I became a Christian when I was almost 20 years old, and a year later, after surrendering to the ministry, I found myself at a Bible college in Dallas, Texas. I didn’t know very much about the Bible. Many of my classmates had been Christians for many years and knew vastly more than I did.
On the very first day of orientation I was sitting in the bleachers of the school gymnasium and a lady, about age 30, sat down beside me. We struck up a conversation, and as we talked excitedly about Bible college, I noticed she wore a wedding band. So I asked her if her husband was also attending the school.
“No, he’s at home in Oklahoma with our kids,” she said matter-of-factly. “My husband didn’t think we should come here, but I prayed and prayed about coming to Bible college. And God told me to leave my husband and family and come.”
This stunned me. I queried her a few times to make sure I had properly understood what she was saying. Yep. She’d abandoned her husband and children to attend Bible college. Because God told her to.
Like I said, I didn’t know much about the Bible at the time, but I was pretty sure that was wrong.
Sometimes people not only become convinced they’re right but become convinced that God agrees with them. This is the power of deception.
Thus the question posed by my headline: does a false teacher or false prophet know he’s false?
In passages like Matthew 24:24 and 2 Peter 2:1, the New Testament clearly warns Christians about false christs, false prophets and false teachers. These verses (and others) include exhortations to the Christian for self-protection (relying on God’s grace, of course). The reason for the exhortations? Deception is a powerful and dangerous force in both the world and, unfortunately, the Church.
Take the example of Rob Bell, the former megachurch pastor and founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan. Now a bestselling author, Bell stepped down from his post in 2012 and has continually created controversy with his views, including his belief that hell does not exist and his refusal to reject universalism.
In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, Bell and his wife, Kristen, created a firestorm when they said the American church was on the verge of accepting homosexual marriage.
“Lots of people are already there,” he told Oprah. “We think it’s inevitable, and we’re moments away from the church accepting it.”
Most startling was Bell’s dismissal of Scripture: “I think culture is already there, and the Church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and co-workers and neighbors, and they love each other and just want to go through life.”
His wife added, “There are churches who are moving forward, and there are churches who are almost regressing and making it more of a battle.”
Is Rob Bell a false teacher? Well, teaching that hell does not exist is a false teaching. Refusing to reject universalism is a false teaching. Arguing in favor of same sex marriage is a false teaching. So I suspect that Bell is awfully close to being a false teacher if he isn’t already.
False teachers in the New Testament appear to be genuine and sincere – that is, they do not appear to know they are false teachers. They don’t wake up one day and decide to teach error. Spiritual sickness in the heart, the love of what God disapproves, bitterness – these things lead astray the heart of the teacher, and then out of that corrupted heart flows the error.
This truth is frightening because we are all susceptible to deception. This is why the New Testament warns us: “Do not be deceived!”
Every Christian makes mistakes and uses by judgment at times. All of us have probably stopped believing something about the Bible that we now understand to have been error. Deception, by its very nature, is tricky business. Otherwise we would see through it easily.
But here are a handful of principles that can help protect the Christian against our human tendency to go astray:
Stay in the Word and receive it with humility, for God withholds His truth from the proud (Matthew 11:25-26; James 1:21).
Be a part of a Bible-preaching church, for the Christian should be part of a community that “contends earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Be accountable to other Christians, because we all need others to encourage us not to be “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).
Finally, it goes without saying (though I’ll say it anyway) that God’s grace and mercy are abundantly available to the Christian who will humble himself to ask for it (Hebrews 4:14-16).