How to Spot False Teachers By Their Form of Godliness

"In the last days, perilous times will come, for men will be lovers of themselves." 2 Timothy 3:1-2

How to Spot False Teachers By Their Form of Godliness by Steppes of Faith

“In the last days, perilous times will come, for men will be lovers of themselves.” 2Timothy 3:1-2

One very hot topic in Christian apologetic discussion circles these days is about false teachers. They are seemingly everywhere! Some are pastors you greatly admire. And some are simply friends or small group members with well-meaning intentions but highly misinformed in what they think they know.

As we move closer to the Day of the Lord, it is more important now than ever to discern who is a false teacher and who is genuine and how to avoid being led astray by those who don’t have the form of godliness.

False Teachers, False Thinking

Have you ever heard someone speak either on television or a live event, or perhaps in a personal conversation, and the things that person said didn’t quite make sense? You tried hard to understand what they were getting at, but your Spidey sense (aka, the Holy Spirit) tingled, and in your head, you thought, “What in the world is he saying??” or, “That doesn’t sound right.”

When COVID first started keeping us all at home, many of us still “attended” church online, including Easter. My church wasn’t yet up and running with live streaming services yet, so I tuned in to one at a very popular church in Texas. I was excited to finally hear the pastor that I had heard so much about. But when he started speaking, something just didn’t seem right.

I came to find out soon after that this particular pastor is regarded mainly as a false teacher. And after researching what he is teaching his congregation, I could understand why. It concerns me this person is leading hundreds of people astray from the truth of the Bible, although he will use Scripture to make his arguments. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one out there.

But that’s exactly how false teachers work. Whether their teachings are deliberate or simply ignorant, they will try to teach you something false though they wholeheartedly believe it is true.

Jesus’s Warnings

Jesus warns us about false teachers in the book of Matthew.

“Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” Matthew 7:15

“For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” Matthew 24:24

The book of Revelation also prophesies the coming of the ultimate false teacher, the False Prophet, during the Tribulation, and his job will be to deliberately lead people away from the truth of God’s word so they worship the anti-Christ (see Revelation 13:11-18). Sadly, he will be successful.

So, we must be on the lookout for these kinds of teachers, whoever they may be—famous pastors, family members, friends, or a stranger.

Jesus said we would know them by their fruit. A good tree cannot grow bad fruit. What is the bad fruit? What does that look like? The answer is found in 2 Timothy.

False teachers will usually bear bad fruit.

Look for Bad Fruit

In the apostle Paul’s second letter to his protégé, Timothy, he tries to encourage the young pastor while imprisoned in Rome under Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians. Paul knows he’s not getting out of prison this time, and his days are limited. The realization compels Paul to write to Timothy, knowing it will be up to him to continue Paul’s pastoral work.

One of Paul’s issues is similar to the one found in his first letter to Timothy, that of false teaching. Timothy had already been confronting it, and the church was slowly turning away. But Paul warns Timothy not to let his guard down because there is more to come.

Paul details some simple signs of false teachers and bad fruit to look for in 2 Timothy 3:1-9.

“But know this, that in the last days, perilous times will come. For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despiser of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!” (v1-5)

In today’s culture, what do these traits look like?

According to Paul, some people who are false teachers will often have big egos. They will be short-tempered, often lacking grace and patience, stubborn, and very self-centered. They think they are the smartest person in the room, and everything they have to say is almost akin to Jesus Himself speaking. And they are delighted to open the Bible to prove to you they are right, and you are wrong.

Not every false teacher behaves this way, though. Many are like the pastor I saw online who came off like a nice guy and knows something about the Scriptures. But they will be ignorant in their teaching. Sometimes it’s deliberate, and sometimes it is not. Either way, they are not fully educated in the truth of God’s word.

Paul has one bit of advice for when we encounter teachers like this.

Run!

Lacking Form

Paul also tells us false teachers have “a form of godliness but denying its power (v5).”

