How to Know the Difference Between Wise and False Teaching
- Annette Griffin Contributing Writer
- 2021 15 Apr
Most false teaching isn’t born out of a teacher’s heart to deceive—it’s the overflow of a teacher’s deceived heart. Except for that slippery serpent in the Garden of Eden and the charlatan whose sole intent is to hock the Gospel for money, the initial intent of any real Christian teacher is to guide their pupils to the truth.
The problem is all Christian teachers and preachers are human, fallible, and actually make themselves a prime target for Satan’s schemes when they begin pointing others to Christ. That’s why we’re warned that “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).
Pride, greed, and the desire for power seem to be the trifecta sin-kryptonite that works best to putrefy a teacher’s motives. Is it any wonder that Satan weaponizes the same sins that caused his own downfall to use against potential truth givers? These sins allow the teacher to self-justify the manipulation of God’s truths for their own gain—while still maintaining a façade of righteousness.
Under the influence of their own lies, they teach and preach with gusto, passion, and sincerity. Some of the most infamous false teachers in history are known for their charming, humble, seemingly saintly demeanors. Regardless of their pitiful origin story, false teachers are villains according to the Bible and should be treated as such. The heresies they promote can lead us away from God and down a path of destruction.
The Bible warns us to be the gatekeepers of our own hearts. We must remain vigilant in our watchfulness when it comes to guarding the truth entrusted to us (1 Timothy 6:20-21, Romans 16:17, Titus 1:9, Acts 20: 28-31).
What Is a False Teacher according to the Bible?
Scripture paints a vivid picture of what a false teacher looks like on the outside, describing them as deceitful workmen, ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing, disguised as righteous, smooth talkers, cunning, divisive, sensual, passionate, flattering with their words, having the appearance of godliness, deceived and deceptive, the devil’s puppet, perverters of grace, lovers of ill-gotten gain, exploiters, cunning—and the list goes on (2 Corinthians 11:13, 2 Peter 2:1-3, Matthew 7:15-20, Jude 1:4, Romans 16:17-18).
As bad as the outside looks, the inside is much worse. 1 Timothy 6:3-5 gives us a look at the inner workings of a false teacher’s corrupt heart. “They are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.”
Because deception is at the core of all false teaching, “A false teacher isn’t going to tell you he’s teaching heresy. In fact, he’ll usually look and sound so sincere and passionate that you wouldn’t know he’s actually twisting God’s Word,” explains John UpChurch in 7 Sure-Fire Ways to Recognize False Teachers.
Even though the Bible outlines the distinct marks of a false teacher, many wise and otherwise discerning Christians have fallen prey to the teaching of “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” What’s to keep us from doing the same? The answer can be found in one of Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth.
The early church was plagued with false teaching, just as we are today. Paul reminds us where the source of truth can be found. That source of truth is the only legitimate test we can use to determine whether the teaching we hear is worthy of consideration.
“For who knows a person's thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words” (1 Corinthians 2:11-13).
The Spirit of God, through the Word of God, teaches us what is true. As we hold Christian teachings up to this litmus test it quickly exposes any falsehood.
What Is False Teaching According to the Bible?
The Bible describes false teaching as anything contrary to the doctrines, teachings, and the Gospel found in God’s word. Any teaching that does not align with scriptural principles is false. The one who teaches it is not only a false teacher but under God’s curse.
“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them” (Romans 16:17).
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:6-8).
“As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies” (1 Timothy 1:3-4).
What Does False Teaching Sound Like?
Cult leaders, who specialize in snake handling and Koolaid, don’t corner the market on false teaching. If they did, most of us would be able to spot them easily. In 4 Important Questions for Recognizing False Teaching, Betsy St. Amant Haddox explains the dilemma this way: “False teachers often start with sound doctrine and then subtly add to or subtract from the truth to get a more appetizing soundbite with which to lure their listeners. The more you hear something, the more you absorb it, and the more plausible it begins to sound.”
The Bible warns us, that “the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
To understand what false teaching sounds like in any era and culture, we need only follow the “itching ears.” The early church battled their fair share of false teaching, but it sounded a bit different than ours today. Grace was a new concept that Christian converts from Judaism had a hard time understanding. Some of them still felt insecure with the idea of faith-based salvation, void of rigid regulations.
