Thomas G. O'Neal
(Note: The following article by Tom O'Neal was written for Walking In Truth in May 1973 and published again in 1976. Brother O'Neal was dealing with the false teaching of the grace-unity movement under the leadership of Carl Ketcherside and Leroy Garrett, specifically promoted among us by Edward Fudge. We think the article needs to be reproduced because some are still confused about who are false teachers.)
To some there is no such thing as a false teacher, thus there could be no such thing as false doctrine.
Jesus said, "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves . . . Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them" (Matt. 7:15-20). In these verses Jesus said (1) false teachers exist, (2) they do not appear as false teachers, they are deceptive, (3) they produce fruit and (4) we can know who they are by their fruit.
Paul said some were "false apostles" (2 Cor. 11: 13). Jesus said there would be "false Christs" (Matt. 24:5,24). Christ said there would be "false prophets" (Matt. 24:11,24).
Living False Teachers
The fact that Christ and the apostles warned of false teachers does not mean that all false teachers died in the first century and none are living today. The average religious paper comes from a false teacher. The average religious radio or TV program is sponsored by false teachers. In fact, most all religious instruction today is coming from false teachers.
False teachers will not admit to being false teachers However, John says, "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world" (1 Jn. 4:1).
Just how then can one identify false teachers? I may recognize one and not his name. One can recognize a policeman and not know his name. So it is with a false teacher. Let us notice some ways not to identify a false teacher and then some ways by which we may know them.
(1) Appearance. This does not tell us whether or not one is a false teacher. Jesus said wolves would appear as sheep (Matt. 7:15). Paul said false apostles would appear to be apostles of Christ (2 Cor. 11:13-14).
(2) Voice. How one sounds does not identify as to "sound doctrine." Paul said "by good words and fair speeches" the "hearts of the simple" are "deceived" (Rom. 16:18).
(3) Personality. A false teacher will always put forth the very best he has. Paul said some would transform themselves into "ministers of righteousness" (2 Cor. 11:15). The personality of a false teacher is one of his powerful assets. Put the false teacher under the searchlight of God's word and watch his personality change into that of viciousness. When exposed by God's word that false, thin veneer of sweetness is gone and the real wolf is then exposed. I have never seen a false teacher yet, when put under the pressure of God's word, that didn't lose his sweetness.
(4) Numbers. One can not learn who is a false teacher by how many follow him. Peter warns us that "many shall follow their pernicious ways" (2 Pet. 2:2). The majority has always on any question been on the side of the Devil from the beginning of God's dealing with man. The way to destruction is the broad way which "many there be which go in thereat" (Matt. 7:13).
(5) Claims. Jesus said many would claim to have worked in his name but Christ said, "I never knew you . . . ye that work iniquity" (Matt. 7:23). False teachers have always made such claims (see Matt. 24:5,24-26).
How to Identify a False Teacher
(1) Who Enjoys Their Message? John said, "They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them" (1 Jn. 4:5). The world will approve the message of the false teacher. Men like Billy Graham can always have a crowd to listen to their false doctrine but a faithful gospel preacher in the same town would have few to listen to the Lord's message of salvation.
(2) What Fruit Do They Yield? Jesus said in Matthew 7:15-20 that a false teacher was a "corrupt tree" that brought "forth evil fruit." Christ said a "corrupt tree" could not "bring forth good fruit." The logical consequence of all false teaching is the practice of false doctrine in life. Jesus calls false teachers "corrupt trees" because of the fruit they produce (Matt. 7:17).
(3) What Is Their Authority? Jesus said all religious teaching is either from (1) heaven or (2) men (Matt. 21:25). What authority does a false teacher give for his doctrine? Not the word of God. Paul said some gave heed to "fables and commandments of men" (Tit. 1:14). John said that those who knew God "heareth us" that is, they will hear the apostles (1 Jn. 4:6). The individual "that is not of God heareth not us" (1 Jn. 4:6). Paul said that if one claimed in his day that he was a prophet or had some spiritual gift that he was to "acknowledge that the things I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord" (1 Cor. 14:37). What Christ or the apostles said means nothing to a false teacher. Any false teacher will avoid the plain statement of Scripture. Read the word of God to a false teacher and he will take the commandments of men any time before he will take the word of God. Try it and see.
