I appreciate Erik over at JC Ryle Quotes, who shares a quote from J.C. Ryle, a 19th century pastor, every day. This one on how to spot a false teacher certainly helped me think more clearly about false teachers:
“What more common than to hear it said of some false teacher in this day:
He is so good, so devoted, so kind, so zealous, so laborious, so humble, so self-denying, so charitable, so earnest, so fervent, so clever, so evidently sincere, there can be no danger and no harm in hearing him. Besides he preaches so much real Gospel: no one can preach a better sermon than he does sometimes! I never can and never will believe he is unsound.
“Who does not hear continually such talk as this? What discerning eye can fail to see that many Churchmen expect unsound teachers to be open vendors of poison, and cannot realize that they often appear as ‘angels of light,’ and are far too wise to be always saying all they think, and showing their whole hand and mind. But so it is. Never was it so needful to remember the words, ‘The serpent beguiled Eve by his subtilty.’” (J.C. Ryle, from Warnings to the Churches, “Apostolic Fears,” 131)
As Undershepherds of the Church of God in a particular location, we must be diligent to both display the glory of the Gospel and protect the purity of the Gospel. Let me suggest just a few practical ways to do this in your local church:
1. First, negatively: don’t only show vigilance on popular, “bandwagon” issues. Carson or Mohler or Piper or some popular writer/speaker is probably focusing on a well-known, budding heretic in academia or a mega-church somewhere. Be aware of those controversies, but don’t focus on them in your church when your flock has not been exposed to them.
2. Second, positively: know those who teach and preach the word in your ministry, and know them well. False teachers, as Ryle says, are often nice people in public. They are well-liked. They don’t “show their whole hand” all the time. However, personal relationships bring open conversation, opportunities for questions and clarifications, and sometimes shocking revelations about a person’s viewpoint on cardinal issues.
3. Third: know what people are teaching in your ministry. Is a teacher showing imbalance on non-essential issues? Is some “unique” viewpoint being taught that is garnering a following and making people critical of disagreement? These are subtle warning signs that someone is pulling a following to themselves rather than pushing people toward Christ.
False teachers may or may not be wearing denim, but we need to focus on what is in the heart and is coming out of the head to know for sure.
This list is far from exhaustive. Feel free to add more advice in the comments.