The teaching in a true church will, if you believe it, lead you to eternal life. The teaching in a false church will, if you believe it, lead you to eternal death. So it is very important that you know how to recognize a false church. Happily, it is not hard. There are several things that will help you spot a false church, so that you will not be deceived.
Do not look for perfection
You should be able to recognize a false church, but that does not mean you should look for a perfect church. When you get to know Jesus, your life changes. But, as you will have noticed, you have not become sinless. The same is true for every Christian. So do not look for a church with sinless people. It does not exist.
It is also not possible to look for a church with perfect doctrine. There are many differences of opinion between Christians on how to understand and obey God’s Word. Actually, there are so many differences that it is probably impossible to find two people with exactly the same opinions on everything. So why would you think that the only one who totally agrees with you is God? We all need the modesty to recognize that “we know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9). If everybody, and every church, only ‘knows in part’, it is clear that not every mistake in doctrine makes a church into a false church.
But do look out for false churches
Every church is imperfect and wrong to some degree. But still it is important to have the right teaching. There are important things that the church needs to get right. Otherwise it is a false church you should avoid. We know this problem really exists, for the Bible tells us “there will be false teachers among you” (2 Peter 2:1).
This verse gives a first important clue on how to spot a false church: look at its leaders. It is dangerous to draw conclusions about a church after only meeting a few of its members. They might just be spiritually immature. This should not be held against the church, as a church can never force its members to believe and behave exactly as it teaches – and neither should it want to!
Look out for false doctrine
The most important thing for a church is preaching the Gospel. If the Gospel is not preached, it is a false church. A simple summary of the Gospel is: Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose on the third day, according to God’s plan (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-4). When churches do not preach this, they often go wrong in one of these areas:
- They do not believe that Jesus is God. They talk about Jesus as a good example and a good teacher. But He is so much more. He gave his life to save us.
- They do not believe the Bible is the Word of God. They want to be inspired by the Bible, but are not willing to obey everything God asks us in his Word.
- They do not talk about sin, because God loves everybody. Yes, it is true that God loves sinners. He loves them so much He wants to change them! Therefore sin needs to be dealt with, and the church needs to mention this.
- They give a list of rules to become acceptable to God. But you do not get saved by what you do. You get saved by God’s grace; not through your effort, but through faith.
- They emphasize that God gives health and wealth to believers. Actually, that is not a promise from the Bible. And it is a way to focus on worldly things, rather than spiritual things.
- They claim to be the one true church. They deny the work of God through the ages and all over the world in other churches. That way, they make God a small God. So the claim to be ‘the one true church’ is actually a dead give-away that it is a false church!
If one of these things is true in your church, run! Because it is a false church. You need to hear the Gospel preached as we find it in the Bible, with the authority of the Holy Spirit.
Look out for sinful pastors
Besides doctrine, there is one more area that helps us distinguish a false church. That is the life of the pastors of these churches. False teachers almost always go wrong in one of these areas:
- Power. They “despise authority” (2 Peter 2:10), and want you to only accept their authority. False teachers often claim authority in the lives of their church members that only belongs to God. While there is a certain obedience requested to our spiritual leaders, our obedience is first and foremost to God. If a pastor claims you obey God by obeying him, something is wrong.
- Sex. “Many will follow their sensuality” (2 Peter 2:2). False teachers will often live in sexual sin, sometimes openly but more often secretly. In the end they are found out.
- Money. “In their greed they will exploit you with false words” (2 Peter 2:3). Is a pastor rich because of the gifts of his church members? Don’t trust him. Is a pastor telling you to ‘sow a seed’ financially by giving money to him, and God will bless you? Run from him, for he is a false teacher driven by greed, not by the love of God.
How to recognize a false church?
A church where the Gospel message of salvation from sin through the death of Jesus Christ is not preached, is a false church. Whether the church is drawing you away from God by imposing rules to get saved, or by denying the truth of the Gospel, it is a false church. A church where the leaders seek power, money, and sexual relationships outside marriage is a false church.
Do not let this worry you. “The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials” (2 Peter 2:9). If you have the desire to follow him, He will rescue you from false churches as well. It is his promise about his church that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). So trust in him to lead you in all truth.