How much error does a false teacher need to exhibit before they're considered false?

The Next 500 Years: 2017 National Conference was held a few months ago. The synopsis of what the Conference was about follows:
The same God who brought the Reformation in the sixteenth century is still at work today. His plan has not changed, and what He has purposed for His glory and our good will be accomplished.

On March 9-11, 2017, Ligonier Ministries hosted its 30th annual National Conference. Alistair Begg, Tim Challies, Leonardo De Chirico, Sinclair Ferguson, W. Robert Godfrey, Michael Horton, Steven Lawson, Augustus Lopes, John MacArthur, Albert Mohler, Stephen Nichols, Michael Reeves, Derek Thomas, and Stephen Tong joined R.C. Sproul to celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and consider the future of the church.
During the conference, there was a Panel Discussion/Audience Q&A comprised of Steven Lawson, RC Sproul, Al Mohler, and John MacArthur. Thirteen questions were asked and answered on a variety of topics. Since I'm interested in discernment, and since we can learn much from the men who were assembled, I was especially interested in their answer to the following question:
How do you define a false teacher? How much error is needed before they are considered false? 
The answers were transcribed and this one begins at the 32:23 mark on the video, linked above.

Three good answers were given. Of course many other things can be said, they only had so much time and had other questions to discuss. Here is a synopsis of the three responses and I'll add my own thoughts after that. You can view/read the full responses at the link above.

Dr Sproul said that when is a false teacher a false teacher is when he teaches falsehood. This might seem obvious but in this day and age where 'tolerance', 'forgiveness' and 'non-judgmental-ness' reigns, we have forgotten many of the basics. If he or she teaches falsehood, they are a false teacher. Would the Holy Spirit in us allow falsehoods to permeate a person and their teachings? No. His ministry is to point to Jesus.

Dr Al Mohler followed up Dr Sproul's comment by saying that in addition to falsehood, any teacher who resists correction is also false. By the strict definition of teaching falsehood=false teacher, Apollos would have been false. However when he was corrected by Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos was glad, and accepted it. If you can think of some particular teachers today who teach falsely, and have definitely been contacted to repent of their falseness and given the truth, and they continue in falseness, then this helpful barometer might clear some confusion up as to who might be true and who might be false.

Dr MacArthur added another layer to the discussion with his response. A false teacher teaches falsely, but what would he be teaching that is false? In addition to behavior, (a truculent liar) what content does a false teacher teach?

MacArthur said that there are some absolutely non-negotiable truths that you are false if you deny the Trinity. If you deny the deity of Christ. If you deny His sinless life, substitutionary death, salvation by grace through faith, the gospel. That’s the drive-train of truth. Saving truth. Those are not negotiable.

So by those standards, and I admit there are others, a false teacher teaches things that are false (though not stated, would be additions to scripture in the form of personal thoughts, revelations, or visions) is uncorrectable, and twists or in some way denies the hard and fast basic truths of Christianity.

The Bible says not to add to His word, but it also says not to delete anything from His word. (Deuteronomy 4:2, Deuteronomy 12:32, Revelation 22:18-19). If I can add my own thought to he conversation: any preacher who regularly and defiantly omits one of the basic truths from Christianity is also false. I think we can all think of the prime example here: Joel Osteen. He has been asked many times why he doesn't preach sin or wrath, and he says that is not his calling. We can't have the Good News of blessing and salvation if we do not know what the bad news of sin and our need for Jesus to escape God's wrath.

One more thought: the Bible has only one skill standard for teaching: "able to teach" as stated in 1 Timothy 3:2. As Crossway defines able: "refers to the ability to communicate and apply the truth of Scripture with clarity, coherence, and fruitfulness". The rest are behavioral/moral standards. Any false teacher might be able to teach the truths of scripture faithfully, appear to be correctable, but live in opposition to the standards the Bible commands. Jimmy Swaggart comes to mind here. And one does not have to be a rampant sinner seeking prostitutes to be living like hell, there are many Bible teachers whose greed and profligate living is well known, as well as many female teachers who usurp their husband's and the church's authority. Any of those are in opposition to God's standards for life.

