False preachers and teachers are dangerous to churches, denominations, conferences, Christian schools and colleges, and on television, radio and online. Their false teachings affect hundreds of millions of people around the world every week. False preachers and teachers are everywhere and into everything ‘Christian.’

According to A Layman’s Guide to False Preachers and Teachers (the Bible) false preachers and teachers are ungodly and dangerous to your spiritual health. The question we’re addressing at this point in our special series is how we can know if someone is a false preacher or teacher. Fortunately, God has given His children a way to find out. It’s called testing the spirits –

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

As we mentioned in an earlier part of this series, testing the spirits in the context of John’s letter has to do with what kind of spirit is behind the preaching and teaching in their churches. Is it from God or the devil? If it’s from the devil, we need to remember why the Son of God (Jesus Christ) was revealed –

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

Testing the spirits is something for individual Christians to do as well as for Christian leaders. As we saw in our last study, the first two steps of testing preachers and teachers are –

  1. What do they believe?
  2. What do they preach and teach?

We move now to Steps 3 and 4 for testing the spirits of preachers and teachers.

Test #3

How do they live?

The third test is to see how they act in a variety of life situations. Are the actions of preachers and teachers consistent with what they preach and teach? Jesus and His apostles were able to point to both their doctrine (teaching) and practice (actions). They lived what they preached and were a pattern for others to follow.

Jesus called on His disciples to follow Him. He was clear about what that meant and demonstrated how serious He was by acting on His own words.

When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, ‘Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.

Mark 8:34

Then he delivered Him to them to be crucified. Then they took Jesus and led Him away. And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, one on either side, and Jesus in the center.

John 19:16-18

Jesus called on His disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Him. Jesus did deny Himself and take up His cross. Jesus acted consistently with what He preached and taught. He is our supreme example to follow.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.

2 Corinthians 8:9

For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.

1 Peter 2:21

Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.

Hebrews 13:7

We know from Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus (both preachers and teachers) that being a pattern for other Christians to follow was vital. Being a pattern means being an example. That’s what God wants from anyone who claims to preach the Gospel.

Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern.

Philippians 3:17

But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow us, for we were not disorderly among you; nor did we eat anyone’s bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, not because we do not have authority, but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-9

Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.

2 Timothy 1:13

But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me.

2 Timothy 3:10-11

Likewise, exhort the young men to be sober-minded, in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, sound speech that cannot be condemned, that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of you.

Titus 2:6-8

1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are examples of how Christian leaders should act. What we find in those letters, and others, give us some of the best information for how to test the spirit of a preacher or teacher.

Here’s a partial list of actions Paul gave for preachers and teachers. You can use these and others you find in the Bible for testing the spirits of preachers and teachers in your church, denomination or conference. If they don’t meet the criteria listed, be cautious. False preaching and teaching is usually determined by what preachers and teachers believe, preach and teach, but their personal actions (behavior) is also important to note.

  • blameless
  • husband of one wife
  • temperate
  • sober-minded
  • of good behavior
  • hospitable
  • not given to wine
  • not violent
  • not greedy for money
  • gentle
  • not quarrelsome
  • not quick-tempered
  • not covetous
  • one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence 
  • not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil
  • must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil
  • not self-willed
  • lover of what is good
  • just
  • holy

If you’re wondering why the actions (behavior) of a preacher or teacher are important, here’s how Paul summed it up for Titus –

… that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.

Titus 1:9b

Preachers and teachers are responsible for their actions because it has an impact on those who oppose their message. Here’s the next verse in Titus 1 –

For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain … Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.

Titus 1:10-11, 13

How can the exhortation of sound doctrine by a preacher or teacher convict people if the behavior of the preacher or teacher is contrary to the sound doctrine they preach? It’s even worse if the preacher or teacher is not preaching sound doctrine.

Test #4

How do they lead?

Preachers and teachers are leaders in churches, denominations, conferences and Christian schools and colleges. A good question to ask as you test the spirits of preachers and teachers is, how do they lead? Do they lead like the apostles led the early church? If not, why not?

The writer to Hebrews wrote that Christians should obey those who rule over them and be submissive (Hebrews 13:17). Why?

… for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.

We read the context of this verse earlier in this article –

Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.

Hebrews 13:7

The people ruling over you are those who have spoken the Word of God to you. True preachers and teachers are leaders who watch out for the souls of the people God gives them to lead. Preachers and teachers must give an account for their leadership to God, so Christians should allow them to lead “with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.”

You may be wondering, given what we just read, if it’s ever right for a Christian to question their church or denominational leaders. Two things can be right at the same time. We should obey those who rule over us and be submissive to them. We should also test the spirits of those who rule over us. The key for us is to do both of those right things correctly.

Private Testing

Begin by testing the spirits of preachers and teachers privately. Be careful that you are sure what the Bible teaches about every aspect of your testing. The Bible is the final exam for everyone. Can we pass the same test? If not, don’t test someone else. Also, be humble as you conduct your private test. Be careful that you don’t allow pride to enter the test and throw you off course.

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5

In the context of the Apostle John’s test the spirits command, we see that Jesus Christ and His Gospel should be the primary focus of whether someone is a false preacher or teacher.

