“By their fruit you
will recognize them.”
- Matthew 7:16
In last week’s column, we looked at how to recognize a false teacher. In Matthew 7:16 and again in v. 20, Jesus tells us that we can recognize false teachers “by their fruit”—by observing the lives they live. But sometimes that’s easier said than done. Many churches are too big for us to get to know our pastor on a personal basis. And we can’t see what our church elders are doing behind closed doors. What we see on Sunday mornings looks good, but how can we know for sure whether or not our church leaders are false teachers peddling false teaching?
Well, you might not be able to see the rotten fruit in a false teacher’s personal life, but if you put in a little effort, you can see the rotten fruit in his teaching. Theologian William Barclay points out some red flags of false teaching in the church. I’ll highlight three of them.
Red Flag #1: Teaching is false if it focuses primarily on the observance of external religion. Barclay writes, “It is possible—and indeed not uncommon—to teach that religion consists of going to Church, observing the Lord’s Day, fulfilling one’s financial obligations to the Church, reading one’s Bible. A man might do all these things and be far off from being a Christian, for Christianity is an attitude of the heart to God and to man.”
So, when you’re thinking of joining a church, I encourage you to listen to a bunch of the pastor’s sermons online and attend at least a few Bible studies. If almost all of the teaching is focused on the external, and there is very little said about the sin in our hearts, that’s a red flag—because our faith is lived from the inside out. There is no excuse for any church to neglect teaching about our hearts, our souls and our spirits. That’s a sign of false teaching. That’s an indication of rotten fruit. Find another church.
Red Flag #2. Teaching is false if it focuses primarily on “Thou Shalt Nots.” As Barclay puts it, “There is a type of teacher who says to a [new] Christian: ‘From now on you will no longer go to the cinema; from now on you will no longer dance; from now on you will no longer smoke or use make-up; from now on you will never enter a theatre.’ If a man could become a Christian simply by abstaining from doing things Christianity would be a much easier religion than it is. But the whole essence of Christianity is that it does not consist in not doing things; it consists in doing things.”
Like most Christians, I don’t think followers of Christ should be dropping “F-bombs,” drinking Jack Daniels every weekend and watching every R-rated movie that hits the theaters. But there are plenty of people who never drop F-bombs, never drink hard liquor and never watch smutty movies—and they’re still headed for hell. How is that possible? It’s possible because “clean living” doesn’t save you. Jesus saves you. And Jesus only saves you if you follow Him. And following Jesus has never been primarily about what you DON’T do. It’s primarily about what you DO do: trusting Him, loving Him, and obeying Him. And here’s the kicker: As you trust, love and obey Jesus Christ, you will naturally NOT do the things that grieve His heart. You will naturally NOT do things that are sinful.
Following Christ naturally leads to NOT sinning—but it doesn’t work in reverse. NOT sinning doesn’t naturally lead to trusting, loving and obeying Christ. So, if a pastor or Bible teacher is constantly preaching “Thou shalt not” messages and is ignoring the call of Christ to trust, to love and to actively do what Jesus would do, that’s a red flag. That’s a sign of legalism and false teaching. It’s an indication of rotten fruit. Find another church.
Red Flag #3. Teaching is false if it tries to convince people that following Christ is easy. Barclay writes, “Any teaching which takes the Cross out of Christianity, any teaching which eliminates the threat from the voice of Christ, any teaching which pushes judgment into the background and makes men think lightly of sin, is false teaching.”
I get really concerned when pastors eliminate the words sin, repentance, judgment and hell from their sermons. For me, that’s a major red flag. Nobody loves a positive, uplifting message more than Jesus. But the problem is, in an attempt to be “positive” and “uplifting,” far too many pastors and teachers water down the gospel and ignore some of the most important teachings of the New Testament. And do you know what a watered-down gospel is? A watered-down gospel is no gospel at all. So, if a pastor’s teaching is always easy on your ears, easy on your conscience and makes it easy to keep living the same ol’ way you’ve been living, that’s a red flag. That’s a sign of false teaching. That’s an indication of rotten fruit. Find another church.
Some of Jesus’ teachings are really, really hard. And that narrow road to heaven is a hard road. When God’s word is faithfully preached, it doesn’t tickle your itching ears. Instead, God’s word corrects. It rebukes. And it encourages you to turn from your sin and follow Christ with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.
Dane Davis is the Pastor
of Impact Christian Church. Please join us for our in-person worship service Sundays at 9 a.m. at