One of the things I often hear from people when I warn them against a false teacher (usually one they watch on TV or whose books they read) is this: “But I listened to them and what they said was Scriptural.”
They can’t reconcile my calling them a false teacher when they say things that come out of the Bible (and when they’re nice). But they fail to consider that the Evil One is well-versed in Scripture and knows God’s Word even better than you or I. This means he can twist it and use to his own ends just as the serpent did in the Garden (Genesis 3:1-5).
We really shouldn’t be surprised at this because false teachers are like their master just as Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15. Paul says that since Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light, it is no wonder that his servants also masquerade as such.
This means two things:
1. False teachers are usually very likable.
They have to be likable or you wouldn’t give them the time of day. And that’s what makes it so hard to combat them, and even to recognize them. When I or another pastor points out that someone is a false teacher, people think I’m personally attacking this nice person who seems so genuine. And people just can’t believe that this nice person would ever teach something false (so the pastor must just be jealous, etc.).
2. False teachers may themselves be under the sway of the Evil One.
While I do not believe that a true believer can be demon-possessed, I do believe that they can be under Satan’s influence, which means some false teachers may be true believers who have been deceived. God is gracious and will rescue these before they go too far.
Some, however, may not be true believers at all, though they mimic true believers. This shouldn’t be surprising since Judas, the “son of perdition,” was numbered among the Twelve.
So why then do they say things that agree with the Bible? Here are three reasons why:
1. If they didn’t use the Bible, you’d recognize them as false teachers right away.
People say stuff from the Bible all the time. Saying something from the Bible doesn’t mean that they got the Bible right. And it doesn’t mean that they were saying stuff that agreed with the rest of the Bible.
We all have false beliefs, some of which are probably based on Scripture that we either heard wrong., understood wrong, or were taught wrong. That’s why we do not (or should not) interpret the Bible in a vacuum. The history of interpretation in each of our respective Christian traditions helps us to know when we’re getting close and when we’re way off the mark. This is also why God raises up people to preach to us and teach us, so that we can be guided by the community in our understandings and interpretations.
2. If they immediately taught stuff that you knew was false, you’d recognize them as false teachers right away.
The worst (or best depending on how you look at it) false teachers don’t often come right out and say things that one immediately recognizes as going against the Bible’s teachings. In fact, the bulk of their message may sound perfectly agreeable. Sometimes it’s either the truths that underlie their statements, or the conclusions that they draw (or lead you to draw) from their statements that is way off the mark.
3. If their words didn’t sound like the words you hear in church, you’d recognize them as false teachers right away.
False teachers often use the same words we use but they attach different meanings to them so that you can agree with what they say until you discover what they mean.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door a few weeks ago talked a lot about “Christ” but they didn’t mean the same thing that I mean (and that the entire historic Christian tradition means) when I say “Christ.” While they are well-meaning, they are still deceptive (and they are deceived themselves) and it is easy to get drawn in if one isn’t careful.
Likewise, people will talk about sin or salvation but sometimes they don’t mean sin as a human condition that keeps one from God, instead they are talking about systemic issues or cultural issues such as injustice or poverty. When they talk about salvation they may be referring to ending such injustice or poverty. And you can listen to them for a long time before you figure that out.
So what do I watch for?
Remember that false teachers usually have an end goal that is the exaltation of self and they encourage you to have this same end goal. That’s why they talk about you so much; who doesn’t want to talk about themselves and be told how wonderful they are and how much they can accomplish and what great things are in store for them?
But this message is not the message of the Bible. God’s Word does not encourage you to seek your own exaltation rather than exalting Christ. The Bible points people to Christ.
And anytime you exalt God’s gifts above God’s greatest gift: Christ Jesus the Lord, you’ve become an idolator and you are practicing idolatry just as much as if you carved an idol out of stone and bowed down to it. (This is true even if you don’t mean to or don’t realize you are doing it.)
The Lord does not call people to make them healthy, wealthy, and wise with regard to the things of this world; he calls people so that he can give them power from on high, the riches of the Kingdom, and the wisdom of God that is found in Christ Jesus alone.
So the true servant of Christ, the true preacher of Christ, will point you to Christ.
The true servant of Christ will tell you how wonderful Christ is, not how wonderful you are. And he won’t be able to stop talking about Christ.
The true servant of Christ will tell you how much Christ will accomplish in you and through you, not how much you have in you to do. He’ll tell you not to rely on yourself.
The true servant of Christ will tell you what great things Christ has in store for you through his work on the Cross and through his ongoing ministry and his Kingdom.
The false teacher will say many things that you can agree with, even things from the Bible, but in the end, all he will do is point you back to yourself.
And if you had all that you needed already, you wouldn’t have needed Christ to begin with, would you?