Learning how to discern false teachers and leaders in the church is typically not something that's covered in Sunday school. In fact, most churches are completely silent on the entire issue. For some, it's because they preach a message of "judge not," believing that no one has the right to judge anyone. Others limit the "judge not" to leadership, teaching their church to "touch not the Lord's anointed," leaving the church leadership unaccountable to the congregation in any way. Perhaps the greatest reason why this subject is not taught is that people within the church, including leadership, don't consider it to be a real and present problem - at least in their church. The result is a church membership that is ripe for deception, unprepared and unable to discern who they should be listening to or following.
In contrast to what has become the norm, large portions of the Bible are consumed with warnings of how to distinguish false teachers and leaders. The church is repeatedly commanded to be on guard against this falsehood in high places. Nowhere is the church told to ignore any of this, much less tolerate it, or encourage it - especially through silence. The challenge to you, the reader, is to apply the passages that we will be examining to the church leadership in your life. Godly leadership should not fear this examination as the test of Scriptures is the only standard. In fact, self examination by this same standard should be common place personally by all church leaders.
When Jesus was being judged by the religious authorities and people around Him (and is there any better example?), He did not demand that they stop judging Him. Rather He very clearly told them that it was good for them to judge, if it is done in the right manner.
Where to Find a False Teacher?
"Christian" false teachers, preachers, prophets and leaders are most likely found within or associated with the church. (Total heretics, leaders of false religions, atheists and those blatantly opposed to the truth are, of course, found all over the place outside the church. They're usually easy to recognize.) This is related to the fact that the best lies contain a whole lot of truth. An outright lie is easy to recognize, but bury it in layer of truth and it takes much Spirit led discernment to see it for what it still is; a lie! If something is not 100% the truth, even if it's 99% the truth, that 1% of error makes it a lie. Take falsehood and wrap it in the trappings of religion - Christian religion - and make it look as close to the real thing and it becomes hard to recognize. So where would you find the "best" false Christian leaders? In the church, of course! This is why it is so important to be on guard and know how to recognize them.
The false prophets (and teachers) of the Old Testament lived among the people, namely the Israelites. Perhaps the only notable exception to that was Balaam. Though he did not live among the Israelites, he did profess to be speaking on behalf of the Israelites' God, so in the least he maintained an association (Numbers 22:5, 8). The apostle Paul warned that things wouldn't be any different among the early church, even emphasizing that the false teachers would arise from among their own numbers.
With the New Testament being built on the foundation of the Old, a further look at the earlier is warranted. Aside from Balaam, the Old Testament false prophets generally lived and worked in the same places as the Israelites, attended to religious duties at the temple or other sacred places and appeared in most ways to be the real thing. This was why God gave specific warning and rules for how to distinguish a real prophet from a false prophet. Sadly, for various reasons, the Israelites frequently forgot to apply the rules. The result, at times, was hosts of false prophets set against a handful, or even one, true prophet. In numerous cases the people blindly followed these leaders, and kings harkened to their word. It is safe to say that these false prophets didn't pop onto the scene all at once. They came about, one at a time, due to the silence or ignorance of the people and especially other leaders, who failed to do just that - lead!
This first passage portrays a circumstance that some might consider to be obvious.
Even though the false prophet, or teacher, referenced in this example is blatantly telling people to "follow other gods" it should be noted that this person "appears among" them. It's someone who shows up in the midst of the people trying to turn their hearts away from the one true God. Even if the messenger is capable of "a miraculous sign or wonder" the message is the deciding factor on determining if he or she is a deceiver. This judgment had severe consequences in the theocracy of Israel and could never be treated as a light or trivial thing.
Note that a false prophet could speak in God's name or in the name of a false god. While one would think that speaking in the name of a false god would be a dead give away, Israel's history shows that it happened numerous times. The more subtle form, namely claiming that it was worship of the one true God, while attributing actions and words to Him that are otherwise, is much more insidious. In effect this is creating a God in whatever image you want and merely calling it by the same name. This has become an epidemic in Christianity today. Because the name cannot be the deciding factor, the continuation of our last passage in Deuteronomy reveals the God-given test.
