I was sitting in my Community Group last night discussing issues from the Sunday message about false teachers, and the question arose, “How do we know you aren’t one of those guys?” Of course the answer is because I am a great guy who would never steer you wrong. Actually, this question was a very good question, and one that Jesus is asking every person who follows Him to ask, not just about me as your teaching pastor, but of all people who teach, write, blog, tweet, or do anything else where they claim to teach truth and try to lead you in your beliefs and action. So after picking my pride up off the ground and wiping it off, it got me to thinking. How do we know. Here are some thoughts on this.
1. Become familiar with the truth yourself – It has been said that when banks train a teller to identify counterfeit money, the primary method is to put so many real bills in their hands so that they will become familiar to the point that when a counterfeit runs through their hands they will notice it. Those who follow Jesus are called to become so familiar with the truth of the Scriptures that they will identify falsehood in teaching. The only way to do this is through the reading and study of the Scriptures. In the book of Acts, Paul is traveling from town to town, preaching the Gospel and planting churches. In his travels he came to the city of Berea and began to preach in the Synagogue (place of Jewish worship). Acts 17:10 says, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” In other words, when Paul began preaching, they listened intently to the message about Jesus, but before they decided to receive the Gospel or reject it, they opened the Bible and checked it out. In other towns people were quick to either accept Paul, or sadly reject him without looking at his message through the lense of Scripture. The Bereans are a good model for us. Know the Scriptures, and then when you listen to a person teach, check out their messages by looking at the Bible.
2. Learn to be cautiously skeptical – We need to learn that just because something is popular does not mean that it is going to lead us toward the narrow gate and road. In fact, Jesus own words in Matthew 7:13 says that the wide road has many on it, but the narrow road has few. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that every “Christian” bestselling book is by definition bad or wrong. The Bible is the number one best seller of all time and it is a pretty good book. A Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan has continu0usly been in print for well over 300 years and has been read by millions, and it is a great fictional book rich with Christian imagery. So popularity and a place on the NY Times bestsellers list does not necessarily mean that a book is going to be filled with false teaching. Nor does a large crowd drawn by a preacher indicate that he is dangerous (Billy Graham has drawn a few decent sized crowds and he is OK). Still, popular books and speakers get that way because they are masters at communicating to a crowd, and are able to speak deeply into people’s hearts. They are so good at targeting our feelings and drawing us in to their stories. Many times a follower of Jesus will be enthralled by a teacher because his or her heart was so engaged that the mind actually misses some of the dangers and warning signals from the book. Often this happens as the author will tell stories about things that God does while in some way denying a little bit of who God is as revealed in the Bible. Whenever we hear someone, read a book, parouse a blog, or interact with any teaching, our mind ought to be engaged and we should be listening to what the person is proclaiming on a belief level. In other words, what does the book or sermon teach about God, the nature of sin and humanity, the humanity and deity of Jesus, the substitutioniary atonement of the cross…
3. Theology is to be formed in community – We live in an age where the most celebrated aspect of religion is autonomous belief. The banging drum we hear all the time is that we must interact with God for ourselves without allowing others to judge our beliefs. The problem is that the New Testament model is for theology to be formed while living in community with other Christians. This is especially important for people who are new to the faith. Having deep relationships with other Christians gives a platform to struggle with doctrine and belief issues and provides a safe place to have mistakes without those mistakes leading you away from Jesus. It is also a place to hold each other accountable and encourage each other to grow in the faith. In church life, this also means that we have a plurality of elders who hold each other accountable. As the preaching pastor, I do not forge our theology, rather we do this in community as a group of leaders. They have full permission to speak into my teaching and call me back to orthodoxy if I communicate something in a way that is not Biblical. We work together to study good theology so that we are on the same page.
4. Make sure Jesus is central – I sat and listened to a couple sermons by a pretty popular preacher this week. He had some really good things to say, and to be honest, I do not believe this guy is a false teacher. But I did find a serious issue that raised my eyebrows. Not once in two sermons did this guy talk about Jesus. I do realize that these sermons were addressing people’ struggles with belief in God and their rejection of religion, so I will keep listening to see how he resolves it, but if any person does not keep Jesus central in their proclamation there is a huge red flag! Now, you may ask, “But Mike, does a person really have to mention Jesus in a novel about God, or in a sermon about how to be a good parent?” Maybe or maybe not, but a picture of God without Jesus is not the God of the Bible. Jesus is God, and any idea of God apart from the Trinity is a false image. And a sermon on good parenting may include some interesting principles, but those principles will not ultimately help apart from the empowerment of the Gospel. Jesus died for your failure as a parent, and for your kids sins, but he will forgive both of you and give you the ability to live under his grace. Without Jesus, the principles are often nothing more than psychological ideas that often lead people away from dependence on God’s grace for life.
5. Pay attention to how the Bible is used – One final thought about discerning false teachers. Learn to notice how they use the Bible. Do they allow the Bible to dictate their message, or do they use the Bible to support their own ideas? Let’s be honest, we can string enough verses together using them out of context to say just about anything. Psalm 91:4 says that God will protect us with his feathers and his wings. It would be easy to build the doctrine of the chickenness of God from this verse. I know, absurd, but the point is that if someone pulls one verse from the text, uses it out of context, he can say some interesting things. And because he uses the Bible to support their teaching, it can sound pretty Biblical. That is, unless someone actually checks out all the verses in their context. Many teachers and preachers in our generation are masterful at building fabulous talks and writing incredible stuff about God, piecing a verse here and a verse there to support their message, while missing some of the key issues in the Gospel or denying essentials of the Christian faith. And once again, not everyone who does this is a false teacher. But it is dangerous. I believe the better way is to let the Bible speak for itself, and for a person who speaks for God to be careful to pull the message from the text rather than vice versa. You might learn to ask these questions when examinging how a teacher or author used a text or texts from the Bible:
- Did he actually get his message from that text, or did he just use the text to build his message?
- Does the text he used actually communicate the truths that he was trying to say?
- Has what he said about this text contradicted what I have learned to be true in other parts of the Bible?
- When he finished speaking or writing, is the result for me that I understand the content of the Bible better, or have I just been stirred in my emotions without giving much thought to the Scriptures
Well, I could write a lot more, but that is enough for now. God bless.