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How can you tell false teachers from teachers of truth?

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Thank you for your very important question. As we will see in this answer, the area of understanding false teaching and responding correctly to it is a vital one for a Christian, and so I hope that this brief answer will be of real help to you in this area.

The Bible is clear that false teachers will come into the church (2 Peter 2:1, 1 Timothy 4:1-5), so we should be expecting them, and more than that, we should be preparing ourselves and those around us to deal with them when they do come. Let us deal with this subject by making a number of observations from the Scriptures:

1. The standard we measure all teaching by is the Word of God.

The Bible itself tells us that it is inspired by God, and therefore is God’s Word in its entirety (2 Timothy 3:16). It also tells us that God’s Word is truth (John 17:17), that God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18), and that the Scriptures are all we need to be equipped to be the people God has called us to be (2 Timothy 3:17). Therefore the Bible is our ultimate, and only authority when it comes to truth about God, and the life that we live as His people. We must measure everything we hear in the church, and outside of the church with the Word of God.

Even if the most respected of teachers contradicts something that is in the Bible, we go with what the Bible says above any man. One of the most important things any follower of Jesus can do is to soak themselves in the truth of God’s Word, doing as David says in Psalm 119:11 - I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. We do this so that we might be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2), and also so that we might not be taken in by the myriad of false teaching that can be thrown our way.

I’ve found an illustration of how this works very helpful - I’ve been told that when a bank employs people to root out any forged bank notes in its vault, they don’t tend to teach them much about the different fake notes that might be out there. What they do is that they allow these people to become so familiar with the touch and feel of a genuine bank note, that when they get their hands on a fake, they know it instantly.

It is the same for us as Christians - rather than having an unhealthy preoccupation with all the false teaching there is out there, if we allow ourselves to dwell in the Scriptures so much that they become part of who we are, then when something false rears its head we will know it instantly, and will be protected from the harm it may bring.

2. False teaching cannot steal someone’s salvation.

This is really important to recognise - though we’ll talk about the bondage that false teaching can bring a believer into, simply believing something false about God cannot sever the relationship we have with Him. The Bible is clear that once someone has a relationship with God, they cannot be snatched out of His hand (John 10:28-29), they are kept by the power of God (1 Peter 1:5), and nothing can separate them from His love (Romans 8:31-39).

One big example of this reality is in Galatians 2:11-14 where we find even the Apostle Peter being taken captive by the teachings of those who wanted to cling too tightly to the Old Testament law. Peter was taken captive to the degree that he refused to eat with Gentiles, completely denying the Gospel he had been preaching. We’re not told the end of that particular story in the Scriptures, but church history bears out that Peter repented of his error, and did end up dying the death that Jesus predicted for him in John 21:18-19.

What it does show us though is that even the most mature of Christian leaders have the capacity to be taken in by false teaching, and this doesn’t strip them of their salvation, but it’s their response to that error when it is brought out that is most important. All of us should be quick to repent, and humble enough to accept the errors in our beliefs when they are shown to us from the Scriptures.

3. False teaching can bring a believer into bondage.

The language of being brought into bondage by false teaching fits with a few different Scriptures in the New Testament. Firstly, it reminds us of Jesus' words in John’s gospel where He says that the "truth will set you free" (John 8:32). Then, in Galatians 5 where Paul is questioning the church about who they are listening to, he tells them that it was for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1). Finally, in the book of Colossians which, like Galatians, is also written in large part to combat false teaching, Paul urges them not to be taken captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ (Colossians 2:8).

The picture is clear - though believing false teaching cannot steal our salvation from us, it can certainly tie us up in knots and stop us from being fruitful in our Christian lives.

Both the Colossian and Galatian Christians were in great danger of being taken in by teaching urging them to follow laws and traditions that, though they may have sounded credible, had nothing to do with producing the fruits of the Holy Spirit in their lives. If you wanted to take your study of false teaching further, these two letters would be good places to go to understand more of the lies the early church had to face, and lies that will certainly spring up for us in one form or another. What they certainly teach us is that if we want to be fruitful as followers of Jesus, we must make sure that we know the truth that will make us free to do just that.  

