“Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ” (Colossians 2:8 NLT).
We have been warned to watch out for false teaching, false teachers, false prophets and false Christs. False teaching takes many forms, but the aim is either to lead an unbeliever into a permanent stranglehold of deception, or to corrupt and destroy the fruit in the believer’s life. It may imitate the truth to a certain degree, in order to deceive conscientious, but undiscerning Christians. It is possible to place such teaching on a spectrum – from those that are slightly erroneous at one end, to those that are utter, but fascinating, falsehoods at the other.
In the more benign cases, people live outwardly spiritual lives, and if they have truly put their confidence in Christ, will not lose their salvation. The prosperity gospel, the legalism in some churches, the teachings of the Seventh Day Adventists – all have some basis in the scripture; but in presenting scripture verses in isolation and out of context to make their point, they deviate from the spirit of word. While the intention behind such teachings may even be good, the effect is not. Undue emphasis on certain teachings to the exclusion of other equally important truths results in diverting people from following the whole counsel of God. Instead of enjoying a balanced spiritual diet, they suffer from spiritual malnutrition or vitamin deficiencies, and are weakened in their spiritual walk. The final impact is to distract sincere Christians from the true purpose of their calling – conforming to the image of Christ.
Our main defences against such partial truths and gross error are: 1. A thorough knowledge of scripture, 2. An obedient lifestyle, and 3. A constant reliance on the indwelling Holy Spirit. We ought to immerse ourselves in the scriptures – the sole and final authority on all matters of faith and salvation. The Holy Spirit will bring appropriate scripture passages to mind to counter false teaching, and we may be sure that He will never prompt us to do things which contradict the scripture.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15 ESV).
In most extreme cases, people are led astray to follow cult leaders who propound an outright false gospel: “For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:13 NIV), and “…there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies that even deny the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Peter 1:2 NIV). The Bible has much to say about people who deliberately set out to deceive people. They are called ‘wolves’ intent on devouring the sheep.
Many false religions have risen claiming to be ‘of Christ’, or to follow the ‘same God’ – Islam, Mormonism, Bahaism are the more popular examples. There are also numerous semi-Christian cults such as the Jehovah Witnesses or Witness Lee’s Local Church that have unashamedly tampered with the words in the Bible, to present new ideas – contrary to orthodox Christian belief – to lend credibility to their fraudulent theology.
Although false teachers will arise in every age, in the last times they will increase in number and influence. “Now the Spirit expressly states that in later times some will abandon the faith to follow deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, influenced by the hypocrisy of liars, whose consciences are seared with a hot iron” (1Timothy 4:1-2 Berean SB).
How should we respond to false teachers and false Christs? Jesus commanded us in no uncertain terms – “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ! or ‘There’ He is! do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders that would deceive even the elect, if that were possible” (Mark 13:21 Berean SB). So “do not believe it [the teaching]” and “do not go chasing after them [the teachers]”(Luke 17:23). We may listen to them, only to show them kindly and firmly, from the scripture that they are deceived, and to point to them, the true way of salvation. We must not attend their worship meetings, accept their literature, or allow them to pray or preach in our houses, or enter business partnerships with them. It is essential to draw a line on the extent of our interactions with them.
There will come a time when only false teaching is tolerated, and true believers will suffer persecution. What now happens in some parts of the world will eventually become a global phenomenon. Christians, who uphold the truth, will be hated everywhere and brought to trial as ‘incendiaries’. As Jesus said – “On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:18-20 NIV).
So we are not to worry or fear. In that day, special spiritual resources will be made available to us, to help us overcome our foes. More of this will be discussed in the section dealing with ‘the day of the Lord’.
Father, grant us a spirit of discernment so that we may recognise false teaching. Deliver us from all deception. Keep us from being led astray by false teachers. In Jesus’ name.