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How do you know if what your pastor, you Sunday School teacher, your favorite podcast preacher, or your favorite Christian author is teaching you matches up with what the Bible actually says?
Did you know that you’re supposed to examine what you hear and read by the measuring stick of Scripture and reject anything that conflicts with it? Or do you just take for granted that if someone is a pastor, teacher, or Christian celebrity, he must know what he’s talking about, and what you’re hearing or reading must be biblical Christianity?
If you didn’t know you need to examine what you’re being taught, or you’ve always just assumed that if someone calls herself a Christian teacher what she’s saying must be biblical, sadly, you are not alone. In fact, you are in the overwhelming majority of the visible church. I’ve been a faithful church member all my life and, to this day, in the churches I’ve attended, I’ve never heard a pastor or teacher proactively preach or teach this biblical concept. I was nearly forty when I “stumbled across” the concept of being a good Berean – through a para-church ministry.
What does it mean to be a Berean, or discerning, or to “test the spirits”?
The term “Berean” comes from a little story in Acts:
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.
“Testing the spirits” comes from 1 John 4:1:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.
Some Christians have an extra measure of discernment – “distinguishing between spirits” – as a spiritual gift:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;…to another [is given] the ability to distinguish between spirits,
1 Corinthians 12:4,10b
But all of these passages have the same foundational concept. All Christians are to believe what rightly handled, in context Scripture teaches, and reject whatever contradicts it. Although it is the responsibility of our pastors and church leaders to teach and lead us to distinguish between true and false doctrine, we are not to depend solely on others to “do discernment” for us. We need to learn how to be good Bereans ourselves.
How do we go about that?
Accept the fact that false doctrine/false teachers exist.
I know that sounds uber basic, even for “Basic Training,”, but there are many professing Christians who reject the idea that a pastor, teacher, or Christian celebrity – especially their personal favorite – could be a false teacher. If someone has gotten a job as a pastor, has a seminary degree, has thousands of followers on social media, or has a major Christian retailer promoting her conferences and selling her materials, what that person is saying must be biblical. Accepting the fact that false doctrine (teachings that conflict with Scripture) and false teachers (people who teach false doctrine) exist is the first hurdle a Christian has to get over in order to ultimately be a good, obedient to Scripture, Berean.
False teachers and false doctrine have been around since the birth of the church. Don’t believe me? Take a stroll through the New Testament. You’ll find that every single book (except Philemon) deals with false teachers or false doctrine in some way. It’s a major theme of both the Old and New Testaments. To deny that false teachers and false doctrine exist is to call God – the author of Scripture – a liar.
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 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.
2 Peter 2:1-3a
Understand why discernment is important.
As with many things in Christianity, there is a spectrum of false doctrine. Some doctrines are so integral to salvation that if you believe falsely about them, you are not a Christian (regardless of what you think, feel, or call yourself) and you will spend eternity in Hell.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Some false doctrines aren’t integral to salvation, but will warp and hinder your relationship with Christ and stunt your Christian growth. As an example of this, I’ve often cited the false teaching that prayer is a “two-way conversation” (you talk to God and then He talks back to you). I was once a victim of this false teaching, and because I wasn’t hearing God speak to me I suffered all kinds of anxiety: wondering if I was truly saved, feverishly trying to dig out the hidden sin that must be there preventing me from hearing from God, lamenting my lack of faith that kept me separated from Him, and so forth.
But more important than the way false doctrine affects you or me personally is that God commands that we reject what conflicts with His written Word. Because God’s Word is objective truth, anything that stands in opposition to it is a lie. And Satan is the father of lies, even if the person telling those lies claims to be a Christian. To knowingly believe false doctrine is to reject God in favor of Satan. It is disobedience. It is calling God a liar. It robs God of the glory and honor due His name.
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.
And what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.
2 Corinthians 11:12-15
Submit to Christ and His Word as your authority in life.
If you have been genuinely regenerated, you are a new creature in Christ. You are no longer a slave to sin, but a slave to Christ. That means Christ is your Master. He gets to run your life and tell you what to do (including the command to reject false doctrine/teachers), not you, and you are under obligation to obey Him to the best of your Holy Spirit empowered ability. How do you find out what He wants you to do, believe, think, and say? He wrote it all down for you in the Bible. The Bible is Our Authority.
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.
1 John 5:3
Be a student of the Word.
