One of the things I’ve done terribly over the years is address false teaching. As a new Christian—and worse, a new Christian developing doctrinal convictions—I tended to wield my lofty opinions (some of which were even right) as a mighty hammer with which to smash my perceived foes. So I would do stupid things like blurt out, “Why would you read that—don’t you know it’s heretical nonsense?”
And let me tell you, that does not win friends or influence people.
Do we know the truth?
But over time, I’ve smartened up a little bit (I hope), as I’ve come to realize that sometimes my mighty theological hammer of justice doesn’t always have the effect I intend. And frankly, trying to argue people into orthodoxy doesn’t really work all that well. As my wife is so fond of saying, those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still. (There’s a lot of wisdom there.)
Which leads to the problem. Far too many of us are woefully biblically illiterate. We don’t know what the text says, what it means, or how it makes a difference in our lives. Because of this, we’re easily swayed by teaching that sounds wise, helpful and spiritual, but might be complete nonsense.
We are easy prey because we don’t know that what we’re hearing is wrong.
Knowing Scripture and recognizing false teaching
So how do we protect ourselves? I’ve really come to appreciate the simple truth that the best way to protect ourselves against false teaching (and protect others from it as well) is not always with lofty arguments. It is with the consistent study of Scripture. J.C. Ryle makes the point well:
What is the best safe-guard against false teaching? Beyond all doubt the regular study of the word of God, with prayer for the teaching of the Holy Spirit. The Bible was given to be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. (Psalm. 119:105.) The man who reads it aright will never be allowed greatly to err. It is neglect of the Bible which makes so many a prey to the first false teacher whom they hear. They would have us believe that “they are not learned, and do not pretend to have decided opinions.” The plain truth is that they are lazy and idle about reading the Bible, and do not like the trouble of thinking for themselves. Nothing supplies false prophets with followers so much as spiritual sloth under a cloak of humility.1
The most important words when dealing with any teaching is to consistently ask ourselves, “What do the Scriptures say?” When we read a book, even by a generally trustworthy source, we need to ask this. When we listen to our pastors’ sermons, we ought to do likewise. When we read blogs and tweets and other such things, we must always ask this question. When we do this, when we are committed to, with the help of the Holy Spirit, seeking to understand the Scriptures to the best of our ability, and when we hold all teaching—even good teaching—up to its light, there is no place for false teaching to hide.
- J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew