My pastor used to frustrate me! I knew, from my personal interactions with him, that he was well aware of the celebrity evangelical teachers who taught false doctrine. I don’t doubt that he knew that some women in the church practiced evangelical fads that contradicted solid teaching. I used to pray that he would find ways to call out false teachers from the pulpit because I thought it was the only hope of convincing those women of the dangers. Once, and only once, he actually named someone briefly. Otherwise, he just preached faithfully through the Bible, trusting the Holy Spirit to correct our wrong thinking through the power of God’s Word.
As I saw it, teaching the Bible never corrected error in the other churches I’d belonged to. Those pastors also preached through books, and home Bible Study leaders taught through books. So they took verses in isolation much of the time, emphasizing application over interpretation, and their interpretation often ignored context. They still used the Bible, didn’t they? And they encouraged us to read our Bibles daily, looking for things to jump out at us. Like my current pastor, they assured us that familiarity with Scripture would protect us against false teaching. But we still wandered into all sorts of error, including a few errors that our pastors endorsed.
This past Wednesday night, our pastor gave an overview of 2 Peter, a letter written in response to false teachers who had infiltrated First Century churches. Chapter 2 presents a blistering description of false teachers, showing no pity. Winsome, Peter was not!
Although I will rarely identity false teachers by name anymore, I believe in the importance of training my readers to guard against such people. Every New Testament book except for Philemon deals at some level with the subject, and many Old Testament books address the problem. From that we can surmise God’s deep concern that His people not turn aside to deception.
Most of us believe that Christ’s return, and thus the end of this world, is imminent. Since I’m not as well-schooled on eschatology as I ought to be, I’ll refrain from making dogmatic remarks based on the evening news. But Scripture indeed draws a connection between the last days and the increased proliferation of false teaching. Notice, for instance, Paul’s warning to Timothy:
But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; 5 for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer. ~~1 Timothy 4:1-5 (NASB95)
Let me begin by assuring you that I have nothing against discernment ministries and blogs that call out false teachers. Especially when those discernment ministries and blogs balance their critiques with clear Biblical teaching. Elizabeth Prata serves as one of the best examples of Biblical discernment ministry precisely because she emphasizes Scripture and doesn’t write about false teachers unless she has reason. Justin Peters, though famous for exposing false teachers, always maintains his purpose of proclaiming the true Gospel. Other trustworthy discernment leaders include Chris Rosebrough, Steve Kozar, Amy Spreeman and Michelle Lesley.
When people call out false teachers for the purpose of leading others to sound doctrine and therefore pure devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ, it’s a good work they do. So much of the evangelical world falls for deception because they don’t receive solid instruction in the Word of God. Consequently, the need for discernment ministries has mushroomed in recent decades. Young and poorly taught Christians often need to hear the truth about popular teachers on the evangelical landscape.
The Bible commands us to be aware of false teachers to the point of calling them out.
An online friend recently warned against a popular false teacher on her Facebook page, only to have one of her personal friends harshly castigate her in a comment. It’s a familiar scenario. I’ve been through a similar experience, so I definitely sympathize. Women can become downright brutal towards anyone who dares to challenge their favorite false teacher.
As happens nearly every time, my friend’s critic didn’t address any of the actual objections to the teacher, despite the ample documentation that my friend provided. Instead, the critic argued from emotion, twisting Scripture in an attempt to shame my friend for raising valid concerns. That common tactic often works well to silence those who call out false teachers because no one wants to step on someone’s toes. Outbursts of emotion make us want to smooth things over so that everyone feels good. It also avoids having to really think through the relevant issues from a Biblical perspective. Emotion shuts down a challenge quickly and (in the mind of the person using emotion) effectively,
So I found the avoidance of addressing my friend’s points a bit telling. I wish she had responded with more maturity, countering objections from properly handled Scripture. (Of course, Scripture really only would have validated my friend’s position.) But as troubling as the appeal to emotion was, several people were even more troubled by the women’s claim to be discerning.
Over 22 years ago, I began investigating The Alpha Course, which became particularly popular in America during the late 1990s. My investigation led me to study other movements within evangelical circles, aided by the newly developed Internet. Suddenly I had access to a whole new way of researching people and trends that flew across the Christian landscape, and I was fascinated.
Yet article after article seemed to go back to a singular refrain: Christians needed to know sound doctrine in order to discern whether a person or trend was okay. I would read critiques on various teachers and teachings, only to find counsel to learn sound doctrine and guard it.
This emphasis on doctrine confused me. Since becoming a Christian in high school, I’d been involved in nondenominational churches with varying degrees of Charismatic influences. Those churches held an unspoken attitude that doctrine should be minimized in favor of personal experiences of Jesus and avoiding conflict with our brothers and sisters in Christ. On occasion, someone would actually say that doctrine divides Christians and therefore we should ignore it as much as possible. (I don’t know how we got away with claiming that we followed the Bible.) Of course, the distancing from doctrine was subtle, so I really don’t believe our pastors knew that the churches discouraged doctrine to the extent that they did.
Reading those articles on discernment left me wondering what sound doctrine was and how I could learn it. Sometimes I fear that The Outspoken TULIP might leave a few of you asking yourselves what sound doctrine is. If so, that’s a failure on my part.
