How can I tell if a Bible teacher is teaching error?

Everyone who teaches the Bible is prone to error. As James 3:1-2 says, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.” There is a big difference, however, between stumbling along the way while seeking to walk along the right path and deliberately choosing the wrong path and leading others to follow it.

Bible teachers who stumble (myself included) are subject to four kinds of errors.

  • We tend to overemphasize some things to the neglect of others (Matthew 23:23-24).
  • We are too easily influenced by the opinions of others rather than thinking through issues ourselves and then standing for the truth no matter what (Acts 20:20, 26-27).
  • We tend to confuse the assumptions of our culture or tradition with the teachings of Scripture (Matthew 15:1-9).
  • We tend to make mistakes in the principles we apply to Bible interpretation.

If you see us Bible teachers stumble, you can do them a big favor if you are willing to show us “the way of God more adequately,” as Priscilla and Aquila did for Apollos (Acts 18:24-26). We will be grateful for your help.

Other Bible teachers, however, fall into a distinctly different category. They intentionally mislead their students. In Matthew 7:15-20, Jesus labeled them “false prophets” and “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” and he warns us to watch out for them. Yet he reassures us that we can identify them by their “fruits”: the evil that results from their teaching. Paul also warns against “wolves” who will not spare “the flock” and whose teaching spreads like gangrene and whose folly will become clear to everyone (Acts 20:29-31; 2 Timothy 2:16-18; 3:1-9).

Both stumbling Bible teachers and false teachers commit many of the same kinds of mistakes in their interpretation of Scripture. Fortunately, the common errors have been listed and analyzed in two significant books: Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible by James Sire, andExegetical Fallacies by D. A. Carson. Here is a short summary of those errors.

The primary mistake is taking a verse out of its context and applying it in a way contrary to that context. This is surprisingly easy to do, and all of us must be conscientious to avoid doing it. For example, have you ever heard Bible teachers telling people not to let the failures of their past limit the possibilities of their future? They might quote Paul, who said, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). But Paul is not talking about the failures in his past, but the reasons he has had to be proud of himself. The context is important, not just the applicability of the words themselves.

All of us need to develop a healthy skepticism about what someone is teaching us, especially if they claim to be teaching the Word of God. We should be like the Bereans who, when they listened to Paul’s teaching, “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). Just because a teacher claims to be a Christian or a preacher doesn’t mean we should uncritically accept whatever he or she has to say. The Apostle John warned us, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). Jesus said we can discern false teachers by their “fruits,” that is by the results of their lives (Matthew 7:15-23). He follows up on this warning by strongly urging the need for people to base their entire lives on learning and doing His teachings (Matthew 7:24-27).

Want to go deeper? Here are recommended resources for discerning when someone is teaching error:

Recommended for purchase:

2 Peter & Jude: LifeChange Bible Study Series (1996). Use this workbook to study for yourself what the Bible says about how to identify false teachers and how to avoid them.

Douglas J. Moo. 2 Peter & Jude: NIV Application Commentary (1996). Explores the same two biblical books on a much deeper level. Moo is a well-respected conservative scholar.

Online resources:

Exposition of 2 Peter 2 and Jude, both by Matthew Henry.