As obedient servants of Christ, we’re to be students of the Word by default. This is how we get to know Christ better and learn how to obey and emulate Him. But an awesome side effect of being good students of the Bible is that it makes being a good Berean who “examines the Scriptures daily to see if these things are so” much easier. If you’re studying God’s Word, memorizing God’s Word, meditating on God’s Word, praying God’s Word, and applying God’s Word to your life, it’s going to be there in your heart, at the ready, so that when you hear teaching you can do a quick mental comparison to the Scripture and know whether to accept or reject that teaching.
I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.
Where does the Bible say that?
Does the Bible really say that?
These simple questions are two of the most important tools in your Berean toolbox. If you hear a pastor say, “God wants you to be wealthy!” or your favorite women’s Bible study author writes, “God told me ________.”, the question you should be asking is, “Where does the Bible – rightly handled, and in proper context – say that?”
Sometimes a pastor or teacher will read or quote a passage, verse, or part of a verse, (sometimes from a faulty translation or paraphrase of the Bible) and give an explanation of what it means. Again, your question should be similar: “Does the Bible – rightly handled and in context – really say that?”
If you don’t already have the appropriate passages “stored up in your heart”, grab your trustworthy translation of the Bible and a good concordance and start studying. Make sure to study the context of the verses you look up. Who was the original audience of this verse? Is this verse addressing Christians or Old Testament Israel or someone else? Is it a command, or a promise, or a simple description of something that happened in history? In other words, find out what the Bible properly says about the teaching you’ve just heard. If the teaching matches up with what the Bible teaches, do what those Bereans did – “receive it with all eagerness.” If it doesn’t, chuck it.
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
2 Timothy 2:15
Learn to discern.
Sometimes, when you’re learning a new skill, one of the best ways to get a feel for it is to watch an expert do it. I highly recommend listening to Chris Rosebrough’s podcast, Fighting for the Faith, if you’re new to this whole idea of comparing teaching to Scripture. At least until you feel confident in doing it yourself. A major portion of Chris’s program is playing the audio of various teachings and sermons and breaking in with thought-provoking biblical questions, comments, and Scriptures. You’ll learn how and when to ask, “Where does the Bible say that?” and “Does the Bible really say that?”, how to examine Scripture in context, and what some of the common false teachings of the day are.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
Sometimes false doctrine is an honest mistake.
It could be a mistake on your part (especially if you’re just starting to learn your Bible and about discernment). Maybe you weren’t careful to look at the context of the Scripture you’re examining. Maybe you misunderstood its meaning. Maybe you misunderstood what the pastor, teacher, or author said or meant.
It could also be a mistake on your pastor’s, Sunday School teacher’s, or other Christian leader’s part. People are human and make mistakes even when they don’t mean to. Maybe your pastor just flubbed his words in the sermon and didn’t say what he actually meant to say. Maybe your Sunday School teacher thinks she has a biblical understanding of baptism, or peace, or evangelism because that’s what she was taught in church growing up, and just doesn’t realize what she’s saying conflicts with Scripture.
Does the person you think has taught false doctrine generally have a track record of acting biblically and teaching sound doctrine? Go to him kindly, humbly, and politely, and ask for clarification with the appropriate Scriptures at the ready. Does he readily admit he messed up and align himself with Scripture? Teachability, humility, and eagerness to submit to Scripture are some of the hallmarks of a doctrinally sound teacher who made an isolated honest mistake. Someone who digs her heels in and clings to false doctrine despite correction – that’s a false teacher, not an innocent mistake (see #7 here).
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.
Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.
Put your feelings aside and be objective.
You’ve weighed your favorite Bible study author’s teaching in the balance of Scripture and she’s been found wanting.
But you love her. You’ve been following her for years. You’ve gobbled up all her books and attended her conferences. You feel like you know her personally. Sadly, it’s at this point that many professing Christian women reject what Scripture says about their favorite teacher in favor of their emotional “bond” with her. Tragically, their bond with that teacher is stronger than their bond with Christ.
If your highest loyalty is to Christ, you won’t do that. You will cut off your right hand or gouge out your right eye to be true to Him and His teaching. The call to follow Christ is a call to die. Death to self, death to worldliness, death to relationships, even death to physical life sometimes.
Rejecting that false teacher might seem hard, but you must put your feelings for her aside and do what is right in the eyes of the Lord, not what is right in your own eyes. Anyone who loves someone else more than Christ is not worthy of Him.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
Being a good Berean is a skill many Christians aren’t aware of and don’t know they desperately need, but being a good student of God’s Word, and yielding your highest loyalty to Christ in what you believe, will grow you to greater Christlikeness and bring you joy, peace, and spiritual maturity.