To Catch a Predator

July 30, 2012

image_pastor_993740163We can’t say we weren’t warned.

Jesus talked about wolves in sheep’s clothing.  Paul talked about charlatans and phonies.

I’ve been thinking a lot about them.  How do you know a spiritual predator, a charlatan, a false preacher when you see one?

I mean, I know they are everywhere.  You don’t have to look hard.  The church is full of clowns.  You’d think they’d be easy to recognize.  Yet they still have huge followings, sell millions of books, and lead people by the nose every day.

So I thought I’d take a crack at “diagnosing” all the false teachers out there, identify a few “symptoms” of being a spiritual phony.

Where Is the Pattern?

Look, everyone is fallible.  The best teachers have bad messages from time to time.  That’s the problem.  A bad lesson doesn’t mean you have a false teacher.  It means you have a human teacher.  I try to communicate truth.  But when I think of some of the lessons I’ve taught, I just thank God that they were quickly forgotten.

I distinguish false teachers when they have a pattern of lousy teaching.  Hey, we’re known by our fruits, right?  Don’t judge a church based on one Sunday, a basketball player with one shot, or a pastor based on one lesson.  Find the pattern.

The Bible Is Speaking To You?

How often does a teacher talk about the original context of scripture?  The answer should be always.

Part of the reason American Christianity is such a train wreck is we think the Bible is speaking to us.  (Do we still think the sun revolves around us?)  The Bible was not meant for American Christians.  It was meant for ancient Israelites.  The Bible does not speak to you.  God speaks to you through the Bible.  We have an epidemic of teachers pulling quotable soundbites out of context and pandering to the lowest common denominator.  It makes for junk teaching that satisfies itching ears, ignorant minds, and proud hearts.

No One Is Pure

On the other hand, if you don’t want to eat from the pig’s trough that is half of American spirituality, it’s easy to fall into the other trap of “no one is pure enough.”  Then you start sniping at everyone, picking apart this point and that point.  Even the best teachers have that one guy who stands alone, warning everyone of their heresy.  Pretty soon, you are as theologically pure as baby Jesus’ halo…and you’re very alone.  We’re called to be in community, and part of that may mean stooping down a bit to be with people who just aren’t as spiritually mature as you.

I Have the Power!

To be honest, I’m surprised anyone still tries the whole signs and wonders schtick anymore.  I know people are healed and miracles do happen.  Most of it’s not in America.  Most of the showmanship in America is just that, a circus act for the benefit of desperate people.

That’s something to remember.  The people who fall for tricks aren’t simply gullible.  Their minds are being clouded by some kind of desperation.

Hook or Gimmick?

I’m all for “topical” preaching.  You don’t have to do verse by verse all the time.  In fact, I never do verse by verse.  Once you start pulling 45 minutes of discussion out of a verse, you’ve probably lost its meaning anyway.

But when a teacher bases his lessons on a gimmick, (like a series on sex) that’s what you’re going to get.  When a lesson is based first on pop culture (like a movie) and on the Bible second, it’s a lesson on pop culture, not the Bible.

A Holy Love-In

Once you reach certain heights of American Christian teaching, there’s a whole lot of glad-handing and back-slapping, and it’s enough to make me gag.  There’s a legend about the Roman emperor Trajan who, while on a triumphal parade, had an attendant whispering curses in his ear, reminding him that he was just a man, not a god.  A lot of teachers should take note.

Look out for guys who enjoy getting their egos stroked by other big names.  Look out for guys who do a lot of name dropping, and the name they are dropping isn’t Jesus.  Look out for guys who seem to be in love with their own reflection.

God’s American Empire

It’s just so easy to get confused and think that America is the Kingdom of God.  It’s easy to equate patriotism with spirituality.  And once you cross that line, it’s easy to start preaching about “taking back” America, like a conquering army.  I think Christians can be politicians, but pastors should remember that the original Christianity prospered with no political power.  Whenever you see a preacher whose top priority seems to be controlling people outside the church, especially through legislation, you’ve got a false teacher.

How do you recognize false teachers?  Anything that I’ve left off the list?  Any particular teachers you’d like to call out?

