This week’s episode focused upon false teachers and false teachings and if you haven’t heard that episode you can get to it by going here. It was a fantastic talk with two friends of mine and I highly recommend you check out their work, which can be found in the description for the episode.
Within the topic of false teachers and teachings, we spoke on it in a very broad sense and here I wanted to dive a bit deeper on the subject. It came to my attention that there are a number of individuals who defend false teachers especially the false teachers that offer them fleshly things such as the prosperity gospel. This, of course, is no surprise when we examine the bible on what we could and can expect in the future. I said it once, and I’ll say it again, it seems as though many self-professing Christians would rather be martyrs for their favorite false teachers before standing firm on the teachings of Jesus and scripture. Without further ado, let us dive into the discussion for the day.
When we are speaking on the subject of false teachings and teachers we oftentimes see terminology that may not be clear. The most common terminology we see is “heresy”. What is heresy? Heresy is a belief or opinion that is contrary to orthodox teachings, the essentials of the faith. False teachers often bring in heresies (2 Peter 2:1) which are called destructive and are very serious according to the New Testament. These heretics teach contrary to Christian essentials such as the teaching that Jesus wasn’t fully God or that there are many ways to God. Heresy has been in the church since the beginning and we see clear warnings against false teachers in nearly every book of the New Testament. In fact, we are reminded by Christ himself, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16a).
Throughout church history we can observe the contending of the faith by the apostles to individuals such as Justin Martyr, to the Council of Nicea, to the Protestant Reformation and so on. The Church has recognized that the truth of Christianity needs to be defended and it is because of the providential hand of God through faithful defender’s efforts that we can have orthodoxy today. While myths abound about the idea of Christianity not having orthodoxy until later on (usually the 4th century), heresies were undoubtedly spin-offs of the already established truths. To get a closer examination of that, I recommend you check out this work, “The Heresy of Orthodoxy” (Link here).
Tim Challies has an excellent article about “7 False Teachers in the church today” in which he categorizes false teachers: the heretic, the charlatan, the prophet, the abuser, the divider, the tickler, and the speculator. While I believe these classifications are extremely helpful in recognizing different types of false teachers, I would argue that they all fall under the category of “heretics”. It has been my experience, to say the least, that every type of false teacher has altered important doctrine for whatever purpose they have. This is debatable, but regardless, I would recommend you examine what Challies had to say on the subject.
There needs to be the recognition that denominational differences are not false doctrine. I will argue that a denomination is, by definition, a recognized branch of the Christian church. This automatically disqualifies groups that fall into heresy such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. What I ultimately mean here, though, is that essentials matter and that is where we need to be diligent. We need to know what hills to die on, and those are the hills of Christian essentials. There are some things based on tradition and doctrinal differences that do not change or alter the essentials of the Christian faith. I would recommend, then, every believer work to understand and know what, historically, the essentials of the Christian faith have been. Many throughout church history and in our day have made the error of calling out believers simply because they disagree with them on something extremely minor, even when that something doesn’t affect one’s doctrine of salvation (soteriology) or the nature of God. So, it must be remembered that false doctrine opposes or contradicts fundamental Christian truths.
It is our role to know our bibles and to be able to distinguish between truth and error. For too long we have thrown out the importance of doctrine, of truth, while simultaneously claiming the bible is the word of God. The problem with that is that the word of God emphasizes, greatly, proper teaching and doctrine. We have a role to know the essentials and to defend them. If we truly believe God’s word than we should heed its warnings about false teachings and be open in addressing false teaching.
Within our society, there are two primary things (in my opinion) keeping Christians from properly addressing false teaching; (a) a false idea of “love” and (b) a lack of theological maturity. Does theology or doctrine really matter? Yes, and I debunk the idea that it doesn’t here. One thing that strikes me, and should strike you, is the simple fact that the Bereans were called “Noble” because they didn’t just take Paul’s word for it, but they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11). The truth remains, the people of God are destroyed from a lack of knowledge. More than this, we have resources available, beyond belief, to help us understand God’s word if we struggle with it. Go to the book recommendation page if you’d like to see some resources.
