We’ve spent more than a year in this special series looking at the problem of false preachers and teachers in Christian churches, denominations, schools, seminaries, concerts and conferences. This is just what Jesus and His apostles warned us about almost two-thousand years ago.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.Matthew 7:15
But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you.2 Peter 2:1
For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ.Jude 1:4
So, what can we do about it? Fortunately, Jesus and His apostle did more than just ‘warn’ us. They also told us what to ‘do’ about it.
If you want to see how bad the problem is today, please refer to previous articles on this subject listed at the bottom of this post.
If you want to see what we can do about the problem, please read further.
Turning to our Layman’s Guide To False Preachers and Teachers (the Bible) we read this –
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.1 John 4:1
John’s identification process is:
- Do not believe every spirit
- Test the spirits, whether they are of God
As we’ve pointed out previously, it’s interesting that John wrote ‘do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits’ instead of ‘do not believe every man, but test every man.’ Why did the apostle write it the way he did?
It’s clear from John’s first letter that our battles in this world are spiritual and with spirits. He wrote this several sentences before sharing how to ‘test’ the spirits –
He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.1 John 3:8
False preachers and teachers are part of “the works of the devil” that Jesus came to destroy. Why do I say that? Because of something Jesus said to a Jewish audience as recorded in John’s Gospel account –
Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me.John 8:43-45
Why did Jesus speak that way to His audience? Some in the audience wanted to kill Him. Jesus said to them – ‘I speak what I have seen with My Father, and you do what you have seen with your father.’ (John 8:38) Some in the audience responded that ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus responded to them that –
If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham. But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this. You do the deeds of your father.John 8:39-40
It’s important to remember, as we look at testing spirits, that humans opposing Jesus Christ and His work are doing the deeds of their father the devil. That’s the significance of John writing in his first letter –
For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.
When we say that Jesus was made known to destroy the works of the devil, that includes the works of false preachers and teachers.
How does Jesus destroy the ‘works’ of false preachers and teachers? It appears through what Jesus told His apostles and what they told followers of Jesus that He will oppose false preachers and teachers through His Church – the Body of Christ.
Here are some ways we can test preachers and teachers in Christian churches, denominations, schools, concerts and conferences.
What do they believe?
What a preacher or teacher believes is at the heart of their preaching and teaching. If their beliefs are true, their preaching and teaching will be (for the most part) true. If their beliefs are false, their preaching and teaching will be (for the most part) false.
You may wonder how a false preacher or teacher can get a position in a church, school, conference or denomination that is known for being doctrinally correct (orthodox). How does anyone get a job? They usually apply for it. Depending on how well a church, school, conference or denomination does its job of hiring preachers and teachers, the applicant follows a process that may include a resume, a personal statement of faith, examples of preaching/teaching (written and audio), letters of recommendation, and personal interviews. How could a false preacher or teacher get through that process undetected?
One way is that they lie. They lie and deceive. Jude added that they ‘crept in unnoticed.’ That means they are liars, deceivers and creepers. They say what they know people want to hear and say it in such a way that veils their true intent.
Having been a hiring manager for several decades, I see some problems with the way churches, schools, conferences and denominations hire preachers and teachers. In some cases, the hiring problem is as much of a hirer problem as it is the deception of the applicants. Those who hire often don’t know how to ‘test the spirits’ behind their applicants or they may be complicit in hiring a false preacher or teacher.
An important part of what a hirer (or hiring committee) should do is unveil what is veiled. Applicants for jobs often veil or cover those areas of their life and work they don’t want hirers to know. The same is true for preachers and teachers. Some of them have covered up their true purpose of deceiving churches, schools and denominations. The problem we’re facing today didn’t happen overnight. It happened over decades, which means it will take time to fix the problem.
So, how do we test what a preacher or teacher believes?
- Listen to them preach or teach.
- Read what they’ve written.
- Pay attention to their personal conversations, especially when their guard is down.
False preachers and teachers are often guarded when they talk with people because they are protecting their image and false message. However, they will often speak honestly when they think they are with a person or group of people they trust.