The test was a requirement that the message had to be true. When Old Testament prophets declared messages on behalf of God, God provided them with authenticating signs - events that would come to pass, proving that their message was from God. While you may consider this to be a dead-end in regards to testing modern false teachers, the heart of this test still remains. The issue was, and still is, truth.
God's message always has to be presented in truth. The authenticating sign in the past was an easy test of the truth of the prophet's message.
Today, for the church, the test of truth comes from the absolutely established and now fully written down word of God. This is something we will spend more time examining in a later section.
Failure to examine the truth of the message resulted in problems all throughout Israel's history. Not only were these problems among the Israelite people, but also in the highest levels of their religious leadership. While not necessarily always the source of the problem, the leadership definitely helped to perpetuate and propagate them. It's for that very reason that they were held specifically responsible during times of God's judgment.
A final example comes also from the book of Jeremiah. Here God demonstrated how He held false prophets accountable for their deception, and how God's true prophet proclaimed His message in truth.
Some things never change. The false prophets, teachers and leaders of today are still pushing their lies and deceptions. As such they are merely imitating their father (John 8:44), Satan, who has only two weapons - lies and deceptions.
Even the devil dresses up as something he is not, as a means to mingle with those he should not. In the same way, the place to look for false teachers is amongst the people, namely in the church or church related things. In case you're inclined to thing that you'd have to look long and hard to find a false prophet, teacher, or leader, they're not as rare as many think. Or, at least, that's what the Bible tells us&ldots;
In the few
decades following Jesus' ascension, many antichrists had come onto
the scene. In fact, their very presence was said to be "how we
know it is the last hour." As that last hour has continued over
the centuries, how much more should we be on guard for antichrists.
Somehow many people within today's church have developed an
understanding that an antichrist is some obviously malignant figure,
maliciously spewing evil. Perhaps this has come from so much focus on
end-times speculations and media portrayals of "the
Antichrist." The antichrists spoken of in this passage are
anyone who would teach that which would oppose the true message of
Jesus Christ. As we will examine in the next section, this doesn't
always - and perhaps rarely - manifests itself as blatant demonically
inspired opposition. In regards to the antichrists John warned of,
these individuals rose up in the church; perhaps for a time even
looking and acting as a true believer. The "going out" that
is subsequently spoken of does not necessarily mean they physically
had to leave the church - though it quite likely did, as they may
have been put out of the church - it says that they left the true
church through their doctrine and actions.
How to Recognize a False Leader.
At the heart of every false teacher or leader is the statement found in this passage to Timothy, they do "not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching." To one degree or another, they pervert, twist, ignore, or reject God's word. The most covert of them will profess to believe God's word and protest that they teach God's word, but they have subtly changed the message - most often through redefining words. It was to that very matter that Paul was speaking when he addressed "quarrels about words." The clear and contextual senses of words are frequently redefined, sometimes with opening statements of "that's not really what that word means&ldots;" Other times an entirely new doctrine is introduced based on a few words pulled apart from their context, or with much conjecture those words are expanded to make the passage proclaim something new to scriptures. It's through these means that many "theologians" have proclaimed the days of creation to not really be days, in spite of the clear intent of the passage and the supporting testimony of Hebrew linguists. Another example comes from the so-called "health and wealth" teachers, who proclaim that Jesus was not poor and that God intend for all His children to have material wealth and perfect health. Their doctrine is based on a few verses (words) pulled apart from the overall message of Scriptures and outlandish reinterpretations of others.
The result of all these quarrels about words is the "envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions, and constant friction" that we were warned about in 1st Timothy. It's an interesting side note, that the purveyors of these exotic and contrived doctrines will always blame the friction, envy and strive on those who would hold them accountable from Scriptures. Some have even used this passage to say that those who would attempt to correct them are wrong because they're causing strife. Standing on the truth of scriptures is never the source of disagreement; Biblically speaking the responsibility for that always lies with the one perverting doctrine.
