Scripture and the Church

Why Does God Permit False Teachers in the Church?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
One reason God permits false teachers in the church is the same reason He permitted false prophets in Israel: to test His people.

God has many reasons for permitting false teachers, some known to us, and some hidden. But one is very clear: God uses false teachers to test the visible church.

At least once a month, and often far more frequently, we hear from Christians who are alarmed because their purportedly conservative pastor is openly denying the inerrancy of Scripture. One recent example involves a church whose pastor teaches that the Old Testament contains historical errors, the Passover account in the Gospel of John contains factual errors, and that a number of New Testament passages are not genuine.

The elders of this church - among them professors of theology in a reputedly conservative seminary - defend his alleged "right" to teach these things. Furthermore, they brand those who are protesting this apostasy as trouble-makers who are dividing the flock.

But as Paul declares in Romans 16:17, it is those who propagate false doctrines who are the true dividers of the flock of God. The Holy Spirit's instruction through Paul is clear: Mark them, and avoid them. It is an imperative, a command, not an option. My counsel to people in churches where the authenticity of the Word of God is being questioned or denied is therefore very straightforward: Flee spiritual Sodom - immediately - and do not look back. Some are doing so. But others are hesitating, keeping themselves and their families under ungodly influences. We pray that those under such circumstances will leave before worse things befall them.

Bible-believing Christians frequently ask us, "Why does God permit so many false prophets in the visible church today?" We live in a time when I believe the Lord is using situations like these to make it clear - for all who have eyes to see and ears to hear - who in the leadership of the visible church truly belongs to Christ, and who does not. As Paul says in Romans 16:18, the people who cause such divisions by teaching false doctrine do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own evil desires.

Heresy at the Speed of Light

There has been a massive, unprecedented proliferation of false teachers and false teaching in our time. False teachers, as well as the true, have ready access to radio, cable and satellite television, and the Internet.

Today heresy travels literally at the speed of light. Rick Warren boasts that the latest doctrinal invention of his Purpose-Driven Church movement can travel from the platform of Saddleback Church in California to congregations in Main Street America, rural Africa, and urban South America within days or even hours, as web-savvy but misled pastors download Warren's latest false teachings via websites like, and teach them to their own congregations. We see the same thing happening in the Hillsong movement - the seeds of heresy planted one weekend in Australia quickly bearing evil fruit in churches across the globe that follow Hillsong's lead.

Scripture Predicts This

Scripture tells us repeatedly that these things will happen in all generations. False teachers will arise, and even some who once pursued sound doctrine will be led astray:

...[S]ome who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls... (Acts 15:24)

For I know this [said Paul to the Ephesian elders], that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. (Acts 20:29-30)

Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple. (Romans 16:17-18)

Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron... (1 Timothy 4:1-2)

I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the Word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. (2 Timothy 4:1-4)

But there were also false prophets among the people [in Israel], even as there will be false teachers among you [in the Church], who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. (2 Peter 2:1)

Indeed, many watch the charlatan preachers on television today, and say, as was said of Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8:10, "This man [or woman] is the great power of God."

Why False Teachers?

Why does God permit this? He has many reasons, to be sure, and some of them have to do with His secret ways that are not revealed to us on earth (Deuteronomy 29:29). But God has stated one very specific reason why He permits false teachers among us: He uses them to test His people.

If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, 'Let us go after other gods' - which you have not known - 'and let us serve them,' you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear Him, and keep His commandments and obey His voice; you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him. (Deuteronomy 13:1-4)

God uses the response to false teaching on the part of the members of the visible church, individually and corporately, to demonstrate who is true to Him and to His Word, and who is not. To put it another way, God is building a record that Christ will use at the Last Judgment, when many will come before Him and claim to have done many wonders in His name, but Jesus will say, "I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!" (Matthew 7:23).

The True Christian's Threefold Response

How must those who seek to be true to God's Word respond to these things? In three ways: We must test every teaching, we must test ourselves, and we must ask God to test us.

We must "test the spirits." God has called upon His people to exercise spiritual discernment. Malachi 3:18 tells us that the true people of God will be able to discern "between the righteous and the wicked, between the one who serves God, and the one who does not serve Him." First John 4:1 commands God's people, "Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world."

This raises another very important question: Who can "test the spirits"? Who is able and qualified to do this, according to the Word of God? The answer is that only an individual who is truly a regenerated believer in Christ, only a person who is therefore indwelled by the Holy Spirit, can exercise true spiritual discernment. An unbeliever does not have this discernment, and indeed cannot have it.

Why is that? First Corinthians 2:14 gives us the answer: "But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned."

The natural man, the unsaved man, is incapable of making proper judgments - discerning judgments - about spiritual things. The individual who does not have the indwelling Spirit of God, and who does not place himself in subjection to the Word of God, cannot "test the spirits." He cannot make sound judgments about these things. He cannot properly decide what to accept and what to reject. These things "are spiritually discerned" and the unsaved individual has no spiritual discernment. He is incapable of it.

That is the negative. But let us put the same thing in the positive: First Corinthians two also tells us that all teachings can be properly evaluated and judged by an individual who has God the Holy Spirit living within him, and who makes use of the Spirit-inspired Word of God, which is the authoritative resource the Spirit has given us to make these judgments. We must test every teaching against the only infallible rule, the Word of God.

Secondly, we must examine ourselves. God calls upon us to do this continually, holding our lives and our thinking up against the standard of the doctrine of Christ, to see if we are remaining true to Him:

Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? - unless indeed you are disqualified [Greek este adokimoi, fail to pass the test]. (2 Corinthians 13:5)

Thirdly, in order that we may be able to test the spirits and test ourselves, we must ask God to test us. Can you say this with the psalmist David?

Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity. I have also trusted in the Lord; I shall not slip. Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try my mind and my heart. For Your lovingkindness is before my eyes, and I have walked in Your truth. I have not sat with idolatrous mortals, nor will I go in with hypocrites. I have hated the assembly of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked. (Psalm 26:1-5)

Do You Pass the Test?

Dear friend, are you testing the spirits? Are you, like the Bereans of Acts, receiving the Word with all eagerness, but also "searching the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11)? In a time of "savage wolves" - men "speaking perverse things" - "speaking lies in hypocrisy" - and "by smooth words and flattering speech deceiving the hearts of the simple" - we must test all things, we must test ourselves, and we must be willing to be tested by God.


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