Recognizing False Teachers (Gal. 4:17)
The New Testament, particularly the epistles, has a lot to say about false teachers and how one should deal with them. One verse that I think is overlooked in this regard is Galatians 4:17. The entire book of Galatians deals with Paul's attempt to convince the church(es) in Galatia (a region, not a city) that they are being led away from the gospel into legalism.
For Paul, this is no minor discussion. There is no commendation for the Christians in Galatia, even though a church as messed up as the one at Corinth got commendations from Paul. Paul early on pronounces the divine curse on those who teach a false gospel, and near the end will indicate a desire that the false teachers would "mutilate themselves" (actually a very graphic act related to their requiring circumsion of the Galatians). Paul is obviously not pleased with the situation in Galatia.
An Act of Profiling
I briefly laid out the following in response to a post somewhere else a couple of weeks ago, and was (jokingly) accused of profiling. But in some sense, that is what Paul is doing in Galatians 4:17. He provides three characteristics that can be used to identify false teachers.
- They flatter you (They eagerly seek you . . .). Okay, there are a lot of TV preachers and others who fit this bill, I know. But if the shoe fits, . . . Proverbs 27:6 tells us, "Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy." (NASB95) A note in the NASB tells us that deceitful might also be excessive, and the ESV uses the word profuse. The indication here, as in Galatians is that we should be wary of those who are too complimentary, too friendly. The Bible clearly indicates that we are all sinners. We are all in need of correction. Any teacher who downplays our sinfulness and makes much of us should be questioned. This is Paul's first point for a reason. It is the most obvious and the most dangerous, because we like to hear good things about ourselves.
- They separate you (. . . they wish to shut you out . . .). There is two ways this statement is generally understood. I think both are true because they are corrolary statements. The false teachers goal is to remove you from the influence of good teaching, specifically, they want to shut you out from the grace of the gospel. Look at the practice of cults. They will frequently separate a new convert from family and friends. Isolation is used to indoctrinate. In Christian circles, false teachers do not often go to that extreme, but they will use separation as a tool. Any teacher who tells you that you should not listen to other teachers, or limits the influence to a few, especially living, teachers is suspect. This is not to say we should listen to every teacher, but read multiple authors from multiple publishers. Listen to multiple people. And above all, receive the teaching then check it against the Scriptures. Do not listen to those who add or subtract from the gospel.
- They are jealous for your attention (. . . so that you will seek them.). False teachers, in the end, are looking for those who will make much of them. They want your praise and attention. Both of the first two points lead to this end. A false teacher makes much of himself and his gifts. A true teacher, one who understands the gospel of grace, will make much of God. True teaching points not to the one teaching, but to God revealed in Christ Jesus.
Look out for those who display any of these characteristics. Saturate yourself with the Bible, and with old words that have been tried and found true, like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, the Puritans, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, D.M. Lloyd-Jones, et. al. Jesus said that there would come a time when the false teachers would do many things that would, if possible, lead astray even the elect (Matthew 24:24). Let us therefore have our senses sharpened to discern between good and evil (Hebrews 5:14).