Perhaps the most telling statement ends the passage we have been examining in 1st Timothy, that these teachers "think that godliness is a means to financial gain." It's easy to see this with the health and wealth teachers, but it's usually subtly evident with many of the others as well. Proclaiming a message that appeals to the masses, doesn't offend, or focuses on building a personal empire, all are means of using godliness as method of financial gain. In an absolute sense, proclaiming any false message in the name of God while accepting the financial support of the people is unjust financial gain. It's not the quantity of the financial gain that is at issue, it whether or not it's being done under false pretenses. Compromising the message for fear of loosing the salary is just as wrong as proclaiming a blatantly distorted gospel complete with tearful financial appeals solely to defraud listeners.
While this section on how to recognize a false leader will be long, the abundance of passages and warnings in scripture require a detailed study. Jesus' words in Matthew are a great starting place&ldots;
#1. They come in sheep's clothing. The number one way to blend in with the church is to have the external appearances of being godly. This is the very reason that the church is called to be on guard or to "Watch out!" If they were easy to spot, little warning would be necessary. If their external appearance is that of the sheep, how are we supposed to recognize them? The answer harkens back to all the Old Testament passages we've already examined on how to recognize the ancient false prophets. Remember that truth was the key to examining them. When verse 16 says "by their fruit you will recognize them," it's not telling us to merely take a subjective closer look at their appearance. That closer examination has to be by the standard of truth, as defined in God's word. Holding the sheep costume up to the real thing exposes the cheap counterfeit. A big part of that examination in Old Testament times was seeing if the prophesied message came true. While some of today's false prophets still profess to prophesy future events that could be used for the same test, far more are not foretellers but rather "forth tellers." The true forth teller of God's word clearly proclaims His truth as revealed in the Bible, which can include prophetic elements as revealed. The false forth teller twists and perverts the revealed message. The test for both remains the standard of truth. Even as the false prophet of old was condemned for wrongly proclaiming an event that did not come to pass, the false prophet of today should be condemned for twisting truth to make it say something that never had or will come to pass.
Statements that "the Lord told me" or "God revealed to me" should not be taken as absolutes. All too often people think "wow, I wish I was spiritual enough that God would speak to me" and then blindly follow those who they think have to be better than them. Jesus' testimony in verse 22, that many false teachers will have professed to have spoken in his name, should prod us to take extra care to examine the message by the Truth. In the same way, a profession that Jesus is their Lord is insufficient grounds to blindly follow someone as a spiritual leader. Jesus himself said that many He never knew will have called him Lord (and still be doing so at the time of judgment!). Even spiritual trappings such as the professed administration of miracles (whether they happened or not) or casting out of demons (whether they left or not) cannot be used as a standard. Again, Jesus said that many who did these things were not really believers, much less the church leaders they professed to be. The three verses following our current passage in Matthews, teach that knowing the word is not enough, a person must be a doer (and how much more a leader!). Those who willingly ignore the word, pervert it, or do other than commanded by it, are in danger of hearing Jesus' stark words of judgment, "Away from me, you evildoers!"
Beyond their own doings, the next passage shows that many of these false leaders are also interested in the actions of others&ldots;
#2. They create legalistic rules. Once again this displays itself in varying degrees, from subtle to overt. Paul warned Timothy that such teachings come from hypocritical liars. Simply put, hypocrisy is saying one thing and doing another. I believe that the number one doctrine of demons, that influences this brand of teaching, is the merging of works with grace. The hypocrisy is claiming that the individual is saved by grace and then enslaving them to a system of works to (a) assist in that salvation, or (b) artificially "prove" that salvation, and perhaps (c) to supposedly give them standing or blessing before God (i.e. earn greater grace). Every one of these things ultimately creates a grace plus works system of salvation. Salvation is not merely initiated by grace; it is sustained and completed by it as well. While good works are an out-flowing result of salvation, the works can never be viewed as earning something.
