The Scriptures contain repeated and frequent warnings to God’s people about the danger of false prophets and false teachers. Satan uses false teaching to divide and corrupt the church and to destroy souls. Due to the spiritual danger posed by false teaching, one of the duties that God calls His people to is the duty to exercise discernment, including the duty to recognize and avoid false teachers. “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.” (Romans 16:17-18, ESV) “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.” (First John 4:1-3, ESV) “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8, ESV)
Given the danger that false teaching and false teachers pose to our spiritual health as individual believers and to the unity, purity and integrity of the church, what are some reliable indications of one who is likely to be a false teacher? Here are five red flags for recognizing false teachers:
1. A pastor or preacher who is not authorized by Holy Scripture to preach is likely to be a false teacher.
God’s Word teaches that Christ calls men to the pastoral office through His visible, organized church. Those who would serve in church office (ministers, elders and deacons) are required by Scripture to meet certain personal and character qualifications (see First Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). Furthermore, such men are to be tested – meaning tested by the church – to see if they meet the doctrinal, personal and character qualifications requisite for serving Christ in the sacred offices (First Timothy 3:10).
In addition, one who would serve in the pastoral office in particular must have sufficient training to be able to rightly handle the “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17, ESV), namely, the Word of God. As the Apostle Paul writes to pastor Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (Second Timothy 2:15, ESV; the King James Version translates this charge as “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” Emphasis added.) Those who are thus recognized by God’s people as being qualified and called to serve in the pastoral office (or any other church office) are to be solemnly set apart to such office by the act of ordination (Acts 14:23; First Timothy 4:14, 22).
Since pastors and elders in the church are called to be stewards and guardians of the sacred treasure of the gospel (First Timothy 2:2), those who would serve in such sacred office must be well trained and meticulously “vetted” and tested prior to being ordained and installed into such office. (This is why historic, biblical Presbyterianism requires that men who would serve in the gospel ministry must, under ordinary circumstances, be college and seminary graduates, and why they must undergo “ordination trials” before the Presbytery prior to being approved for ordination.)
In view of the above, if a preacher is self-appointed and unordained, having never been tested or screened by a faithful church body, it is quite possible that he is a false teacher. A man is not called to the gospel ministry simply because he “feels” a strong desire to serve in such office (though a strong desire to serve in the sacred office is an important subjective factor in such a calling – First Timothy 3:1). If a man is truly called to the gospel ministry, then God’s people (the church) will recognize his character, gifts and calling. If he is truly called to the gospel ministry, he will not be insubordinate and in rebellion against Christ’s Lordship by refusing accountability to the visible Body of Christ, but instead will be willing to be in subjection to his brethren in the Lord. Self-appointed “pastors” and preachers whose only “calling” to ministry is their own personal, subjective “liver shiver” are in rebellion against God’s Word, and thus are likely to be false teachers.
Likewise, one big red flag for recognizing a false teacher is if the pastor or preacher is a woman. God’s Word clearly commands that the pastoral office be restricted to qualified men (see First Corinthians 14:33-37, where this restriction is called “a command of the Lord”, ESV; First Timothy 3:2, which requires that an overseer in the church is to be “the husband of one wife” if he is married, not “the wife of one husband”; First Timothy 2:11-15). This has nothing to do with sexism, for Scripture makes it clear that Christian women are equally God’s image bearers and spiritually equal in Christ (Genesis 1:27; Galatians 3:25-29), and the Scriptures often recognize the valuable contributions of believing women to the life of God’s covenant people. However, this does have to do with God’s creation order and with the diverse roles God assigns to men and women in the church (again, First Timothy 2:11-15). A woman who presumes to mount a pulpit and preach the Word is doing so in open defiance and rebellion against the clear commands of God’s Word, and in many cases it is likely that such a “pastrix” will be spewing forth false teaching.
2. A pastor or preacher is likely to be a false teacher if the Bible is not the main source of his/her sermons.
A pastor’s main job as a “minister (i.e., servant) of the Word” is to preach God’s Word. Period. That means that when he mounts the pulpit his job is to exegete (explain) a text of Scripture and apply its truths to his congregants. It is not his job or calling to be a “life coach”, a motivational speaker, a stand-up comedian, or a winsome storyteller. It is his job and calling to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (First Timothy 4:2, ESV). He is to preach Law and Gospel. He is to proclaim “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). He is to proclaim Christ crucified for the forgiveness of our sins, assuring believers and calling the unconverted to repentance and faith.
