I was in college when I read a book that captivated me. It was an apologetics book where a theology professor was writing letters back-and-forth with his atheist father, and he carefully and winsomely explained his Christian views. The problem was, some of those views were radical reinterpretations of what the Bible teaches. Because of this book there were a number of significant doctrines that I misunderstood for years. Since then, I have grown more discerning and careful about evaluating what I read and listen.
We are all called to be careful readers and listeners, to be on guard against false teachers. Sometimes it might come off as spiritual superiority (“I know better than they do, I’m not falling for it!”) or spiritual arrogance (“I can’t believe you’d read that book”). We need to remain humble even as we grow in our spiritual discernment, but one of my great concerns for Christians today is a lack of spiritual discernment.
There are authors and musicians (yes, our Christian music can easily spread false teaching) who are on the Christian best seller’s list, but they’re false teachers who should be avoided. Sure, maybe their books are really fun to read, their personalities are engaging, and some of their stuff is helpful. But the Bible calls Christians to be spiritually discerning, because there are false teachers who can lead well-intentioned believers astray.
Do false teachers concern you? Do you ask theological questions about the books you read, music you listen to, shows you watch, or teachers you learn from? Sadly, we cannot simply trust anyone who talks about Jesus and quotes the Bible.
Teaching Sound Doctrine
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
Matthew 7:15 (CSB)
This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming; even now it is already in the world.
1 John 4:1–3 (CSB)
Christian Teachers, Preachers, Authors, and Musicians have a biblical responsibility to ensure their content is biblical and doctrinally sound. Some popular authors and musicians seem to minimize this responsibility, as if their artistic efforts to entertain or inspire override the mandate to be theologically informed.
1 John 4:1-3 does not set the theological bar at the lowest common denominator. Instead, this was an intense theological debate among the early Christians and John was giving this as an example of the Christian teacher’s responsibility to sound doctrine. Confessing Jesus as the Christ would lead a Jewish believer to be cast out of the Synagogue (John 9:22) while also putting him in danger of persecution because of the Roman world’s requirement to profess “Caesar is lord.” Soft theology led to soft Christian living.
Let’s not start a witch hunt for false teachers or nit-pick everyone and everything to death. But let’s agree to be spiritually discerning readers and listeners.
False Teachers are Almost Always Well-Intentioned
I have a fascination with people in Church History who were false teachers (“heretics”). They were usually really good pastors who wandered into unChristian territory out of their desire to help the people. Here’s one of the more famous examples:
Pelagius was a probably from England, but traveled to Rome in the late 300’s because that was where most prominent Christian teachers lived. When he got to Rome, he was shocked by the godless attitude and lifestyle of the people. His ministry began as an effort to help people renounce sinful desires in order to become more godly and to live their lives according to God’s commandments.
The problem is he essentially made godliness the result of human effort and rejected the biblical teaching of our sinful nature, that we all, by nature, choose sin over godliness. He thought the teaching about grace eroded Christian effort to grow in godliness because they would expect God to forgive them anyway. In the process of trying to be helpful and call people to holy lives he denied multiple significant biblical teachings about sin, grace, and salvation. On the surface of things, he seemed to be a good pastor who was being relevant and “with the times” about calling people to be more like Jesus, but he was actually leading them astray and chipping away at the biblical foundations in the process.
My point here is this: when it comes to people who can be labeled as false teachers, they are usually highly likeable people with wonderful intentions. Very few false teachers actually intend to lead people astray. As you read and listen, pay attention to the details of what people say and how they say it, not simply to the personality of the person who is saying it.