Saturday, May 19, 2018

How may I know if I am a false teacher?

Most of the false prophets in the Bible seem to be aware that they are charlatans. Most. There are some who seem to be certain that they are preaching the truth while they are in gross error on some points. There are no clearcut rules for identifying false teachers, or prophets, in the Bible. There are some indicators; but they are more in the category of "evidence" than proof. What I have been interested in doing is turning the false-teacher-detection scrutiny inward on myself. Are there ways I can know whether or not I am a false teacher? Trying to answer that question will be the burden of this article.

The definition of a prophet is itself difficult to determine. I want to touch on the definition of a prophet because I suspect there is little difference between a prophet and a teacher. I believe the two terms are nearly synonymous. We can safely talk about "false prophets" and "false teachers" together.

There are indicators that a person is a prophet; but several indicators have exceptions. For example, a prophet
  1. has had a divine calling experience in the form of a vision or supernatural visitation. There are the examples of Isaiah 6:1-8; Jeremiah 1:7-10; Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4; John in Revelation 1:9-17. The problem is, several prophets didn't have these experiences (that we know of).
  2. has made prophetic predictions that came true (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). The problem here is that not all prophets made predictions. How can you test a prophet who does not predict anything? Furthermore, several prophets made predictions that did not come true; but the Bible treats those prophets as true prophets. It's not a dependable test.
  3. has never taught the people to follow other gods (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). That is a pretty solid one. If the prophet teaches the people to follow other gods, he is a false prophet. It does not matter how powerfully he testifies to the truth of his false message.
The office of prophet, it seems, is a skill-set that could be taught. Elijah and Elisha ran prophetic schools. There was some sort of prophetic guild in the time of Samuel (1 Samuel 10:9-13; 19:18-24). Prophets seem to base a lot of their oracles on how they perceive God's character. For example, when David talked to the prophet Nathan about an idea to build a temple for the ark of God, Nathan said Yahweh would be with David in this enterprise (2 Samuel 7:3). Nathan's answer was based upon his knowledge of God. Later, Nathan received different instructions. The writer says "the word of the LORD came to Nathan." Nothing in the Bible explains what is meant by the expression, "the word of the LORD came." It is possible that the meaning has more to do with the prophet's wisdom than with some kind of ecstatic experience, after all, in several places, the word of God is described as coming through much effort and study on the part of the prophet (e.g., unknown prophets in 1 Peter 1:10-12; Paul in 2 Peter 3:15). Whatever is meant by "the word of the LORD came," Nathan had to change his answer to David.

It appears that a good deal of teaching and prophesying, especially in Biblical times, involved circumstances in which people in the faith community saw a teaching need and realized that they were in the right place and time to fill that need. Today, some people may refer to that realization as a "divine calling." I think of it as recognizing an unmet ministry need.

When I find myself in the role of Bible teacher, am I there for the right reason or for the wrong reason? If I am teaching because I saw a need and realized that I was in the right place to fill that need, then I think that reason is pretty good.

I now return to the main purpose of this article. How do I know that I am not a false teacher?

If I know that I am faking it, then I already failed the test. Most of the false prophets in the Bible were prophets for hire. They knew they were charlatans; however, there are several examples of prophets who were false prophets but they did not know they were false prophets. I offer two parade examples.
1 Kings 22:24
Then Zedekiah son of Chenaanah came up to Micaiah, slapped him on the cheek, and said, “Which way did the spirit of the LORD pass from me to speak to you?”
Zedekiah had delivered a prophecy about an upcoming battle. He was certain he had delivered a correct oracle; but another prophet, Micaiah, had contradicted Zedekiah's prophecy. In Zedekiah's case, Micaiah determined that Zedekiah had delivered a false prophecy out of his inadequate knowledge of God. Micaiah had better knowledge of the divine council than Zedekiah.