Depending on the relationship you have with a preacher, teacher, worship leader, denominational leader, etc, you could consider inviting them to lunch or over to your house to talk. It might be to get to know them better, ask them something about a recent sermon or lesson, or for advice/counsel. Listen to what they say and ask questions for anything you hear that you don’t understand or that sounds different from what you have heard before. Also listen for what they don’t say or do. There are things false teachers/preachers won’t say or do because it would give away their true nature and intent
If a false preacher/teacher is new to your church or denomination, they may be guarded in their comments and answers to your questions. That is to be expected since false preachers/teachers are ‘wolves’ dressed in sheep’s clothing. As Peter wrote, they “will secretly bring in destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1b). Secretly bring in means they bring it in, but in a secretive way. The Greek word for secretly is παρεισάξουσιν and means “introduce stealthily, from close beside.”
A false preacher/teacher usually doesn’t introduce themselves to a group of Christians as a ‘false’ preacher or teacher. They will often lie to your face or at least try to mislead you about what they believe through a process of deception. Don’t be surprised if they do that. It’s part of their ‘nature’ to do that. Peter wrote – ‘By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words’ (2 Peter 2:3a). As Paul warned the Ephesians leaders –
Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock … Therefore watch …Acts 20:28, 31
To ‘take heed’ means to beware, be cautious and pay attention. The word ‘watch’ means to be vigilant, stay awake. Wise words for all of us to follow.
So, again, how do we ‘test’ the spirit behind a preacher or teacher? One way is to talk with a church, conference or denominational leader about Jesus Christ. That’s where the truth may come to the surface; maybe not right away, but over time it should become obvious whether the spirit behind them is true or false.
Again, insight from the Apostle Peter –
… even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.2 Peter 2:1c
False preachers and teachers don’t think highly of Jesus Christ. While they may say things publicly in praise of Christ to mislead Christians, they will sometimes be less guarded in private conversations. They will often minimize the life and ministry of Jesus. If they are guarded about that, they will sometimes struggle to give Jesus the glory and credit He deserves. They may or may not openly ‘deny’ Jesus Christ, but they will have difficulty praising Him. If they do praise Him, their words are often shallow.
Again, the key is to ‘listen’ to what they say about what they believe about Jesus Christ.
But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.1 Timothy 1:8-11
The better you know the truth about Jesus and the Gospel, the better you’ll be at spotting a false preacher or teacher.
Beware of what they believe. Be cautious. Ask them questions. Push for answers if they are hesitant or if you catch them in a lie or deception. There is so much at stake for the future of your church, conference or denomination.
I can tell you from experience in both the business world and church community that it is easier to not make a bad hire than to remove a bad person from a position. Don’t hire them in the first place and you won’t have to clean up the mess they make.
Remember the words of the Apostle John – ‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.’ Behind every false preacher and teacher is a ‘lying spirit.’ Test the spirits and you will discover of what kind they are.
What do they preach or teach?
As we’ve seen from the Apostle Peter, false preachers and teachers prefer to work in ‘secret.’ That’s another way of saying they like to ‘work in the dark.’ Their intention is to bring in destructive heresies ‘secretly.’ Why would they do that? For what purpose? How should we respond?
How about having fellowship with them? What about exposing them? Does that seem a bit unfriendly or un-Christian like to you? Here’s what the Apostle Paul wrote about that –
And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret.Ephesians 5:11-12
Why is this important? Take a look around at your church, conference or denomination. Like what you see? Any concerns? If so, what concerns you? Anything you can do about it?
The Apostle Paul told the leaders of the church in Ephesus that after his departure ‘savage wolves’ would come in among them, not sparing the flock. Paul wrote that ‘from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves’ (Acts 20:29-30). Remember, Paul was saying in person what he would later write to those same church leaders about having “no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret.”
After themselves … that’s a key to understanding the personal reason behind false preaching and teaching. Some false preachers and teachers may know they are doing the deeds of their father the devil, but some may not see it that way. Their purpose may be more personal and selfish in nature. They want people to follow ‘them.’ They want to ‘draw away the disciples after themselves.’
