False apostles are people who masquerade as Christian leaders, get other people to follow them, and then lead them astray. A true apostle is one who is “sent” by God as an ambassador of Jesus Christ with a divine message. A false apostle is a pretender who does not truly represent Christ and whose message is false.
In 2 Corinthians 11, the apostle Paul addresses the problem of false apostles invading the Corinthian church. He describes the false apostles as “those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about” (verse 12). The book of 2 Corinthians is one of Paul’s more “sarcastic” letters, as he contends with the church to recognize the error that had crept into their midst. He contrasts his selfless service with that of the “super-apostles” (verse 5) who were seducing the church with their smooth speech and apparent wisdom. These impostors were pretending to be true servants of Christ, but they did not know the Lord. They were deceivers, preying on gullible Christians in Corinth to profit themselves and boost their ego. Paul chides the church that they “even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face” (verse 20). He even compares these impostors to Satan himself, who also “masquerades as an angel of light” (verse 14).
Paul warned the Ephesian elders about false apostles as well: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29). They must have heeded his words, because in Revelation 2:2, Jesus commends the church at Ephesus for spotting the false apostles in their midst and rejecting them.
False teachers and false apostles have been plentiful throughout the history of the church. They still infiltrate unsuspecting churches and have even led whole denominations into heresy and apostasy (see 1 Timothy 4:1–4). Scripture gives us clear warning if we will pay attention. First John 4:1 says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
The following are some ways we can identify false apostles:
1. False apostles deny any or all truths about the identity and deity of Jesus Christ. In 1 John 4:3–4, John warns his readers against Gnostic teaching; the test, he says, is Christological: “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 is not from God.” There are many ways a spirit may deny that Jesus is the Christ. From demonic cults to denominations that have veered away from the gospel, evil spirits are always behind the slander of Jesus. Any teacher who attempts to take away from or add to Jesus’ finished work on the cross for our salvation is a false prophet (John 19:30; Acts 4:12).
2. False apostles are motivated by their greed, lust, or power. Second Timothy 3:1–8 describes such teachers in more detail: “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
“They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these teachers oppose the truth. They are men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected.” Jesus said that an identifying mark of a false apostle/prophet is sinful behavior: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16, 20; cf. Jude 1:4).
3. False apostles distort or deny the Bible as God’s infallible, inspired Word (2 Timothy 3:16). In Galatians 1:8–9 Paul counters legalism with these strong words: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” The inspired writings of the apostles are part of the Word of God, and no one has a right to change their message.
4. False apostles refuse to make themselves subject to spiritual authorities, but consider themselves the final authority (Hebrews 13:7; 2 Corinthians 10:12). They will often adopt lofty-sounding titles for themselves, such as “Bishop,” “Apostle,” “Reverend,” or “Father.” This does not mean that every person carrying such titles is a false prophet, only that evil impostors love lofty titles and will self-title to gain a hearing.
False apostles can arise anywhere the Word of God does not reign supreme. From organized churches to home Bible studies, we must always be on guard against “new teachings” or “revelations” that are not subject to the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).