How can we recognize a false teacher? What signs are there that should trigger warning bells in our heads?
Along with comparing their teaching to the Bible, we can know a false teacher by their fruit. Jesus warned,
Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.” Matthew 7:15-20 NASB
The Bible gives at least six characteristics (or fruit) of a false teacher.
1. They make false predictions and visions.
You may say in your heart, ‘How will we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.” Deuteronomy 18:21-22 NASB (cf. Ezekiel 13:9; Jeremiah 14:14; 23:16; Matthew 24:24; Titus 2:3)
Some false teachers will claim to prophesy or speak on God’s behalf (which I don’t believe happens today—you can read more about that here). The first problem with this is that God’s Word is sufficient and complete (2 Timothy 3:16-17); we don’t need people speaking on behalf of God anymore or showing us signs and symbols.
When these false teachers make their predictions, they will turn out to be false. Every “Bible teacher” who has claimed to know the date for the end of the world has been wrong. And they will continue to be wrong as they make claims of God speaking to them. Just to be sure, God says we can test their prophesies against reality, and if it doesn’t come true, they are a false teacher.
2. They use man-centered, worldly teaching.
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.” 2 Timothy 4:3-4 NASB (cf. Romans 16:17-18; 1 John 4:4-6)
False teachers appeal to what man’s flesh wants to hear. They speak in flattery with smooth speech, appealing to our worldly desires so that we will listen to them and fill their pockets and fame. They avoid topics like sin, Hell, and suffering because they are unpopular and hard to hear. Rather, they will preach to boost your self-esteem and confidence in yourself, and they will tell you lies like God does want you to suffer and will only give you a happy life if you are obedient to him. They will teach ear-tickling messages such as God’s riches for you and growth in your bank account. Avoid such teachers. They don’t care about your holiness, they only care about their happiness.
3. They distort God’s Word and Gospel.
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” 2 Peter 3:15-18 ESV (cf. Deuteronomy 13:1-18; Acts 20:28-30; Galatians 1:6-7; Colossians 2:8; 1 Timothy 4:1-5; 6:3-5; Jude 1:4)
False teachers will distort and twist God’s Word to fit their agenda. They will rip Bible passages out of their context and force them into their desired points. They will alter the gospel and preach an entirely different gospel that coincides “better” with their teachings.
Once again, we must know the Word of God and be constantly growing in our knowledge of the truth so that we can combat against such false teaching. Take the time to examine the Scripture being taught and see if they are teaching it’s true meaning, or if they have skewed it to their own.
4. They distort the truth about Jesus.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” 1 John 4:1-3 ESV (cf. Matthew 24:4-5; 2 Corinthians 11:1-4)
False teachers will not speak the truth about Jesus. Just as they will twist the gospel and other Scripture passages, they will also twist the truth about Jesus. There are prominent evangelical leaders who claim Jesus was not God. They claim that Jesus gave up his deity. This is beyond false teaching; this is damning heresy. We need to watch and listen to the teachers we are learning from and be sure they are not preaching a different Christ.
5. They do not bear the fruit of a believer.
For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach […] They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” Titus 1:10-11, 16 ESV (cf. Matthew 7:15-20)
As I said before, false teachers may appear like believers, if we examine their lives we will soon see that they are far from it. They will live rebellious lives and be disobedient to God’s Word. They may be able to keep their scandalous lives in the dark for a time, but eventually Christ will bring all things to light (Luke 8:17).
6. They are greedy.
And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” 2 Peter 2:3 ESV (cf. Titus 1:11)
False teachers are often after gain. They do not care about your welfare, your sanctification, your godliness, your health, or your financial state. They care about filling their bank accounts. They will exploit your emotions in order to take your money. They will use you to promote their cause so that they can receive financial support.
It’s not wrong for a Bible teacher, pastor, missionary, or anyone in ministry to seek financial support (1 Corinthians 9:8-14). But that is not what the false teachers are after. They greedily seek after beyond their needs, buying jets, fancy cars, large houses and resorts, and pretend that it is God’s blessing to them. They are lovers of money, not of people.
Because people are fallible and sinful, mistakes will happen. This article is not intended for you to go and pick at every teacher and find one or two of these characteristics in each them. Sound teachers can make mistakes. False teachers are not making a mistake; they are continuing in these patterns, even after being warned, unrepentant. This is where discernment comes in; we compare their teachings and lives to Scripture, and we see if they are continually disobedient or usually obedient.
It isn’t always easy. They often mix truth with the falsehood. They will preform great signs and miracles and claim they are from God. We need to discerning. We must be filling ourselves with the Word and guarding ourselves and church family against false teachers. This requires knowing and studying the Word faithfully, not relying on discernment bloggers or mentors to always direct us.
If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him.” Deuteronomy 13:1-4 ESV
When the false teachers come to you with their wonders and tickling your ears with fluffy teaching, will you see the false god they are offering you? Will you be able to recognize the false gospel they are preaching? Let us each grow in our love for God and his Word, and thus flourish in our discernment.