If we were to apply this principle today, we would make every effort to teach correct things about God. Such effort would be invested in study. When something we teach is challenged, we would solicit good Biblical arguments against our own view and examine those arguments carefully. That principle is seen in 1 Corinthians 14.
1 Corinthians 14:29
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.
Paul says to in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21,
Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good.
Just because the person speaking has been identified as a prophet does not mean what the prophet says today is correct. Everything must be received through critical ears.

Another really good example of a false teacher is a prophet named Hananiah. He and Jeremiah had different prophecies to tell; and Jeremiah truly hoped Hananiah's prophecy was the correct one.
Jeremiah 28:11
And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, “Thus says the LORD: This is how I will break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years.” At this, the prophet Jeremiah went his way.
Both prophets believed they were true prophets; but later, Jeremiah learned that Hananiah was a false prophet.

The book of Jeremiah suggests several rubrics by which we can measure the truthfulness of our own teaching ministry. I want to come back to Jeremiah's tests after I look at the Pharisees of Jesus' day. The Pharisees believed themselves to be true teachers. It took another prophet (Jesus) to point out the error of their teaching. If they had the right attitude, they would have taken Jesus' criticisms to heart and made adjustments to their teaching.
Matthew 23:23
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others."
There is much that is right about tithing. What the Pharisees missed is that justice, mercy and faith are more important. They neglected those important topics in their teaching. If they had made adjustments to their teaching, they would have quit being false teachers.

The book of Jeremiah points out that any prophecy that preaches only peace is false. There is always the risk of calamity, especially when there is no interest in repentance.
Jeremiah 23:16-17
Thus says the LORD of hosts: Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you; they are deluding you. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They keep saying to those who despise the word of the LORD, “It shall be well with you”; and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, “No calamity shall come upon you.”
The false prophets did not base their teachings on knowledge of God but rather on what the people wanted to hear. If you are preaching nothing but good news, you will have people who want to hear what you have to say. That's a problem.
Jeremiah 6:13-14 ( = Jeremiah 8:10-11)
For from the least to the greatest of them,
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely.
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, “Peace, peace,”
when there is no peace.
Jeremiah 14:13-14
Then I said: “Ah, LORD God! Here are the prophets saying to them, ‘You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you true peace in this place.’ ” And the LORD said to me: The prophets are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds.
False teaching is all about peace. If there is no balance of teaching that includes strong messages of repentance, then it is false prophecy. If we look back on Hananiah's prophecy in Jeremiah 28, his message was all about peace but nothing about repentance. He preached salvation without repentance. That is false teaching.

When you examine yourself and try to determine if you a true or a false teacher, ask yourself, "Is there balance in what I teach, or is it all feel-good teaching? Is there a strong ingredient of challenge for people to grow in the Lord or do I try to comfort them with their current level spiritual maturity?"

Paul's teaching had balance and it made people nervous.
Acts 24:25
And as he discussed justice, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present; when I have an opportunity, I will send for you.”
False prophets offer peace even for the wicked. They never tell the wicked that they need to change. True prophets announce Yahweh's judgment.

People are often quick to identify other people as false teachers in order to resist their challenging teaching. Indeed, promoting a challenging message is one of the marks of a true teacher!

Some people are quick to identify people as false teachers because they teach something they don't agree with. When two teachers disagree it does not mean that one (or both) is a false teacher. It means they merely disagree. They should be able to study together on the point of disagreement. Maybe they will come together or maybe they will continue to adhere to their divergent views. That does not make one (or both) of them a false teacher. Quite possibly, it may not mean that either one is in error.

Yes, there are some points of doctrine that are really difficult to come together on. For example, it may be difficult for amillennialists and premillennialists to work together. It may be difficult for Calvinists and Open Theists to work together. The answer is not to avoid those topics in the interest of unity. The answer is to try to disagree without being disagreeable. I mean that. It is not a cliché. I am interested in your thoughts on this one. What do teachers do when they promote contradictory doctrines?

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