We’ve made the argument that one of the roles of a pastor is to guard the church against false teaching and against false teachers. This role leads to a very important question, how do I know if someone is a false teacher? Jesus described false teachers as those who wore sheep’s clothing but who were actually ravenous wolves (Matthew 7:15). Paul said that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light and that we should not be surprised if those who do Satan’s bidding disguise themselves as “servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15).
False teachers don’t usually come out and declare that they are teaching heresy, so pastors and churches must be on their guard. They must know how to spot these imposters. So how do we spot a false teacher? I’d like to suggest three important questions that will help you discern if someone is a false teacher.
First, are they proclaiming the gospel? Paul declared that anyone proclaiming a false gospel was to be accursed (Galatians 1:9). And astoundingly enough, Paul actually rejoiced in Christian teachings who were proclaiming the true gospel with bad motives. Paul recognized that some preached Christ from envy and rival, even preaching Christ in order to cause Paul trouble in his imprisonment. But what was Paul’s response to these teachers with bad motives who proclaimed the true gospel? Paul said that he would rejoice because Christ as being proclaimed (Philippians 1:15-18).
We have to recognize that there is a difference between bad teachers and false teachers, and part of that difference is whether they are proclaiming the truth of the gospel. Recognizing a false gospel means we must know the true gospel. I think three questions can help us navigate whether someone is teaching a false gospel or the true gospel: what is the problem they present, what is the solution to the problem, and how do they say that the problem is solved?
What is the problem?
The basic plight of humanity is that we are sinful people before a holy God. God is holy, and we are not. As a result, we are worthy of the judgment and just wrath of God because of our sins.
What is the solution?
The solution to the problem of sinful people before a holy God is Jesus Christ. Christ’s death as the sinless sacrifice for sinners and his resurrection to new life are the only hope for sinful people.
How is the problem solved?
Sinful people are made right with a holy God through repentance from sins and faith in the work of Christ on their behalf.
Second, does their life match their teaching? Jesus said that you will recognize false teachers by their fruits (Matthew 7:16). Paul warned Titus of false teachers in Crete who professed to know God, but who denied God by their works (Titus 1:16). When Paul warned Timothy of false teachers in Ephesus, he talked about what these false teachers did, for example how they were arrogant and loved controversy (1 Timothy 6:4). False teachers might be able to disguise themselves for a while, but their bad doctrine will eventually be exposed by their bad behavior.
Third, are they endorsing as good things that God condemns? Paul warned Timothy about false teachers who required people to abstain from things God created to be good (1 Timothy 4:1-4). Probably more common in our day are false teachers who endorse what God condemns. You can claim to be proclaiming the gospel, but if you simultaneously remove the category of sin, you have eliminated the need for the gospel in the first place. Plenty of false teachers today are endorsing as good behaviors that God’s Law says lead to death. Sexual immorality certainly serves as an easy example as numerous pastors and churches are claiming that God approves of numerous types of sexual immorality. To state the matter bluntly, we can recognize some false teachers because they will call good what God says leads to death.
Certainly more can be said about recognizing false teachers, but any pastor must be ready to discern false teachers and stand against them. These three questions can provide a good starting point for seeing who is a wolf hiding in sheep’s clothing.