(4) Who Associates With Them? John said the false teachers "are of the world" (1 Jn. 4:5). They speak "of the world" (1 Jn. 4:5). The world will hear the false teacher. The world will always side with the false teacher; the false teacher will always side with the world. The false teachers will always join together with the world to oppose the teaching of Christ. False teachers who do not agree with each other, who will at times oppose each other, will band together when a gospel preacher starts opposing false doctrine. False teachers admire men's person because of the advantage they are given by them (Jude 16). Paul said, "Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them" (Eph. 5: 11).
How Should I Regard False Teachers?
(1) Love Their Souls. God loves all men and wants them to be saved (Jn. 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:3-4; 2 Pet. 3:9). This includes the false teachers; God would that they repent and be saved. I should love them (Matt. 5:44) and want them to be saved by gospel obedience.
(2) Beware of Them. Jesus said, "Beware of false prophets" (Matt. 7:15). We would beware of a rattlesnake because of the physical harm it would do to us. A false preacher is just as dangerous to us spiritually as a rattlesnake is to us physically.
(3) Do Not Fellowship Them. Paul said, "Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness" (Eph. 5:11). False teachers can not be fellowshipped. I will not announce a service in which a known false teacher is the speaker. What good does it do to announce such, and then turn around in almost the same breath and say that he will teach some things with which one might not agree?
(4) Avoid Them. Paul said, "Mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them" (Rom. 16:17).
(5) Rebuke Them. Of certain false teachers Paul said, "Rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith" (Tit. 1: 13). Paul said instead of fellowshipping with them we should "rather reprove them" (Eph. 5:11).
(6) Don't Bid Them God Speed. John said, "Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed; For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds" (2 Jn. 9-11).
(7) Watch for Them. Paul told Timothy, "Watch thou in all things." The reason was: "for the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables" (2 Tim. 4:1-5). One should keep his eyes open for false teachers.
To watch the dip stick of your car motor will keep you from burning up the engine; to watch for false teachers and doctrine will keep one from being taken by them. The result of false teachers and doctrine is destruction (Matt. 15:14).
Every teacher that one sees will not be a false teacher. When one goes squirrel hunting, every animal seen in the woods is not a squirrel, but the hunter is looking for and quickly identifies one.
False Teachers Inside and Out
Paul said to the Ephesian elders, "For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears" (Acts 20:29-31).
(1) Wolves enter. Into the flock of God Paul said wolves would enter. Here are false teachers coming from the outside of the church into the church. These false teachers need to be watched, for from time to time such will enter into the church.
They may come in the form of people coming into the Lord's church under the notion of being converted when really they have not been. They have just transferred their membership. I have known cases when people left some denomination and were admitted into the fellowship of brethren who had never been baptized into Christ. In time, this will always cause trouble.
(2) "Also of your own seives shall men arise, speaking perverse things, " Here are false teachers arising from within the church. Many never seem to think that false teachers could be found among the flock of God. False teachers who arise among the people of God will do more damage to the flock than those who enter from the outside.
Paul said some were "false apostles" (2 Cor. 11:13). There were "false brethren" in New Testament times (2 Cor. 11:26) and they are not all dead. Paul mentions false gospels (Gal. 1:6-9). Peter warned there would be "false teachers" (2 Pet. 2:2).
False teachers and those practicing false doctrine were named in New Testament times (1 Tim. 1: 19-20; 2 Tim. 2:17; 3:8; 4:8,14-15). False teachers today both in and out of the church should be named. It is not popular to do so now, but such is the New Testament practice.
Characteristics of False Teachers
(1) Titus 1:9-16 teaches that false teachers are unruly, vain talkers, deceivers, subverters, teach just for money, liars, instruct in fables and the commandments of men, their mind and conscience is defiled, they deny God while professing knowledge of him, and are disobedient.
(2) 2 Timothy 4:1-5 shows false brethren will not endure sound doctrine, their ears will itch and after their own desire they will find false teachers to scratch their itching ears as they turn from truth to fables.
(3) 2 Peter 2:1-3 shows false teachers among brethren will deny the Lord, bring in damnable heresies, lead astray many, they will be covetous, will use feigned words, and will make merchandise of brethren.
(4) Revelation 2:20 tells us at Thyatira was a false prophetess named Jezebel that even seduced the servants of God to commit fornication and eat things sacrificed to idols. In 2 Peter 2:2 pernicious ways are lascivious ways.
Paul told Titus, "A man that is a heretic after the first and second admonition reject: knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself" (Tit.3:10-11).