The word “false” is almost always followed by “teacher” (though sometimes “prophet” or “brother” or “convert” or “gospel”). That specific word was thrown out a lot in the recent Strange Fire meltdown and is regularly getting stamped on a whole lot of people, movements and ideas.
Seeing that there’s so many wrongful understandings and applications of the word and how it’s been used (in the specific phrases “false teacher” or “false prophet”) by both sides of the Strange Fire debate, I thought it would be worthy of a rather exhaustive treatment that will hopefully bring some clarity to who is and who isn’t a false teacher. I’m going to do this in two steps: First I’m going to:
(#1) do my best to give a biblical understanding of the term “false”
(#2) I’m going to do my best to give a biblical understanding of the concept of “false teacher”
A Biblical Understand Of The Term “False”
1. The phrase “false prophet” never occurs in the Old Testament at all; the phrase is exclusively a New Testament phrase (though the concept is not). The phrase “false prophet” comes from the Greek term pseudoprophetes and is first used by Jesus himself in Matt. 7:15. The term pseudoprophetes (false prophets) is paralleled with pseudodidaskalos (false teachers) in the only place it occurs in the New Testament; 2 Pet. 2:1. This suggests that there’s a direct parallelism between the two concepts, though they’re different terms.
2. The phrase “false prophet” was also used by Jesus before the church was established, which means that Jesus was talking about “false prophets” in an Old Testament sense when he first mentioned the phrase. The only people running around claiming to talk for God in the days of Christ’s ministry were prophets.
3. Seeing that “false teacher” is strictly a New Testament expression, I will save the examination of the concept for later.
4. The adjective “false/lying” (pseudes/psuedos) is used to qualify many nouns in the New Testament:
Prophets – Matt. 7:15, 24 (24:11, 24), Mark 13:22, Luke 6:26, Acts 13:6, 2 Pet. 2, 1 Jo. 4:1, Rev. 16:13, 29:20, 20:10.
Apostles – 2 Cor. 11:13
Brothers – 2 Cor. 11:26; Gal. 2:4
Teachers – 2 Peter 2:1
Witnesses – Matt. 15:19, 26:20, 26:59; Acts. 6:13; 1 Cor. 15:15 (the composite noun pseudomartyreo, which carries the idea of “lying about being a witness” or “deceitful witness” also occurs in the N.T. – Matt. 19:18; Mark 10:19, 14:56-57; Luke 18:20; Rom. 13:9.)
Christs – Matt. 24:24; Mark 13:22.
5. There’s a few other manifestations of the pseudes/psuedos word group in the New Testament:
– When pseudes/psuedos/pseuma (false) are all translated “lie” or “liar” in the N.T. – John 8:44; Rom. 1:25, 3:7; Eph. 4:25; 2 Thess. 2:9, 2:11; 1 John 2:21, 2:27; Rev. 2:2; 21:27, 21:8; 22:15.
– The noun usually translated “liar” is pseustēs – John 8:44, 55; Rom. 3:4; 1 Tim. 1:10; Tit. 1:12; 1 John 1:10, 2:2, 2:22, 4:20, 5:10.
– 1 Tim. 6:20 also contains the only usage of pseudonymos (falsely named).
– Titus 1:2 contains the term apseudes which is translated “cannot lie”.
– The term appears in the form of pseudomai, which carries the idea of “lying” or “lie” – Matt. 5:11; Acts 5:3-4; Rom. 9:1; 2 Cor. 11:31; Gal. 1:20; Col. 3:9; 1 Tim. 2:7; Heb. 6:18; James 3:14; 1 John 1:6; Rev. 3:9.
So all this to say that the term “false” is applied widely to various nouns (brother, apostle, prophet, teacher, witness, Christs) and appears in several terms that carry a connotation of lying/falsehood. It also seems pretty straightforward:
– A person who is a false witness is a person who either is lying about the fact that they’re a witness of something, or lying about what they’ve seen.
– A person who is a false apostle is lying about the fact that they’re an apostle.
– A person who is a false Christ is lying about the fact that they’re Jesus (and there are people living on earth right now who claim to be Jesus…).
Like a false prophet, a false teacher isn’t really a technical descriptor for a special category of heretic. Rather, a false teacher is a person who wrongly or deceitfully claims to be a teacher, or fill the biblical office of teacher (or pastor); I would suggest that it’s a person who sets themselves up as a teacher but is marked by teaching unbiblical doctrine.
Wait a minute!
Isn’t that a little broad?