What does that get them? For starters how about attention? Attention leads to fame and fame can lead to fortune. As Peter wrote –
By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words.2 Peter 2:3a
The NIV translates this way –
In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories.
False preachers and teachers love money. That’s just a fact. They love fame and they love money. That’s a problem for a church, conference or denomination leader. Why?
Paul wrote Timothy –
… the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.1 Timothy 6:10
Just prior to writing those words, Paul outlined in great detail what Timothy should preach and teach in the church. He told Timothy to “Teach and exhort these things,” then wrote this –
If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself.1 Timothy 6:3-5
First, notice that Paul wrote that ‘From such withdraw yourself.’ What does it mean to withdraw from someone? The Greek word for withdraw is Ἀφίστασο and means ‘depart from, take position away from, abstain from, make to stand away.’
Paul told the Ephesians to take an active position in moving away from a person who taught ‘otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness.’
Notice what kind of person we should withdraw ourselves from in a church, school, conference or denominational setting –
- Anyone who teaches otherwise
- Anyone who does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ
- Anyone who does not consent to the doctrine (teaching) which accords with godliness
What does Paul say about those kinds of people?
- They are proud
- They know nothing
- They are obsessed with disputes and arguments over words from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth
- They suppose that godliness is a means of gain
That word ‘gain’ is porismos in Greek and means ‘a specific route that brings gain or profit.’ Many preachers and teachers suppose that being in the ministry is a route to becoming financially profitable.
Paul wrote Timothy in a second letter that ‘in the last days perilous times will come. For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters …’ (2 Timothy 3:1-2)
Jesus dealt with the same thing when He walked the streets and highways of Israel. The people loved Him, but the leaders hated Him. One of the insights to why they hated Jesus is something we see in Luke 16:14 – ‘Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard these things, and they derided Him.’
One of the main reasons the Pharisees, who were false teachers in Israel, opposed Jesus was because of their ‘love of money.’ Jesus spoke in opposition to what the Pharisees said and did and that was a big challenge to their money-making venture – being full-time religious leaders.
The same is true today. False preachers and teachers in churches, schools, conferences and denominations love money and they’ll use ‘deceptive words’ (fabricated stories) to ‘exploit’ people who follow them.
The advent of broadcasting brought the greed of false preachers and teachers to the attention of a massive audience. They are still doing it today – asking for money, money, money. Why? They say it’s so they can expand the ministry to reach more people for Jesus, but is that true?
Why do preachers and teachers need multi-million dollar facilities and houses and jets to expand the preaching of the Gospel? Jesus said He didn’t have a place to lay His head and Paul expanded the ministry of the Gospel by working as a tentmaker. What we know about the other apostles also shows they lived simply.
Some may answer that we live in a modern and fast-paced world with the demands of jet travel and big-budget television shows. Is that a good answer? How about why many preachers live in huge mansions (often multiple mansions across the country or around the world) and drive multiple very expensive cars? Is that also because we live in a modern and fast-paced world? What would be the specific demand for that kind of opulent lifestyle by a preacher/teacher of the Gospel of Christ?
The Apostle Paul wrote to Pastor Timothy about how he should preach and teach in the churches. You may find this interesting to read as you consider the questions we just posed –
You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier. And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. The hardworking farmer must be first to partake of the crops. Consider what I say, and may the Lord give you understanding in all things.2 Timothy 2:1-7
Paul gave Timothy, and all preachers and teachers, great guidance to what it’s like to be in ‘the ministry.’
- Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus
- Commit what you’ve learned to be true to faithful men who will be able to teach others also
- Endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ
- Do not become entangled with the affairs of this life so you can please the One who enlisted you as a soldier
- Compete according to the rules so you will one day be ‘crowned’ for your ministry
- Be hardworking and it’s fine to ‘partake of the crops’
In the same way a farmer works hard and is first to partake in the crops he planted, it’s fine for preachers and teachers to earn a living from a full-time ministry. However, do you think what Paul had in mind was the extravagant, opulent lifestyle that so many preachers and teachers have today? Do you think Paul would have agreed that multiple mansions and millions of dollars, along with jets and jet-setting are good examples of enduring hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ? How about becoming ‘entangled’ with the affairs of this life so that we can please the One who enlisted us to be soldiers? Any problems there?