How do we recognize false teachers?
The best way to recognize false teaching is by knowing the bible. I worked in a few environments where I would have to recognize counterfeit money and counterfied documentation. One of the ways you learn to spot the fakes is by knowing what the genuine thing looks like. In one setting I was dealing with legal documentation and so to know the original was very important, but how much more important is it for doctrine? For the word of God? When you become familiar with the genuine thing, you suddenly start noticing the differences in the counterfeit more and more. Eventually, it takes just a second to say, “nope, that’s not right.” when you are faced with a falsification. Another way is by being familiar with church history, even if it is just basic, but learning about the heresies of the early church makes them easier to recognize today. Here are some books on church history I could recommend (First book and second book) and here is a free series on church history to consider (here).
Usually false teachers alter Christological truths, that is, the doctrine of Christ. This was a huge issue within the day of the apostles and continues to be one today. Many cults, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, are just made up of old heresies mixed and matched in new packages. Secondly, false teachers usually don’t preach the full gospel or the true gospel. Often times, in our day, this means removing the doctrine of sin or repentance to some extent or another. It also means changing the doctrine of man, usually making man good by nature or not as deprived as the bible says. We are told, though, that any proclamation that changes the gospel is extremely dangerous (Galatians 1:9). Lastly, there is the issue of fruits, which are a bit harder to discern given the nature of them, but we can see things such as pride or greed, though these are harder to spot.
This list won’t be comprehensive, but perhaps will give you a place to start in terms of what to know about and what to look out for:
Christological errors – Some of the upcoming false teachings I have been seeing consist of Christological errors. That is, they change or pervert who Jesus really is. When we talked about Bethel here (link) I noted that Johnson teaches that Jesus wasn’t fully God on earth, but a man who emptied himself of his divinity. Other groups will teach that Jesus was only ever a man and never god to begin with. A more rare heresy that I have seen pop up a couple of times is known as adoptionism (which arose in the late second century) and it teaches that Jesus never preexisted and is not God. Instead, adoptionists teach that Jesus was adopted by God into the Godhead after passing his test in the wilderness. One that is more common are forms of Arianism, which taught that Jesus was a created being and this had various implications on the person of Christ. This is what was actually the debate at the council of Nicea and it wasn’t much of a debate. While Arianism was shut down quickly, many groups such as Unitarians and the Jehovah’s Witnesses hold onto this notion. Fact is, Jesus is the Eternal Son of God who is not created, fully man and fully God. Christological errors are more often than not the debate in terms of the trinitarian discussion and we need to remember that a false Jesus will not save anyone. To know the true Jesus is vital. We have episodes discussing all of these things here: Trinity, Jesus is God part 1 and part 2).
Errors Regarding Faith – This can get deep and wide really quick and so this isn’t exaustive either. A common misconception is the concept of easy believism, which is harder to define. Some will actually confuse it for the biblical reality of “faith alone” (sola fide) or it is used often as a strawman against the concept of faith alone. Easy-believism basically teaches that all we are saved by a mere intellectual assent that requires no commitment, conviciton, repentance, etc. Or, another usage is something like, “I prayed a prayer once so I’m saved” without conviction or trust in Christ. Usually this is rooted in a misunderstanding of regeneration, in which the biblical position teaches that we are saved by faith alone, but genuine saving faith always leads to and produces a changed life and works (Ephesians 2:8-10). A different error that stems from the same fundamental misunderstanding is that salvation is faith plus works. The text provided already addresses that, but it never hurts to restate that those who are saved will produce works, and the gospel makes it clear that our works cannot save us, only the work of Jesus can save us. I talk on that in my critique of Roman Catholicism (episode 73).
