I feel the need to add something to my sermon and go one step farther in equipping us to handle false teaching. Our passage (Colossians 2:1-15) was recently about being completely satisfied in Christ in such a way that allows us to detect and reject teaching that leaves us dependent on persuasive or super-spiritual teachers, and not wholly on Christ. If you missed the sermon, here is a short list of my main points.
It doesn’t have to be heretical false-teaching to be harmful to our faith.
There are still plenty of false teaching and sub-Christian influences today.
We must test everything taught in the name of God against the Word of Christ (Bible).
First off, be reading/listening.
We could just bypass the threat of false teaching altogether by not doing any extra reading or deeper study. But this is to miss the point, and demonstrates a less-than-mature hunger for God’s Word (1 Cor. 3:2, Heb. 5:12, 1 Pt. 2:2). Teachers are a gift of Christ to the Church (Eph. 4). Reserving a special place in your study for your local church and its teaching elder(s), read good books and enjoy other helpful content. The unprecedented access to all kinds of faithful teaching is something for which we should be grateful. The New Testament frequently commands, and often assumes, the spiritual growth of the Christian. And, as we see in our passage, it describes as necessary for that growth, an increase of knowledge and understanding. To be clear, this happens initially, and this happens best, as we read Scripture. The Apostolic letters written to the churches were meant to be shared (Col. 4), remembered (1 Cor. 5:9), studied (2 Pt. 3:15-16), and obeyed. Therefore, the job of the Christian teacher/author is to simply explain, encourage, remind, and compell the church in the Truth of God’s Word. And as long as they are faithful stewards of the text, accept them as the gifts to the church that they are and learn from them. After all, as a disciple we are “learning-followers,” and this will, for most of us, require life-long deeper study of the vast riches of spiritual truths found in the Bible. That said, this privilege must be managed carefully, as no teacher is beyond the need for criticism.
Next, exercise your discernment muscle.
While some have the spiritual gift of discernment (1 Cor. 12:10), judging between truth and error is a skill all Christians are called to grow in (Heb. 5:14). In our passage, Paul serves up strongly worded warnings that the Colossian Christians not be diluted/deceived (v.4) or taken captive (v.8) by pseudo-Christian doctrine that seeks to add to the person, work and teachings of Jesus. He goes on to tell them what to look out for – smooth rhetoric, man-centered wisdom, empty promises, and human tradition. Today, I talked about the dangers that exist for us today (1 Jn. 4:1) – emphasis on material blessing and success rather than faithfulness to Christ, dependence upon pragmatic crowd-pleasing best-practices rather than the Spirit, desire for super-spiritual exclusive insight instead of the sufficient Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Heb. 1:1-2), and on it goes – all under the Christian banner. We are naïve to think there are not false and unfaithful teachers by which we could be influenced if we are not on guard. We must increase in both our ability and our willingness to test all that is said in the name of God by the Word of God (Acts 17:11), regardless of who it is.
Here are 7 practical tips to help you do that…
#1: Know the Truth. The only way discernment can be a sustainable practice is to first know what the Bible teaches. The very meaning of the word discernment (to judge/decide accurately) requires that the standard against which everything is being compared is clearly understood. Knowing the truth only comes by way of a continuous commitment to the prayerful study of Scripture. And knowing what God's Word says is critical, so that one might accurately compare what purports to be biblical to the Bible.
#2: Admit False Teachers Exist. The first step to discerning the problem of false teaching is to admit they still exist today. While this might go without saying, most Christians simply are not comfortable saying that someone with a pattern of false teaching is a false teacher. Most are uncomfortable because they think it is judgmental and mean-spirited. Others are reluctant to call someone a false teacher, because they lack the ability to say for sure whether something is, in fact, error. In any case, the first step is to recognize that there are both deceived and deceptive Bible-twisters (2 Pt. 3:16) who teach unbiblical and historically anti-Christian doctrines.
#3: False Teachers Say True Things. Not everything a false teacher says is biblically false. This much is obvious, however it bears acknowledging. No one would listen to them if they didn't teach at least a minimum amount of widely accepted, familiar biblical truth. In fact, it is possible for a teacher to be largely in line with historical Christianity, and stray in only a few areas of biblical doctrine, and still be guilty of serious error. Ignorance to the influence of our evil spiritual enemy is not a virtue and is not helpful. We must not give them the benefit of the doubt simply because they are personable and sincere; too much is at stake!
#4: If It Is New, It Aint True. This proverb was true even in the early church and becomes more and more true with time. At the close of each period of biblical revelation (OT and NT), God repeats the warning to not add or remove anything to His Word. There are no more hidden mysteries to be discovered by the exclusive spiritualists, the uber-spiritual, or the intellectual elite. Though the truth in Scripture is spiritually discerned, the way of salvation and sanctification can be plainly understood. All Truth related to salvation, life and godliness (2 Pt. 1:3) has been recorded in God’s self-revelation and seen most powerfully in the person, work, and teachings of Jesus – which is the whole of Scripture.
#5: Their Personal Life Matters. Doctrine is critical, but it is not the only thing that matters. Christians must consider the personal lives of all who profess to be in Christ, and most strictly, those who teach. While on one hand, bad doctrine leads to bad living, it is possible for a teacher to have relatively sound doctrine, yet lack in the corresponding fruit of holiness or love. A teacher's life and teaching must work in tandem, the one constantly commending the other. And while perfection cannot be expected, one must require spiritual leaders to be, by God's grace, exemplary of a life lived for Christ. Christ, speaking of false teachers, warns not only of their false teaching, but also of their bad fruit. Their lives ought to preach as sound a doctrine as do their words.
#6: Their Popularity Is Not Proof. Despite how the world thinks, popularity is not an automatic sign of success. A packed out building, multiple services in multiple location, a certified Twitter account, and books on the NY Times bestseller list are far from proof of a blessed teaching ministry. There are a lot of ways even professing Christian teachers can draw a crowd (Jn. 6:66-69) and create a following without being overtly biblical. No doubt, there are sound teachers who the Lord causes to be quite influential while maintaining a strong commitment to God-honoring and biblical teaching. So, while having influence or a ministry that impacts many people is certainly not a bad thing, Christians ought to be extremely careful to automatically validate a teacher on the basis of popularity alone.
#7: Jesus Must Be the Focus. Regardless of the portion of Scripture, Christ is the ultimate focal point – whether directly or indirectly. One should expect at least a meaningful reference to, if not an emphasis on, Christ and our subsequent Christ-likeness from every teaching. The Old Testament points forward to Him and the spiritual reality of being in Christ. The New Testament points backward to Him and His finished work on earth, His teachings, His work in heaven as High Priest, and His future return and reign. This is what it means that Jesus as The Word made flesh (Jn. 1:1-14). To focus on anything that doesn't refer back to or directly emphasize Him is simply to not preach the Word. The faithful teacher will be quite satisfied to repeatedly show us Christ in the text.
Finally, be satisfied in Christ.
Remember, to supplement (to add to in order to improve) anything that is sufficient, is actually to subtract from it. Paul finishes this part of his letter with a passionate description of Jesus, as if to say, Is He not enough?! or Are those “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11) capable of doing this for you? No one can add to what Christ has done. No one can give us more than He’s given us by His Spirit. No one can improve upon what He has said by His Word and through the Apostle’s teaching. If Christ (who He is, in His Word, and by His Spirit in us) truly satisfies us, we will not be so easily be impressed, taken captive or deceived by smooth-talking philosophers and peddlers of sub-Christian human wisdom.
Yours in Christ,