25 responses to To Catch a Predator

  1. Great points Matt! I am just going to give my opinion.
    – False teachers lead people astray.
    – False teachers argue their point like a lawyer.
    – False teachers are about their ministry – their Kingdom, not the Kingdom of God.
    – False teachers can have good character, anyone can.
    – False teachers can fit into the world with false hope.
    – False teachers deny the power of God.
    – False teachers rely solely on intellect and education.

    That’s a quick list. BTW – I give my books away so I can be a real teacher. 😉 I did want to say that the Bible does not speak to us (it’s infallible, but it’s not the complete will of God for an individual. If it was, it would say who to marry, where to work, what type of car to buy, and what to eat etc.). The Holy Spirit illuminates the meaning of verses, passages and the like. The word of God can only be spiritually discerned. Based on all the denominations we have, I’d say there have been some mistakes along the way. God is always speaking. He also uses prayer, dreams, visions, prophecy, words of faith, wisdom and knowledge; angels, the still small voice, the internal audible voice and His audible voice. The word of God is often followed by signs and wonders, however; in America where we have so few needs for healing and food, there is little slavery, not much oppression, and the Gospel is water down to sermons about how to get through your crappy week, what is it that God actually needs to do for us?
    His message is loudest when the unlovable are loved and faith in the miraculous is displayed.

    • Great point that false teachers end up looking more like lawyers. Jesus seemed rather to not care at times if he had “proved” his point. He made it, and left the jury to decide, and then he moved on. He didn’t have so much pride that he needed people to accept him.

      • “[Jesus] didn’t have so much pride that he needed people to accept him.” Beautifully put, and so subtle! This is off topic, but I have long been concerned that some of the most basic evangelical terminology is theologically flimsy and trite. Shouldn’t we, after all, be asking Jesus to accept us back?

      • He doesn’t need to prove the truth to be truthful. He doesn’t need to argue His point because it is TRUE. In the end I think if He felt compelled to prove to someone then He would have undercut the faith element.

  2. Good article, Matt. We do need to pray for discernment, though, because these wolves do come garbed in sheep’s clothing. Keep up the good fight of faith!

  3. I’ve noticed that, rather than be servants, false teachers tend to want to be served. Lacking humility, they use the gospel for gain, to elevate themselves.

    Even so, we need to pray for discernment. Most of what someone teaches may be right on, so that we become complacent about the rest. Like the Bereans, we should take responsibility for our own feeding, and always be checking scripture to make sure that what we are hearing is the truth.

    PUBLIC signs and wonders with lots of hoopla can definitely tip you off that something is wrong, but I disagree that miracles are rare here in America. Our small group experiences healings and other miracles on a regular basis. However, we don’t broadcast it on TV or ask for donations to support God’s work! I actually posted a blog about this on July 20: http://compost-blog.com/2012/07/20/home-grown-miracles/

    • We have to be responsible for feeding ourselves???

      If we’re responsible for feeding our own souls, then who do we blame for our obesity? Surely McDonalds must be the culprit! :)

      • By “feeding ourselves” I meant that I don’t expect a pastor to do all the “work” of reading the Bible and listening to God on my behalf. I appreciate the teaching I receive at church, but it is no substitute for my own study and prayer.

        Maybe if our souls are “obese” it’s because we don’t pour out as much as we take in. 😎

  4. False Teachers (FT) have always had a personal meeting with God, in heaven of course, and have usually had a tour of hell too.
    FT make you think they are closer to God than the rest of us and so we need to get close to them to get close to God.
    FT exalt themselves and diminish Jesus.
    FT always have a money thing going on…a way to get yours!!
    FT rebel against any and all accountability to the larger body; don’t dare question their teachings or pay the price from a “holy ghost machine gun.”
    FT have multiple houses, private planes and gaudy sets.
    FT have something freaky about them…their preaching style or hair style or clothing style or tattoo selection or some other fetish.

  5. 2Pe 2:1 But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.

    I’m going to go with what Peter said is a false teacher: those who deny the essential doctrines of the faith, like salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, the Gospel, the Trinity, the death and resurrection, etc.

    • I agree.

      Too many preachers ignore orthodox Christian doctrine in favor of something that is (usually) more ‘self-centered’…or something that sounds more ‘reasonable’.