A preacher who mounts the pulpit and preaches politics (whether of a left or right wing variety), instead of preaching Christ and His Word, is a false teacher. A preacher whose “sermons” primarily involve giving book reports or telling personal stories or offering commentary on the latest news reports is a false teacher. And a preacher who claims direct revelation (apart from Scripture) and who preaches his own personal revelations or dreams or visions is especially a false teacher, since God has spoken His final Word for this present age in Jesus Christ, and we have that completed revelation in the apostolic and prophetic canonical writings of the New Testament Scriptures (Hebrews 1:1-2; Ephesians 2:20; Revelation 22:18-19). If a preacher mounts the pulpit and begins his or her message with “I want to share with you what the Lord told me…” or something similar, claiming to have received a new, fresh revelation from God apart from the Scriptures, run and don’t go back! There is no question that such a person is a false teacher, and such teachers should be shunned and avoided like the plague.
3. If the “sermon” is all about you and your needs, instead of about Christ and His salvation, then the preacher is likely a false teacher.
As I stated above, a faithful pastor’s job is to teach “the whole counsel of God” as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. He is to proclaim Law and Gospel. Of course, the gospel meets our deepest need – namely, our need for the forgiveness of sins and salvation from the guilt, power and penalty of sin – but if a preacher is focused more on claims that God wants to bless you with mere temporal blessings (such as health, wealth and temporal happiness), then it is quite likely that he is a false teacher. God’s Word is God-centered, and true believers hunger to know more about Him and His amazing plan of salvation. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian Church: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (First Corinthians 2:2, ESV)
4. If Jesus Christ and His saving work are sidelined and not central to the preaching, then it is possible that the preacher is a false teacher.
There are many professedly Bible-believing, evangelical churches which confess and even proclaim the basic gospel message, but which don’t make that message central to everything they are about as a church. The preacher in such churches may quickly mention or refer to the gospel in passing at the end of a “life principle” style topical sermon, but the good news of salvation through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is not prominent or central in his sermon. In my opinion, this is a very common problem in today’s “evangelical” preaching. Preachers get up and preach “how to”, life-principle type sermons (“How to have a great marriage”; “Seven steps to dealing with anger”; “God’s guidelines for getting out of debt”; etc.), but a text of Scripture is never exegeted, and while the gospel might be mentioned, it is sidelined.
In a sense this kind of preaching is far more dangerous than straight-out false doctrine, since it sends the subtle message that the gospel is not all that important or central to our lives as Christians, even while it still mentions the gospel. But the Scriptures make it clear that Christians need the gospel too and that the Christian life is grounded in the gospel! “Life-principle” and other kinds of moralistic or therapeutic preaching is really law-preaching which often loads down God’s people will all kinds of new rules, as it burdens God’s people with multiple laundry lists of more things to do. The basic thrust of such preaching is often “Do more! Try harder!” Whereas the gospel proclaims the good news that “Jesus paid it all!” and “It is finished! The Lord has done it for you!”, thereby granting precious relief and rest to weary souls. If a preacher sidelines the gospel in his sermons, then it is quite possible that he is a false teacher.
5. If the sermon is ambiguous in its wording, it is quite possible that the preacher is a false teacher.
While there are some difficult portions of God’s Word, most of Holy Scripture is revealed in plain, clear language and is written for the ordinary, everyday reader. Be wary of a preacher who regularly uses vague, ambiguous, elusive or evasive language. A man who is incapable of explaining the basic message of the Scriptures with clarity and plain speaking is a man who is not qualified to rightly handle the word of truth (Second Timothy 2:15), and who therefore may be a false teacher.
There are many “wolves in sheep’s clothing”, many who disguise themselves as angels of light and who use godliness as a cloak for greed. Let us learn from the Scriptures how to recognize the red flags of potential false teachers, and let us do our duty in exercising biblical discernment in evaluating the teachers out there in the Christian world who put themselves forward as reliable guides for God’s people. Let us “test the spirits” (First John 4:1-6). Amen.