False teaching is a phrase that carries a lot of weight for the Christian. It often conjures up images of destitute men disguised as preachers seeking to lead the masses astray with their theology. While there are men like that out there not all false teaching comes from men like this. In fact, this mental image we often have of flash teachers can do us more harm than good.
Picturing false teachers as we often do will set us up to receive false teaching from those who don’t look the part of our mental image. The best way to define false teaching is as teaching that contains errors. And even good preachers are going to err every now and then. We’re not God. Which means we’re not perfect. Which means we are prone to error. Even in our theology.
Every Christian should have some sort of basic level of discernment that will help them identify errors in even the good preacher’s theology. Now discernment isn’t like a sledge hammer that we use to just demolish every teaching we here. Neither is it like an x-ray machine that will reveal all the unseen things and show us exactly where the problem is.
Discernment is more like a smoke detector. When the smoke detector goes off it doesn’t always mean there’s a fire or a threat. It just means there’s an excessive amount of smoke somewhere in the house that might be a potential threat. Neither does the smoke detector tell you exactly where the smoke is coming from. It just knows there is smoke somewhere near that might be dangerous. When the smoke detector goes off it is your job to go investigate, locate what triggered the alarm, determine if it’s a threat, and take appropriate action.
Discernment is a lot like that. It sends up little red flags that indicate something might not be right. We all have it. We just have to fine tune it. For the average Christian who isn’t a Bible scholar, it can be hard because we don’t really know what to look for. Here are three simple indicators you can use and you don’t even have to know any theology: character defamation, conjecture, and proof-texting.
The other day I was doing some research on a particular topic and decided to see if there were any good videos on YouTube about it. I found one sermon that was an hour and 15 minutes long. I put it on and the first twenty minutes of the sermon were of the preaching bashing other preachers from the opposing school of thought.
This is a common tactic of false teachers. It usually precedes their presentation of any facts. They’ll throw as many insults as they can at the opposing school of thought with little or no facts to back up their insults. They’re usually, but not always, aimed at how dumb or ridiculous they are for believing whatever it the teacher is attacking.
Nine times out of ten this will be done at the beginning of the sermon. It’s a pretty simple tactic. Tear down opposing teachers’ credibility and you set the audience up to be more receptive to whatever it is you are about to teach. So beware of preachers who open their sermons like this. They could be setting you up for failure.
Also, bear in mind that if a preacher opens like this it doesn’t necessarily mean the following teaching is going to be a false one. This is just a red flag to look for. Remember, the smoke detector only alerts you to the possibility that there might be a threat close. It’s your job to investigate.
Sometimes preachers just like to attack other preachers. Seems silly to say that but it’s the truth. Other times it may be necessary to point out the errors of other teachings because of the danger they pose to the church. Then there will also be times when the best way to understand what a Bible passage means is to first look at what it doesn’t mean.
A big key thing here is slander. Does it seem like they’re just trying to run a smear campaign on the other guys? Are they presenting facts pertaining to the teaching or more so insults pertaining to the teachers? Those kinds of things should set off your smoke detector and cause you to proceed with caution.
Conjecture relates to the preacher’s opinion. Every preacher is entitled to their opinions and good preachers will always include their opinions with a disclaimer letting you know, “Hey, this is just my opinion here.” Unfortunately, not all preachers will and when they don’t you won’t really know how their opinion has influenced their interpretation.
But when they do pay attention. Take that serious. Honest preachers do that because they don’t want to lead you astray based on what they’ve concluded but can’t really prove. If a preacher includes an opinion disclaimer and you pay close enough attention you’ll be able to tell in what other ways that conjecture has trickled into the teaching.
No matter how hard we try, it’s hard to keep our opinions from trickling into other areas. When they do it doesn’t always mean the resulting interpretation is wrong. But it does mean that it could be. So it’s something to look for and pay attention to.
A definite big no-go when it comes to conjecture is if they’re using their opinion as a supportive point to prove the validity of their teaching. In my experience, this should always be dismissed immediately and without question. While conjecture may not be wrong it should never be held on the authoritative level of Scripture.
Therefore, it can’t be taken seriously as a main point of support to prove the biblical authenticity of a teaching. Conjecture is warranted at some points but it is not Scripture. Opinions do not come from the Bible. They come from us. So it is ridiculous to use a non-biblical point of reference to prove something is biblical.
And check this out. I’ll give you this one for free. When a preacher uses conjecture as a main supportive point then it’s almost a guarantee that all their other supportive points were actually influenced by that opinion. Which means the rest of their message, no matter how many Scriptures they throw at you, is highly questionable. Conjecture as a main point of reference is always a big red flag for me.
In that same sermon, I mentioned above after the preacher got done insulting teachers from the opposing school of thought he says, “Now I’ve got nine proofs why this is true. Eight are biblical and one is extra-biblical.” (Extra-biblical simply means it comes from outside the Bible.) Let’s dissect this statement with just a little logic.
