For some reason I always assumed false teaching would be unsophisticated, even crude.
This speaker’s message, however, sounded like a skillfully painted sunny day at the ocean. The water caressed the shore, the sun stood overhead, her rhythmic voice entranced as waves crashing against the shore. She painted with deep blues and vibrant yellows. She held it out to her hearers, most of whom welcomed it fondly, smiling and nodding with gratitude. She called the art “Christian.”
As I listened, I thought, What a charming painting. Yet the longer she talked, the angrier I grew. If it were uglier, I might have found more patience; hideous lies are less believed. But because this woman had not only painted over God’s Masterpiece of the hurriedly referenced but otherwise ignored verses of Scripture in front of her, she proceeded to pawn hers off as the original. Her followers seemed to be blinded to the horror in its beauty.
The Scriptures she was quoting did not teach what she did, but people fixated so much on the pretty colors and pleasant landscape, few seemed to notice. Man’s wisdom stood propped upon the isle; God’s wisdom was lost in the background.
That Hideous Beauty
Satan, I was reminded, is more the wolf from Little Red Ridinghood than modern depictions of Frankenstein’s monster. Instead of stomping around clumsily announcing his arrival, he dresses up as what he isn’t. He disguises himself, putting dark for light, wickedness for righteousness, down for up, hell for heaven. He lies down in bed appearing innocent, while trying to hide his fangs.
And so do his followers.
Such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. (2 Corinthians 11:13–15)
“Should you expect to meet a false teacher who looks or sounds like one, you may wait a very long time.”
Many of the most effective villains in the world are the best mannered. False teachers disguise themselves as servants of God. They’ve learned to mimic the walk, the Twitter-talk, and public persona of the elect. They appear very religious. They must, or how could they gain a following? They sit front-row in the synagogue (Mark 12:39). They tithe even to their most minute possessions (Luke 11:42). They pray longer than the rest of us (Mark 12:40).
Whatever is on the inside, the outside of the cup is very clean. They appear righteous (Matthew 23:25–27). They’re authentic to the touch, like sheep’s wool (Matthew 7:15). They sacrifice much in their proselytizing, crossing sea and land to make their converts, but end up with disciples twice as much children of hell as themselves (Matthew 23:15).
Should you expect, as I once did, to meet a false teacher who looks or sounds like one, you may wait a very long time. Neither Satan nor his best soldiers wear their own uniform. His wolves not only wear sheep’s clothing; they come to you walking and acting like sheep. They attend (and even lead) prayer meetings and small groups. Their etiquettes do not expose them. They bleat from time to time. They may even be sincere, not intending to deceive, perhaps genuinely believing their own message, but this does not make them any less dangerous. Wolves can be very polite, very disarming, very nice, and we may live in a time where they are increasingly difficult to detect.
‘It’s How You Say It’
This makes one of the common arbiters of truth today, even adopted by many within the church, such a perilous one: tone. Our flesh gravitates toward friendliness, inspiration, coddling, affirmation. Nice blasphemy, spoken between stories of one’s family, is more popular and better received by some professed Christians than plainly spoken Christian truth about sin and unbelief. Paint with rich blues and yellows, and it matters little what lies you tell; speak the truth, and you must keep your voice pleasant and unthreatening.
While the prophets and apostles — and Jesus Christ himself — would get quickly canceled on Twitter for speaking directly, manfully, firmly against the evils of their day, the sons of Satan roam free using indirect speech, vague platitudes, and empty niceties, smiling at those they devour. But do we notice? Do we value how somebody says something above what they say? Do we put more emphasis on how we feel while listening than what we’re listening to?
Aiding and Abetting
Some professing believers seem to already be more in the grip of the cultural expectations above than what God has said and how. Among them stand the tone police. Interjecting themselves in the skirmishes of the day between a Christian and a critic on a hot topic issue, they side with the unbelieving world — not because the Christian was in error, but because of how they spoke the truth. They seem to “speak up” only when adding their voice with what’s already trending and censuring their brother’s tone.
“Satan disguises himself, putting dark for light, wickedness for righteousness, down for up, hell for heaven.”
Those who make it their business to faint and complain at every verbal shot fired against error, why do you aid and abet the blasphemers? No sooner do the faithful speak than you come by to hush them. Should we whisper to a sleeping world? Should we pretend we do not believe what we say? Should we never speak to be heard or glow with anger at the wolves’ treatment of the sheep? While the sons of hell spew their heresies into the microphone without censure, must the sons of God be kept to inside voices? Can Christians never reprove, rebuke, or exhort? Is nothing at stake but impropriety?
Where Tails Stick Out
So it was with this woman. Her voice was amiable; her tone, pleasant. She bore the authentic disposition our generation is trained to listen for; she had been socialized in it for herself. And she sprinkled in plenty of anecdotes to connect to her audience. There was a charm about her that might disarm any sheep.
But along with her amiable presentation, she added another vital ingredient: plausibility. The best lies always cater to what’s trending. False teachers play the fiddles and songs the culture is already humming; the true prophets — Jesus and John the Baptist — were the ones chided for not playing along (Matthew 11:16–19).
So, if pleasantness and (worldly) plausibility cannot expose the wolf, how can we begin to tell who is who?
First, Jesus tells us to look at their lives.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15–20)
This can be hard when so many false teachers can upload the edited, filtered, and sparkling images of themselves online. This difficulty justifies the wisdom in having your main spiritual guides be those who are in your actual life. But while false teachers can hide for a while, they cannot hide forever.
Second, examine what they say.
Paul could scarcely stress this more when he says,
even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:8–9)
“Test everything against God’s word, not merely by someone’s tone, likeability, or number of followers.”
“Let them go to hell” is the modern equivalent. And when he says it, he actually means hell. Paul uses the strongest of language to implore them to judge teachers by their content. False teachers are such, not because they use false tones, but because they promote false teaching. And what is the standard their teaching is compared to? The apostle’s teaching as recorded for us in the Bible. Instead, be like the noble Bereans, who not only “received the word with all eagerness,” but also “examin[ed] the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
Give Yourself to the Truth
No matter where you are, what local body you are a part of, false teachers likely will rise from among you at some point.
False prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. (2 Peter 2:1)
False teachers will come. They will paint the most beautiful, most pleasant, most inspirational portraits of a Jesus who strangely fits perfectly with the spirit of the age. And if we don’t learn truth and beauty from Christ’s word, we will be led astray. That doesn’t mean we can’t trust our teachers. But it does mean that we must be deadly serious and careful about whom we trust and follow.