Examples of legalistic rules and standards abound. In the name of Christianity, some claim you must worship or celebrate on a certain day or for the prerequisite number of services and at prescribed times; others impose dietary laws forbidding certain foods (or re-impose Old Testament dietary law), not to mention banning certain drinks - especially alcoholic beverages. Others decree acceptable clothing and hair styles, musical instruments, styles of music, entertainment, form or place of schooling, the language or translation of the Bible to be used, and much more - making some or all of this an artificial standard, means, or test of ones' salvation or "spiritualness". [Don't take me wrong here. I believe there are Biblical principles that should be used to test these things. The error is making an artificial standard - a do and don't list - and imposing it on others. See Colossians 2:20-23]. In the example given to Timothy, forbidding marrying was the first of the list. Today, one major denomination has imposed that as an artificial standard for its ministers, a sign of calling and holiness. Regardless of the form of legalism, let's call all these contrived rules what they are; doctrines of demons. While it is easy for any true leader of the church, or Christian, to fall into the trap of legalism, note that our passage in 1st Timothy points out that the false leaders have consciences that are seared. These people are not open to correction, either from others or from God's word.
Aside from reemphasizing that these false leaders come camouflaged as servants of righteousness and that they want to enslave people to works, the following passage highlights an area related to enslaving people.
#3. They exploit people. Enslaving people is easily turned into exploitation. Any rules based system, which forces works on a person, can readily be used to a particular and self-serving ends. This could display itself as a leader demanding a particular level of giving for the purpose of maintaining personal income, or the religious empire he or she is building. The most heinous of this is portrayed in TV preachers who flash gold watches, sets, and suits of great finery, compounded by lavish lifestyles and possessions, while telling even the poorest viewer they lack faith in not sending that "seed gift." Of course, since they claim that the Lord told them to ask for this, who are you to question God? The few that have gone to prison, for their excesses in this area, are not the only ones involved in exploitation. Simply put, exploitation is using one's position of authority for gain. If a leader demands something, or uses guilt, or intimidation, to make someone do or give something to benefit of self, or their church or organization - regardless of its' size - this is still exploitation. The benefit does not even have to be materialistically. The Corinthian passage examples this when it speaks further about people pushing themselves forward or slapping others in the face. Exalting ones' self or putting down another (which is often a favorite means of exalting ones' self) is merely another form of exploitation. Examine careful the tactics of leaders in the church. Godly leaders lead by example, and through service, and in sacrifice as necessary. Their goal is the well-being of the church - speaking about the individuals and families who comprise her, not some physical structure or man made organization. True leaders guide others to the truth and way of righteousness, but do not force, intimidate, coerce, or falsely guilt, people into doing.
Returning to 1st Timothy, another passage of warning points to one way false leaders work to push themselves forward.
#4. They Exalt in Manmade Pedigrees. While "devoting themselves to myths" could be said of any false doctrine or teaching, it is here tied to "endless genealogies." While, in a simple sense, a genealogy is a listing of your ancestors, it had a more general sense of being your pedigree. For the Jew it was to be able to establish that you were a descendant of Abraham (ex. 2 Corinthian 11:22), for the Levite to be a descendant of Levi, for the Pharisee to have been taught and have learned under the right authorities (ex. Acts 22:3), for a Roman to have been born of a freeborn Roman citizen (ex. Acts 22:28). The message, all through the New Testament, is that none of this mattered anymore. In the church, the person of no pedigree is equal to that of great pedigree. The qualifications for leadership were to have nothing to do with these former things, and everything to do with God having qualified someone. It was the church - all believers and especially the elders - who where supposed to recognize this calling and equipping.
Today, many churches place the pedigree as the highest qualification. Having been involved with more than one church search committee, I've seen first hand how the man-made degree or title is the first item on the list. While having a degree is not wrong, and can be good, placing it as a first level of exclusion is totally wrong. If God has called and equipped a person for leadership in the church, it shouldn't matter if he's a fisherman, or a former tax-collector. It's been said that most, if not all, of the apostles would not be accepted (or even considered) for leadership positions in today's church. The same goes for missions. I met an individual just this year, who after becoming a believer and growing in his faith, had left a successful corporate career knowing that God wanted him in foreign missions. The mission board of his denomination repeatedly turned him down summarily on the grounds of not having the right pedigree (i.e. bible school or seminary). Only after not giving up and shaming them into giving him a hearing did they reluctantly agree that God had called him, and qualified him, to go to the mission field. Now, after years of successful missions work, no one questions that this was where he should be. But, did the mission board learn from this? It appears not. That same missionary said he believes it wouldn't happen again if he was trying to do it this year.