4. False teaching is a means by which the church is purified.

We’ve noted above that false teaching cannot take someone’s salvation away from them, but the infiltration of false teaching into the church, and the way in which it can draw people away can be a means of purifying the church of those who may look genuine, but don’t really belong. 1 John 2:18-27 speaks a lot about this. John tells us that many of those who are ‘antichrists’ have come into the church (v18), but they have also left the church (v19), and he tells us in the same verse that the reason they left was that they were never a real part of the church in the first place. He then goes on to say that true believers have something that he calls an ‘anointing’ from God (v 20 & 27), the purpose of which is to keep true believers on the right path.

What he’s not saying is that true believers can never be deceived - it would be absurd of us to think that we can never be wrong about anything - but John is saying that those who have genuinely trusted in Christ have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit indwelling them, and who, amongst other things, is with us to guide us into all truth (John 16:13). We should be aware of this whenever we are listening to teaching, and there is something telling us that what we’re hearing is not quite right - it may well be the Holy Spirit’s witness within us, and we should take this as a sign, not to dismiss what we’re hearing immediately, but to check it out in the Scriptures for ourselves, and maybe take it to other teachers we trust if necessary.

This truth can also give us hope whenever someone we thought was a genuine believer walks away having been deceived by false teaching. If that person truly belongs to God, then they too will have the witness of the Holy Spirit within, and will be receptive to the truth, so we should be unrelenting in our appeals to win our brother or sister back to the truth.

5. We must all be watchful against false teaching, especially those in leadership.

Finally, this ought to be our response to the fact that false teachers will be out there, and we will undoubtedly encounter them at some point in our Christian lives. The Apostle John says it like this in 1 John 4:1-3:

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.

John tells us what we have already briefly recognised - that it is our responsibility to test everything we hear taught, and to weigh up whether it is found in the Scriptures or not, for the purpose that we would root out false teaching. As we study the Scriptures more and more, this will become easier, and the foundational truths of the faith should be very clear in our minds, but we should still always be on our guard against subtle alterations to the truth that might be fed into our minds.

It is extremely healthy for us to trust those who lead our churches, especially in the teaching of the Bible, but even they should not be treated as if they are perfect in their understanding, and are still vulnerable to potential deception and error. It is the leaders of our churches who are given particular responsibility in defending the church against potentially damaging teaching (Acts 20:28-31), but all of us must be on the look out that we don’t get deceived.

Jesus Himself adds an extra dimension to this in Matthew 7:15-20 as He tells us a way we might not just spot false teaching, but also those who are not true teachers at all:

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? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

Jesus is clear that a false teacher will at first glance look exactly like any other teacher, which is why we must be so careful. However, over time the fruit of someone's life will begin to tell us where they really stand. In the light of this we should be really careful of following the teaching of someone whose life just doesn’t seem to match up with the life they ought to live as a teacher of the Bible and maybe a leader of a church.

The picture of the different fruits gathered from different trees is used to show us that once God begins to work in someone's life, good fruit will inevitably follow, and when it doesn’t there is certainly something wrong that we need to take notice of.

I do hope this answer will go some way to helping you in your journey of faith with the Lord Jesus Christ, and to understand this area of false teaching better. I want to encourage you to get more involved with your local church. It would be good to speak to a Christian leader or another trusted church individual regarding your question. I know they would be delighted to further answer you as well as offer prayer and support as you continue your spiritual journey:
www.lookingforgod.com/churchfinder

Please use our Interactive Answer Matrix and feel free to ask another question. Our helpful staff are praying for you and waiting to try and answer to you from the Bible, and will be delighted to tell you more about Jesus Christ the Lord, the Saviour of the world. 
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Here are some more Bible Verses for your further consideration:

  • 1 Timothy 4:1-5
  • 2 Peter 2:1-3
  • 2 John 1:7-11

*All Scripture references are taken From The English Standard Version of the Holy Bible unless stated otherwise

*If anything in this answer affects you directly, then please feel free to call our confidential prayer line in the UK on 0845 4567729, where trained Christian volunteers will take your call and pray both for you and with you. If you are outside of the UK then you may submit your request for prayer on line at www.ucb.co.uk/prayerline


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