2 Peter 2:1: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.”
Matthew 24:24: “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.“
Ever since the fall in the Garden (Gen. 3), there have been deceivers who seek to undermine God’s truth and lead people astray. Satan, the Adversary, has made use of such wicked people to breed confusion, twist truth, promote lawlessness, and lead astray. The danger remains for the church today and will continue in every generation until the Lord returns. Such people are called ‘false prophets,’ ‘false teachers,’ and ‘false christs.’ What is the difference between these deceivers and how can we be on guard against them?
False Christs are those that claim to be a Messianic figure, a god, or an appearance or incarnation of Christ. This has happened occasionally–David Koresh of the Branch Davidians claimed this, as did Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church–but it is far less common than the other kinds of deceivers. Such people possess some strong natural charisma and perhaps demonic empowerment. The Man of Lawlessness (2 Thes. 2:3-12), commonly identified as The Antichrist, sets himself up as a god. He will be defeated at the return of Christ. The short lesson here is that when Jesus returns, it will be in the clouds trumpets blaring with glory and power and every eye will see him (Matt. 24:29-31; Rev. 1:7). So until that happens, don’t believe it when people claim Jesus has returned or appeared.
False prophets are the most common in the Old Testament but still operate today. While they do not claim to be a messiah, they do assume to have a direct connection to God and speak on his authority. They are men and women who God has not raised up, spoken to, or sent. They claim to speak for the Lord, but really speak from their own imagination (Jer. 23:16). They claim access to new revelation from God that contradicts revealed Scripture. While such people may rise up from within a church, they often will not remain there, seeking to gain their own following and separate from the church. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, is an example of a very successful false prophet. His teachings are not merely different and errant interpretations of Scripture, but claims to be an entirely new (discovered) revelation that supersedes and ‘corrects’ the Bible. Beware those who claim to have new revelations from God, especially when they claim to tell the future.
As continuationists, we believe that the gift of prophecy–along with all the spiritual gifts revealed in the New Testament–still operate in the church. However, a prophecy today is not a new revelation or addition to Scripture. It is ”a pertinent word to build up (strengthen), encourage (edify, exhort), or console (comfort) the church.” (For more on the gift of prophecy, you can see a previous blog: The Gift of Prophecy Today.) We should not despise prophecies or words of encouragement stirred by the Holy Spirit, but test everything against the Word of God (1 Thes. 5:20-21;1 Jn. 4:1). That which conflicts with Scripture must be rejected, along with those that promote false prophecies.
False Teachers are more common in church life. Such deceivers do not claim prophetic powers or new revelations from God. Instead, a false teacher deceives by denying, distorting, or misapplying the revealed word of God. They teach false doctrines and practices by misusing the Word of God to make it say what it doesn’t say. By using the Bible as an authority for their arguments, they confuse those who trust in the word. The serpent used this very tactic in Genesis 3, “Did God really say…”. A description of false teachers is found in 1 Timothy 6:3-5:
“If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.”
It is worth noting that there is a difference between false teachers and false teaching. A false teacher is someone who actively promotes a false teaching for selfish gain or with intention to deceive through church office, writing, or speaking. If they are rebuked for their teaching and continue to reject sound doctrine, they are not to be considered brothers or sisters in the faith, but deceivers. A false teacher refuses correction. Avoid such people.
It is important to understand that false doctrine can sometimes be taught or believed by believers or ministers for a time due to error or ignorance. Remember, we are all being sanctified by the Holy Spirit, which entails growing our knowledge of the truth. Every believer has some errors in their thinking or beliefs that are not in line with Scripture. By God’s grace we repent, learn, and grow. We should be careful, therefore, to label someone a heretic or false teacher when they may simply be confused. Be patient and prayerful with those in the church who may be in a trap of Satan. In fact, we should consider the false teachings themselves as the primary enemy, more than those who promote or believe them (2 Cor. 10:5; Eph. 6:10-12).
Finally, while false teachings are definitionally any teaching that conflicts with the truth of Scripture, not all errors are equal. All false doctrine is dangerous and unhealthy, but not all false doctrine is deadly to faith, keeping one out of God’s kingdom. There are disputable matters which are ‘in house’ arguments between Christians of good faith, such as mode of baptism, church polity, views on divine election, millennial views, etc. We should not seek to anathematize or belittle our brothers and sisters who disagree on secondary or tertiary issues. Our error radar should be trained on those doctrines that, if rejected, would mark a rejection of Christianity itself: The Trinity, deity of Christ, the incarnation, the death, burial, and physical resurrection of Christ, the future return of Christ, salvation by faith alone in Christ alone, and Scripture as the Word of God come to mind as first-order doctrines. These doctrines are so essential to the gospel itself that to reject them is to essentially reject Christianity and the gospel, leaving one outside the faith.
God’s word is true and stands forever. But it has enemies. There are deceivers in the world and, sadly, in the Church (Acts 20:8-31). Let us be faithful, watchful, and prayerful. Test everything. Reject what’s evil. Hold fast to what is good.