How Can We Recognize False Teachers in the Church?

By Dr Paul M Elliott

Part 3 of a series. Read part 2.

Today we continue the discussion of questions that are troubling growing numbers of Christians: “My church is no longer true to the Word of God on essential Christian truths. What should I do? Should I leave? Should I stay and try to fight error? Will I be guilty of schism if I do either one?” Today’s focus is on the use of the Bible as our sole standard in identifying false teachers.1

Three Marks of a True Church

Scripture teaches that a true church of Jesus Christ bears these three essential marks:

  • the faithful proclamation of the authentic Gospel (Matthew 24:14; Mark 16:15; Romans 1:16-17; Galatians 1:6-9);
  • the faithful administration of Christ’s ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 28:18-19; Acts 2:38-39; Romans 6:3-4; Ephesians 4:4-6; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26);
  • the faithful exercise of Biblical discipline (Matthew 18:15-18; Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 5:11-13; 2 Corinthians 2:6-8, 6:14-15, 13:1; Galatians 6:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15; 1 Timothy 5:20, 6:3-5; Titus 2:15, 3:10-11; 2 John 10-11; Jude 22-23).

Much of the false teaching in the church today centers on problems in these three areas:

  • Without the faithful proclamation of the authentic Gospel, there is no church, only a social organization of lost but spiritually complacent people masquerading as a church. Such a “church” is on a par with the local Lions’ club or Moose lodge, and it offers only a counterfeit of the true church, to the damnation of souls.
  • Without the faithful administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the church falls prey to many perils, among them these two: First, nominally Protestant churches can and do fall into the damnable errors of Rome — that these two ordinances save the soul, or contribute to salvation. Second, and on the other extreme, neglect of Christ’s commands in these two areas is usually indicative of a church that minimizes the preaching of the Cross, has little Gospel testimony to the world, and has many members (and often pastors and leaders) who understand little or nothing about genuine salvation or sanctified living.
  • Today, most churches have no concept of Biblical discipline. The anything-goes, go-along-to-get-along attitudes about doctrine and life that are prevalent in many Evangelical churches is sad testimony of that fact. On the other hand, most people who do use the term “church discipline” today think only in terms of bringing charges and prosecuting judicial cases before the courts of the church. But that is what must happen in the last resort. Christians must understand the true nature of church discipline. The foundation of church discipline is self-discipline, and that begins with careful attention to sound doctrine and manner of life among God’s people, brought about through training in the inspired Word which “is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). We are not the family of God because we exercise discipline; we are to exercise discipline because we are the family of God. It is becoming to the faith to guard the spiritual well-being of the family, and it is a testimony that adorns the Gospel of Christ before the world.

Recognizing False Teachers

The Holy Spirit has not only told us the marks of a true church of Jesus Christ and how to recognize departure from them; He has also told us how to recognize false teachers.

We must have the proper starting point. We can only identify false teachers using the objective measuring rod of Scripture; mere opinions are irrelevant. The Bible tells us that false teachers creep into the church unnoticed (Jude 4). They secretly bring in destructive heresies and cause sound doctrine to be ridiculed (2 Peter 2:1-3). They are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ while they are in reality Satan’s ministers, sowing the seeds of spiritual destruction (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). They are evil men and imposters, who grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived (2 Timothy 3:13). They are men who have become corrupted in their minds, resisting the truth, and are disapproved — that is, they do not meet the test of authenticity concerning the true faith (2 Timothy 3:8). They do not abide in the true doctrine of Christ (2 John 9), and in fact deny the true Christ Himself (Jude 4). They cause divisions and offenses by teaching things contrary to sound doctrine (Romans 16:17-18). They deceive through smooth words and flattering speech (Romans 16:18).

In the past generation, false teachers have crept into Evangelical and Reformed seminaries largely unnoticed. The men they have instructed in their false teachings have likewise come into the church for the most part without being recognized. They have secretly brought in destructive heresies. They cause sound doctrine to be ridiculed. They claim that their teachings are superior to what has been taught in past generations. They say they represent progress in theology. They often allege that misconceptions regarding the covenants, the person and work of Christ, baptism, justification, sanctification, the church, and the Last Judgment have become embedded in Protestant doctrine over the centuries. Neo-liberals claim that their teachings serve to correct these supposedly long-held misconceptions. But what they are really saying, at the end of the day, is that our forebears in the faith — from the apostles themselves onward — have been wrong on the most basic elements of Christian doctrine. What they are really doing is denying authentic Biblical Christianity.

Deceiving and Being Deceived

These reputedly conservative churchmen do this while simultaneously claiming that they remain completely faithful to Scripture and to any doctrinal statements to which their church may subscribe. (And sadly, increasing numbers of nominally Evangelical churches have no doctrinal statement at all, or at best only a “mission statement” or “vision statement” that emulates not the Great Commission but the corporate world’s management philosophy.) Pretending to be what they are not, and professing to believe what they do not, they are “deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13).

What they are teaching is dangerously wrong. The souls of men, women, and children are at stake. These teachers are proclaiming “another gospel, which is not another” and their source of authority is the wisdom of this world rather than Scripture. The Word of God reserves its strongest condemnation for those who persist in such teaching. They are under God’s curse (Galatians 1:6-9). They are to be marked and avoided (Romans 16:17-19). Let Christians who wish to stand for the truth make no mistake about this.

No one could dare say these things without clear authority. Scripture alone has that authority, and it says these things. They are matters of fact and not opinion. And, as we shall see, God has placed the responsibility of discernment in the hands of every believer, not church leaders only. God has not left these matters to question; the marks of the false teachers described in the pages of the New Testament are clearly the marks of many nominally Evangelical and Reformed teachers today. To deny this would be to deny the true faith.

Next: How Are Christians to Deal With False Teachers?

References:

1. Material in this article is adapted from Christianity and Neo-Liberalism by Paul M. Elliott (The Trinity Foundation, 2005), pages 327-332.

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