“And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” [Philippians 1:9-11]
Being in the industry that I am in, and having been involved in ministry in one form or another for over twenty years, I have seen my fair share of false teachings coming out. What follows are a few tips to help you in the area of discernment.
Context, Context, Context
Whenever a passage is cited or quoted, be sure to evaluate it in its original context. Take care to look at the context within the text itself, ie. those verses that come before and after the cited verse, as well as the historical context. This includes the writer, the original recipients, the time period in history, and various other cultural aspects. Often a verse is quoted and applied to your life today when originally it was never intended to be used in such a way.
A number of verses stand out in this regard, but I will refer to two by means of example:
Jeremiah 29:11 – “I know the plans I have for you” – This verse was never written for you, but for the nation of Israel and their time in Babylon. If you look at what they went through, I am sure you would not want those plans to be for your life.
Philippians 4:13 is another passage used – “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” – Again, unless you are in prison for the sake of the Gospel, this verse cannot be applied to your life and the troubles you are going through.
Be a Berean
The recipients of the Gospel in Berea did not take even the sayings of Paul for granted. As Luke tells us in Acts 17:11, “Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.”
Examine what teachers tell you. Examine what the author’s you read are writing. Do not take what they say for granted. This goes for everything that they say or write. Just because they were 100% correct the previous two years, does not mean that they are going to be correct today. Evaluate everything that they say. A number of well-respected teachers of today have changed their views from what they used to be in certain areas (eg. Gay rights, women priests, etc.), but if you do not evaluate their teachings thoroughly, you can easily miss it.
The first step in this regard is to get to know the Bible for yourself. The easiest way to spot false teaching is to know the truth in the first place. So study, study, and study some more.
Think Biblically and Logically
The Lord has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). And it is all contained within His Word. But He has also given us His Spirit and our own brain in order to be able to reason things both Biblically and logically. If something does not make sense, then think it through. If logic tells you something is wrong, then maybe there is. But at the same time, there are things in the Bible that do not make sense logically, such as God’s sovereignty – Him being in control of everything – while at the same time we have to make choices for ourselves. The two conflict with each other in a logical sense, yet both are taught in Scripture.
So think things through logically, but at the same time, allow the Holy Spirit to direct your thinking in terms of what the Bible teaches. This again shows the importance on knowing God’s Word for yourself.
Beware of claims that what they are teaching is new information that has never been discovered or taught before. When it comes to interpretation of Scripture you must always remember that there is only ever one interpretation. It never means one thing to you and then something different to someone else. Though the applications may vary, the interpretation is always the same.
Often times the new interpretations are due to a wrong way of interpreting the Bible in the first place. There are many who try to allgorise everything, to make everything in the Bible is a symbol of something and therefore there is a deeper, more spiritual meaning. For example, David selected five stones from the river to kill Goliath. People have given this many different interpretations, saying that each of the stones meant something in a spiritual sense and that even Goliath himself has a twenty-first century spiritual meaning. As if the story of David and Goliath is not true, but is merely a story to teach us some spiritual truths. Beware of things like this. There are no hidden meanings in the Bible. Everything can be understood by anyone, even a child. There is nothing mystical or allegorical about it.
Judge Them by Their Cover
It has always been said, never judge a book by its cover. Well this is not true. In many cases a book can be judged by its cover. One tell-tale sign on a cover is when it tells you how many copies are in print. Though not always a negative sign, it can be an indicator of the popularity of the book. Usually, the more correct and convicting material is not popular. Even Jesus Himself was not popular in His day.
Another tell-tale sign is when they advertise on the cover that it is a New York Times best-seller. This is a secular publication. If they are calling a best-seller, who is buying it? Chances are that more secular people are buying it than true Christians.
Also, look at who endorses the book. If a known false or not-so trustworthy teacher is endorsing it, there could be something in it that is to be avoided. The publisher too could be an indication. Some publishers are well-known for bringing out dodgy titles, so if the book is published by one of them, beware.
The same tests can be applied to ministries and churches themselves. Their popularity, who endorses them, or what kinds of teachers they themselves endorse, are all indicators of where their theological bias lies.
Finally, be on guard for those that are seeking fame or fortune. Though we cannot judge their motives, often their desire for money and their name in lights is evident by what they say and what they do. Though they may have begun their ministries without these desires, when large amounts of money or great fame are in play, it can be difficult for people to resist the temptation.
I could say much more about discernment. There are many guidelines within Scripture of the things to look out for. Read the books of Jude and 2 Peter for example. But these five simple tips are a good place for you to start.