When I was earlier on in my Christian journey I was under the impression that every popular book, song, or speaker in Christian culture must surely be popular for a good reason. They have the largest churches and the most followers on Twitter because they’re the most reliable, right? Well, no. I eventually learned that the reality is quite the opposite.
I hope to make it clear from this moment onward that I feel strongly about this subject because of the personal impact it has had in the past on my perception of God, the Scriptures, and my faith as a whole. I have walked along both sides of the track. As a matter of fact, I can vividly recall the very first time that I was exposed to an article about my favorite writer and speaker at the time – Joyce Meyer, if you care to know – and her so-called “heretical” teaching. I don’t even think I knew what the word “heresy” meant at that point, but once I looked it up I was outraged. I had always heard we were supposed to subject ourselves to the authority of teachers and preachers, especially those who had really helped and impacted so many people. Who are we to judge? How dare we speak out against supposed false teachers when we aren’t God, and therefore cannot see the hearts of these people? Frankly, because Scripture tells us that we should. I’ll delve into that in a minute.
So why is it that these discussions about false doctrine cause so much conflict in the Church? It seems to me – both from experience and the testimony of Scripture – that people get up in arms about the exposure of false teaching for two big reasons.
First, attacks on popular false teaching is offensive to those who are fond of said teachers because they tend to take the criticism personally. When I read the article about Joyce Meyer and became upset it was not really out of loyalty to Meyer and her teaching, but rather an instinct of self-preservation and the justification of my own principles – principles that I had gleaned, without discernment, from my beloved teacher. It shook me to the core to see her called false, because it was obvious to me that if she were somehow in deep error then I was in error as well. And this is precisely why God holds spiritual leaders doubly accountable (James 3:1).
The exposure of false teaching is also hard to accept because false doctrine is attractive. Some of the most dangerous doctrines do not usually stand out at first glance because they appeal heavily to our emotions and desires – thus clouding our spiritual judgement – and they are often hidden amidst smaller truths so that they come across as palatable and insignificant. An excellent example of this is at the fall of mankind in Genesis 3. The very first verse proclaims that the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made (ESV). When the serpent entices Eve, he doesn’t say outright that she should disobey God because God is a lunatic or some other obvious nonsense. Instead, he twists his lies into a conversation saturated with half-truths until Eve is confused and unsure of who she can trust. This is exactly how false doctrine enters the Church today.
There is actually an entire chapter devoted to the danger and attractiveness of false teaching in 2 Peter (and I would strongly advise you to pause and give the whole passage a read). Peter says: But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies . . . And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. . . . For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. (2 Peter 2:1-3, 18 ESV)
So we see in this portion of Scripture that false teaching is neither insignificant nor absent throughout any period of the Church’s history. We also see that the teaching is introduced in deceitful and exploitative ways, whereas the teachers prey on their pupils’ emotional and financial vulnerabilities with the knowledge that they will then be drawn to the false messages of comfort, prosperity, and self-confidence.
Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about this is that postmodern society and its philosophies about truth, tradition, and Christianity have infiltrated Christian culture to the extent that people are convinced that the difference between sound and false teaching is unimportant. Further, the tables have been turned in an act of desperate self-defense. In the eyes of the contemporary Church, the only danger when it comes to heresy is the exposure of it. Unity is seen as something higher than and distinct from truth, and truth isn’t a priority at all when it comes to the knowledge of salvation. Don’t rebuke Joel Osteen, because he empowers people. Don’t speak out against The Shack, because it’s only a harmless fictional story. And don’t say Scripture has full authority, because God revealed a new word to someone’s favorite Facebook apostle today.
Scripture says differently, however. It exhorts us to take every thought captive to the Word of God (2 Corinthians 10:5), to keep an eye out for false teachers who masquerade as apostles of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:13), to test prophetic spirits to see if they are of God (1 John 4:1), to keep ourselves from being led astray by unorthodox teachings (Hebrews 13:9), and to both avoid and expose the works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11).
Don’t stand idly by while the Church around you is corrupted. It is essential that we become Biblically literate, and it is essential that we practice discernment where doctrine is concerned.