If you watch any television, listen to any radio or podcasts, keep up on the news, or interact at depth with just about anyone in modern society, you are being exposed to some form of false teaching. If you cannot identify any voices you hear as false, it’s not because you aren’t being exposed, but because you’re falling for it in some way.
For most of church history, it took extraordinary energy and effort to influence the masses. Messages had to be copied by hand, and teachers had to travel by foot or horseback. There were no cars or airplanes, and no printing presses, websites, or Facebook pages. But today just about every false teacher has a Facebook and Twitter account.
How, then, does a Christian discern true teachers from false ones in a world like ours, where it’s easier than ever to spread false teaching?
False Teachers Will Arise
We begin by acknowledging not just the possibility of false teaching, but the certainty of it. We should not be surprised to find false teaching in the church today. Jesus and his apostles are very clear that false teachers will arise. They promise it. As Jesus says, “False christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.” (Mark 13:22–23; see also Matthew 24:24)
Likewise, Paul warns the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:29–31) and his protégé Timothy (2 Timothy 4:3–4) that false teaching is sure to come (also 1 Timothy 4:1 and 2 Timothy 3:1–6). If we had any doubts at this point, Peter joins the refrain to add another voice: “There will be false teachers among you” (2 Peter 2:1).
So, we should not be caught off guard that false teachers have arisen throughout church history and likely have multiplied in our day.
Watch Their Doctrine — and Lives
What we might find surprising — both from Jesus and his apostles — is how revealing the everyday lives of false teachers are about their falseness. They are not just false in their teaching, but also in their living.
Beneath their doctrinal error, however subtle and deceptive, we will find ethical compromises in tow. And those don’t usually come out overnight; they take time. But they will come. Here’s how Jesus prepares us in Matthew 7:15–20.
Jesus says it twice so that we won’t miss it: You will recognize them by their fruits.
His warning may sound clear and simple at first, but as we all know, trees don’t bear fruit overnight. Eventually, however, the fruit (or lack thereof) will be manifest. And so it is with ethical compromise.
What may begin as mere whispers in a private room will soon enough be proclaimed from the housetops (Luke 12:3). And so Paul instructs leaders not only to pay careful attention to their people and to their teaching, but also to their own lives (Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 4:16).
No doubt, false teachers may be difficult to recognize in the moment. If we don’t have access to their personal lives, or their doctrinal compromises haven’t yet been manifest publicly in their behavior, we may find it difficult to know whether they are true. But time will tell. They will be known by their fruit — not the fruit of ministry quantity and numbers, but quality and endurance — and ultimately the quality of their own lives.
What false teachers throughout history have shared in common is not the specific nature of their doctrinal error, but the inevitability of moral compromise in one of these three general areas;
In their greed, they fleece the flock for material gain. Or in their lust, they compromise sexually (whether fornication, adultery, or homosexuality, which 2 Peter 2 suggests). Or in their pride, they “despise authority” (2 Peter 2:10), and the greatest authority, who upholds all authorities, is God himself.
We Must Not Be Ignorant
One of the greatest defense against false teaching is to know your Bible very well.
“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers…I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” (Acts 20:28-31).
Be part of a local church community that knows, enjoys, and lives the word of God — and holds its leaders accountable. Little, if anything, can be done to hold teachers accountable who are far away, but much should be realistic and actionable in the life of the local church.
As God preserved Noah (2 Peter 2:5) and rescued Lot (2 Peter 2:7), so the Lord Jesus will rescue his true people from the false teaching — and false living — of false teachers.