I don’t want to fall for false teachings.
I don’t want to be led astray regarding what the Bible teaches, and I don’t want my children deceived either. I’ll bet you feel the same.
But I’m not a professional theologian, nor do I have time to become an expert on every doctrinal dilemma, and that’s okay. The good news is…we don’t need to be scholars to be aware. While regular studying is a biblical requirement, we already have what we need to be discerning church-goers who can spot iffy teachings.
Truth is, biblical discernment has far more to do with using basic critical thinking skills than experiencing a bad feeling about something. If we will choose to love Jesus with our minds while at church, we can take great strides toward filtering out good teaching from the not-so-good (and potentially dangerous).
Here are three simple ways we can be more discerning at church:
1. Turn off the scary music.
First let me say I’m not talking about your church organist here. I’m talking about the scary music that so skillfully builds terror in the hearts of folks who watch horror films. While I am definitely not promoting watching scary movies, I do remember watching a few in my younger years and occasionally thinking about how stupid the scenes would be without the music. Without that creepy Gregorian chant in the background, Freddie slinking out of the hall closet seems completely random rather than nightmarish.
So, how does Nightmare on Elm Street help us have more discernment in church? It helps us see how powerful emotions can be and encourages us to practice tuning out the emotionally charged aspects of a worship service in order to think critically—so we can be discerning.
I am not saying that God doesn’t involve our emotions in worship, or that all emotional aspects of a worship service are bad. I love having my heart gripped as much as the next person. But I am saying we need to practice tuning them out so we can take thoughts captive as we are told to do in 2 Corinthians 10:5. Thoughts are not emotions or feelings. They are claims. Claims about truth and reality. In order to give them the attention they deserve, we need to be able to isolate the content without all the hype. That’s what taking a thought captive means.
Please know I’m not suggesting we strive to attain a monotone faith experience with all the zeal of Charlie Brown’s teacher. But I do believe that if we become more aware of how things like the volume of a preacher’s voice or the build of the music or the tears flowing all around us have the potential to cloud our judgment, then we will give them the proper amount of influence. We will begin to pay more attention to what is being said rather than being swept away by the how.
Unfortunately, there are far too many ways to manipulate a crowd than I can discuss here, but one great way to “turn off the scary music” is to read sermon notes after listening to a sermon to see if anything is off or needs further clarification. Be in the habit of asking yourself, “If he or she was saying this in a straight voice with no dramatics, how would I respond?”
2. Look for Skyscrapers
Skyscrapers are built story upon story, and while chances are slim that you’ll find a tall building in the middle of your sanctuary any time soon, you might be exposed to some skyscraper sermons here and there. You’ll know them by their…stories.
Stories are accounts of events, and they can be very inspiring. I personally like it when a preacher uses a good story or two to illustrate the biblical truth being taught, which, of course should be the main goal. A skyscraper sermon is the opposite of this, however. What you’ll hear is story upon story accompanied by a random Bible verse or two used to make the stories seem more legitimate. In this type of sermon, the Bible plays the supporting role.
One of the most important reasons we gather together at church is to study the Scriptures corporately and learn what they teach and how to apply them to our lives today. In order to do that, we must actually be dealing with…the Scriptures. We must be focused on the biblical text…looking to it as our sole authority as Christ followers.
I believe there are times when a topical treatment of the Bible is appropriate. This is when the pastor chooses to teach a biblical concept such as the character of God, or how believers should handle trials. But if we are not getting any expository teaching, there’s a problem. Expository teaching is basically tackling an entire book of the Bible verse-by-verse. This is where the pastor will actually teach the congregation how to read the book soundly. This is where we see what God wants us to know rather than what a person wants us to know with an added endorsement from a random Bible verse.
Skyscraper sermons are what I call “off the page,” meaning, the contents are not found in the Bible. They are found in the speaker’s experiences (which can sound spiritual…but are not the Bible). This is not always a sure sign of false teaching, but we must be aware—we must be discerning. Begin to listen carefully and ask yourself, “Approximately what percent of this sermon or talk is stories or personal anecdotes, and what percent is actually teaching me the contents of the Bible—not just one verse of the Bible, but a good chunk?” I know of popular speakers who repeatedly present 90% stories in their talks, and the Bible verses they throw in are often taken entirely out of context. This can be dangerous when we aren’t discerning. Skyscraper sermons should not be given weight in our lives without diligent corroboration from the Scriptures.
3. Remember 7th Grade English Class
If you are like me, remembering 7th grade English class isn’t something I do for fun. In fact, the first thing I recall is the cool guy who sat in the row next to me quite boldly (and loudly) drawing attention to how hairy my legs were. But if you’ll push past the mortifying memories, I hope you’ll remember the lessons you learned about literary genres, literary techniques, plot diagrams, and figurative language because these concepts will help us be more discerning in church.
I’ll be honest, I was a Christian for years before I learned that there are sound and unsound ways to interpret the Bible. I thought we all interpreted the Bible same way…every part of it. What I’ve discovered is the study of something called hermeneutics, which is really what we learned in 7th grade English class. It’s how to interpret writings correctly.
Historical Christianity teaches that the Bible is God’s inspired Word—that He superintended human lives in such a way as to have exactly what He wanted written down, and that the final product is true and authoritative. This is a much larger topic than I want to address here, but what I do want to point out is that we become vulnerable to false teaching when we don’t know anything about this process and don’t understand the Bible isn’t simply a mystical menu of life verses to pick and choose from as we like, but is a collection of writings from antiquity. The collection contains poetry, histories, letters, and more. Each of these genres requires using appropriate interpretive skills.
I won’t lie, you could get lost in books forever studying hermeneutics at a scholarly level, but we really don’t need all of that to have a healthy dose of discernment. Simply being aware of a book’s genre will help so much. For example (and this was a tough one to digest for me at first), when reading the book of Proverbs, it is important to know that we are reading…proverbs. These are short, pithy sayings for life that promote general truths for good living…like the saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” We know statements like these aren’t so set in stone that we would put our life savings on the line. If I eat an apple every day and one morning find myself needing a visit to the minute clinic, I’m not going to plummet into despair wondering if my entire life has been a lie. The same should be true for us when we interpret verses out of Proverbs. They are not promises. They are wisdom sayings God intended for teaching life principles. The original audiences knew this…and keeping it in mind will save us from following a teacher who is using a proverb the wrong way to instruct us.
When we learned how to read poetry back in middle school, we learned about idioms, similes, metaphors, and hyperbolic language. We learned how different a poem is from an encyclopedia entry even though they can both express truth. We learned how important context is and the importance of knowing your audience. All these things come into play when reading and interpreting scripture. A great book to read for more of these simple but very important interpretive factors is How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.
If the teaching pastors at your church aren’t explaining interpretive elements on a regular basis (which can be taught in a variety of ways and doesn’t have to feel like a classroom lecture), I suggest you be very cautious. A pastor who teaches sound interpretive methods is more likely to be using them in sermon prep, which is a very good thing.