Originally published July 22, 2016
“What are your thoughts about _____?
Is she doctrinally sound? Is she a false teacher?”
That’s probably the number one question I’m asked by readers. It gives me so much joy each time I receive that question because it’s encouraging to hear from Christian women who don’t want to be led astray and want to worship Christ in spirit and in truth.
I’m delighted to answer readers’ questions about various teachers (You can find information about many of today’s best known evangelical personalities and ministries under my “Popular False Teachers” tab at the top of this page.) but, unfortunately, my answers often take a while. I’ve never heard of many of the teachers I’m asked about, and in order to give a fair and biblically accurate answer, I have to research each of them. The less famous they are, the less information there is out there about them, and the longer it takes. And that weighs on me because I know a lot of you, when you write to me about a certain teacher, need answers now.
It also weighs on me because I don’t want you to just take my word for things. I am a fallible, sinful human being. I get things wrong. I miss things. I make mistakes. Also, I’m not going to be around forever (well, not on this planet anyway!)
For these reasons, and because it’s an important spiritual skill to hone and teach others, I want you to be able to research these people for yourself. “Teach a (wo)man to fish…” and all that, you know. Here are the seven steps I take to discover whether or not a teacher is doctrinally sound.
1. Know your Bible
This. is. not. optional. Get a trustworthy translation (read: not The Message, The Voice, a Joyce Meyer Study Bible, etc.) and study it forwards, backwards, and upside down if you have to. Find, join, and faithfully attend (also not optional) a doctrinally sound church that will immerse you in the depths of God’s word through its preaching and teaching. Listen to good sermon podcasts or an audio Bible during the week. Memorize Scripture. Learn good hermeneutics. Every Christian should be doing these things by default anyway, and one by-product of knowing your Bible is that when you see or hear a statement by a teacher, you often won’t have to do a lick of research to determine whether or not you’re being taught biblical truth. The Scriptures will already be in your heart and mind for comparison.
One of the things I ask of God during my regular prayer time is that He would protect me from being deceived by false teachers, that He would continue to grow me in wisdom and discernment, and that He would develop the mind of Christ in me. It’s also a good idea to pray for wisdom and discernment, and for trustworthy information, before researching a teacher.
3. Know your criteria
One of the arguments I frequently hear when warning people away from a false teacher is “But every teacher makes mistakes!” (see #7 here) Of course every teacher makes mistakes in her teaching, and every teacher sins. A sin or a mistake doesn’t qualify someone as a false teacher. What you’re looking for is repentance and correction.
A trustworthy, biblical teacher teaches sound biblical doctrine and avoids known sin nearly without exception. When those exceptions occur and someone brings it to her attention, she listens, is teachable, repents, and corrects her error (Apollos is a great biblical example of this). False teachers, on the other hand, unrepentantly persist in sin or teaching false doctrine despite biblical correction. Often, they exhibit complete unteachability (as do their followers), deriding those biblically calling them to account as haters, divisive, slanderers, scoffers, jealous, etc.
When I research a teacher, I examine three fundamental areas of her life and teaching: a) Does she currently and unrepentantly preach to men? (Or, if the teacher is male: Does he allow women to preach to mixed audiences from his pulpit or in his stead? Is his wife co-pastor of the church?) b) Does she endorse and/or partner with known false teachers or ministries? c) Does the doctrine she teaches and practices line up with Scripture?
4. Criteria a: Women teaching men
This is a scriptural litmus test that can help give you a quick answer as to whether you should be following a certain teacher or not. The Bible tells us that women are not to preach to, teach the Bible to, or exercise authority over men in the gathered body of believers. Not in the four walls of a church, not on a simulcast, not at a Christian conference. Period. (Click here for more information.)
A preacher or teacher who unrepentantly disobeys this Scripture is no different from one who disobeys Scripture by viewing pornography, embezzling church funds, or teaching that homosexuality or abortion are OK. Scripture is Scripture. It’s all inspired by God the Holy Spirit. There aren’t any instructions to the church that it’s OK with God if you twist their context, brush them aside, or disobey them. If a female teacher currently and unrepentantly preaches to men or a male teacher allows women to do so in his church or ministry, that’s not a teacher you should be following.
Furthermore, women teaching men and women teaching false doctrine are highly correlated. I have researched scores of women teachers. Every single one of them who unrepentantly teaches men also teaches false doctrine in some other aspect of her theology (usually Word of Faith or New Apostolic Reformation). In other words, if a woman teaches men, you can just about take it to the bank that she also teaches false doctrine.
How to find out if the teacher is disobeying Scripture in this area?
Check YouTube and Vimeo for videos of the female teacher speaking at various events. Are men clearly present in the audience?
Consider the events the female teacher speaks at. Does she speak exclusively at events for women, or does she also speak at co-ed events?
Examine the speaking engagement calendar on the female teacher’s web site. Is she scheduled to speak at Anytown Baptist Church at 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday? She’s probably giving the sermon that morning.
