If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:3-5)
Scripture warns us repeatedly against false teachers who depart from the Word of God and teach their own words instead. With Scripture readily available in the West, it’s shouldn’t be that hard to tell the difference–we do what the Bereans did and compare the teacher’s words to a plain reading of Scripture to see whether they are in accord. Jesus said the same thing, for in His own warning against false prophets, he concludes by affirming the man who hears His words and keeps them, rather than those who hear but do not keep them.
And thankfully, we are not left to our own devices when we make that comparison. We were preceded by millennia of Christians who stood against the false teachers of their own day. They left us with creeds, confessions, and other writings we can use to help us discern whether or not a teaching conforms to Scripture. We therefore have the opportunity to read Scripture alongside of them and make use of their insights.
Satan, however, does not rest simply because we enjoy these advantages. The entire reason we have teachers is because many parts of Scripture are less clear to us than others. And because our own circumstances are not identical to our ancestors in the faith, we all must take steps of our own even as we are guided by the Holy Spirit and His Church. Accordingly, one of the Devil’s favorite tricks is to have his false teachers do a bait & switch. They claim that a clear part of Scripture is ackchyually obscure and “helpfully” provide you with a verbose secret decoder ring to tell you what it really means.
This can make life difficult because their quarrelling over words often delves into Greek & Hebrew, academic jargon, and other details most people aren’t equipped to parse. On top of that, faithful Christians want to learn from those who know more about God’s Word than they do. We need teachers who really do know the Biblical languages and have studied theology in depth. So how are we to defend ourselves against this trick? Or to put it more precisely, how are we to discern between false teachers deceiving us and faithful teachers correcting us?
When you are unable to tell whether a teacher is false from his argument alone, it’s time to start looking outside of that argument for your answers. Here are some factors Christians would be wise to consider:
Is the teaching novel?
This is the simplest test to perform, but that makes it no less important. The New Testament was written 2000 years ago, and Christians have been reading it ever since. If the teaching they’re trying to sell you on has never, in all that time, arisen out of the Church’s study of Scripture, that should make you extremely suspicious that it’s not actually coming from Scripture. It’s not impossible for a novel teaching to be correct, but it’s so unlikely at this point that you should default to deliberate skepticism.
The origin of an idea matters, especially when it comes to the Christian Faith. What we do and what we believe ought to grow out of what God has told us. Inasmuch as it grows out of worldly philosophies, fads, and customs instead, we are following voices other than God’s–very often the devil’s. That has no place at all in doctrine. And our doctrine must always stand in judgment over our practices. Even where adiaphora–things neither forbidden nor commanded–are concerned, it is always a matter of what is wisest rather than of what is convenient, desirable, or typical. We have no business allowing worldly wisdom to determine the course of the Church.
When a teaching is novel, it is far more likely to be a product of the changing wisdom of the world rather than the unchanging wisdom of Christ. Always be skeptical of a novel teaching, and always be suspicious of any teacher who isn’t bothered by his novelty. As for those who revel in it, simply mark and avoid.
Does the teacher show contempt for a plain reading of Scripture?
Sadly, there are some forms of stupidity of which only the intelligent are capable. So it is among those who treat theology academically.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with studying Scripture with intellectual rigor. All Christians are to love God with all their minds, but in every age, God has given some men more mental capacity than others. Accordingly, those men will inevitably take a more intellectual approach to studying the Bible. What’s more, it is wise for more intelligent Christians to gather together in their study, for iron sharpens iron. Over time, that’s naturally going to lead to some kind of more formalized study, whether in academies, seminaries, monasteries, public writing, or some other setting. And there is nothing wrong with that, per se.
But this kind of study poses a peculiar problem for those who engage in it. After all, a big part of how one learns among other theologians is through argument and discussion. And so when they see Paul warning about controversy, friction, and especially quarrels about words, they can get confused. After all, shouldn’t they always be looking closely at the words of Scripture? Shouldn’t they often argue about those words with other theologians? Surely it cannot all cross the line Paul describes, and so many end up discarding the warning altogether because they cannot make practical sense of it.