During the panel discussion, Sproul said Calvin said no theologian is ever more than 80 percent right. Sometimes when I bring up that so-and-so is false, I'll receive this type of response. The person intimates that we must tolerate the false teachers, because after all, we all sin and no one is 100% right. I think this misses the point entirely. I agree we're all sinners, and no one is perfect. As mentioned, Apollos was teaching partially. I don't think that Peter, Paul John etc had no possibility of growth or understanding as they studied and matured in their walk. Even Jesus grew in stature and wisdom. (Luke 2:52).

The difference between one of the Apostles or Apollos or any true preacher today is that:

1) they want to teach truth, scrupulously,
2) they are correctable when error is pointed out,
3) their overall growth is in wisdom and stature as time goes on, add
4) their heart's desire is that Jesus is glorified and the saints are growing.

A false teacher

1) is greedy
2) opposes God
3) is uncorrectable
4) makes sons of hell twice as bad as they are

False teachers ahead: beware!
Photo by Braydon Anderson. Unsplash, free to use.

False teachers will always be with us: until eternity begins and Jesus purges their blot from the new heavens and new earth. Praise Him for holiness and purity.


  1. "The Next 500 Years" disheartening a thought! How can all this apostasy continue and progress for that long?! I'm looking upward every day and shutter at the thought of even living a few more decades...that is, if I even live out my expected natural lifetime. I long for all this to end and can't begin to imagine what the false teachers will be saying and doing in another five years at the same speed of progression, but in 500 years?! I can't imagine that God would tarry that much longer, even though I wouldn't be around to see it. For me, its Rapture time!

  2. It seems to me that there is a secondary tracer for determining who is a false prophet. That would be the character and fruit of those who follow or associate with the suspected false teacher.

    When Jeannie Mills (born Deanna Mertle, née Gustafson), author of Six Years With God: Life Inside Rev. Jim Jones's [sic] People's Temple, first walked into the building that was then house the Peoples Temple, she was met by a woman who said, apparently without introduction or small talk, she had been healed spiritually and physically by Jim Jones. Clearly, there was SOMETHING amiss in the character of the woman--some would call it fanaticism, perhaps. That woman eventually became greatly involved in the abuse and terrorizing of the Peoples Temple's members who were murdered in Jonestown, Guyana. (Mrs. Mills, her husband, and her 15-year-old daughter were subsequently murdered in a style often described as execution-style, in their home about a year after the Jonestown massacre. The murders are unsolved though a surviving son has been questioned and subsequently released, and he now lives out of the country.)

    I have previously mentioned in comments here a television personality who was once a mighty messenger of God, preaching the Gospel to massive crowds all over the U.S. Sidelined by an antichrist event that happened during his ministry in one American city, he now sits and talks calmly and even encouragingly to men and women about spiritual questions, issues, and matters. He is comfortable spending time on-camera with certain people who clearly are false prophets. Again, the character and integrity of some or many of the people who are associated with him are at least questionable, and perhaps blatantly antichrist.

    I could go on and on, but I think I made my point. Again, I am saying such associations would likely be a secondary consideration in identifying false prophets and teachers.

  3. Sheryl, I agree, I can't stand to think of another day, let along another half century! Every day I pray "Lord, Your kingdom come..."

    bloggerjim, thanks for the thoughts. I agree that though secondary, associations do matter. The Bible verses that pronounce anathema on these false teachers also warn the brethren to stay away from them, not to associate (excommunicate them from the church, hand over to satan, do not let them into your house...).

  4. Thank you for this post, Elizabeth, you actually answered something specific I just prayed about this morning! Before we ask, His answer is already on the way! So glad you yielded to His leading on your topic!

  5. There's another kind. Adding things, which has been successful since the Middle Ages. Notice the synoptics hardly mention church favorites: sin, "The World" (not mentioned), flesh, the Devil (only the temptation story).. The point here is this--the gospel is a POSITIVE THING TO BE GLAD ABOUT not another legal binding!


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