Testing False Teachers

I humbly submit this before you.  If you have insights or concerns with any of this, please share!

Our Duty: Test Teachers

God says:

  • Test all things.” (1 Thes. 5:21)
  • “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out…” (1 John 4:1)

God commends those who test teachings/teachers:

  • “I know your works, your labor…you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not,” (Rev. 2:2) – here, they are commended for testing false teachers
  • “These [people] were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:11) – here, they are commended for testing true teachers

How Do We Test Teachers?

The late Walter Martin, in his classic book, The Kingdom of the Cults, writes:

The American Banking Association has a training program that exemplifies this aim of the author. Each year it sends hundreds of bank tellers to Washington in order to teach them to detect counterfeit money, which is a great source of a loss of revenue to the Treasury Department. It is most interesting that during the entire two-week training program, no teller touches counterfeit money. Only the original passes through his hands. The reason for this is that the American Banking Association is convinced that if a man is thoroughly familiar with the original, he will not be deceived by the counterfeit bill, no matter how much like the original it appears.

In essence, then, our best defense against false teaching is ongoing and thorough study of true teaching (i.e. what God reveals in the Bible).  Thus, studying the truth will equip us better than studying the false.

Along these lines, I want to focus on the marks of a true teacher.  If you are seeing these things, celebrate them (1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:17). Where you don’t see these things, be warned.

What are the Marks of a True Teacher?

  1. A true teacher’s ministry will produces godly fruit (Matt 7:16):

    • Specifically:
      • They and their listeners will love, worship, know, and imitate the Jesus/God of the Bible as a result of their ministry (2 Cor. 11:4).
      • They and their listeners will love the Bible and seek the Bible more, as a result of their ministry (Acts 17:11; Gal. 1:8; 2 Tim. 3:13-15).
      • They and their listeners will repent and pursue holiness/righteousness as a result of their ministry (Eph. 4:17-24; Heb. 6:1, 14; Rev. 3:19).
  2. What true teachers say and practice is doctrinally sound, agreeing with the precepts and principles of Scripture (Deut 13:1-4 [with Exod. 20:3]; Acts 17:11; Gal. 1:8; Titus 1:9; Heb. 13:7).  Especially, they affirm (in word and practice) these fundamental Biblical teachings:

  3. True teachers have godly character (1 Tim. 3:1-7; 5:17-25; Titus 1:5-9; James 3:13-18; 1 Pet. 5:1-4)

    • Especially seen in their humility, and continual openness to correction (see the “wise man” in Proverbs [for instance, Prov. 9:8]; Acts 18:24-28; James 3:17)
    • see: What Make’s An Elder? (Outline)
  4. Additionally, God endorses a true teaching ministry in various signs/wonders/confirmations of the Holy Spirit (Deut. 18:21-22; 2 Cor. 12:12; Heb. 2:4; etc.)

    • Be aware of false signs and wonders, though.  Having gifts and miracles, on their own, are not endorsements of true teaching or proof of the Holy Spirit (Exod. 7:11; Acts 8:9-11; 2 Thes. 2:9; etc).  But a true ministry will have some evidence that God’s Spirit is behind it.

What Posture Should We Take?

God tells us to have a heart eager to receive, before testing teachers and leaders:

  • “Love…believes all things,” (1 Cor. 13:7).  This does not mean we are gullible.  But it does mean we give the benefit of the doubt.  In love, we should see others as, “innocent before proven guilty”.  Along with this, we should listen to “the spirit” behind what they teach, instead of slavishly studying every word to see if we can “catch” them in error (as the Pharisees did with Jesus).
  • “These Jews were more noble…they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so,” (Acts 17:11).  Notice, before they examined the Scriptures they were eager to receive.
  • “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thes. 5:20-21).  Notice, before we test everything we are to “not despise”.

Further, we should be slow to make a judgment call on whether someone is true or false:

  • “Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.” (1 Tim. 5:19)
  • “Be quick to listen, slow to speak…” (James 1:19)
  • See also the “Parable of the Barren Fig Tree” (Luke 13:6-9)

However, while being eager and open to receive teaching, and slow to dismiss anything/anyone as false, we should also be diligent in testing it out.  I liken this to the way we eat fish:

  1. We put the whole piece of fish into our mouth.  That is, we eagerly receive it.
  2. Then, we use our teeth to sift out the meat from the bone.  That is, after receiving, we discern what is good from what is bad.
  3. Then, we spit out the bone and swallow the meat.  That is, we “test everything; hold fast what is good,” (1 Thes. 5:20-21).

For example, look at Peter. In Galatians 2:11-14, Peter was guilty of hypocrisy.  He was rebuked by Paul.  Does this mean that we avoid all of his teaching?  Of course not.  1 and 2 Peter, both authored by Peter, are part of the Bible!  So, we spit out the “bone” of Peter’s hypocrisy in Gal. 2:11-14, while swallowing the “meat” of his teaching in 1-2 Peter.

The process of testing will be (in no particular order):

  • Pray for God’s guidance, through his Holy Spirit, to discern true from false (1 Cor. 12:10; 1 John 2:26-27)
  • Use the principles listed above (and, ultimately, the Bible) to assess whether a teacher is true.
    • Note: I don’t believe any of us will achieve perfection in all of these metrics in this lifetime.  But, is the trajectory of the minister/ministry finding more or less agreement with these principles as it goes along?
  • Have a heart that longs for truth (John 7:17; 2 Thes. 2:10).

How do we Address False Teachers/Teachings?

If you believe the overall thrust/trajectory of a ministry does not seem to abide by the principles shown above, you have a measure of responsibility to address it:

  1. First, if possible, discuss it privately with the teacher (Matt. 18:15-20; Acts 18:26; Titus 3:10). Something like:
    • “I heard X [whatever you believed they said]. Am I understanding this right?”
    • “In light of that, I see Y [whatever seems contradictory] in the Bible.  How do you see those going together?”
  2. Next, if the teacher seems unwilling to change or revoke their false teaching, someone should address it publicly to those who are being deceived (1 Tim. 5:20; 3 John 1:9-10; etc.).
    • This is best done by leaders/teachers among the offended body, if possible (Titus 1:9).
    • This is best done by a group of people, not alone (Matt. 18:15-20).
    • There are exceptions to both of these guidelines.
  3. All of this should be done in a spirit of “humility” (2 Tim. 2:25), “love” (Eph. 4:15), and “grace,” (Col. 4:6)–not looking to “shame” or “humiliate” (Matt. 1:19).
  4. And, of course, through prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit (1 Thes. 5:17-21)

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