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?