Some churches, in appearing to set the bar higher, mandate a doctorate as a minimum for showing God's qualification. Still others place being the offspring of a prominent leader as acceptable criteria. Ordination, in some areas, is virtually automatic - with little or no examination - if the individual graduated from the approved school. Some denominations even refuse to acknowledge ordination from like-minded churches of other areas. Why? "Accepted schooling" is more important than past good ministry.
A related area, that displays just how much some of these pedigrees are exalted in, is found in the subject of money. I have seen pastors who have demanded a greater salary due to their manmade credentials, regardless of experience, and numerous churches that will automatically pay more based on these same things, regardless of previous ministry experience or the quality of the work being done (consider 1 Timothy 5:17-18).
of how it displays itself, all these manmade titles and
qualifications are irrelevant scripturally. The scriptural standard
for leadership is demonstrated abilities and recognized calling and
gifting - recognition that comes from the church and its' elders. When
a person who meets the scriptural qualification is denied
recognition by manmade rules, or the worse still, a biblically
unqualified person is granted recognition due to manmade rules, the
church suffers. Does this mean that a person cannot (or should
not) have a title granted by man, including M.Div, Rev., Dr. or the
like? Consider than within the church the only titles applied in the
New Testament are those of responsibility including elder (1 Peter
5:1, 2 John 1:1) and evangelist (Acts 21:8) and perhaps pastor
(Ephesians 4:11) and deacon (1 Timothy 3:12). [Luke, who had the
manmade title and earned status of medical doctor (Colossians 4:14),
nowhere is shown as using it within the church.] Even during the time
of the apostles there were many man-given and earned titles available
throughout the Roman Empire. These were set aside inside the church
and bestowed no extra consideration for leadership. In fact, the most
predominate titles used in the early church were brother and sister
(James 2:15). Perhaps it's time for the church to again start setting
aside manmade titles - as they appear to distract from doing things
the biblical way.
#5. Greed. It's worth repeating a portion of the passage that began this section on how to recognize a false leader.
Simply put, for these individuals, the material things of the world are more valuable than the truth. In Peter, after speaking of those who are false prophets and teachers, he emphasizes a primary motivator: greed!
It's interesting that Peter refers to the "way of Balaam." Balaam professed to be a prophet of God, he even claimed to be only able to do what God told him to do, externally unwilling to go against God's instruction (Numbers 22:18-19), yet secretly looking for any way he could to enrich himself (Numbers 22:7, 22:21-22, 31:16). Balaam was never recognized by God's people as being a true prophet, as he had proclaimed, and he ultimately was held accountable for his falsehood (Numbers 31:8).
Greed doesn't need to be externally obvious. It's a rare person that will openly admit that he is greedy (though some of the 'health & wealth' preachers will just about go there). More likely the greedy leader will claim these materials things as their right, or what's owed them. The heart of greed is&ldots;
more than you have (1 Tim 6:6)
#6. Great Story Tellers. While telling stories is not wrong as such, these stories are the focus. They are not brief supporting illustrations (or parables) to point someone to a Scriptural truth, they are stories designed to establish new truths, or to twist God's revealed truth with a purpose of deceiving the listener (see Acts 20:30). Returning to a passage already considered, and reading a bit further&ldots;
This is story telling that appeals to the flesh. Make promises for rewards - financial, materially, even spiritually. Often with a focus on earning 'blessing' from God in some capacity, they use their stories to enslave people to the lusts of the flesh, the very thing that has already enslaved them personally.
