5 Characteristics of a False Teacher

Author: David Wilber

We are told in 1 John 4:1 and other passages to “test” the message of a teacher or prophet to see if what they say is truly from God. The reason is that “many false prophets have gone out into the world” and are leading believers astray. What are some of the identifying marks of a false teacher/prophet?

It is often said that the best way to recognize a counterfeit is to be familiar with the real thing. A Federal agent doesn’t become an expert in identifying counterfeit money by studying counterfeit bills. He first studies genuine money until he becomes so familiar with the real thing that he can easily tell the difference between genuine and counterfeit bills. In the same way, the best way to avoid being deceived by a false message is to study and know the true message as taught in the Scriptures. The Bible itself stands as the final authority against which everything else is to be measured. As Messianic theologian Tim Hegg says, “A person determines if a stick is crooked by putting it next to a straight stick. Let the Bible be your straight stick.”

As we meditate on God’s word day and night, we become like a tree planted by streams of water—firmly established in the truth (Psalm 1). We as disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) ought to know the Scriptures so well that when a teacher or prophet gives a false message, we will be able to clearly recognize it as such. Having said that, the Scriptures outline the characteristics of false prophets and teachers. Below is a list of the Bible’s warning signs that we are to look out for.

1) False Prophecy

The most obvious way to tell if someone is a false prophet is if they prophesy falsely. The Torah says that we are not to revere the one who speaks in the name of the Lord presumptuously (Deuteronomy 18:22). That is to say, if someone claims to speak in the name of the Lord and they declare that something will occur in the future, and what they declared doesn’t come to pass, we are to disregard their teachings.

Sadly, a great number of false prophets are leading many astray in our days. You’ll often find them on the internet, making sensational predictions and claiming to have discovered some secret knowledge hidden within the Scriptures. They will often set specific dates for the Second Coming of Messiah and other end times events. These types of “prophetic” predictions have a zero percent success rate and serve only to profane the name of God and make believers look foolish.

There is nothing wrong with speculating about end times events, but we need to be on guard the moment someone starts claiming to be some kind of authority and making bold future predictions about specific dates and times. According to the Bible, prophecy is not something to be taken lightly.

2) Abandonment of God’s Ways

Even if someone gives a prophecy and it comes to pass, they still might be a false prophet. According to Deuteronomy 13:1-5, if a prophet tries to convince you to “leave the way in which the lord your God commanded you to walk,” you are not to listen to their words. Indeed, the main test of a prophet of God is not whether they make accurate predictions or perform signs and wonders, but that their message conforms to the word of God. Thus, if a prophet’s message is contrary to the commandments of God, he is a false prophet and his teachings must be discarded.

False teachers who speak against clear commandments of God abound in our day and age. Heretical teachers have written best-selling books and have given lectures to thousands of people in which they affirm same-sex “marriage” and encourage believers to abandon clear biblical boundaries regarding sexual morality. Sadly, these teachers are the ones being featured on popular talk shows as they misrepresent biblical Christianity and lead many people astray. We need to beware of these false teachers and not be afraid to call them out as the wolves they are.

3) Distortion and Minimization of the Gospel

An entire book of the Bible—the book of Galatians—is dedicated to defending the Gospel against false teachers who were attempting to pervert the true message (Galatians 1:7). The apostle Paul spends considerable time exposing the false doctrine that salvation by grace through faith in Yeshua wasn’t enough. Paul’s harsh judgment against those who taught that something more was needed of the Gentiles before they could be included in the community of God’s people—namely that they first needed to get circumcised (Acts 15:1)—demonstrates the utmost importance of upholding the purity of the Gospel.

This false doctrine that Paul addresses in Galatians was destructive in two ways. Not only did it distort the message of the Gospel, but it distorted the true purpose of the Torah. By teaching a gospel of works, these false teachers were misusing the Torah and forcing it to be something that God never intended it to be. The Torah was never designed to save anyone. In his book, The Gospel According to Moses, Dr. Daniel Block explains:

Paul seems to have functioned as a second Moses, not only in providing a profoundly theological interpretation of God’s saving actions in Christ, but also in reminding his readers that salvation comes by grace alone. In Romans and Galatians his argumentation addresses those who would pervert the “law” (a narrow legalistic interpretation of Hebrew Torah) into a means of salvation, rather than treating it as a response to salvation as Moses perceived it. While on the surface Paul’s responses to this heresy often appear to contradict Moses, these statements should be interpreted in context and as rhetorical responses to his opponents. In his own disposition toward the “law” he was in perfect step with Moses: obedience to the law was not a means for gaining salvation but a willing and grateful response to salvation already received.

Having made that point, it could perhaps be said that one of the identifying marks of a false teacher is one who consistently stresses other biblical doctrines, whatever they may be, at the expense of the Gospel. For instance, as beautiful as the Torah is and as much as the Scriptures support its ongoing authority in the lives of believers, it doesn’t save you or make you righteous. This is not to diminish the value of the Torah, but to elevate the Gospel to its rightful place. The Gospel is central to our faith as Christians, and we must beware of anyone who leaves it behind.

4) Obsession Over Foolish Controversies

According to Paul in 1 Timothy 1:3-7, false teachers lack understanding of the Scriptures and sound theology. Therefore, they “devote themselves to myths” and drag people into “vain discussion.” In a number of places in the New Testament, such as 2 Timothy 2:16, we are told to stay away from “pointless discussions.” Why? “For people will become more and more ungodly.” Thus, a false teacher who promotes foolish controversies leads people into ungodly behavior.

Foolish controversies do “no good,” and they “ruin those who listen” (2 Timothy 2:14). They lead to strife and division in the body (2 Timothy 2:23). And they are “unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3:9). Instead of focusing on foolish controversies that have no value, Paul encourages us to “pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace” (2 Timothy 2:22).

Today, a great many false teachers promote their myths, conspiracy theories, and “secret knowledge” to the masses. Flat Earthism, reptilian shapeshifter theories, KJV-Onlyism, etc., are all over the Internet. These foolish controversies offer no value to our lives and are mere distractions from what we should be focusing on as believers. False teachers who spend all their time feeding God’s sheep theological junk food must be avoided.

5) Selfish and Opportunistic Behavior

The prophet Micah describes false priests and prophets as those who “teach for a price” and “practice divination for money” (Micah 3:11). It appears that false teachers are concerned only with entertaining the flock in order to achieve their own selfish gain. Indeed, false teachers often don’t truly care about instructing believers in the ways of God. They simply see ministry as an opportunity to make a buck. If you notice a teacher consistently promoting themselves rather than promoting Messiah, flee from them.

In conclusion, may we discipline ourselves in the study of the Scriptures so that we can easily recognize the counterfeits when we see them. We must be on guard against false teachers and prophets so that we are not led astray and so we can warn others.

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