Paul is saying they may have the shape or appearance of being godly, but they don’t fully appreciate or respect the word of God. In other words, they are more concerned with looking and sounding like a knowledgeable preacher than knowing the truth. The name of this kind of sin is pride.

These types of teachers are precisely what Jesus was referring to in Matthew 23:27-28 when He was rebuking the scribes and Pharisees.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and uncleanliness. Even so, you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

Within that same rebuke, Jesus goes on to call the scribes and Pharisees serpents and a “brood of vipers,” challenging them to figure out how they will escape the condemnation of hell because of their false teaching and ungodly behavior (Matthew 23:33).

Today’s false teachers are no different. They lack a form of godliness.

On the outside, they appear very knowledgeable. They talk good “Christian-ese,” they know all the Bible books in order, and they may know lots of Scripture, but in their hearts, they are not godly. To them, it’s more important they appear smart than lead others to Jesus.

Jesus rebuked false teachers--scribes and Pharisees--in Matthew 23.

There is Only One Way

False teachers are not always easy to spot. You may know one right now and not realize it. So, it is important to discern who is a false teacher and who is genuinely rooted in the truth. And, there is only one true way to do that:

Read the Bible.

We cannot distinguish who is telling the truth unless we already know what the truth is. It is like buying a car and trying to figure out whether the salesman is telling the truth, but you don’t know anything about cars other than they can go fast. However, if you knew how a car works, or if you read the owner’s manual, you would instantly know whether the salesman is honest or not.

The Bible is just like the owner’s manual of a car. It is God’s instruction book that tells us exactly what we should know to have a fulfilling life as we live out our faith. But if we never read it, we’ll never know what God has to say.

The word of God is truth itself and the benchmark from which everything else should be compared. So, it is up to us to do the homework.

The problem is too many of us never open a Bible and read it. Too many of us think reading the Bible is boring or too difficult. And, too many of us are content to simply show up at church on Sundays and believe anything the preacher tells us. And many people are just stubborn enough; they will only believe whatever their itchy ears want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3).

That’s why false teachers are getting away with what they’re doing and becoming culturally popular. They capitalize on people’s lack of education or willful ignorance. The people are like sheep and don’t know any better, and so they are led astray.

Peter’s Warnings

The apostle Peter’s second epistle is largely a warning to the church about false teachers. Like Paul, he was also imprisoned in Rome awaiting execution, and it was of great importance to him to warn the church with his final words.

“But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who brought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed.” (2 Peter 2:1-2)

“While they promise them [believers] liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage.” (2:19)

“These are wells without water, clouds carried by a tempest, for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever.” (2:17) 

Peter says false teachers who lack a form of godliness are doomed to eternal destruction. They will “utterly perish in their own corruption and will receive the wages of unrighteousness…For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than having known it.” (2:12,21)

Regardless of whether false teachers are aware of God’s coming judgment of condemnation, believers must make an effort to end their teaching practices. And the only way to do that is to know what the Bible says by reading it yourself.

When we know the truth of God’s word, only then can we have a defense for the faith we have (1 Peter 3:15).

We cannot discern who is a false teacher unless we know what the Bible says.

Resist False Teachers

Today’s world is evermore slowly drifting away from the Lord. With each passing generation, we give in to secularist ideas. We’ve stopped going to church (especially with COVID), and we’ve stopped connecting with other believers. And for some of us, the only things we know about the Bible is our own version of it. The result is an open gateway for false teachers to have a place on a national stage and command our attention.

And we fall for it.

It is time for us to reunite as a church and return to the Lord. It is time for us to learn God’s truth. Not from a preacher, but from the Bible itself, allowing the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth to us.

James 4:7 tells us to resist the devil, using the most potent weapon we have, the Bible, and he will flee from us. Let us commit to knowing what God’s word says so that when the judgment hour comes, we can be held blameless before the Lord.

Further Reading

For more information about how to spot a false teacher, the Gospel Coalition has put together a good list of characteristics to watch for called 7 Traits of False Teachers. Great article!

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