I was delighted to be a guest on a special program hosted by Dr. Sunday Adelaja in which we discussed the grip that false Christianity is fast having on the church in Africa. An hour and a half proved little time to exhaust this hot topic. Thus, I felt it necessary to add to that discussion by way of a writing article.
For most who practice Christians in Africa the question is not whether you ever hear the voice of false teachers. Undoubtedly You do — probably every day.
The real question is whether you can discern which messages are false.
Indeed, if you watch any of the Church run television Channels or keep up with the livestreams of Sunday services. On some of these charlatans run platforms you will come across the sweet-talking false teachers.
Foolhardiness is not an expression of faith dear Africa
Some of the falsehood’s boarder on the ridiculous and some are completely outrageous and shocking. I came across one Bishop Obinim from Ghana who threatened his congregates that he would fly to heaven and they rushed to the pulpit to beg him not to leave them.
Such displays of stupid faith have brought ridicule and disrepute to the church in Africa and have cemented and tightened the grip that false teachers have in the African church. Interact at depth with just about anyone in modern society, about false Christian teachers and they almost always point out the preposterous examples of African churches.
The truth of the matter is for many in these churches if you cannot identify any voices you hear as false, it’s not because you are not being exposed, but because you are falling for it in some way.
There will always be false teachers the bible has warned us of such, but I must hasten to say the false teachers of today have it a lot easier they can spread false teaching at the touch of a button, they can stream their false teaching live across the globe. Unlike in the day of the Bible, in which spreading any form of teaching took extraordinary energy and effort to influence the masses.
Back in pre-internet days messages had to be copied by hand, and teachers had to travel by foot or horseback. There were no cars or airplanes, and no printing presses, websites, or Facebook pages/livestreams. But today just about every false teacher has a Twitter account and YouTube channel.
The Gift of Discernment is a Critical Key
How, then, do Christians discern true teachers from false ones in a world like ours, where it’s easier than ever to spread false teachings?
It is most critical now more than ever before that anyone who seeks to protect themselves from false teachers be familiar with not only the bible but equips themselves with understanding and seeks discernment from the Holy Spirit.
Jesus and his apostles are very clear that false teachers will arise. They promise it. The holy bible records Jesus Christ as saying:
“False christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.” (Mark 13:22–23; see also Matthew 24:24)
Likewise, Paul warns the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:29–31) and his protégé Timothy (2 Timothy 4:3–4) that false teaching is sure to come (also 1 Timothy 4:1 and 2 Timothy 3:1–6). If we had any doubts at this point, Peter joins the refrain to add another voice: “There will be false teachers among you” (2 Peter 2:1).
So, we should not be caught off guard that false teachers have arisen throughout church history and likely have multiplied in our day. The example of the so-called bishop (I will fly to heaven) Obinim is just but one of many ridiculous false teachers masquerading as teachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Learn this Africa By their fruits you shall know
Many of our African brothers and sister are easily persuaded by any demonstration of miracles and or magic tricks. It is surprising how they easily attribute any trick to the power of God and assign titles such as “spiritual president” to men like Obinim.
What we might find surprising — both from Jesus and his apostles — is how revealing the everyday lives of false teachers are about their falseness. They are not just false in their teaching, but also in their living.
Beneath their doctrinal error, however subtle and deceptive, we will find ethical compromises in tow. And those don’t usually come out overnight; they take time. But they will come. Here is how Jesus prepares us in Matthew 7:15–20:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, you will recognize them by their fruits.” (see also Luke 6:43–44)
Jesus Says It Twice for Good Reason
Jesus says it twice so that we won’t miss it: You will recognize them by their fruits. His warning may sound clear and simple at first, but as we all know, trees don’t bear fruit overnight. Eventually, however, the fruit (or lack thereof) will be manifest.
And so, it is with ethical compromise. What may begin as mere whispers in a private room will soon enough be proclaimed from the housetops (Luke 12:3). I found the story of the so-called Bishop Obinim repulsive but however, demonstrative of the point I am labouring here. Apparently, he punished a woman from his church by making her carry 50kgs of cement and walk a whole mile, because the lady refused to stake a lotto number that he Obinim gave to her in her dream. Such is the level and lengths of ridiculousness that now has a strangle-hold on the church in Africa.
And so, Paul instructs leaders not only to pay careful attention to their people and to their teaching, but also to their own lives (Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 4:16).
No doubt, false teachers may be difficult to recognize in the moment. If we don’t have access to their personal lives, or their doctrinal compromises have not yet been manifesting publicly in their behaviour, we may find it difficult to know whether they are true. But time will tell. They will be known by their fruit — not the fruit of ministry quantity and numbers, but quality and endurance — and ultimately the quality of their own lives.
In their greed, they fleece and manipulate the flock for material gain and sexual pleasure
In particular, 2 Peter 2 is remarkable in how it fleshes out Jesus’s warning about the fruit of false teaching. Peter has very little to say about compromised teaching, but he gives a litany of descriptions about compromised lives.
Verses 1 and 3 mention the generalities “destructive heresies” and “false words” — which indeed relate to teaching — but then, nothing further in this chapter focuses on their teaching. Everything else is about their lives.
We can boil it down to three essential categories — and all three are about character and conduct, not teaching:
• Pride, or defying authority (verse 10) — verse 1: they deny “the Master who bought them” (also verses 12–13 and 18).
• Sensuality, which typically means sexual sin — verse 2: “many will follow their sensuality” (also verses 10, 12–14, and 19).
• Greed, for money and material gain — verse 3: “in their greed they will exploit you” (also verses 14–15).
Again, and again, Peter’s descriptions relate to greed, sensuality, and pride — or money, sex, and power. What false teachers throughout history have shared in common is not the specific nature of their doctrinal error, but the inevitability of moral compromise in one of these three general areas.
Another way to see it is that their falseness comes out in sin against themselves, against others, or against God. In their greed, they fleece the flock for material gain. Or in their lust, they compromise sexually (whether fornication, adultery, or homosexuality, which 2 Peter 2 suggests). Or in their pride, they “despise authority” (2 Peter 2:10), and the greatest authority, who upholds all authorities, is God himself.
Our leaders need to be held accountable
So, it is not only about what they teach and say when flashing out false teachers we must look at more of how they account for their actions.
The greatest defence against false teaching is a local church community that knows, enjoys, and lives the word of God — and holds its leaders accountable.
Little, if anything, can be done to hold teachers accountable who are far away, but much should be realistic and actionable in the life of the local church.
Our leaders need to be held accountable, and not held in such high esteem that we give them a pass on the normal Christian life.
Pastors should be with the people. Shepherds should smell like sheep, because they live and walk among the sheep, and are not sequestered from the flock. We need pastors who know themselves first and foremost as sheep, and only secondarily as leaders and teachers — pastors who are manifestly more excited to have their names written in heaven than they are to be used as vessels in mighty ministry (Luke 10:20).
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