Beware of false teachers, who come to you in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15).
Lets reflect on false teachers for a moment. We don’t talk often enough about them, and I have a feeling that we hesitate to call anyone a false teacher because we don’t want to be jerks. But Jesus commands us to do so in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:15).
The question is, how do we differentiate between true and false teachers when, in the very same chapter, Jesus instructs us to “judge not, lest ye be judged” (Matt 7:1)? Google an image of “false teachers,” and you will get montages of famous pastors and preachers that have the loudest voices among us. That’s not very nice.
The first step in any biblical exegesis worth its salt is to put yourself in the shoes of those who heard this command in the first place. Jesus was talking to his disciples upon a mountain around the Sea of Galilee. He was far from the Temple, and he had yet to interact with the official priests of Jerusalem.
In warning his followers of false teachers, however, Jesus was setting himself apart. He came not to abolish to law, but to fulfil it. He began his teachings with repentance and the Kingdom of God, (which implied revolution and revolt from the first-century worldview), but then reversed expectations by blessing the poor, the meek, and the weak.
His signature teachings did not perpetuate violence against oppressors, but included the unavoidable fate of persecution and the forgiving of enemies. What kind of teaching was this?
Later in the Sermon, around Matthew 7, Jesus accentuates the authority of his teaching. Only God can judge, but you are to discern true and false prophets by their fruit. Those who hear Jesus’ words and fail to obey him are like people who build homes on sinking sand. Ask, seek, and knock and God will take care of you.
This Teacher has authority, and the fruit of his teaching are attested by the works he accomplishes (see Matt. 4:23-25). When crowds amass, however, beware of distractions, false teachers, and the self-righteous.
Nowadays, we want to apply the label “false teachers” to anyone who touts a theology we either deem heretical or exploitive. We poke fun at television evangelists, and the downfall of not a few major celebrity preachers have only reinforced our habit to judge those who are famous. I’ve been called a false teacher several times by people who are so far to the right even Jesus stands to the left of them.
We can’t call just anyone we don’t like false teachers, and we can’t be jerks or judgmental!
So there must be a second step in figuring out what Jesus means in his warning, and that is to see what people he confronted the most: namely, the Pharisees, scribes and experts on the law. He called them white-washed tombs. He warned his disciples to “be not like the hypocrites” who stand in the marketplace with elaborate prayers. He didn’t want his followers to make their righteousness rather than God’s grace the center of their testimony.
But if this is true, then this brings us to a definition of “false teachers” by a very uncomfortable standard: Jesus warned his disciples against those who were the most religious among them.
Pharisees were normal folks like you and me; their concern was obeying God because they believed that Roman occupation was a result of Israel’s sin. What is wrong with a group of people policing others for the sake of holiness and obedience? Seems legit to me!
But that is the very problem. Jesus says that false teachers are “ravenous” (RSV), and their appetite for others are in their concern not for the log in their own eye, but for the speck in others. People who fail to accentuate God’s love and grace, mercy, kindness, and redemption are too focused on the letter of the law rather than the Spirit of the law. They push for an agenda of personal, feel-good spirituality at the expense of an active faith that works and persists in doing justice.
Their teaching is divisive, and results in distrust, discord, and (often) unnecessary disharmony as a result of this kind of religious zeal. How many churches split because one group of people believe they are running the church more effectively (which translates into “more holy”) than another group in the church?
The fruit of false teachers are false because the fruit turns sour. It sucks the life and air out of rooms that can otherwise be safe sanctuaries in which people are filled with the Holy Spirit. False teachers don’t start off as such; rather they become false because their season of fruit turns bitter.
That means that you, if you are a leader, can become a false teacher if you are not heeding Jesus’ warning. No one is exempt from this temptation!
As a religious leader I am cognizant of the power that we pastors wield in the lives of others. I often ask: Do I offer a life giving word of God, bearing fruit that feeds others and leads them into the relentless grace of God; or do I embody bad news that focuses too much (without a sense of perspective) on the downfall and failure of others? Its a good question to ask and consider.