As a result, theologians often have a serious problem when someone compares their teachings to a straightforward reading of Scripture. “Plain” and “straightforward” are good, accurate, and useful labels, but they do not have the kind of precision men quarrelling about words prefer, and so they are often disdained. When ordinary Christians appeal to a plain reading, theologians are tempted to respond by implicitly replacing “plain” with the more precise but less accurate “literal.” And because Scripture, like any book, isn’t always to be taken literally, they arrogantly disregard these appeals that would save them from false teaching. After all, how can one even tell whether the words are meant literally, metaphorically, allegorically, typologically, or in some other sense without endless debates with other experts? When one proceeds down this path, it’s frightfully easy for the theologian’s primary question of “what did God say” to become the devil’s primary question of “Did God really say?”
But while this may be an easy mistake to make, it’s not a permissible one. Anyone who has difficulty telling the difference should give up their aspirations of being a theologian. It’s not for nothing that James warns us, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” The only way out of this trap is for theologians to constantly strive to cultivate humility; and it’s usually very easy to tell whether your teacher is humble. Do they sneer at “fundamentalists” for believing God’s word in simple way? Do they despise accurate but imprecise concepts like “common sense,” “plain,” “straightforward,” and so forth as somehow beneath them? Do they act as though reading solid translations typically leads ordinary Christians astray rather than feeding them? Do they go so far as to take offense that someone would steadfastly hold to a simpler reading than their own? If so, odds are good that you are dealing with either a false teacher or one who is teetering on the brink.
Why are they departing from the literal sense of the text?
As I already indicated, a plain reading and a literal reading are not always the same thing. A plain reading is a policy of departing from the literal sense of the text only when the text itself directs you to. Sometimes, Scripture does so quite explicitly. For example, oftentimes when Jesus tells parables, the Gospel writers label them as parables. Sometimes, they even record Jesus’ explanation of the meaning behind the imagery, so there’s no confusion that it is, in fact, imagery. The same can be said of Revelation, which wastes no time informing the reader that the lampstands are actually churches and the stars are actually angels of those churches. It tells you right away not to read the book literally.
Other times, it’s more implicit. For example, reading the text will usually make it clear what genre of literature you’re reading, and so you accept imagery accordingly. When Proverbs begins by calling itself “the proverbs of Solomon” you read the proceeding text as wise sayings. You likewise read the psalms as poetry. In contrast, when Luke tells you he’s writing a narrative about the things that have happened, you read it as an historical narrative. And these are only examples. There are various ways in which Scripture lets us know that it’s being figurative.
There’s nothing magical or mysterious about this process. There are some ways in which the Bible is different from any other book, but it remains a book. Most of us read books that use figurative language all the time without much confusion. The Bible shouldn’t be generating much more confusion in this regard than usual. Biblical “interpretation” should always be a matter of reading comprehension first and foremost. Lutherans have historically referred to that as “ministerial” use of reason. It’s just the ordinary process of using our brains to understand language as best we can. Our reason is a servant to help us receive the text.
False teachers, however, have more dubious reasons to depart from the literal sense. Some do it for philosophy. Zwingli’s metaphysics, for example, told him that Christ could only be bodily present in one place at a time. He allowed this philosophical belief to override Jesus’ plain statement of “this is my body” when instituting the Lord’s Supper. Others do it for their culture; we can certainly observe those living in an egalitarian society always looking for what God “really” meant by all those different instructions to men and women. And of course, our sinful nature constantly seeks to lead us astray as well, as is the case when, say, we want to indulge in errant sexuality. The devil, the world, and our flesh provide us with no shortage of temptation to use our reason to subvert Scripture rather than to understand it.
This is what Lutherans have called “magisterial” use of reason. The difference is that our reason is no longer a servant content to receive God’s Word, but instead deems itself its master, deciding what the Bible is allowed to say. If you’re unsure whether a teacher is false or not, pay careful attention to what baggage he’s bringing to God’s Word. In America today, trying to “save” God from committing cultural “sins” (e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) is one of the biggest red flags that a teacher is doing this (but it is by no means the only one.)
