who teach and preach in Jesus’ name. I do not hate anyone, including people I list as teaching falsely. The point of writing about false teachers is not to condemn anyone. The point is to make the gospel – as found in the New Testament – clear.

Identifying a false teacher is difficult.

Believe it or not, the question of which teachers are false is not a simple question to answer. A false teacher is someone whose teaching contradicts what Jesus taught, or misrepresents what He taught. However: we need to be careful.

Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.

Charles Spurgeon

Nobody – including you and me – knows everything about God. We’re imperfect beings with limited knowledge and we make mistakes. We sometimes believe things that aren’t true. If we teach others, we will naturally pass on those mistakes. Making mistakes, or simply being wrong, does not automatically make someone a false teacher.

Because this is true, I’m not entirely comfortable calling anyone a false teacher. How many errors does it take to go from ‘sincerely wrong’ to ‘dangerous’? I’m not sure. I prefer to say that this teaching or that teaching is unbiblical, rather than ‘that person is a false teacher.’ In spite of that, it’s clear that the writers of the New Testament were wise to condemn false teachers for their actions. We are unwise when we fail to follow their example.

Our goal should not be to hurt anyone, but simply to expose false teachings. Gossip and slander are condemned in Scripture. We don’t have special insight into anyone else’s mind and heart, and it would be wrong for us to pretend otherwise. It would be equally wrong for us to engage in gossip or slander by simply repeating what others have said, rather than checking things out for ourselves.

The only reliable evidence we have about teachers, both false and true, are their words and actions. For that reason, we should not claim that someone is a false teacher without referring to their own words and actions. We should not engage in gossip about anyone, but – as followers of Jesus – we should point out false teachings where we find them.

Truth vs My Interpretation

Christians throughout history have differed on many secondary issues. We must be careful to not put our own traditions ahead of Scripture. We must not make matters of style or emphasis the dividing line between false and true. Where the Bible is not clear, we should hold our views and traditions loosely. Where the Bible is clear, we should be equally clear.

The Bible is clear about false teachers. Some of the strongest language in the New Testament has to do with false teaching. For an example, take a look at this passage from Titus 1:

For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach – and that for the sake of dishonest gain… Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth… They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.

That’s powerful. Paul didn’t pull any punches. Neither did Peter, or John, or Jude… and neither should we. This is important, and lives are at stake.

Why do I name names?

One might ask whether we should only outline the false teachings, and not name the false teachers. This is a good question. I name those who teach false ideas because people need to know who they can trust. In James 3:1 we read that those who teach will be judged more strictly than those who don’t. Paul taught Timothy and Titus, who were pastors of local churches, that the gospel should be entrusted to only those who are faithful, who are above reproach, and who hold firmly to the true gospel.

The goal of pointing out false teachers is not to give someone a bad reputation. The goal is to expose those who should have a bad reputation but do not, because people generally don’t know they’re being taught falsely. Paul named names: Hymenaeus (twice), Alexander, Philetus, and Demas. If the early church needed to know, surely the modern church does as well.

False accusations are a serious problem. Condemning the innocent is unjust. We must be careful to accurately report what a person teaches. I do not want to dishonor God or myself by bearing false witness against anyone. Our goal is not to put any person down, but to make sure that false teachings are exposed.

What’s the difference between a false teacher and false teaching?

A false teaching is simply something that’s wrong. A false teacher, according to what we read in the New Testament, is someone who deceives, teaching things they should not teach. They cause division and confusion where we should have unity and clarity.

Not everyone who teaches an error is a false teacher. It is wrong to pretend otherwise. Not everyone who ‘creates division’ is a false teacher, either. In fact, wherever disagreements occur, there is division. The goal is not to avoid conflict entirely, but to make the truth our basis for disagreement. Errors should be gently corrected, as we see in 2 Timothy 2:23-26:

Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

Humility in this area is often undervalued. If I’m wrong, I should be corrected. If these teachers are wrong, they should be corrected. Our goal should not be condemnation, but restoration.

What does the Bible say?

There are a lot of Bible verses about false prophets, false teachers, and false gospels. I will not try to list them all here. I hope to provide enough info to convince you that the truth matters, that we’re to protect the message of the gospel from those who would distort it, and that every person who follows Jesus should avoid false teachings.

A different gospel is no gospel at all

Galatians 1:6-9 tells us that the gospel that was handed down is the only true gospel:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!

This isn’t a small problem

2 Peter 2:1-3 tells us that false teachers exist, that they are destructive, and that they will damage the reputation of Christianity:
But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them – bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

Acts 20:28-31 explains that Christians should be watchful, and diligent, to protect others from false teachers:
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

Command people to not teach false doctrines

In 1 Timothy 1:3-4 we see Paul instructing Timothy to address the issue of false doctrines directly:
As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work – which is by faith.

Keep away from a false teacher

Romans 16:17-18 explains that naive people can be deceived by false teachers, and should be avoided:
I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.

Keep the goal in mind

We should not be eager to condemn or criticize. We should, instead, be eager to know the true gospel, to share the true gospel, to protect the reputation of Jesus and the faith, to gently correct those who are in error, and to protect the young, the innocent, and the naive among us.

This is serious business. It’s not a contest to see who’s right, where we tear down people with whom we disagree. It’s a spiritual war, where we seek to expose the lies of the enemy, to save those who are lost, and to free those in error from the bondage of the devil.

With that in mind, feel free to visit the List of False Teachers.

Questions and Objections

“Judge not, lest you be judged”

This refers to Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1-5 which are obviously true, but don’t apply here. In context, Jesus is speaking not simply about judging, but about judging hypocritically as we see in verse 5. He instructs us to first remove the plank in our own eye, and then we will be able to remove the speck from our brother’s eye. There’s no hypocrisy in pointing out false teachers. Nearly every book in the New Testament does this, and that’s the standard by which we should judge.

In addition, we should also listen to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5:12 where he says the following: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked person from among you.”

“Christ is being preached, so rejoice”

This refers to Paul’s words in Philippians 1:15-18 where he mentions that some preach out of envy and rivalry, while others preach out of love. Paul’s words are true, but they don’t apply here. I don’t know the motivations of any false teacher, so I don’t judge their motivation. I’m comparing what they teach with the gospel as it’s expressed in the New Testament. If each person taught only what the New Testament teaches, I too would rejoice… regardless of their motivation. We should certainly not rejoice over false teaching, as Christ is NOT being preached.


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Comments

3 responses to “What is a False Teacher?”

  1. Renee S Carroll says:

    Thank you for this article. I have learned from it even to pray about taking the plank out of my eye. Suggestion I believe in the paragraph about 1 Corinthians 5:12 it should say mine instead of mind but please correct me if I’m wrong.

    • Tony says:

      Thanks, Renee… I’ve fixed the typo. I’m happy to hear that you’ve been helped, even a little bit. Have a great day!

  2. Renee says:

    Well I never heard “a lot of things”..like modalism…

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