The point is purpose and intent. If a preacher or teacher is in ministry for fame and fortune, beware. It could be a sign that he or she is a false preacher or teacher.
By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words.
In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories.
Another way to test the ‘spirit’ behind a particular preacher or teacher is to compare what they preach and teach to what Jesus and His apostles preached and taught.
Some preachers and teachers like to introduce new ways of looking at Scripture. Some claim to have special insight given to them personally by God or angels. Some claim that Jesus visited them on earth and taught them personally. Some claim they were caught up to Heaven where God or an angel taught them personally and told them special things about truth or the future that they were to preach on earth. In essence, they are saying that God is speaking ‘fresh and anew’ and that they (the false preachers and teachers) are the ones God uses to reveal His ‘new word’ to His Church. Is that how Jesus is ‘building’ His Church today?
Is God speaking new revelation today? If so, how would we know who God is using to speak these new words? We know the criteria given in the Bible, but what about now? Has the criteria changed? Did the Canon of Scripture end with the writings of the Apostle John or are we receiving new Scripture from new apostles today?
Be very cautious around preachers and teachers who claim God is giving them new revelation. The Apostle Paul wrote Timothy about what to do at the church in Ephesus –
As I urged you when I went into Macedonia—remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine, nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith.1 Timothy 1:3-4
The charge was this –
- Teach no other doctrine
- Don’t give heed to fables and endless genealogies – those cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith
That’s pretty clear – ‘teach no other doctrine.’ Don’t listen to the endless ‘stories’ preachers and teachers tell that cause disputes rather than godly edification in churches, conferences and denominations.
What we see many false preachers and teachers do now is what we saw Gnostic teachers do centuries ago. They present themselves as having extra-biblical guidance and understanding from angels and even God Himself. BEWARE! They are extremely dangerous to your spiritual, mental, emotional and even physical health. If you are interested in reading more about what early Gnostics taught, we invite you to read through our special series about Gnostic heresies.
Remember Paul’s warning to the church leaders in Ephesus? What Paul wrote to Timothy addressed how to deal with the false preachers and teachers who would ‘rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.’
Many false preachers and teachers like to tell stories, often about themselves. They may start by opening their Bible as if to preach from it, but they rarely do more than mention a proof text before launching into a monologue about themselves, their accomplishments, their travels, etc.
Other false preachers and teachers will launch into the Bible as if they are going to deliver a message from God, but it’s not long before they leave the clear message and head into their warped views about Jesus and the Gospel.
How do we know if a preacher/teacher leaves the clear message and heads into false teaching? If you are familiar with the truth, it is easier to hear the lie. Your knowledge of Scripture is paramount to knowing and showing that someone is a false preacher or teacher.
Preachers and teachers in churches, conferences, schools and denominations should not speak on their own. They’ve been entrusted with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They should speak what is true from God’s Word. Keep in mind what Paul wrote the Christians in Thessalonica –
But as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, even so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who tests our hearts.1 Thessalonians 2:4
Knowing the truth yourself and what preachers and teachers believe and teach are the first steps toward ‘testing the spirits.’
We also remember this warning concerning the Revelation of Jesus Christ –
‘For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.’Revelation 22:18-19
This is another way of ‘testing’ the spirits. False preachers and teachers often add to or take away from the Lord’s Revelation.
We invite you to watch this video about 7 False Teachers in the Church Today –
We will look at the next two steps in the process of ‘testing’ the spirits in our churches, denominations, schools and conferences in the next part of our special series – A Layman’s Guide To False Preachers and Teachers.
We have been publishing articles and eBooks about false preachers and teachers for many years. Here are some you may find helpful:
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.