Denny Burk, Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, offers six characteristics that are helpful in identifying false teachers:
For the next two blog posts, I want to address each half of that question. First, how to identify false teachers in the midst of the church. Second, how to deal with them.
The Bible suggests at least six characteristics that commonly identify false teachers. Not every false teachers exhibits all of these characteristics at once, but often times they present some combination of these traits.
1. False teachers contradict sound doctrine.
Even in the first century during the lifetimes of the apostles, there was an authoritative body of truth that functioned as the norm for faith and practice. Jude calls it “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Paul calls it “sound teaching according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:10-11). Elsewhere, it’s the “standard of sound words” and “the treasure” (2 Tim. 1:13-14), the “words of faith” and “sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:6). John calls it the “the teaching of Christ” (2 John 9).
In the first century, sound doctrine consisted of the Old Testament plus the apostolic word that Christ assigned to His apostles. The apostolic word was eventually written down as the apostles began to pass on. For us, the standard of sound doctrine–the faith once for all delivered to the saints–is the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. False teaching, therefore, is any teaching that departs from that norm. A false teacher is anyone within the church who stands against what the Bible teaches (1 Tim. 6:3; 2 John 9).
2. False teachers promote immoral living.
Jude shows us that false teachers often sneak into the church and “turn the grace of our God into licentiousness” (Jude 4). Licentiousness means a lack of moral restraint, especially with respect to sexual conduct. It is a total suppression of the moral norms of scripture. It is a life that excuses behavior that the Bible condemns. Peter says that such teachers deny the Lord Jesus by following “sensuality” (2 Pet. 2:2). A person who will not be ruled by God’s word is often being ruled by their own lusts. There is no shortage of charlatans who infiltrate churches with their charisma only to prove themselves lecherous meddlers with the women of the flock.
Some of them will try to justify their own sexual immorality or the immorality of others. But they often won’t mount a frontal assault on the moral norms of scripture. That is too obvious. Instead, they will redefine the Bible’s terms so that they no longer witness against their evil deeds. Those who redefine the Bible’s teaching about marriage and sexuality fall into this category.
3. False teachers deemphasize sin and judgment.
This is a trait that false teachers share in common with the false prophets of old. Jeremiah describes them this way:
For from the least of them even to the greatest of them,
Everyone is greedy for gain,
And from the prophet even to the priest
Everyone deals falsely.
And they have healed the brokenness of My people superficially,
Saying, “Peace, peace,”
But there is not peace (Jeremiah 6:13-14).
False teachers characteristically downplay sin. Instead of naming the people’s “brokenness” as sin, they simply say, “nothing to see here, move along.” The false teachers tell sinners whom God will judge that they are not really that bad and that there’s no need to fear God’s judgement. They divorce God’s love and grace from His holiness. They tell people who should have every reason to fear God’s judgment that they really don’t have anything to worry about. They flee from the confrontation that truth brings, and they tell sinners whatever their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim. 4:3-4). Continue reading
Part 2: How to Deal With False Teachers by Denny Burk