Many of the nearly 350,000 pulpits in America are filled with false teachers. From doomsday prophets and prosperity hucksters to cult leaders and faith healers, there are a lot of wolves in sheep’s clothing.
If we didn’t have family and friends caught in their deceptions; and if the way of truth wasn’t being maligned; and if false teachers weren’t destroying our society – then maybe we could just ignore them.
But the danger is real and we must “contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all” (Jude 1:3b). We simply cannot allow dangerous doctrines and hazardous heresies to go unchallenged.
Thankfully, the Holy Spirit has given us a lot of guidance on how to spot false teachers. 2 Peter 2 describes false teachers, as does the parallel descriptions in the book of Jude. Many of the Old Testament prophets talk about false teachers and prophets.
For example, Ezekiel saw at least six destructive habits of false teachers in Ezekiel 22 that are as relevant today as when first written several millennia ago.
1. False teachers exploit crowds.
The conspiracy of her prophets within her is like a roaring lion tearing its prey: they devour people, seize wealth and valuables, and multiply the widows within her. – Ezekiel 22:25
The “seed faith” or “Word of Faith” movement is the most effective scam going. Prosperity preachers rake in billions of dollars annually through this fundraising tactic. Their lavish lifestyles promote covetousness and greed among their followers which further propagates their desire to sow back into the prosperity preacher’s ministry.
— T.D. Jakes (@BishopJakes) November 19, 2017
False teachers have used this tactic for thousands of years. The prophet Ezekiel said, “they devour people, seize wealth and valuables…” apparently with such murderous intent that they would “multiply the widows within [Israel]”.
Look at Paul’s admonishment to Timothy to avoid false doctrine and greedy materialism:
If anyone teaches false doctrine and does not agree with the sound teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the teaching that promotes godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing, but has an unhealthy interest in disputes and arguments over words. From these come envy, quarreling, slander, evil suspicions, and constant disagreement among people whose minds are depraved and deprived of the truth, who imagine that godliness is a way to material gain [emphasis mine].
Paul is clear that it would be foolish to “imagine that godliness is a way to material gain”. Yet, prosperity preachers are unashamed of their worldly appetites and invite their followers to indulge along with them.
2. False teachers corrupt God’s Word.
Her priests do violence to my instruction and profane my holy things. – Ezekiel 22:26a
The false prosperity gospel is not the only heresy taught by false teachers. Paul was right, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6:10). Much more evil has resulted from false teaching than just financial manipulation.
For example, health and wealth often come together. False teachers preach that God will bless you financially and He will bless you physically. If you have enough faith, these heretics promise that you will be healed of everything from cancer to headaches. This is an empty promise and is doing violence to God’s Word.
— Kenneth Copeland (@CopelandNetwork) November 14, 2017
Of course it’s true that Jesus healed many, but He didn’t heal all. How many people did Jesus heal at the Pool of Bethesda, for example? In John 5 we read that there were “many who were disabled” but Jesus only healed one man. Why? The clue comes in verse 9:
Instantly the man got well, picked up his mat, and started to walk. Now that day was the Sabbath…
Jesus healed on the Sabbath to shed light on the Pharisaical abuses of the Sabbath and to assert His authority as Messiah. Jesus healed the man, just as He healed many others, to point people to Himself. Miracles in the New Testament were signs pointing to the Messiah. But people would rather seek the sign than the Savior. They wanted the bread but not the Bread of Life.
There are many other ways false teachers do violence to God’s Word. They corrupt Scripture by denying the Trinity, appointing female elders, espousing universalism, making bold predictions about when Jesus will return, and arrogantly claiming authority over demons.
3. False teachers avoid preaching against sin.
They make no distinction between the holy and the common, and they do not explain the difference between the clean and the unclean. They close their eyes to my Sabbaths, and I am profaned among them. – Ezekiel 22:26b
False teachers gain large followings because of their self-help, ear-tickling, motivational speeches. These speeches are filled with positive-thinking psychobabble with just enough Bible verses sprinkled in for good luck. Their messages are me-centered rather than Gospel-centered.
Remove the regrets. Get rid of the guilt. You can’t do anything about the past, but you can do something about right now.
