Tim Challies has an article on the seven marks of a false teacher. While the only certain mark of a false teacher is that he teaches heresy, Challies’ insights are still quite useful. I encourage you to read his article for yourself, but I have compiled the list here as well along with my own commentary. Keep in mind, the concern is not about false teachers who are obviously false. Rather, the concern is with false teachers who pretend to be true teachers. Those are the ones for whom we must watch.
- False teachers are man pleasers. Unfortunately, this is also true of many true teachers, but the point is that false teachers are not interested in pleasing God. They are interested in pleasing men because they hope to get something from the men they please. Tertullus provides a perfect example when he addresses Felix at Paul’s hearing, “Since we have through you attained much peace, and since by your providence reforms are being carried out for this nation, we acknowledge this in every way and everywhere, most excellent Felix, with all thankfulness. But, that I may not weary you any further, I beg you to grant us, by your kindness, a brief hearing” (Acts 24:2–4; NASB). Tertullus is not interested in pleasing God in this scenario. He is only interested in pleasing Felix in order to achieve his desired outcome.
- False teachers bring their harshest criticism against God’s faithful servants. False teachers will often give you the names of the people to whom you should not listen, and the reason given is usually based in some kind of character attack. “Don’t listen to Jesus. He eats with sinners and tax collectors.” A modern equivalent would be, “Don’t listen to Rev. So-and-so. He went to XYZ Seminary.” When a false teacher attacks a true teacher, he attacks his character because the true teacher’s doctrine is above reproach. When a true teacher attacks a false teacher, he attacks his doctrine.
- False teachers expound their own wisdom rather than God’s wisdom. True teachers teach whatever is presented in scripture. False teachers teach whatever is presented in their own minds.
- False teachers ignore what is of greatest importance and instead focus on what is of less importance. They have a tendency to place greater emphasis on the passages with lower levels of exegetical certainty while overlooking the simple yet glorious message of the cross.
- False teachers mask their false doctrine with eloquent speech and impressive logic. Either by using complex arguments that go beyond the capacities of their audience or by veiling their weak arguments in vague language that presents as intellectually superior, false teachers depend on the strength of their own minds rather than the truths of God. False teachers have a tendency to take simple ideas and make them too complex for the average person to fully understand. In contrast, it is the job of true teachers to take complex ideas and communicate them in a way that can be understood by everyone.
- False teachers are far more concerned with winning others to their own opinions than they are in actually helping people understand the truths of God. Even if what they teach on a given day happens to be true, their goal is not to reveal truth but rather to accumulate people who prop them up by affirming their opinions.
- False teachers exploit their followers. They see their sheep as resources that are to be fleeced. False teachers want something from their audience. It could be money, approval, fame, praise, power, or just about anything else. The true teacher devotes himself to serving his flock. The false teacher devotes himself to manipulating his flock into serving him.
What is most frightening about this list is that true teachers often have these same traits. Challies’ point is that we should watch for these traits in others, with which I completely agree. However, I am compelled to apply the list to myself first. How many of these are true of me? I have to admit that I have been guilty of all seven at different times. Before I go pointing fingers at others (which I certainly can and should do at times), I should probably first hold myself to the standard by which I judge others.
As a teacher, once I have eradicated all of these traits from my life, then will I begin identifying them in others. Until then, I will embrace the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in my life while remaining on the lookout for that one definitive mark of a false teacher and avoiding it like the plague.