Below are some of the characteristics of false teachers identifiable in the Bible. A false prophet may exhibit one or more of these:
False Visions. False teachers often claim revelations that were never given. Jeremiah says, “I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who use their tongues and say, ‘Says the Lord.’ Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, says the Lord, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them” (Jer. 23:31-32). And Ezekiel writes, “Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! […] They have spoken falsehood and divined a lie; they say, ‘Says the Lord,’ when the Lord has not sent them, and yet they expect him to fulfill their word” (Ezek. 13:3, 6).
A genuine revelation from God is worthy of recording for prosperity and treasuring as scripture. Its message is timeless and applicable to everyday life in every generation and culture. A modern false claim of divine revelation typically sounds something like this: “It was like the Lord was saying to me …” The true prophets of scripture never spoke in such uncertain terms. It was always “thus says the Lord” or “the word of the Lord came to me.”
False Motives. A genuine preacher may be financially compensated for his work. Paul spoke of this at length in his first letter to Corinth: Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:13-14).
But false teachers exploit people for their own benefit. They aren’t shepherds but wolves, preying on the flock. Usually, the exploitation is financial. Peter warns, “In their greed they will exploit you with false words; from of old their condemnation has not been idle, and their destruction has not been asleep” (2 Pet. 2:3).
Sometimes the exploitation takes another form. In the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, priests gratify their lusts by molesting boys. And corrupt church officials cover up the scandal.
False Authority. Jesus made clay, anointed the eyes of a man born blind, and told him to wash in the pool of Siloam. The fellow “went and washed and came back seeing” (John 9:7). The Pharisees were furious. Jesus had violated a human Sabbath tradition. When the blind man tried to reason with them, they retorted, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” (John 9:33). And they expelled him from the synagogue.
This is how false teachers often behave. They know everything. They therefore won’t listen to a different viewpoint. Anyone who disagrees with them is insulted and pushed away. “How dare you question me? I’m a pastor. I have a seminary degree.”
False Methods. False teachers don’t hold defensible positions. They therefore rely on insincere means of persuasion. “I appeal to you,” Paul says, “to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by fair and flattering words they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded” (Rom. 16:17-18).
A genuine preacher courageously speaks the truth in love. He isn’t politically correct. He preaches not what people want to hear but rather what they need to hear.