Wolves in Sheep's Clothing

Mike Beaumont

What could be crazier than a wolf disguising itself as a sheep, thinking it could get away with it? Yet Jesus said this would happen among his followers. Perhaps he knew how gullible we all are!

Sadly, many Christians today are certainly gullible, and the internet makes it easier than ever for them to be taken in. After all, if someone has a website – not to mention a TV programme – then what they teach must be true, mustn’t it? Especially if they have so many followers and a thriving ministry?

But Jesus warned us not to be fooled by the outside. And his warnings were needed. Within a few years, there were many false teachers in the church, just as he said (e.g. Matthew 24:4-5; Mark 13:22). In fact, almost every book in the New Testament has warnings about false teachers and false teachings. And church history shows the problem continued – so it’s unlikely to be any different today.

So, what characterises false teachers and how can we spot them?

Seven marks of false teachers

1. Their focus is themselves, not Jesus

They ‘distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them’ (Acts 20:30). They talk about Jesus; but their real focus is themselves: what they have done, how Jesus has used them, where they have travelled for him, what miracles have been done through them. They love being in the limelight and use ministry for their own good. ‘Such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites’ (Romans 16:18).

2. They are smooth talkers

‘By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naïve people’ (Romans 16:18). They are nice, likeable, and say what you want to hear in order to win you over. They tell you how important you are, how great you can be, that the best lies just ahead! But they never challenge you that following Jesus means denying yourself, paying a price, and taking the lowest place.

3. Their Jesus is different from the Jesus of the gospels

This was one of the most common false teachings in the New Testament church (e.g. 2 Corinthians 11:3-4; 1 John 4:1-6). Jesus was pictured through the lens of contemporary cultures and philosophies (so, for example, the Gnostics thought Jesus wasn’t fully human, because they saw the human body as ‘unspiritual’). Today their ‘different’ Jesus reflects modern cultural obsessions–things like health and wealth.

4. They major on minors

Many false teachings arise from taking a minor point and turning it into a major issue which, it is claimed, only the truly ‘spiritual’ will see. In Paul’s day, those issues included what ‘real’ Christians should eat or drink, what festivals they should celebrate, asceticism and angels (e.g. Colossians 2:16-19). But Paul said such things just ‘promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work’ (1 Timothy 1:4). They side-track us from the important stuff!

5. They claim special insights

New Testament times had many ‘Gnostic’ cults, claiming ‘secrets’ which, if you joined them, you could know too. Still today some preachers claim special insights revealed by God, which other less-spiritual preachers haven’t seen. But Paul warned us about being deceived ‘by fine-sounding arguments’ (Colossians 2:4). If something is of God, it will be obvious from the Scriptures and won’t need someone to reveal it to you.

6. They glorify earthly possessions rather than heavenly treasures

They constantly emphasise money and look for ‘dishonest gain’ (Titus 1:11). Their teaching appeals to the greed within us all: just give them a gift and they’ll pray for your prosperity or healing – something Jesus and the apostles never did and even opposed (e.g. Acts 8:20). Alarm bells should ring when people urge you to give to their ministry! The only people who prosper from prosperity teaching are prosperity preachers!

7. They are casual about sexual sin

Believing our bodies didn’t matter to God, but only our spirit, led some in New Testament times to sin sexually (e.g. 2 Peter 2:1-22; Revelation 2:14). But our bodies do matter – they are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:12-20). So beware of preachers who speak lightly about loose sexual behaviour. Some have taught high standards but been caught in immorality (sadly, even some ‘big name’ preachers). Anyone who treats sex lightly should not be followed.

Such false teachers, the New Testament says, should be looked out for and the church guarded against them (Acts 20:28-31). But not only do false teachers come with different teachings, they also come in different guises.

Seven Types Of False Teachers
1. The Heretic ‘who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them’ (2 Peter 2:1)−the most dangerous kind of false teacher. He/she contradicts fundamental Biblical teachings, especially about God, Christ, the Spirit, salvation etc, by changing or adding to God’s word.
2. The False Prophet (1 John 4:1) twists Scripture to his/her own end and makes it sound plausible. They may not undermine fundamental truths, but they adapt or add to them, wanting you to think how wonderful their ‘revelation’ is.
3. The Con Artist simply uses Christianity to get rich (1 Timothy 6:3-5; 2 Peter 2:3). He/she tells you what you want to hear in order to draw you in and get you to fund their ministry. They arrive by luxury car while you arrive by bus.4. The Abuser uses his/her leadership and teaching to take advantage of others, especially sexually (2 Peter 2:2; Jude 1:4), or to get power over them so they do what he/she wants.
5. The Divider uses doctrinal points to disrupt or destroy church life, usually to gain influence or position (Jude 1:18-21).
6. The Ear-tickler (2 Timothy 4:3-4) looks for praise by telling you whatever is needed in order to get it. He/she claims to have the secret to making life easy or blessed.
7. The Trivialist (1 Timothy 1:3-4) wants to make major issues out of minor ones, exploring things the Bible tells us little or nothing about and making these major and divisive issues.

Of course, we need to remember that not everyone who teaches something I disagree with is a false teacher! There are some issues (like the Millennium for example) that Bible-believing Christians have genuinely different views about. But these should never be promoted in ways that divide the church. Different views among us can be held graciously. But false teachers are never content with having private opinions; they want to win everyone over. And at that point, they must be stopped.

In a world where ‘tolerance’ is often seen as the highest virtue, Christians will sometimes have to be intolerant (though graciously so!). We should never forget that the Bible ends with a solemn warning that ‘everyone who loves and practices falsehood’ will one day be excluded from God’s presence (Revelation 22:15) – a solemn warning to us all.

Mike Beaumont

Mike Beaumont

Mike Beaumont is an English pastor, author, seminary professor, and broadcaster, with over 40 years’ experience in ministry around the world. He was a frequent visitor to our GMI family for many years until he encountered immigration problems. His most recent book is The Christian Basics Bible (Tyndale USA), a Bible edition with notes specially written for people who come to faith from non-Christian backgrounds and who have little Christian knowledge.