The problem of false teachers infiltrating the church and leading people astray is not a new one. Warnings against false prophets can be found as early as Deuteronomy 13 in the Old Testament, and during His earthly ministry Christ warned His followers to “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15).
God’s people have always had to be vigilant and discerning in order to ensure that they are not being swayed by false teaching, and it would be difficult to say whether or not the problem is worse now than it has been in previous eras of church history.
What is decidedly worse, however, is the speed at which false teachers can spread their teaching and the nearly unlimited reach they can have. Thanks to the internet and social media, false teaching is no longer slowed by geographical or cultural restraints.
An individual armed with a Twitter account can influence hundreds (if not hundreds of thousands) with strange ideas, subtle lies, and false doctrines. Media savvy churches with chart-topping music groups can draw millions towards their errant theology.
Given the proliferation of false teachers and the ease at which people can encounter their teaching, it is vital that we know how to recognize false teachers. While there are many passages of Scripture that speak to the danger of false teaching and how to guard against it, perhaps no book of the Bible focuses its attention on the issue more pointedly than the second epistle of Peter.
Peter provides a number of descriptions of false teachers that ought to make them easier to spot, whether they be in our congregations or attempting to influence them from afar. When Christ warned His followers about the ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing, He told them that “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). He goes on to say that bad trees bear bad fruit, and it is the bad fruit to which Peter directs our gaze: greed, lust, deception, and more.
Of course, first and foremost a false teacher can be identified by their promotion of doctrine that is contrary to the teaching of Scripture. We should be on guard against any who “teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 6:3).
But false teaching is dangerous precisely because it is often subtle. As we read in 2 Peter, such people “secretly bring in destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1) and are quite good at twisting Scripture (2 Peter 3:16).
Because they are often successful in convincing others that their misuse of Scripture is legitimate, it is beneficial to recognize three other common characteristics exhibited by false teachers.
In 2:3 we see that greed is one such distinguishing mark, and we see further on that false teachers “have hearts trained in greed” and that they love “gain from wrongdoing” (2 Peter 2:14-15).
One has only to look at the lifestyles boasted of by prosperity gospel preachers on social media to see how they enrich themselves through their twisting of Scripture and promise their followers that they can likewise obtain material wealth in this life.
We can recognize false teachers by their willingness to downplay hard truths or their reluctance to uphold unpopular truths in order to maintain and build their wealth. If they boast of their lavish lifestyle and material comforts, you can take that as a cue to beware of their teaching.
Greed is not the only mark of the false teacher. Peter reveals that they will also appeal to the desires of the flesh in order to entice their hearers away from sound doctrine. The apostle writes: “And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.” (2 Peter 2:2). Further on in his letter he states that: “speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error” (2 Peter 2:18-19).
The word for “sensual” in this verses is the Greek word ἀσέλγεια. This is defined as “behavior completely lacking in moral restraint, usually with the implication of sexual licentiousness.”
That Peter intends for us to understand that there is sexual sin in view is indicated by 2 Peter 2:14, when he tells us that they have “eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin.” When once we begin to twist Scripture for our personal gain, we can easily excuse our own sin and encourage others to join us.
Peter tells us that in enticing others by sensual passions of the flesh they “promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19).
Whereas the true Gospel brings freedom from sin, a false one enslaves you to it. False teachers indulge in sin and minimize the seriousness of disobedience. This error goes hand in hand with another trait of false teachers: denying God’s coming judgment.
Denying God’s Judgment
Was this not the first false teaching to enter the ear of mankind? “You will not surely die” the serpent told Eve in Genesis 3. Such a denial of God’s judgment is a primary feature of what Peter is combating in this epistle:
…scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” (2 Peter 3:3-4)
This scoffing is not aimed merely at rejecting Christ’s return, but also at the impending judgment that He will bring with Him when He comes. The logic is simple: if Christ was not going to be returning, what should hinder the false prophet from indulging in his sensuality?
As Bible commentator Warren Wiersbe stated:
Why do these apostates scoff? Because they want to continue living in their sins…If your lifestyle contradicts the Word of God, you must either change your lifestyle or change the Word of God. The apostates choose the latter approach, so they scoff at the doctrines of judgment and the coming of the Lord.
Many false teachers preach a God who is all love and no wrath, all forgiveness and no holiness. Beware of those who downplay or teach against the reality of hell and divine judgment against sin.
Jesus told us that we would know false teachers by their fruit, and 2 Peter lays this fruit out for all to see.
When we are concerned that an influential person – either within our churches or on the latest Christian best-seller list – might be tending towards false teaching, we can look at their character to help us determine if such an individual’s teaching is to be rejected.
While we always examine someone’s teachings against Scripture, having these clear descriptions of false teachers enables us to better protect ourselves and our congregations from them.