Not everyone who identifies themselves as a pastor, or religious teacher, should be listened to. Peter warned the believers in his day, “But false prophets arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies…” (2 Pet. 2:1) The church today needs pastors who will faithfully represent Jesus in their preaching and lifestyles. If you sit under this type of ministry, give thanks to God. If you’re not sure whether you do, here are six characteristics of pastors you need to avoid:
1. They rely more on personal intuition and feelings than they do God’s word.
God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.” (Jer. 23:16; See also Eze. 13:3) Pastors who are keen on sharing “what’s on their heart” and “how they feel” every Sunday, can come dangerously close to speaking the visions of their own minds. No matter how interesting your pastor’s personal life is, God has charged him to proclaim the life of another, Jesus. Your pastor has the sobering task of letting you hear God’s voice through the text of Scripture every Sunday. When pastors spend more time sharing their thoughts than they do the text, they squelch Heaven’s voice. Any pastor who functionally ministers as though their words are more important than God’s, should be avoided at all costs.
2. They’re self-appointed and weren’t sent by God or the church.
The apostle Paul assumed that those called by God to minister on his behalf were sent by local churches that had observed their integrity, and faithfulness to God’s word (1 Tim. 3:1-7). He wrote, “How are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:15). In the Bible, God’s call on a pastor’s life is confirmed by the external affirmation of believers within the local church. Self-appointed religious teachers may feel “called by God,” but if a body of believers isn’t affirming that call, there’s a cause for concern. Ordinarily, God calls people through the church, not apart from her. Self-called religious teachers can fall under the category of Jeremiah 14:14, “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds.”(See also Jeremiah 23:21)
3. They don’t talk about sin or treat it lightly.
Throughout the entire Bible, this is one of the key identifiers of a false teacher. Your pastor may have a great smile, and be very encouraging, but if he’s afraid to talk about sin, he’s a poor shepherd. This was God’s primary contention with the prophets in Jeremiah’s day. “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush.” (Jer. 6:14-15)
There are two ways I have observed sin being taken lightly in the church today. First, there’s the attempt by some pastors to engage the outside world by having a soft view on sin. The church in this case not only welcomes sinners but sin as well. A person’s lifestyle whether or not it’s contrary to God’s word is embraced, and regardless of how a person lives, they’re treated as a member in good standing of the church. The repeated mantra is, “God is love” and “Who am I to judge?” This is attractive in our pluralistic society, but in the end, it only says “Peace, peace!” where there is none. You find this error in many mainline denominations, as well as in self-proclaimed progressive Christian churches. The second way I’ve seen sin being taken lightly is prominent in conservative Christian circles. Some pastors have no problem talking about the sin of society at large, but they’re unwilling to challenge internal sins. These ministers point the finger at the outside world and create an unhealthy culture within the church by failing to confront the sins of their own congregations. This is the pharisaical way of taking sin lightly, we make a big deal of everyone else’s sin, but we overlook the sin within us, and the sin of those closest to us. If your pastors are great at confronting everyone else’s sin, but they overlook the sin in their own lives and in the life of their congregation, it’s a recipe for disaster. Good ministers don’t downplay the sin within, or without. They welcome sinners of all stripes to the church (because they can identify with them), but they recognize that God’s Son gave himself to deliver us from our sins (Gal. 1:4).
4. Their inward life doesn’t match their outward persona.
Jesus was very clear in his warning, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (Matt. 7:15) False teachers are hypocrites, and while they may pretend to be followers of Christ, they’re actually ministers of Satan according to the apostle Paul (2 Cor. 11:14-15). This characteristic is difficult to see because we cannot observe what’s going on within a person’s heart. Jesus continued, however, “You will recognize them by their fruits…” (Matt. 7:16). Rather than cultivating the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), false teachers are sensual and driven by their fleshly desires. Paul said, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” (Phil. 3:19) Although these sinful passions aren’t always immediately observable, over time they often become evident and cause great scandal to the church of Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 3:13).
5. Their doctrine is novel.
When it comes to teaching, pastors should be grounding us in what was known historically as the Rule of Faith (Latin Regula Fidei). This was the body of teaching that the apostles were entrusted with. Paul told Timothy, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” (1 Tim. 1:13-14) Pastors today should be carrying the ancient baton that Peter and Paul held in their hands: the faith once for all delivered to the people of God (Jud. 1:3). False teachers jettison the public Rule of Faith for new, private “revelations” from God. If a pastor’s ministry is marked by beliefs that contradict the Rule of Faith, or if they are known for having unprecedented theological views, we should be concerned. In Paul’s words, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:8)
6. The main focus of their ministry isn’t Jesus Christ.
The central focus of the ministry of the word is Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). One hallmark of false teachers is that they focus on just about everything else besides the cross. I am convinced that Satan is content getting the church’s eyes off of Jesus any way that he can. John warned, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus Christ is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” (1 Jn. 4:2-3) How can we know the Spirit of God? According to John, the Spirit of God is present where the Person and work of Christ are being confessed. If a pastor’s ministry isn’t about Jesus, then it isn’t worth following.