A false teacher isn’t going to tell you he’s teaching heresy. In fact, he’ll usually look and sound so sincere and passionate that you wouldn’t know he’s actually twisting God’s Word. The size of the crowds around him won’t tell you much either, since many people have been and continue to be led astray by teaching that pleases their ears.
The prophet Jeremiah kept telling the people of Judah over and over what God planned for Jerusalem, urging them to turn from their wicked ways. But the people preferred to listen to false prophets who told them what they wanted to hear. We have to make sure we’re not doing the same.
So, how exactly can you tell if someone is “wolf in sheep’s clothing”? You become a “fruit inspector,” just as Jesus said (Matthew 7:15–16). According to Pastor Shane Idleman of Westside Christian Fellowship, there are 7 telltale signs that can take the wool from our eyes:
1. Different Source
True teachers will reach for the Bible first, second, and always. They may use other sources of information to help explain what Scripture reveals, but the foundation of their message is always built upon “Thus says the Lord….” If you start hearing more from other sources than God’s Word, you may need to hit the door.
2. Different Message
The entire message of a true teacher will always revolve around the gospel of Jesus Christ. False teachers may mention Jesus here and there, but they will ultimately deny His deity and power (2 Peter 2:1). Of course, they won’t do so openly at first, and you’ll need to listen carefully to see if Jesus is at the core.
3. Different Position
True teachers will point to our sin and our need for salvation—and their lives will back that up. False teachers will promise freedom, but they themselves will be “slaves to depravity” (2 Peter 2:19). If a teacher’s lifestyle points to lust, greed, envy, or other enslaving passions, they are certainly not fit to teach.
4. Different Character
Those who are truly following Jesus will run after the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). They will never be perfect, but they will be working with all the strength God gives to become more and more like Christ. False teachers, on the other hand, live a life that screams “arrogance.” And that leads to destruction (Proverbs 16:18).
5. Different Appeal
What does the teacher point to as the reason for their teaching? Are they pointing to Scripture as the reason for their urgency in sharing the gospel? Are they wanting you to believe what God says about how we are to escape the wrath to come (Romans 5:9)? If so, good. False teachers will make their appeal based on earthly passions, leading people back into sin (2 Peter 2:18). They’ll urge you to focus on the things of this world.
6. Different Fruit
Always check the results in the lives of those who are listening to a teacher. Those listening to true teachers will grow in their knowledge of Jesus (2 Peter 3:18). Those sitting under a false teacher will be like a “spring without water” (2 Peter 2:17). In other words, they may talk a good talk, but they don’t produce anything of eternal value.
7. Different End
Here’s the part that should make us all stand up and take notice of why this matters. It’s a really big deal. False teachers lead people to a “swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1). Jesus will tell them that He never knew them (Matthew 7:21–23). Those who listen to true teachers of the gospel will receive abundant life now and forever (Romans 5:17).
In a popular article on Crosswalk.com, Pastor Tom Hicks makes a similar distinction between true believers and hypocrites. It can be tough to tell the difference, but he provides 10 points to consider:
“2. A true believer’s changed life comes from a heart of love to Christ. Hypocrites can clean up their outward behavior to be seen by men, to ease their troubled consciences, or to keep themselves from the consequences of their sins. But true believers love Christ and keep His commandments for His sake, to serve Him, to know Him, and to bring glory to His name (Ps 119:6).”
Now, it’s your turn. What marks do you look for in a false teacher? What can the church do to better keep false prophets and pastors out of the pulpits?