The Prosperity Gospel – We tackled this on the Instagram page, but the prosperity gospel or word of faith movement has taken over a lot of the theological climate of the United States. It is actually growing in otherwise orthodox churches, and so we need to be aware of it. The movement is firstly fueled by the notion that words can manipulate the world and create what scripture alledgedly promises (physical health and material wealth). This is actually directly tied to the eastern mysticism that utilizes “the laws of attraction” seen in pagan works such as “the Secret”.
There are many variations of this view, but the primary claim is that Jesus came so that you could manipulate the “faith-force” and become healthy and wealthy in this life, that Jesus died for your comfort and “best life now”. The view makes the Holy Spirit subject to man’s will and everything you “say” determines what happens to you, which is why the majority of prosperity teachers have “positive confession” or affirmation. In this view, faith is a self-generated force that leads to prosperity and prayer is a tool at gaining your compensation from God. You speak things into existence within this view, and some teachers of this movement have gone so far as to say that we can “claim an unbeliever to be saved and there is nothing they could do to reject that”.
The truth is Paul warned against this (1 Tim. 6:5-11). Covetousness is idolatry (Ephesians 5:5-7), and the bible’s talk on wealth is summarized as good stewardship, but never stresses the hyper-acquisition of it. In fact, most references to wealth in the bible are negative (1 Tim. 3:3; 6:10; Hebrews 13:5; Luke 12:15). And of course, the words of Jesus, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19) and “You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24).
Since I addressed this on the Instagram, I figured I would share some additional details. One individual said, “Good explanation of this. Maybe it went over my head but did Jesus not come to heal the sick, blind, poor, & the lame and call them to repentance? Not referring to this “name it and claim it” gospel but how the pic says it appeals to people by saying Jesus will heal their body”
My response was,
“first, I think all of these things need to be qualified by “spiritual”. If you look at the beatitudes, the gospel is a spiritual message, and things such as poor, and healing, were primarily spiritual poverty and being dead in sin. The gospel promises to heal those. Jesus’ works were signs of his deity and capability to actually heal that. He didn’t heal everyone, and many times he left because they didn’t care for the message, just his signs. If you examine the “I AM” statements in John you can see this dynamic more fully. The gospel never promises material wealth or physical health (here on earth, we will be physically healed in some sense at glorification, but that’s not what is debated). Timothy and Paul lived with illness and the early church suffered much. Truth remains, Jesus promised persecution for following him, not comfortability, and we see this throughout church history. Anyone who says Jesus died for our best life now (a) doesn’t understand the beauty of glorification, being physically with the Lord and free from the presence of sin or (b) recognize scenes in scripture such as the stoning of Stephen.”
The Social Justice Gospel – Needs to be mentioned in passing because of how quickly it is growing. Basically, Social Justice, within this view, becomes the priority and a matter of salvation. This particular issue is difficult because there is a good motive underlining it (I would assume), yet it becomes works based very quickly and follows the cultural political climate’s view of Social Justice and tries to inject it into scripture. This movement is growing very rapidly and has been found in many congregations. I don’t want to go too far into it, but I would recommend you examine the statement on social justice (here). The statement makes direct references of issues being pushed into the modern church.
There are many other false teachings in our day and age such as universalism, which teaches that everyone will be saved regardless of their beliefs. Another teaching is that there are many ways to God and that the bible isn’t the only source of divine revelation. Just as well is the idea of pantheism, or a form of it, which has become a trend among the younger generations. We must be aware of these issues, especially when movements such as the NAR gives the next generation eastern pagan practices and labels them “Christian”.
We must be diligent. We must know our bibles. We should sincerely desire that which God teaches in his word over and against the false teachings of man’s extra biblical revelation and traditions.
I would also recommend everyone watch American Gospel: Christ Alone if you havent yet. You all have a wonderful weekend and God bless you all.
Nick resides in Texas with his wife, daughter, and son. After meeting Christ in 2012, Nick began a blog in order to teach things that he found interesting. Eventually this blog would become a podcast in 2017 wherein the vision was to teach the scriptures and theology to anyone who was interested!