  6. Good stuff as always, Matt. It is especially sad when a sincere leader does not even realize he is a false teacher. This happened recently with a home group leader in my church. He fancied himself a “watchman on the wall” which I guess meant that he stood on a wall with his laptop and sent mass emails about his unbiblical pastors. He was so convinced of his own righteous cause that he ended up urgently throwing all his brothers and sisters under the bus. In the end, everyone saw it except for him.

  7. Matt – so glad you specified the difference between a teacher/leader having a bad day (we all have a day where we come to the wrong conclusions) and a PATTERN. FT’s engage in patterns of questionable activity. My dad has been a pastor for over nearly 50 yrs and I have learned so much from him on this.

    Follow the focus – what is the person focused on? Generally, their speech or writing will tip you off.

    Beware of good things being used for a bad purpose – “I’m doing this for the church” or “God would want you to ___________ to benefit the church.”

    And the best – “Do not scoff at prophecies, but test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good. – 1 Thess 5:20-21”

    Test EVERYTHING that is said. God is the only one that is unchanging and his Word never changes. Test what you have heard against God’s Word. If the two don’t match, go with what the Bible says.

  8. It always makes me uneasy when someone from the pulpit/lectern/stage/bonfire uses some cool analogy that doesn’t work. Or has been disproven.

    I used to attend by what all account is a “mega-church” and there was some article out there about NASA not being able to understand how Bumblebees fly. Which is an urban legend….and he had the entire stage decked out in large plants, and huge paintings he and the daycare kids had done of bumblebees…

    As soon as he started, I looked at my brother-in-law and we both wanted to throw the giant light switch, breaker thing on the side of the building to stop him. Yup…stated it all as fact. …not quite the same as what you are saying but I think preachers need to make sure what they are saying is factual, not just cool.

  9. Everyone has made such great comments. I especially like the one about the “holy ghost machine gun.” False teachers use the “holy ghost machine gun”, whereas God limits himself to a heavenly 2×4 to humble us. Or is that just with me?

    I would like to point out that predators don’t have to be teachers or even pastors. They can be lay people who don’t walk the talk. I know a man who hosted Bible studies in his home and was convicted of three counts of child molestation from girls in his church. He wasn’t in leadership, but he definitely had a devastating effect on his church. The other type of predator is the one who likes to create controversies to undermine the
    leadership.

    I think there needs to be another category of pastors who devoutly follow God but who get temporarily waylaid onto a path that they think is right, but is not God’s path for them. They get so involved in the battle to protect their flock that they forget that it is God who is truly in control and can win the battle, not them. Sometimes they end up injuring their own flock in “friendly fire.” In one church, we had a pastor who, when I first started attending, was speaking God’s truth. However, over time, I think he took on yokes that God didn’t assign for him and, eventually, God removed him from the church because he was becoming a barrier and a barb. I would never count him out as a pastor, nor would I condemn him as a predator, but I was very glad that God removed him from ministry to give him time to rest and time to humble himself before God.

    • Amen. After all we are just men subject to all the same emotions as everyone else. How many times have I allowed myself to get untracked? Too many to count. One time I left the house and said to my wife, “Here I go to preach for the 800th time…” As I walked to the church I realized how true that statement was then I got depressed at how little things had changed and got depressed for 3 months!!!!!! Crazy I know!!

  10. It happens in every culture. While visiting Uruguay we were checking out he city with some local church 20 and 30 somethings. We wanted to eat and decided on pizza at a restaurant across the street. It was a very nice place with table cloths. Several of these seasoned Christians had to call their pastor to ask if the locale was ok to venture into. They were told no and we had to find somewhere more suitable.

    It has saddened me every time I think of it. The pastor there isn’t a false teacher now but with that kind of control he can easily grow to be.

  11. My general rule of thumb is to be VERY suspect of them if their ministry is named after them. There are exceptions to this rule (on both sides – Billy Graham is one with ministry named after him that I would NOT consider to be a false teacher, but Jimmy and Tammy Fay Bakker did NOT name their ministry after themselves and I would absolutely consider them to be “false”), but as a general rule of thumb, this has served me pretty well. It’s a quick way to tell who is being given the attention.

  12. The predators I’m most worried about are the ones creeping in subtly and almost unseen..This would be the New Age/New Spirituality philosophy. Too often scripture is used, but twisted and not used in context..many people, even Christians are falling for parts of this philosophy due to lack of discernment within the Body of Christ. This philosophy is running rampant in all areas of our society.