Colossians: Warning Signs for False Teachers

I once attended a church for a short season that appeared to fit perfectly into its community.  In a very affluent suburb, the gorgeous, newly architected, multi-million dollar building stood as a landmark.  The church had a solid reputation for excellent programs and hospitality, and had its roots deep in the surrounding neighborhoods.  The leader of that church was highly respected, not only in the city, but in his denomination.  I enjoyed attending their services.  People were always friendly, the bulletins were easy to read, the programs were listed clearly, the music was powerful and the preaching drew me in.  The lead pastor was almost like a celebrity; hip in a 'Rob Bell' sort of way without being quite as suspecting.  During my time there, I remember that his teaching seemed relevant and helpful.  He lived in a nice house, was probably paid a generous salary, and had an ideal 'suburban' life as a local thought leader.

While I had respect for this man and this church, something small didn't sit well with me.  I couldn't have communicated it at the time, especially since I was a fairly new believer, but everything was TOO perfect.  Maybe that's what bothered me.

Just a year or so ago, I was scanning The Gospel Coalition's website, and was startled to see this pastor's name pop up under the book review page.  As I read the book review in detail, at first I was a little surprised that he had openly affirmed a false teaching.  He was blatantly explaining away bible passages in his book as 'no longer relevant'.  But as I looked back on my time at that church, in hindsight, I can see why false teaching had taken root, as the church molded itself to the surrounding community and sought not to offend the world.  This man had traded in the gospel message and the bible for local popularity, cultural likeability and a nationally known mega-church.

Here's the thing about false teachers:  The never wear a name tag.
And this is EXACTLY why Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians, explaining things as he did - warning them about plausible arguments and being duped.  It was likely that the false teaching happening in the area of Colossae was difficult to discern, and might have even seemed like a truer or more appealing version of Christianity than what they'd heard from Ephaphras.  We need this wisdom too, because varying degrees of false teachers still exist in churches today, and the counterfeits can look an awful lot like the real thing.

How do we safeguard our hearts against false teaching?
In the previous posts, we've already talked in detail about Paul's two major encouragements to the Colossians as he challenges them to remain firm and steadfast, holding the truth they had already heard and believed.

1)  Paul reminded them to fix their eyes on the person and work of Christ, and behold Him as their greatest authority and treasure.
2)  Paul reminded them to hold to the gospel message, basing their faith in its truth as they grow in maturity.

But there is another tactic he uses in this letter...
3)  Paul proclaims truth, warns the people of specific threats, and teaches wisdom so they will not be duped.

What are the signs of false teaching?

  1. False teachers can sound credible and reliable
    • The very reason that false teachers have a following is because they seem wise.  If they sounded like false teachers, no one would listen and Paul wouldn't have needed to write a letter of warning to the Colossians.  False teachers model after satan, the deceiver himself.  He is a master at speaking lies which sound dangerously like the truth!  
    • Application:  We can't just listen to someone because they are likable, popular, have a good reputation, or rouse our emotions.  We have to hold everyone's words up to the truth of scripture - which is why it's crucial for every believer to know what the bible says.
  2. False teachers overemphasize certain 'spiritual' things, steering away from the gospel.
    • Specifically, the false teacher in Colossae was focusing on philosophical arguments, human traditions, elemental spirits, angels and visions.  These were obviously relevant topics in their local culture, and were seen as exciting or interesting things to believe and discuss.  
    • Application:  We should be leery of people or ministries that place a large focus on something other than the gospel and Christ himself.  If a church is primarily all about something other than Jesus, that's a problem.  While it might seem interesting to be relevant or 'spiritual', you might be getting 'duped' into a false gospel (as Paul puts it).
  3. False teachers try to add something to your salvation.
    • In the region of Colossae, the false teaching sought to disqualify Christ followers from their rightful inheritance by suggesting they needed to adhere to additional rules and regulations.  While it's not clear what those were exactly, we get the sense that they had to do with extreme self-discipline, even when it came to things like food.  This teacher obviously thought that Christ wasn't enough, and preached that additional works were needed to obtain a right relationship with God.
    • Application:  Because we are free and fully blameless before God, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, we don't need to do any other work to be saved.  There are things we want to do because we have the holy spirit in us - and obeying God is going to help us see Him more fully (which will bring us more joy) - but technically, there is nothing else we NEED to do to be saved.  Works are a fruit of salvation, not a requirement for it.  Therefore, we should be suspicious of church leaders or cultures that tell us we can somehow earn more from God by living life a certain way.  This is a very subtle difference from being encouraged towards holiness out of a changed heart, so it can be hard to spot.
  4. False teachers are puffed up about special knowledge and insight.
    • The false teacher spoken of in this text seems to be puffed up about his particular visions, and likes to talk about special knowledge pertaining to his own revelation apart from Jesus.  Paul also talks about his 'sensuous mind', which means he was very gratifying to fleshly appetites.  This eludes to his pride and desire for physical and cultural comfort, something that every human is tempted toward.
    • Application:  If you hear a teacher going on and on about some 'special' insight only THEY have into scripture - that's a big red flag.  Even people who are gifted to prophesy need to be saying things that are in line with scripture - they don't get free reign to have extra-biblical words from God that are contrary to something we already know.  The bible says that God has given us all things pertaining to life and godliness, and that we hold the ability to understand what we need to about Jesus with the help of the holy spirit.  In addition, a teacher who seems to be very friendly with the culture or worldly comforts should be examined closely.  There is nothing inherently wrong with having some material wealth, but if he/she appears to love it and is totally at ease in the flesh, that's a problem.
  5. False teachers don't cling to Christ.
    • This is probably the most important warning sign, and puts the nail in the coffin of Paul's argument - the false teacher in Colossae didn't hold to Christ as head of him or the church.  Instead the teacher magnified himself as head, or elevated some other spiritual idea or practice above Jesus himself.  
    • Application:  Have you ever been in a church where you can go weeks - or even longer without ever hearing the preacher talk about Jesus?  This is a huge warning sign!!  If a church can do a bunch of teaching and work apart from Christ, rarely mentioning or pointing people to Him, then it's teaching something false.  The whole meta-narrative of scripture talks about Jesus and points us to our need for Him as Savior.  So how can a teacher talk about scripture without referring to the main character?  Moral lessons are not the same as biblical, gospel-preaching truth. 
(And on a final note; I think it's important to remember that there are degrees of false teaching.  Someone can hold to Christ and the gospel, but not correctly teach a secondary or tertiary doctrine.  I think Paul wants the Colossians to see the difference between a teacher who needs some minor course corrections and one who has given up the critical foundations of the faith.)

The reality is this:  we've probably all either heard a false teacher, been in the church of a false teacher, believed a false teacher or been a false teacher.  The scary thing is, many of us (like my example above) don't recognize them at first, but only in hindsight.  Or, we've failed to see the ways we've subtly shifted our focus away from the critical doctrines of Christianity.  While Paul's letter to the Colossians gives many helpful warnings about false teaching, there are many many other places in scripture that give additional insight into things we need to guard against.  In the last days, many believers will be confused, and might even be drawn away by deceptive teaching (Matt 24:24).

Have you evaluated the teachers and leaders you regularly listen to, holding them up to scripture and examining them for signs of false teaching?


Other posts in this series:
Colossians: The Supreme Treasure of Christ
Colossians:  Holding Tightly to the Gospel Message
Colossians:  Living Out Your True Identity

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