Is their explanation of the text deeper or is it entirely different?
There is always more to learn from God’s Word. You can read the same part of the Bible again and again but still receive new insights from it every time. But even as we deepen our understanding, we do not depart from the simpler understanding. The clearest example of this for me is Luther’s Small and Large catechisms. The former explains key parts of Scripture in a simple way appropriate for children. The latter explains those same key parts in a far more extensive fashion. However, it’s not as though the Large overturns the Small or that the Small overturns the Bible. Each merely exposits it at greater length. Scripture says “You shall not murder.” The Small Catechism says that means “We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.” The Large Catechism goes on at some length, applying the Commandment to both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances of life. But all retain and are built upon that plain sense of “you shall not murder” as even a child would understand it. That kind of exposition is what we should look for from our teachers.
Contrary examples are unfortunately legion, but the recent controversy over 1 Timothy 2 provides a timely one. The Bible says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” Here, God gives both a prohibition and the reason for that prohibition in a simple and straightforward way. One might not understand why Adam’s priority in creation or Eve’s deception matters with respect to teaching and exercising authority in Christ’s Church, but it’s plain from the text that it matters.
And, of course, if you want to faithfully deepen your understanding, you start with that plain understanding of the text and then delve into it more deeply. For example, you could go back to the stories Paul refers to. You open Genesis 2 and read about God creating Adam first and realize that God made woman to be man’s helper and that man was appointed as her head. You go back to Genesis 3 and read that God condemned Adam specifically for listening to his deceived wife–for knowingly prioritizing the word of the helpmeet God had made for him over the word of God Himself. And knowing that we are sons of Adam and daughters of Eve makes it clear to us that we are not different kinds of beings possessing less vulnerability than they. We maintain this order of creation in the Church because that is the kind of beings God has made us. That kind of explanation maintains the simple sense of the words while deepening our understanding of them.
Compare that to an alternative explanation I recently came across. His claim is that Adam being formed first and Eve being deceived is only a statement about Eve’s lack of instruction relative to Adam. And so what those verses “really” mean is that women aren’t to teach or exercise authority over a man until they have been adequately instructed. Forget for a moment how little sense this explanation makes on its own. Forget that Eve was instructed in the only way that mattered and that women in the early church were likewise being instructed from the beginning. What I want to call attention to is how this explanation subverts and replaces the plain sense of Scripture rather than deepening and expounding on it. In this explanation, the God-given reasons for this prohibition are deemed merely correlative to the “real” reason. As a result, the timeless God-given reasons rooted in Creation and Fall are deliberately put away and replaced with a different one: educational standards. From there, the entire prohibition is set aside wherever educational standards are considered met.
The upshot is that the plain understanding of the text is obliterated and an entirely different understanding is substituted–wearing Paul’s words like an ill-fitting skin suit rather than proceeding organically from them. That kind of substitution is another mark of false teaching. And it’s hardly a new one. That is, after all, precisely how the Devil deceived Eve into interpreting God’s command in the first place. It’s also the same trick Baptists pull when they deny the plain sense of “Baptism now saves you” and argue that it “really” means that something else which merely correlates with Baptism is what truly saves. It takes God’s word and provides a secret decoder ring where the ordinary sense of the text needs to be swapped out with whatever the false teacher prefers. Do not trust teachings based on this kind of explanation or teachers who regularly participate in it.
If a teacher or teaching fails any of these tests, you should be on guard. Take it as a reason to look even more closely. If they fail all of them (like the fellow arguing against 1 Timothy 2) you should mark them as a false teacher and treat them accordingly. That goes beyond treating it as a mere gentleman’s disagreement. Jesus likens false teachers to ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing. The sheep does not have a civil discussion with the wolf and seek friendship. The sheep seeks protection from him, and the shepherd simply drives him off. You do not owe false teachers courtesy. You do not owe false teachers the benefit of the doubt. Jesus himself tells you they are dangerous enemies. When you recognize them for what they are, trust Christ’s warning enough to treat them accordingly.