#7. First Place. These individuals may superficially appear to be servants, to put others ahead of them, but their heart is to stay in charge no matter what. Years ago I heard a pastor say, God put me in this pulpit and God will have to remove me. While this is true in the big picture, consider what that individual meant by his words. He had accepted a call to the church based on the unanimous request of the elders of the church and a subsequent majority vote of the congregation. He was willing to consider all this a sign of God calling him to that ministry. Years later, half of the elders felt he was controlling the church and no longer willing to listen to anyone's correction. When approached over this, he wouldn't listen, and then publicly made the earlier referenced statement regarding the need for God to remove him. Subsequently it even went to a church vote where the congregation was as equally divided as the elders. To him, this was not a sign that God was telling him to step-down. His response was that it didn't meet the major majority clause in that church's constitution, and that he was staying. If those elders and people have a problem with him, they can leave. Over the next year, the result was a church that split apart right down the middle.
Leaders who want first place at all cost are not willing to listen to the correction of other godly leaders. They are often willing to isolate themselves from virtually all other churches (perhaps even claiming it is to protect the flock). While putting people out of the church is rarely officially practiced these days, it's just as likely that repeated suggestions and other pressure will be used to get opponents to "voluntarily" leave.
What to Do with a False Leader.
For those who hold public rebuke to be harsh, consider that God has had this standard for leaders throughout history. In Leviticus when a leader sinned, he was required to bring a sacrifice publicly to the temple, where he had to place his hand on its' head and cut its' throat. This act did a number of things. The overall picture of it was that the individuals' sin had caused the need of sacrifice and that it was his sin that caused the animal to die, even as we are responsible for Jesus' death because of our sin. That the leader was required to do it himself showed that he was publicly repenting of his sin. He was not excluded from public repentance by his position; rather he was specifically singled out as still having this responsibility.
Repentance and turning to the truth is a sign that they are not a false leader. The apostle Peter, who was obviously a believer and a leader in the early church, was one who had sinned in such a way as to be rebuked publicly.
Some key things to note from this passage: The sin was not adultery, or theft, or murder, or what today most would consider being a 'grave' sin. The sin was hypocrisy (v 13)! This sin was well witnessed (v 11-13), so it would well meet the qualification of two or three witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19). It was harmful to not only Peter, but especially to the church; where it was creating unbiblical division (contrast v 12-13 with 1 Corinthians 11:19), plus it was leading the people again into slavery to the law - legalism. (Continue reading in Galatians, plus consider Galatians 1:6-7. Paul goes so far as to call this another gospel).
Though we don't know with certainty, these two may have been leaders in the church as well&ldots;
Regardless of whether they were leaders, the point here is that names were named. Those that were unrepentant, and finally put out of the church, were publicly proclaimed to be so. This served as warning for the true believers (sheep) and even as means for unbelievers to know that these people are no longer identified with God's church. It was not enough to merely draw attention to who was the problem, it was equally important that the people know what the problem was. Returning to a passage we considered in the last section&ldots;
The apostle John was clear over who he was speaking about; Diotrephes. He was equally adamant that he would make clear to the entire church what it was regarding - "I will call attention to what he is doing. (v. 10)"
The steps given by scriptures for dealing with a leader in sin are those that will show whether or not the individual is a true or false leader. In summary:
Steps one and two are not optional. Step three is necessary for one who is unrepentant. It needs to be noted that even if the leader repents (and steps 1 and 2 are carried out) it does not rule out the other elders excluding him from further ministry, either for a time or permanently, for the sake of the body. For example, in the extreme, a repentant child molester may be restored to the fellowship, but permanent removal as a children's pastor would be prudent. Protecting the flock is not an optional part of the duties of the true leadership of God's church.
Restoration of a brother should be the goal of all discipline, including of those in leadership. This restoration is to the fellowship, and as been already stated, it does not automatically require a return to ministry. If the restored brother is capable of meeting the qualifications again for a leadership position, there is a possibility that restoration to some ministry position may be possible. Those who respond to the discipline have shown themselves to be believers. Those who reject discipline are to be treated as unbelievers.
Isn't it about time for our churches to be the safe place God intended them to be for the flock?!