I’m sure I’ve taught the Word of God incorrectly at times through the years, as much as it pains me to say so. I know God’s Word is absolutely true – every word, every concept, every story. I also know my mind isn’t perfect, my heart is sinful, and sometimes I just mess up.
So this week, I heard something that goes against God’s Word – an errant teaching I’ve encountered before on the internet but not from the mouth of a friend. I’m not going to share what it was as that would be an article in itself. But today I’m wondering a few things…
- What distinguishes a false teacher from a teacher who messed up on a particular point?
- What distinguishes a false teaching from a teaching with which I happen to disagree?
- Where is the line between areas where we “agree to disagree” and areas that are “deal-breakers” under valid Christian teaching?
Many believers think the end times are approaching quickly. If this is so, Scripture warns that false teaching and deception will be prevalent in our world. “False messiahs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). And again later, “Now the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will depart from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared” (1 Timothy 4:1).
So, if false teachings and deceptions will increase, I think it’d be wise of us to answer some of these questions.
A false teacher from a teacher who messed up
No Bible translation is perfect, no denomination is perfect, no pastor or teacher is perfect, no commentator is perfect, and no Christian blogger is perfect. Sometimes I think God allows this on purpose as only He is perfect. No one and nothing will ever match His sinless perfection. Every person who’s ever tried to teach something from the Bible has messed up at some point. So how do we distinguish between a teacher who messed up and a false teacher?
I think a key factor is intent behind the teaching. I can only speak for myself, but I know my intentions in studying the Bible and writing about it is to know Him and make Him known. My books and blog are a natural outcome of my desire to love and serve God. A false teacher’s intention is destruction. “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly bring in destructive heresies…” (2 Peter 2:1). It goes on to describe their work as unrestrained, blasphemous, exploitative, and greedy.
Another key factor is the outcome of their teaching. Good teaching brings others into a relationship with Jesus and then helps them continue to grow in their relationship with Him. This isn't the case with false teachers. “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit. … Every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit” (Matthew 7:15-18).
A false teaching from a teaching with which I disagree
Or, to say it another way, it might be ok for us to disagree on some teachings. In other areas, lines have to be drawn, truth spoken, and even relationships severed at times. Where is the line between these two areas? After all, I know of no other person with whom I agree on every single detail of Christianity. When is it ok and when is it a deal-breaker?
Sometimes we may disagree but we don’t have to argue about it. I think of a friend who believes the rapture will happen at the end of the tribulation whereas I think it will happen at the beginning. We can’t know for sure and simply agree to disagree.
At the other end of the spectrum, I heard a church deny Jesus rose from the dead after His crucifixion. I don’t have to question or wonder; I know this is a deal breaker. If we deny the resurrection of Jesus, then God’s Word is a lie. The whole plan falls apart.
The problem comes in a wide range of areas in between these two extremes. That is why Paul wrote, “Test all things. Hold on to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). We have to put this into practice rather than blindly accept every teaching we hear – even if that teaching comes from someone we know and respect.
John gives us a little more help when trying to discern the validity of a teaching. He wrote, “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. But every spirit who does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:1-3).
Denying Jesus isn’t only denying what the Bible says about Him. To deny Jesus is to deny the whole of the Word of God as John also wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … The Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We observed His glory, the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14). The Word isn’t merely about Jesus; Jesus is the Word made flesh.
I guess it comes down to one thing when we’re trying to determine if we can agree to disagree or if the issue is a deal-breaker. Does this teaching deny Jesus – His truth, His Word, or His work? If the answer is yes, then it’s more in the deal breaker range. If the answer is no, then maybe we can agree to disagree. We’ll only know into which category it falls if we know the Bible for Jesus Himself – the Word made flesh – said, “You are deceived, because you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matthew 22:29).