To appease the new converts’ frail consciences, false teachers added rules and regulations back into the New Covenant of grace and created a muddled mess of syncretized truth (Philippians 3:2, Galatians 5:1-12). Although much of the false teaching of that day stemmed from Jewish legalism, other peripheral issues ushered in false teaching born out of sensuality, envy, and pride. And of course, the “isms” had their part in the false-teaching parade—Gnosticism, Asceticism, and Antinomianism, with all their ism friends joined the party.
Some modern “itching ears” still crave legalistic-style heresies. But the root of most modern false teachings swings to the other extreme—humanism. In 5 False Gospels within the Evangelical Church Erwin Lutzer explains how many evangelical churches are being tempted to “abandon hard truths in the face of cultural and religious pressure.” He goes into detail about how the humanistic ideals of modern culture have infiltrated the church and created five false gospels that completely negate the authority and sound guidance of Scripture.
The explosion of technology has given false teaching a bigger platform than ever. Whether it’s in the form of a social media meme, blog post, podcast, or YouTube video, we are bombarded with bits and bytes of truth and untruth—much of which is very compelling. But no matter the vehicle, if a message supports the trends, ideals, or goals of this present age, that’s a good indicator that the teaching should be closely examined for falsehood (1 Corinthians 2:4-6).
7 Practical Ways to Differentiate Wise Teachings from False Teachings
Wise teaching is rooted in unfiltered truth, straight from the Bible.
The teaching can contain commentary, object lessons, even humor—but scripture is always the main focus. False teaching rarely relies on scripture for the bulk of the message. When false teaching does contain Scripture, the verses are usually taken out of context and are used to support the teacher’s own opinions, ideas, or stories.
Wise teaching originates from teachers who acknowledge the fact that, apart from Christ, they are nothing.
The overriding goal of their teaching is to make Christ known. False teaching originates from teachers who disguise themselves with humility through emotional public displays, for the sole purpose of drawing attention to themselves. False teachers go to great lengths to hide pride, from themselves and from their listeners. They boast about their favor with God instead of boasting in the Lord.
Wise teaching faces hard scriptural truths head-on, in love, and without apology.
So that the Holy Spirit can use the whole word of God to sanctify the listener’s heart. False teaching takes its cues from popular culture. The teaching includes cherry-picked passages and Bible stories that will delight and entertain the listener.
Wise teaching doesn’t add or subtract from scriptural truth in any way.
False Teaching often paraphrases scripture to dilute the truth, explains foundational truths as culturally irrelevant, or adds a new interpretation of truth—with the claim that God personally revealed the insight to the teacher. It can also manifest as teaching that adds man-made rules to scriptural truths in order to guide the listener to more “righteousness” living.
Wise teaching promotes the Gospel as God’s redemptive plan to reconcile fallen humanity with Himself.
Through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. False Teaching misrepresents the Gospel as humanity’s path to prosperity, or a way to achieve positive self-esteem, or a get out of Hell free card. Many false gospels exist. They all place the human on a pedestal—and make God the means to an end.
Wise teaching uses biblically accurate terms to describe a person’s pre-redeemed condition.
And uses biblically precise terms to describe the remedy for that condition. False teaching avoids the use of culturally offensive words, phrases, and ideas when sharing the plan of salvation. Terms like God’s wrath, sin, hell, and the blood of Jesus are thought to be ‘off putting’ to the general audience that the teacher desires to please.
Wise teaching overflows from a surrendered heart to God.
The teacher absorbs God’s word, meditates on it, prays over it—asking God to provide discernment to rightly divide the truth. Then with holy fear and trembling, the teacher obediently shares that God-given, assimilated, lived-out truth with the audience God provides. The Holy Spirit uses that truth to glorify God and transform lives. False teaching overflows from a deceived heart. The teacher generally draws large crowds of devoted followers because of his/her dynamic personality and personal likability. The teaching touches a deep emotional cord that is misinterpreted as divine inspiration. Just enough truth is administered through the message to make the lies undetectable to any off-guard listener. The enemy uses this false teaching to draw attention away from the Truth that will set people free while building in them a sense of self-importance.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/4maksym
Annette Marie Griffin is an award-winning author and speaker who has managed and directed children’s and youth programs for more than 20 years. Her debut children’s book, What Is A Family? released through Familius Publishing in 2020. Annette has also written curriculum for character growth and development of elementary-age children and has developed parent training seminars to benefit the community. Her passion is to help wanderers find home. She and her husband have five children—three who have already flown the coop and two adopted teens still roosting at home—plus two adorable grands who add immeasurable joy and laughter to the whole flock.