© Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2007

False teaching is teaching or belief that is contrary to the teaching of the Bible. It is sometimes called ‘heresy’. Its perpetrators are called variously ‘false prophets’, ‘false teachers’, or ‘false apostles’, as well as a range of rather scathing and derogatory terms which are quite instructive about the nature and origin of false teaching.

The Bible’s opposition to false teaching is on two levels:

In the Old Testament false teaching has five primary aspects:

[1] The initial deception in Genesis 3 which resulted in Adam and Eve believing Satan’s lies and rejecting God and his Word.

[2] The on-going worship of idols or created things, in which substitute ‘gods’ replaced God.

[3] Belief in occult powers and involvement in or with occult practices.

[4] Messages brought by false prophets, whom the Lord had not sent, and whose messages deceived the people.

[5] Worship supposedly directed to the one true God, but not conforming to his instructions for worship, and not accompanied by a life that reflects real knowledge and acknowledgement of God. [For example: Lev 17:8,9; Isaiah 1]



In Genesis 3:1-6 we can identify several characteristics of false teaching:

From this point onwards God’s revealed truth has been in conflict with the deceptions of the evil one, who throughout the history of the world has employed similar tactics to those evident here, to keep people from believing God’s truth, or to tempt those who have a knowledge of God’s truth to reject or corrupt it.

There are three additional points arising from this narrative which help us to be aware of the deceptive nature of false teaching:



[1] Genesis: The first mention of idols or images occurs in Genesis 32, where Rachel stole her father’s household ‘gods’. A few chapters later Jacob, returning to Bethel to build an altar, instructs his household and everyone with him to get rid of their foreign gods [Genesis 35:1-4]. Although no teaching had as yet been recorded against idolatry, Jacob obviously considered the presence of idols in his camp inappropriate for one who was about to build an altar to the living and omnipresent God he encountered at Bethel [Genesis 28].

[2] In Exodus and Deuteronomy the issue of idolatry, including the worship of created things, is faced head on:

Underlying truths about idols and idolatry:

Forbidden practices:

Commands concerning idols and idolatry:

Outcomes of idolatry:

[3] The books of history and prophecy

The rest of the Old Testament, particularly the books of history and prophecy, draws repeated attention to Israel’s departure from the standards concerning idolatry that were put in place in Exodus and Deuteronomy. The references are too numerous to list. It forcefully asserts how abominable and detestable it is for the people of God to forsake the living God, who is the one true God, and who revealed himself in and through their history, and to worship in his place man made idols or created things.

God knows that he alone is God [Isaiah 40:18,25; 43:10; 44:6,8; 45:5, 18; 46:5,9], and that all else that men might call ‘god’ is empty and powerless, mere human creations. His indictments against idols and idolatry are not mere jealousy, they are inevitable and necessary. To forsake him, who alone is God, for these other ‘gods’ is incredibly foolish and incredibly disastrous.

‘All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless.
Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame.
Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit him nothing?
… They know nothing, they understand nothing;
their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
and their minds closed so they cannot understand’ [Is 44:9,10,18]
‘Ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood, who pray to gods that cannot save’ [Is 45:20b]

Perhaps the most poignant passages are found in Jeremiah:

‘They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves’ [Jer 2:5b]
‘”Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.)
But my people have exchanged their glory for worthless idols.
Be appalled at this, O heavens, and shudder with great horror” declares the LORD .
“My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me, the spring of living water,
And have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”’ [2:11-13]

In the Old Testament, forsaking the one true God for idols [which are repeatedly referred to as powerless and worthless] is termed ‘prostitution’, ‘adultery’, ‘detestable’, ‘lewdness’, and seen as breaking the covenant relationship with God. It was on the basis of their attitude to idols that each of the kings of Israel and Judah was assessed, and it was this fundamental sin of rejecting God for idols that brought devastating and destructive judgment to both Israel and Judah.

As Ezekiel points out, idolatry is not just a matter of external physical idols, but is a matter of the heart: ‘men have set up idols in their hearts’ [Eze 14:3-7].



The first biblical references to occult practices record their limited power [re: the limited ability of the magicians of Egypt, contrasted with the power of God working through Joseph and Moses]. In Deuteronomy involvement with such practices is clearly forbidden, and described as detestable to God.

Among the occult practices described and/or forbidden in the Old Testament we find:

The Bible criticizes such practices and those who engage in them. They are seen to be substitutes for the one true God and his word.



In the Old Testament era God was in the process of revealing himself to and through his chosen people, Israel, preparing them and the rest of the world for the coming of his final self-revelation in the incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ. God’s self-revelation was being progressively given in verbal form and progressively recorded in written form. In the absence of a complete and static body of recorded revelation the potential for any individual to stand up and claim to speak from the Lord was great, and the potential for people to seek out those thought to have messages from the Lord was equally great.

Anticipating the existence of false prophets with false messages God put two criteria in place by which to recognize them:

Deuteronomy 13:1-3a: ‘If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer.’

Deuteronomy 18:22: ‘If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the L ORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.’

The criteria by which to recognize a true prophet are: [1] what he says comes to pass, and [2] he does not turn people away from the true God to other gods. The first by itself is not enough.

Concerning false prophets and their messages the Old Testament teaches:

About the nature of the false prophets:

About the source of their messages:

About the nature of their messages:

About the impact of their messages:

Warnings to false prophets and/or those to whom they speak:

We would do well to take these descriptions of false prophets and their messages to heart. Although set in the Old Testament era, they are not confined to the Old Testament era; what was true about them is in most respects true of contemporary false teaching within the church.

Let us take warning form the words of the Lord through Jeremiah:

‘A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land:
The prophets prophesy lies … and my people love it this way.
But what will you do in the end?’ [Jer 5:30,31]



As the people of Israel turned to idolatry or listened to the messages of false prophets many continued to maintain an outward appearance of worshipping the true God. They continued to offer the sacrifices and offerings commanded in the law of Moses; sometimes they even continued to pray to God. They lacked, however, any observable evidence that they really acknowledged him as God in their lives. Their history provides ample indication that their fundamental rejection of God and his truth inevitably led to a break-down in moral standards and social justice.

Such superficiality and such hypocrisy, and such syncretism [the merging of two belief systems], were abhorrent to God and attracted his judgment. For example:

The false teaching and false beliefs embraced by the Israelites, were not a matter of mere theoretical issues or points of religious debate that had no relevance to life and reality. Rather, while their acceptance of false teaching most certainly negated the validity of their claim to a relationship with God, it also deeply impacted their morals and their lives both as individuals and as a society. The same is true today.


The Old Testament has taught us much about false teaching – what it teaches, what God thinks of it, and what it does to us. It stands as a strong and terrible warning to us to be alert and diligent, to watch and to pray, lest we also fall prey to the strong deceptions that are in the world and in the church today. Contemporary deceptions, though different in some specific details, are fundamentally similar to Old Testament false teaching in their underlying concepts, in their mode of operation and in their final outcomes.