— Joel Osteen (@JoelOsteen) October 29, 2017
These false teachers avoid controversy. They may even seem to be in conformity with historic orthodox Christianity on some points. However, you will never hear them preach against sin.
The prophet Ezekiel wrote that “they don’t explain the difference between the clean and the unclean” (Ezekiel 22:26). Jesus’ first message as He began His ministry was, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15)!
The message sinful humans need to hear is the one that is summarized in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Telling people they are basically good and the secret to their success lies within themselves is damning people to an eternal hell (a topic Jesus spent a lot of time talking about).
4. False teachers enable corrupt politicians.
Her officials within her are like wolves tearing their prey, shedding blood, and destroying lives in order to make profit dishonestly. – Ezekiel 22:27
The description of Israel’s political leaders in verse 27 is almost identical to that of the description of the false prophets in verse 25. The main difference is that false prophets are described as lions and the officials like wolves. I don’t know if Ezekiel intended for us to see the wolves (officials) as lesser than the lions (false prophets), but it seems clear that the political leaders are enabled in their corruption by the false prophets. It’s hard to speak truth to power when the ones who should be speaking the truth are more corrupt than those in power.
Following false teachers is as bi-partisan as it gets in our country. Barack Obama took his family to Jeremiah Wright’s church for years and didn’t have the discernment to walk out. On the other hand, he disinvited Louie Giglio from delivering the benediction at his inauguration because Giglio held an historically biblical view of marriage. Donald Trump was supposedly led to Jesus by false teacher Paula White but he has no problem vilifying Russell Moore when Moore chastised fellow evangelical leaders for shrugging off some lewd comments Trump had made. In both cases, our “officials” refuse to listen to faithful preachers of God’s Word. It’s much easier for them to surround themselves with false teachers who will ignore their deviant character and policies. This happens at every level of government and on both sides of the political aisle.
5. False teachers endorse corrupt politicians.
Her prophets plaster for them with whitewash by seeing false visions and lying divinations, saying, ‘This is what the Lord God says,’ when the Lord has not spoken. – Ezekiel 22:28
When church leaders voluntarily give an unqualified endorsement of a political leader, they should be disqualified from church leadership. We cannot gloss over the sins and abuses of a candidate just because we favor him or her over another candidate. Yet many have openly endorsed a candidate and never address (or verbally dismiss) credible accusations against their favorite candidate’s character. In recent memory, some have even defended their candidate or elected official by attacking the character of those bringing accusations or rhetorical arguments against the character or policies of that official.
False teachers willingly pimp out the Bride of Christ by whitewashing the sins of political leaders. They trade an eternal inheritance for a temporary position of negligible influence. Christ didn’t purchase the Church with His own blood so that we could get a selfie with the President.
Lions and wolves work together to kill and devour vulnerable sheep. The false teachers gain popularity and prosperity and the corrupt politicians get more votes from sheep wearing fleece-colored glasses. Meanwhile, the Church is tarnished and the Word of God is maligned.
6. False teachers enable a corrupt population.
The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy and unlawfully exploited the resident alien. – Ezekiel 22:29
The Lord’s denunciation of Israel’s false prophets ends with an indictment against the people of the land who were practicing extortion, oppression, and exploitation. Keep in mind, these were supposed to be God’s people, governed by God’s laws. The prophets and priests were leading the population of Israel astray. In Ezekiel 22:29, the Lord lays blame for the corruption in the land at the feet of the false prophets.
We can see this happening today. Many will point the finger at Republicans or Democrats or Hollywood or the media for the evils of society. There’s certainly a lot of blame to go around, but false teachers seem to be at the top of the list throughout the Bible.
Hopefully, studying the habits of highly destructive false teachers will help us discern who they are and how to defend the Church against them. False teachers are motivated by power, prosperity, and popularity. They seek to build up their own image and burnish their own brand rather than build up the body and bring glory to God.
Thankfully, God is not surprised or thwarted by false teaching. His elect will persevere. We take comfort knowing that “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment” (2 Peter 2:9).
There were indeed false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, and will bring swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved ways, and the way of truth will be maligned because of them. They will exploit you in their greed with made-up stories. Their condemnation, pronounced long ago, is not idle, and their destruction does not sleep. – 2 Peter 2:1-3