Well, yes…but it’s not as broad as it sounds. It’s not like anyone who claims to be a pastor and is biblically unqualified is a “false teacher”…though that might be true. In order to really work out the biblical grounds for tossing out the “f” word, we need to hammer out the concept of false prophet, which brings us to our second section:
A Biblical Understanding Of The Concept Of “False Teacher”
Let’s try to do this in an orderly manner:
1. What is a “teacher” in the New Testament?
a. The Greek term for “teacher” is didaskalos, which appears 58x in the NT and 2/3 of those occurrences are in the gospel where the disciples refer to Jesus as “Master” (didaskalos).
i. The idea is that a didaskalos was an expert (or master) of a subject, and he had disciples.
ii. Even in passages like Matthew 12:38 or Luke 10:25, the Pharisees and the experts in the law called Jesus “didaskalos” because they all recognized that he was exceedingly knowledgeable in the scriptures. This doesn’t mean that they were his disciples, but rather that they only acknowledged his expertise in matters related to the Old Testament (i.e. the law).
b. 7 out of 10 times outside the gospels, the term “didaskalos” is spoken of as a specific office of the church that was a gift of God to the church (1 Cor. 12:28-29; Eph. 4:11). Paul was appointed by Christ to that office (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11). Understanding the nature of a didaskalos in the church comes into play (to some extent) when figuring out what a counterfeit didaskalos would be.
2. What then is a false teacher?
a. The Greek term for “false teacher” is pseudodidaskalos, which comes from combining “pseudo” (false/counterfeit) and “didaskalos” (master/teacher).
b. The concept of a false teacher is paralleled in the NT with OT false prophets in 2 Peter 2:1-3.
c. Therefore, we can generally conclude that just as “false prophets” were counterfeit prophets, “false teachers” were counterfeit teachers (most likely in the sense of the office of teacher, which was the main usage in the church at the time Peter wrote 2 Peter). Interestingly, Paul speaks of the counterfeit apostles in Corinth, talking how they “disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” in 2 Cor. 11:13-15.
Now let’s take a serious look at “false prophets”.
3. What do false prophets appear to be?
a. They appear to speak for God or teach in his name (Jer. 14:14-15, 23:16, 25-26, 27:14-15, 29:8-9, 21, 31; Ez. 22:28; Matt. 7:15, 22; 2 Cor. 11:12-15)
b. They appear to be people from your own religious circles (Deut. 13:6-8; Acts 20:29-30; 1 Tim. 3: 6-7, 6: 9-10; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 2:19; Jude 1:4)
c. They appear to be actually convincing (Rom. 16:18; Col 2:4, 8; 2 Tim 4:3), even to the point of being verified by miraculous signs and wonders (Deut. 13:1-3; Matt. 24:24; 2 Thess. 2:9-10).
d. They appear to believe that they’re authentic/divinely appointed (Jer. 28:15-16; Ez. 13:6; Matt. 7:22)
4. So how can someone see past appearances?
You must P.R.O.D. a false prophet!
a. Test their Prophecy:
i. Their prophecies do not come to pass (Deut. 18:21-22; 1 Ki. 22:11-12, 24-25; Jer. 14:14-16; 28:7-9)
b. Test their Reception:
i. They are widely welcomed by the unregenerate world/those who despise the word of the Lord (Jer. 23:17; Ez. 12:21-25; Luke 6:26; 2 Tim. 4:3-4; 2 Pet. 2:2; 1 John 4:4-5)
ii. They’re numerous (1 Ki. 18:18-19, 22:6-12; 1 John 4:1; 2 John 1:7)
iii. Their reception is built on false credentials (2 Cor 11:18-23; 2 Thess. 2:1-3; Rev 2:24)
c. Test their Orthodoxy:
i. They don’t follow in the doctrine of the prophets and apostles (Is. 8:19-20; Jer. 28:8-9; Rom. 16:17; 2 Cor. 11:4; Gal. 1:6-8; 1 Tim. 1:3, 6:3-4; 2 Tim. 2:17-18; 1 John 2:22-24, 4:2-6; 2 John 1:7-10)
ii. They oppose those who legitimately speak for God (Jer. 2:30; 20:1-2, 26:7-11; Ez. 13:22; Acts 13:8-10; 2 Tim 3:8; 1 John 4:6)
iii. They see the scripture as a list of rules that, when kept, equates to righteousness (Is. 28:9-10; Col. 2:16-23)
iv. They soft-pedal sin and make excuses for wickedness (Jer. 2:8; Ez. 12:26-28, 22:26-28; Mic. 2:11)
v. They combine the elements of paganism with Christianity (Ez. 13:20-23)
d. Test their Deeds:
i. They use their position to get money (Jer. 6:13, 8:10; 1 Tim. 6:5, 9-10; Tit. 1:11; 2 Pet. 2:3, 15).
ii. They use their position to get sex (Jer. 23:11, 14; 2 Pet. 2:10, 13-14; Jude 1:8).
iii. They use their position to get followers (Ez. 13:18; Acts 20:30)
iv. They use smooth talker to prey on the naive and weak (Jer. 5:28; Rom. 16:18; 2 Tim. 3:6; 2 Pet. 2:14)
v. They slander spiritual forces (2 Pet. 2:10-12)
vi. They are rebellious to authority (2 Pet. 2:10; Jude 1:8)
vii. They corrupt justice (Jer. 5:28, 23:14; Ez. 13:19, 22:27-28)
viii. They stimulate quarrels, division and trouble (Rom 16:17; 1 Tim1:4, 6:4-5; Jude 1:19)
ix. They walk in disobedience to God’s commands (1 John 2:3-6, 3:4-10, 5:1-2)