“I’ve got nine proofs why this is true.” By true he meant biblical. He had nine proofs why what he was teaching was biblical. But one of those proofs he offered he admits was not biblical. Now, logically, how does a unbiblical point prove something is biblical?
Notice also that he offers this as an authoritative statement. He didn’t say he had nine proofs why he thought or felt or had personally concluded that it was biblical. If he had included such a disclaimer then we could cut him a little slack.
But he didn’t. When a man says, “This is what the Bible teaches and I can prove it,” he’s walking on holy ground. He’s saying that he knows beyond all doubt that there’s no possible way he has misunderstood or misinterpreted whatever it is he’s teaching on. When a person is not considerate of the possibility that they might have erred this is also a red flag within itself. (Another free one.)
In actuality, saying, “I can’t err,” is an error within itself. You can err therefore you have erred by saying you can’t. And you’ve also lied. So watch out for this one too. I’ve never taken anyone serious who says they’ll teach truth but tells lies by saying they can’t err. Furthermore, not only is it an error and a lie but it’s also a deception. The person who believes they’re unable to err is truly deceived. If they’re deceived about their inability to err there’s no telling what other kinds of deceptions fill their teachings. Anyways, that was all free. Back to the point.
The preacher then offered his extra-biblical point as his first supporting proof. He goes on to say, “First of all, it’s just common sense that this would be true.” I shut him down after that. What may appear to be common sense to us doesn’t mean it is a biblical truth. There are tons of paradoxes in the Bible that go entirely against the grain of common sense. If we rely on our common sense to guide us into the truth we’ll never be able to see the truth in its fullest.
Proof-texting is when you take a point or a topic and then offer proof texts from the Bible to show why that point or topic is true. Like the other two indicators, this does not always mean the teaching is an erroneous one.
Take, for example, the statement, “Jesus died for our sins.” This is a true statement that can be preached on topically through offering proof texts from the Bible. Likewise, there are many other topics that this can be done with to present clear biblical truth.
This is also commonly called topical exposition because you take a topic from the Bible and expound on it through the passages that speak of it. This is definitely the most common kind of preaching done in most churches today.
This is the kind of preaching my pastor uses and he’s very good at it. By good I mean he is faithful to sound doctrine in his topical exposition. The people in my church are getting a healthy dose of sound doctrine through my pastor’s topical exposition and most of them don’t even realize it because he’s very good at breaking it down into plain everyday language they can relate to.
In contrast to topical exposition which using proof-texting is expository preaching. The difference is that expository preaching doesn’t focus in just on one subject. It focuses in on one passage and whatever subject(s) that passage may speak to. This is my personal favorite and the kind of preaching I use and advocate.
My reasons for this is that true expository preaching seeks to draw out the meaning of a passage. It forces the preacher to stay true to the text and do not read their own meaning into it. Which means it limits the preacher’s ability to be able to use Bible passages to support whatever it is they want them to support.
The danger with proof-texting as it is used in topical exposition is that widely enables the preacher to be able to use Bible passages to say whatever they want them to say. This is why proof-texting is a common tactic used by false teachers. They’ll present you with a hypothesis as an absolute truth and then pull various passages from the Bible to support their hypothesis.
This is often done to the neglect of other passages which may suggest differently. Or they will simply read their own conjectures into the other passages. Take for example the prosperity preachers who teach that God wants you to be wealthy, never to be sick and that you can control your destiny through your words.
Such conclusions can only be arrived at through the neglect and conjecturing of other passages such as 1 Timothy 5:23, “No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” If it is God’s will for us to never be sick why did Timothy have frequent ailments? Why did Paul tell him to drink a little wine for them and not just tell him to rebuke them in the name of Jesus and speak them away.
What about the many other passages in which Paul described the apostles as living lives in abject poverty for the sale of the gospel? They either have to skip those or influx their own thoughts into them. Faithful expository preaching doesn’t leave room for that. But proof-texting and topical preaching leave plenty of room for it.
Determining whether or not proof-texting is being used to support false teachings or present erroneous conclusions is going to be a bit more of a challenge for the average Christian. The key thing here is context, context, context. And context means so much more than just the immediately surrounding verses. Just because a preacher reads the verse before and after the verse they use as their proof text does not mean they are interpreting it in context.
In my article on The Dual Authorship of The Bible I give the following questions as a great place to start for determining context:
- Who wrote this?
- Who was he writing to?
- What was he writing about?
- Why was he writing this?
- What was his original intended meaning to his original audience?
- What application does his original intended meaning to his original audience have for me today?
In my Introduction to the Gospel of John I show practically how we can use these questions by answering them about the gospel of John. I also give some very practical tips in Where Do I Start With My Bible that will help you begin to get a contextual understanding of the Bible as a whole. And in Tricky Technicalities: How Details Outside of Context Twist the Meaning of Bible Passages from a conversation I had about a passage in Daniel. That one is actually a really good example of how proof-texting can be used to support erroneous conclusions. I recommend reading all of them when you can find the time to.
But when all is said and done the thing that will really help most with this is simply reading your Bible. Just pick it up and read.