The term “false teacher” gets thrown around a lot; but the definition might not be as obvious as it seems. Many people probably assume a false teacher is simply someone who teaches something that’s false. But that’s not really how the Bible uses that term. And I believe we must use biblical terms in biblical ways. Let’s examine what a false teacher is and why we should be careful calling someone a false teacher.
There were plenty of false prophets in the Old Testament. These were men who said to God’s people, “Hear the word of the Lord!” but what they were proclaiming was not a revelation from God, it was “from their own hearts” (see Ezekiel 13:2). These men were intentionally misleading their hearers. They were “like jackals” (13:4). They proclaimed “false visions and lying divinations” (13:6).
They were liars. They were taking advantage of gullible people. They were telling people what the people wanted to hear, rather than a message from the Lord.
The Law of Moses was very clear about such men, “The prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die” (Deuteronomy 18:20). Not because that man was simply mistaken, but because he said God had sent him with a message, when God had not.
Jesus said false prophets were “ravenous wolves” who dressed in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15). He said you could recognize false prophets by their “fruit.” He said their hearts were evil and the fruit of their lives were “diseased” (7:17-18). Again, Jesus isn’t talking about people who are simply mistaken. He is talking about evil and wicked “wolves” who are intentionally deceiving people.
The New Testament uses the phrase, “false teachers.” But you might be surprised to know that phrase is only found once in the Bible. Here is what the apostle Peter wrote:
“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. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” (2 Peter 2:1–3, ESV)
As you can see, false teachers – like false prophets – are like jackals or wolves. They are motivated by “greed.” They are trying to “exploit” their hearers with “false words.” Some of them will even go so far as to deny Jesus.
In nearly every case, when the Bible talks about false prophets or false teachers, it is talking about evil people who are trying to deceive and exploit people for their own selfish gain. As Jude put it, they are, “ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (vs. 4).
But not everyone in the Bible who taught something wrong, is described as “false teachers” are described.
In the city of Ephesus, there was a man who was described as, “competent in the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24). It is even said that he taught “accurately the things concerning Jesus” (18:25). He wasn’t evil. He wasn’t trying to mislead, deceive, or exploit anyone. He was, however, mistaken about one important thing; he wasn’t preaching the right baptism. So a Christian couple, “took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (18:26).
I don’t know how long it took Priscilla and Aquila to teach Apollos “the way of God more accurately.” I don’t know if it took them hours, days, weeks, or perhaps even months. But I know they didn’t treat him like a false teacher. He wasn’t a false teacher. He was simply uninformed or misinformed.
Make no mistake, there are a multitude of false teachers in the world today. Evil charlatans, masquerading as preachers and teachers of the gospel. They are jackals and wolves. They are exploiting, manipulating, and taking advantage of people. They are, “teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (Titus 1:11).
That being said, there are many others who are more like Apollos. They are teaching “accurately the things concerning Jesus,” but nonetheless are mistaken on some important points of doctrine. They need to be taken aside and explained the way of God more accurately. But they don’t need to be treated as “enemies of the cross.” They are not evil; they are simply uninformed or misinformed.
Sadly, there are Christians who tend to treat everyone who teaches something incorrectly like a “false teacher.” They assume the worst possible motives. Instead of patiently furthering the conversation, as Priscilla and Aquila did, they try to destroy every “Apollos” they meet.
But Jesus teaches us to examine the fruit of people’s lives. If someone is full of love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness – but they teach something incorrectly – they are NOT someone you need to go to war against. They are an “Apollos” and need to be treated as such. On the other hand, if someone is a lover of money, constantly quarreling and fighting, or hateful and rude, this is the kind of person who needs to be sharply rebuked, silenced, and avoided.
There are false teachers and there are mistaken teachers; we need to practice discernment to know one from the other.
I love you and God loves you,