False Teaching And The Signs That Help Detect It


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I finished reading the book of Galatians this morning. I used to think that it was sort of a mini-Romans. I suppose there’s some truth to that, but as I read Galatians more closely this week, I realized it’s really about false teaching and false teachers and the lies that the churches in the Galatian region were apparently beginning to believe.

Paul handled the problem by drawing their attention to it and by laying out the truth.

As I see it, the Church in today’s western culture is wide open to false teaching. In fact a radio preacher recently said that’s kind of normal—that the Church is prone to take on some of what the culture believes, even things that are false.

I’d say, among the many problems western culture has—things like selfishness and pride and greed and placing a high value on personal pleasure over serving, either God or our fellow humans—is one that might color pretty much all of life. It is the idea that humans are good, not sinful, not in need of a heart change.

People bristle at this idea and many churches no longer preach this truth because they no longer believe it.

Paul was dealing with legalism in Galatia, and that’s something that the Church has faced from time to time. I’d go so far as to say, it’s been an issue in my lifetime, and many preachers teach against it. It’s a works kind of belief, valuing human effort more than the grace God has given us. So it’s sadly alive and well and something the Church must continue to guard against. But so are these other postmodern, post-truth issues. Not that contemporary society invented them, but we have given a new voice to them.

The rest of this article is a re-post, with some revision, of one that appeared here in March, 2010.

I’ve come to believe Christians should uncover false teaching in the church. A believer’s silence in the face of instruction contrary to Scripture can be tacit agreement. By and large, I feel the majority of Bible-believing Christians have been silent longer than we should have been.

I understand why—we are all too aware of what the Bible says about judging. Who am I, then, to say that this person or that ministry is engaged in false teaching?

Well, I don’t think we need to do any finger pointing or heresy hunting. Instead, I think we can see what the Bible has to say about the subject.

I used to think that deciphering false teaching was easy. Not after I read comments to a statement I made: Christians have a set of essential beliefs we hold in common—that’s what defines us as Christians. The push-back shocked me. In essence, the response was, “Who says?” In other words, those who don’t hold to those core beliefs still say they are Christians. Who are you to say they aren’t?

To me that’s comparable to saying, I live in Cuba which is near the US, so I’m a US citizen. Who are you to say I’m not?

Clearly, if we do not agree on an authoritative source or a set of core beliefs comprising Christianity, then anyone can claim to be a “Christian” teacher, even those with a different message, a false message that contradicts what Christian orthodoxy has held to be true.

But who’s to say?

I’d have to give this one to God. He gets to say, and He’s addressed the subject in His Word.

In a sermon at Truth for Life on Nehemiah, Alistair Begg dealt with false teaching. He referenced a passage in Jeremiah about false prophecy:

But, “Ah, Lord GOD!” I said, “Look, the prophets are telling them, ‘You will not see the sword nor will you have famine, but I will give you lasting peace in this place.’ ”

Then the LORD said to me, “The prophets are prophesying falsehood in My name. I have neither sent them nor commanded them nor spoken to them; they are prophesying to you a false vision, divination, futility and the deception of their own minds.

“Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who are prophesying in My name, although it was not I who sent them—yet they keep saying, ‘There will be no sword or famine in this land’—by sword and famine those prophets shall meet their end! (Jer 14:13-15)

It struck me that these statements are similar to some of the teaching that passes as “Christian” today. I’m thinking in particular of any “universalist” teaching and any “Christianity will make you healthy and wealthy” teaching.

The first promises peace with God. All will go to heaven no matter what faith they embrace here on earth. In fact, there isn’t a hell to even worry about. This is nothing more than the spiritualized version of what the false prophets were saying in Jeremiah’s day.

The second is a peace-in-your-own-personal-world promise. Real believers, this false teaching says, will be rich and healthy. One particular TV false teacher scoffs at Christians who think God might be teaching them through affliction.

Jeremiah’s message to the people of Israel was that God was in fact teaching and punishing them through the drought they were experiencing and the war that threatened them, even though the false prophets said otherwise.

Which leads to the real sign of false teaching, according to Pastor Begg and his exposition of Nehemiah 9: God’s word—teaching that is true—will call His people to repentance. Here are two key verses in the passage:

While they stood in their place, they read from the book of the law of the LORD their God for a fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped the LORD their God …

However, You are just in all that has come upon us; For You have dealt faithfully, but we have acted wickedly. (Neh 9:3, 33)

In contrast, look at what Jeremiah says in Lamentations:

Your prophets have seen for you
False and foolish visions;
And they have not exposed your iniquity
So as to restore you from captivity,
But they have seen for you false and misleading oracles. (Lam 2:14; emphasis mine)

God’s word read—the people confessed.

False teachers spoke—iniquity remained unexposed.

Does universalism prompt confession? Does the health-and-wealth teaching expose iniquity? Does any false teaching do so?

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