5. Are they really that dangerous?
a. They actually teach error (1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 2:26)
b. They actually turn people away from the one true God (Jer. 23:26-27, 32; Matt. 24:11; 2 Cor. 11:3; 2 John 1:8)
c. They actually have dreams/visions (hence they’re convinced of their own authenticity), but the dreams/visions that are lying visions from their imaginations (Lam. 2:14; Is. 9:15; Jer. 14:14, 20:6, 23:16, 26, 27:9-10, 14-16, 29:8-9, 21, 31; Ez. 13:2-9, 17, 22:28; Zech. 13:2-6; 2 Pet 2:3), from Satan (Jer. 2:8, 1 Tim 4:1) or stolen from each other (Jer. 23:30)
d. They words they have are not from God (Jer. 23:32; Lam. 2:14; Ez. 12:24; Jude 1:8)
e. They destroy lives & families (Ez. 22:25; Matt. 7:15; Titus 1:11)
f. They lack the most basic moral sense since they have seared consciences (1 Tim 1:18-19, 4:1-2; Titus 1:15-16)
g. They are not believers (Matt. 7:22-23; 2 Pet. 2:19)
h. If someone follows them, thinking that they’re the real deal, it would have been better for them to have never heard the gospel (2 Peter. 2:20-21)
i. They may be sent by God as a test (Deut. 13:3) but when they’re accepted their presence indicates a sign of judgment (1 Ki. 22:19-23; Jer. 5:20-31, 14:14-16; Ez. 13:10; 2 Thess. 2:9-12)
j. They will receive the most severe punishment on the day of judgment (Luke 12:47; James 3:1); God has the worst spot in Hell reserved especially for them (2 Pet. 2:17; Jude 1:13)
6. So what should we all do?
a. The elders of the church have divine directives:
i. The Old Testament directive was to get kill them (Deut. 13:5, 18:20; 1 Ki. 18:40) and when the leaders of Israel didn’t, God himself did (Jer. 14:15, 28:15-17). Though this is not the New Testament directive, this suggests how dangerous they are.
ii. The elders of the church are commanded to silence (literally “muzzle”) them (1 Tim. 3:3-4, Titus 1:11)
iii. The elders of the church are commanded to get rid of the false teachers/prophets in their midst (2 Tim. 2:15-21)
iv. The elders of the church are also commanded to kindly, patiently and gently correct them, praying for their repentance (2 Tim. 2:24-25).
v. The elders of the church are finally commanded to not associate with them (2 Thess 3:14; Titus 3:10-11)
b. The people in the church have divine directives:
i. Do not listen to them (Deut. 13:3; Matt. 24:25-26)
ii. Treat them as unbelievers (Gal. 1:8-9)
iii. Avoid them (Rom. 16:17-19)
iv. Do not associate with them (2 John 1:10-11)
So, from that survey of the biblical data, I notice a few things:
A. There is a difference between a mistaken teacher and a false teacher; the difference is a combination of error and unrighteous conduct. A person with a regenerate heart will often have practice that exceeds their doctrine (meaning they’ll often do what’s right and not necessarily be able to biblically articulate why), but a false teacher always has doctrine that far exceeds their practice (meaning that they’ll know all the right answers but won’t actually live them out). The latter discrepancy is far more telling.
B. The error in practice comes from error in doctrine, but both errors are sometimes more difficult to spot, mostly because false teachers/prophets actually look like authentic sheep and they arise from within our churches; false teachers actually think that they’re the real deal. It’s important to remember that they actually have (lying) visions and receive (lying) revelations. Now when we think of false teachers, we tend to think of crazy folks like Todd Bentley, but guys like that are not a real threat to anyone with basic discernment. Matt. 7:22-23 suggests that not even the people at the top of the spiritual totem pole (in our own circles) are “off the radar…”
C. …So it’s important to remember that a false teacher can easily steal a doctrinal statement from someone and spout “right answers” all day long, or copy “righteous” behaviour that they’ve learned by simply watching Christians for a few years. Still, an unregenerate heart will consistently betray a false prophet/teacher by a disconnect between doctrine and practice (especially in private). In other words, not all nice guys are godly men.
D. Treating false teachers as unbelievers means praying for them and evangelizing them, not condemning them to hell with a round of applause. Still, they’re essentially agents of spiritual cancer, so one must be extremely careful to neither listen to them nor treat them as church members in good standing. Also, one must remember that the means to break them from their spiritual bondage is praying for them, not arguing with them; they’re where they are because of God and he’s the only one who can bring them back.
One last thing I almost forgot:
When can you pull out the “false teacher” moniker on someone?
I’d say that “caution” is the word of the day and I want to state clearly that error does not automatically make someone a false prophet/teacher; some people are just wrong or dumb. That being said, if a person claims to be a prophet or sets themselves up in a position of spiritual authority, propagates doctrinal error that they bitterly defend (probably in the face of clear and obvious biblical correction), and uses their spiritual authority to pave the way for sin (i.e. performing it and covering it up), I’d probably take a serious look at them.
That describes pretty much everyone critiqued by name at the Strange Fire conference (just thought I had to point that out).
That’s bad news for a whole lot of folks on the Charismatic “fringe” (which *actually* means “mainstream”).
As always, I welcome all interaction and correction.