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. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

1 John 4:1-6
  • Listen to what preachers and teachers say and write. That will tell you a lot about what they believe.
  • Watch their actions (behavior) in and out of their official leadership roles.
  • Watch their leadership style and decisions. Compare what you see and hear to what the Bible teaches about Christian leaders.
  • If you believe they may be failing your private test, ask God for wisdom in how to proceed.

Shared Testing

If you believe someone is a false preacher or teacher in your church, denomination, conference, school or college, you’re going to need some help. Don’t go it alone.

Paul’s example in Acts 15 and Galatians 2 is a good one to follow. He believed strongly that some men from the Jerusalem church were teaching false doctrine. In fact, Paul would later write to the Galatians that the men were false brethren. The doctrine the Jews were teaching Gentiles at the church in Antioch, Syria was that it was necessary for the Gentiles to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses. That was not the message Jesus had given Paul to preach, so Paul talked with Barnabas about it and they were in agreement that the message was false. They confronted the Jews from Jerusalem and ‘had no small dissension and dispute’ with them.

What happened next is important for us to witness. Paul and Barnabas believed they were right and that the Gentiles should be defended against false teaching that would have been contrary to the teaching Jesus had given Paul to teach. They were also humble enough to travel more than 200 miles to present their case before a council of apostles and elders in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas described the conversion of the Gentiles as they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria and that news caused ‘great joy to all the brethren.’

The apostles and elders listened to arguments from men that were part of ‘the sect of the Pharisees’ who believed Gentile Christians should be circumcised and commanded to keep the Law of Moses. They then heard from the Apostle Peter who reminded them that God had opened the door to Gentiles through his preaching. Peter closed his argument by asking the council ‘why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?’

Next up were Paul and Barnabas. They told the council about the many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles. Paul later wrote the Galatians that he ‘did not yield submission even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you.’ After hearing all of the witnesses and evidence, it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send some men to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas to deliver the council’s message. They would not require the Gentiles who were becoming Christians to be circumcised or have to obey the Law of Moses.

Paul was fighting a good fight for a good cause. That’s important to note. Paul wrote the Christians in Rome about how to deal with disputable matters (Romans 14), but what happened in Antioch was not a disputable matter. Paul knew the difference. He knew how to test the spirits. We can follow the many examples of how Paul dealt with a variety of problems and challenges in the early Church.

If you believe someone is preaching or teaching false doctrine, meet with someone you trust. Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ who had amazing visions of the truth prior to preaching the Gospel in Antioch (2 Corinthians 12). He could have told the Jews to go back where they came from based on what he knew to be true. However, Paul knew what was at stake and understood how important it was to make his case to fellow apostles and elders in Jerusalem. He first talked with Barnabas before confronting the false teachers. That’s a wonderful example for us to follow as we test the spirits and confront false preaching and teaching in our congregations and denominations.

Confronting Error

Confronting error in your church, denomination, conference, etc, may not go as well for you as it did for Paul in Jerusalem. You may be misunderstood, ostracized, even fired from a job if you work for a church, denomination, conference or school. However, the outcome of doing what’s right should not be your primary concern. If you don’t want to have any problems or challenges as a Christian, then I strongly recommend you don’t test the spirits. Every Christian I know who has tested the spirits has faced opposition. Remember, you are testing spirits. This is spiritual testing at the highest level. The enemy of our God does not want us testing his false preachers and teachers, so Satan will challenge you when you test the spirits and take a stand for Christ. We are in a spiritual battle with Satan and his forces, including false preachers and teachers.

Should that opposition stop you from testing the spirits? It should not. Jesus fought the good fight for us and He calls on all of His followers to do the same. The battle is eternal in nature, not temporal. When we test the spirits, we are involved in a spiritual battle that Jesus has already won.

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.

2 Timothy 4:6-8

Next Time

We will look at how to shine a light on false preachers and teachers in the next part of our special series – A Layman’s Guide To False Preachers and Teachers.

Previous Articles

A Layman’s Guide To False Preachers and Teachers Part 1

A Layman’s Guide To False Preachers and Teachers Part 2

A Layman’s Guide To False Preachers and Teachers Part 3

A Layman’s Guide To False Preachers and Teachers Part 4

A Layman’s Guide To False Preachers and Teachers Part 5

A Layman’s Guide To False Preachers and Teachers Part 6

A Layman’s Guide To False Preachers and Teachers Part 7


You can read the first seven parts of this series in a free eBook to download and share with others as God leads.


We have been publishing articles and eBooks about false preachers and teachers for many years. Here are some you may find helpful:

A Prophet’s Perspective About Prophets

The Prophet’s Voice

A Reading Plan For Christian Apologists – Part 1

A Reading Plan For Christian Apologists – Part 2

A Reading Plan For Christian Apologists – Part 3

Evangelistic Apologetics: The Church Under Attack – Part 2

Thinking About Christian Unity – Part One

Thinking About Christian Unity – Part Two

Thinking About Christian Unity – Part Three

Thinking About Christian Unity – Part Four

Thinking About Christian Unity – Part Five

Thinking About Christian Unity – Part Six

Thinking About Christianity Unity – Part Seven

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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