Having said that we should major on studying Scripture rather than focusing on educating ourselves on every false teacher, I also recognize that sometimes Christians really need to speak out against those who distort the Word of God. Plenty of Bible verses instruct us to do just that. Take, for instance, Paul’s closing directive to the Roman church:
17 Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. 18 For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting. 19 For the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you, but I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil. 20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. ~~Romans 16:17-20 (NASB95)
Obviously, we can’t avoid false teachers and doctrinal error without some idea of who and what to avoid. As I said Friday, immersing ourselves in studying false teachers holds serious dangers, but totally ignoring them also violates Scripture. And when we find it necessary to speak out against those people and trends that undermine doctrinal purity, it helps to remember the importance of speaking the truth in love.
Thank the Lord for discernment bloggers who have the courage to identify false teachers! Years ago John and I attended a church that went through Rick Warren’s 40 Days Of Purpose campaign. At first, it seemed so benign that I assured a girlfriend that we could trust it. But a promotional video the pastors ran one Sunday morning showed Warren repeatedly using Bible verses way out of context. Alarmed, I began scouring the Internet for information on him, finding an overwhelming amount of evidence that he is indeed a false teacher.
Discernment bloggers can, obviously, be an invaluable resource when we need quick answers about popular evangelical teachers and trends. Some of them can even move readers towards sound doctrine. Researching yoga, as a matter of fact, actually led me to discernment bloggers who in turn introduced me to Reformed theology. Some self-proclaimed discernment bloggers, of course, are really nothing more than baptized gossips whom we should avoid as fastidiously as we avoid false teachers, but there are many trustworthy bloggers who provide information that keeps us from falling into deception. So as you read this article, please don’t misunderstand me as denouncing all attempts to call out those who regularly and unrepentedly propagate error.
Each morning Daddy struggled to put on my leg braces. In an effort to move my leg into position, my muscles would tense to the point of becoming rigid and all but impossible for him to get into the brace. When I explained that I just wanted to help, he’d bellow, “Quit helping me — you’re making it harder!” My seven-year-old mind reeled with confusion and hurt.
Then I’d be at the school for handicapped children, working on an arithmetic problem or an art project. The volunteer assisting me, out of the kindness of her heart (or maybe impatience to get the job done), would do just a little something that I could have done myself. Invariably, Mrs, G. (one of the aides that took care of our physical needs) would see the infraction and give me a big scolding for accepting unnecessary help.
So what was a seven-year-old to do? Should I obey Daddy or Mrs. G.? Was I supposed to relax and let able-bodied adults take over, or was I supposed to do whatever I could? I loved and wanted to please both these adults, and yet carrying over the principles one taught me seemed to violate the principles that the other taught. I tried to be obedient, but it was genuinely difficult to discern how they wanted me to behave.The two scenarios happened repeatedly, and neither adult had the slightest idea that I found their instructions contradictory.
At that age, I hadn’t yet been introduced to the concept of context.
But I am not writing about my childhood angst for the purpose of talking about myself, Rather, I want to use my experience to illustrate the importance of understanding things within their appropriate context. As adults, we chuckle at my childhood dilemma because we see that trying to help Daddy with my braces was vastly different from letting volunteers do things that Mrs. G. knew I needed to do for myself. Context should have shown me how to respond in each situation.
Michelle Lesley and Amy Spreeman host A Word Fitly Spoken, which is definitely my favorite Christian podcast for women. Every episode makes me think Biblically about the topics they cover, even on those rare occasions when I disagree with them. Ladies, even if podcasts aren’t your thing, please make an exception for this program. I promise that the Lord will minister to you through them!
A recent episode particularly challenged me regarding my struggle over how to warn people about false teachers and dangerous “Christian” practices within evangelical circles. The graphic below this paragraph contains a link to the episode in its tittle, and I encourage you to give it a listen.
In this episode, Michelle made the point that, no matter how nicely you try to call out error, people will always accuse you of being snarky, judgmental or hateful. She explained that many of her critics say that they agree with her statements, but object to her tone. When she traces their social media feeds, however, she often discovers that they actually disagree with her! She made the conclusion that they would find fault with her no matter how gently she makes her case.
Obviously, Christians must be as respectful as possible in confronting error. The Bible instructs us to present truth gently and with humility (1 Peter3:15). Being intentionally rude and offensive certainly doesn’t fails to display a Christlike character.
If you’re a mom sending your child off to college, undoubtedly you’re worried about him or her being pressured to abandon Scriptural values in favor of philosophies that seem more enlightened and scientific. If you’re a college student, you may wonder if you’ll be able to withstand the constant assaults on Christianity. Even many Christian schools offer liberal doctrine that draws people away from sound Biblical teaching.
I well understand those concerns. In fact, I believe they’re valid. Even when I went through college in the 1970s, I struggled to maintain my Biblical views in the face of ideological challenges. The second semester of my sophomore year, in particular, caused me tremendous spiritual turmoil when I took both a philosophy class and a psychology class. Thankfully, Paul’s counsel to the Colossians served as my anchor during the semester. As far as I’m concerned, every college student should make Colossians 2:8 her motto.