For (male) preachers, check the sermon archives and the “meet our staff” sections of the church web site. Are women serving on staff as “pastors” or in positions of authority over men? Do the sermon archives feature female speakers who have preached to the whole congregation?
5. Criteria b: Partnering with false teachers
Scripture is abundantly clear that we are to have nothing to do with false teachers. Nothing. John tells us that even to greet them is to take part in their wicked works. To publicly praise, point people to, or partner with false teachers is even worse.
Finding out if the teacher you’re researching praises or partners with false teachers is another biblical litmus test that can help quickly determine whether you should be following her or not.
The easiest way to do this is with an internet search engine. Type the name of the teacher you’re researching into the search bar followed by the names of at least a few well known false teachers or ministries (for example: Jane Smith Joel Osteen). You may wish to try names like Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, Andy Stanley, Joyce Meyer, Beth Moore, Christine Caine, Hillsong, Bethel, IF: Gathering, Proverbs 31 Ministries, etc.
Examine the results. Are there a lot of connections between the teacher you’re researching and known false teachers? Does she frequently and favorably quote, comment on, or re-post false teachers on her social media pages? Does she make a habit of sharing the stage with or appearing alongside false teachers at conferences and other events? Do false teachers praise her, invite her to speak at their churches and conferences, or write endorsements of her materials?
Birds of a feather flock together. If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. Bad company corrupts good morals. It’s all true. A teacher who frequently, favorably, and unrepentantly associates herself with false teachers should be avoided.
6. Criteria c: Biblical doctrine
If a teacher has failed criteria a and/or b, that’s sufficient. You should not be receiving teaching from that person. Those two criteria will quickly weed out about 90% of false teachers out there today. However, “passing” both criteria a & b, while a fair indicator that you’re probably dealing with a doctrinally sound teacher, is not sufficient. A teacher can operate biblically in those two areas and still teach or practice unbiblical doctrine. You must examine the doctrine and practices of the teacher you’re considering following to see if they’re biblical, and that can take some time and energy.
Does the teacher have a statement of faith or “what I believe” section of her web site? Examine it. Are all of the tenets biblical and backed up with chapter and verse Scripture? Are the tenets specific, detailed, and clear cut as opposed to general and nebulous? A solid statement of faith can be helpful, but keep in mind that a significant number of churches and ministries have perfectly biblical statements of faith “on paper” yet do not faithfully adhere to to those principles in teaching and practice.
Ask doctrinally sound, trustworthy friends if they’re familiar with the teacher’s doctrine. There are also many theologically solid Facebook and Google+ groups you can join and ask your fellow members their impressions of various teachers. There are a lot of Christians out there who have read a lot of books and listened to a lot of teaching. They can be very helpful resources.
What do reputable, doctrinally sound teachers and ministries have to say about the teacher, her teachings, or the Scripture or doctrine in question? I regularly use and highly recommend the following sites:
Fighting for the Faith
Grace to You
*These sites are now dormant, but their archives can be helpful, especially if you’re looking for older information.
Read the person’s materials or listen to her teaching. Take notes. When the teacher makes an assertion, ask yourself, “Where, in context, does the Bible say that?” When the teacher cites a passage of Scripture, look it up and see if she’s using it in context. Does the teacher primarily use one reliable translation of the Bible when teaching, or does she skip around through various translations and paraphrases while teaching to make sure the verses use certain words that fit with the theme or idea she’s teaching? Does she engage in gimmickry or does she simply teach the Word? Is the centerpiece of her teaching a correctly exegeted passage of Scripture, or does her teaching revolve around a story, movie, prop, idea, theme, topic, or illustration that comes from outside of Scripture? Does she frequently allegorize Scripture? Does she make every Scripture about you, your hopes and dreams, your experiences? Does she spend more time correctly handling and teaching Scripture or telling stories, jokes, and illustrations? These are all things to watch and listen for. If a teacher consistently mishandles, misunderstands, or misapplies Scripture, she’s not a teacher you should be following.
7. Check the date
When you’re researching a teacher, check the date on the evidence you’re examining. Is it old or fairly current? We all grow and mature over the years in our walk with the Lord. Are you seeing red flags in the teacher’s older materials? Try to find out if she has repented and corrected those unbiblical teachings or behaviors. If so, and she’s currently teaching and behaving in a way that lines up with Scripture, forgive her. It is not fair or biblical to hold past sin against someone when she has repented and Christ has forgiven her. She, and her recent materials, should only be avoided if she is currently and unrepentantly teaching and/or practicing false doctrine.
Before receiving teaching from anyone, it’s important that we examine that teacher’s doctrine and practices in light of Scripture. God commends the Bereans for receiving Paul’s word with eagerness, yet examining the Scriptures to see if what he was teaching them lined up with the Bible. May we be as vigilant and noble as they in our quest to know Christ and His word.