Who are you listening to?: Using discernment in an age of itchy ears and false teachings

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. |2 Timothy 4:3-4|

There are so many preachers out there, sometimes it’s hard to know who you should and shouldn’t listen to. Do you ever feel confused about who is and isn’t reliable, and which teachings do and don’t reflect the Bible?

It’s hard to find a balance of love and discernment. Many of us either blindly accept too much or become overly cynical, throwing the baby out with the bathwater after we’ve been deceived or disappointed by Christian leaders. But it is most definitely possible to have a healthy balance.

I genuinely believe that many problems arise when Christians believe they have to accept everything that Christian leaders say. False teachers can cause so many problems. They can destroy people’s faith and make them distrustful of God and closed off to all the good things He has for us. That’s why we have to continuously use discernment so that we don’t get sucked into any wacko doctrines. And we have to keep our eyes open for sneaky false teachings, because they can worm their way into our lives and cause destruction.

I just want to clarify that I am not encouraging you to be one of those witch-hunter types who only ever talks about “discernment” and goes around accusing everyone of being a heretic. That’s never productive, and slandering well-meaning people can cause a lot of damage. However, we are told to test everything and compare what we see and hear with the truth found in Scripture.

God doesn’t expect us to blindly accept everything and assume everyone is reliable just because they claim to be a Christian. In fact, He wants us to be sensible and discerning. We need to stop taking things at face value and always assuming that leaders are speaking the truth.

We have to look at everything in light of Who Jesus is and what He taught us. The truth will never contradict His words, because He is the Truth. If something doesn’t line up with the person of Jesus, then we have to throw it out. End of.

So I’m going to talk about some things that are important to consider when figuring out who you should and shouldn’t listen to.

  • Don’t be afraid to use your discernment and question everything.

Don’t buy the lie that using your discernment is being judgmental or cynical or “resistant.” God gives us discernment for a reason, and a lot of destruction results from people not using any. The Bible says that the person with the Spirit of God makes judgments about all things. So that means you are supposed to be evaluating everything all the time in light of Scripture and what you know to be true about God.

Don’t let Christians scare you into blind compliance. That’s how false teachers thrive. Power-hungry people love it when people don’t question things and think for themselves, because it gives them even more power. If someone is a true man or woman of God, they won’t mind if you question them, and they won’t constantly draw attention to themselves and their position.

For quite a long time I felt terrible for questioning Christians and even thought I was somehow being blasphemous, when really I was just being smart and looking at everything in light of Scripture. Don’t be bullied into silence and blind acceptance.

  • Trust your gut instincts.

There have been several times when I’ve watched videos of certain leaders and have got a really bad feeling about them. They just gave me the creeps, but I felt bad because I thought I was just being cynical and judgmental. It turns out that later on I found out that those leaders have really questionable and wacky doctrines and aren’t people who I would trust. Although I questioned my gut feeling, my first impressions actually turned out to be right.

Sometimes things will happen – whether it be certain behaviors, teachings, or situations – and you will get a bad feeling about it that you can’t even explain. Sometimes you have an internal alarm go off that says, Be careful. This isn’t good. Don’t trust this. I believe these feelings can be there for a reason, and can even be the Holy Spirit warning us.

Don’t just ignore your intuitions. Don’t judge a situation merely by how other people respond to it. Just because people all think that something is good doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. Unfortunately, there are very few people who have discernment and constantly question everything.

  • Learn to read people.

If you’re anything like me, then you tend to observe how people come across. I like to use the word vibe. People give off certain spiritual vibes, and you can tell a lot from people’s mannerisms and especially people’s eyes (they say the eyes are the windows to the soul, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that statement). When looking at leaders, ask yourself if they emanate Christlike peace.

Now I am not talking about physical attractiveness. I’m talking about something entirely different. The reality is that what’s going on on the inside can often manifest itself on the outside. So if people seem really creepy or have crazy eyes, maybe there’s a reason for that. People can’t help how they look, but a person’s demeanor can often give a lot away, if only people would actually be observant of this. Peace and gentleness and all the other fruit of the Spirit don’t only come across in people’s behavior, but can also be evident in their overall demeanor.

Not everyone has this ability to pick up these vibes – some people never pay attention to details such as a person’s eyes – but I believe it’s important to make these kinds of observations because we can learn a lot from them. But at the same time be willing to admit that your impressions of people are not always going to be accurate.

  • Look at people’s fruit (or lack thereof).

This is kind of an obvious one, yet people don’t seem to do it. People look at how people come across in a sermon or a video but forget that there are many people who are good at lying and pretending to be something they’re not. Unfortunately I’ve known several people who lived a lie in this way.

Jesus warned us that there would be many false teachers, and He told us that we would be able to read people by their fruit. So if you observe people’s behavior and see only bad fruit, this is probably a sign that they’re not truly following Christ. Of course there will never be a perfect Christian, and leaders go through rough times and have struggles just like anyone else. But there should always be at least some good fruit and evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in their hearts.

  • Watch out for control freaks.

When leaders elevate themselves above other people and emphasize their authority, watch out. Be wary of people who make their ministry all about them and what they say or do. Real followers of Christ have one real desire: to lead people to Christ. They don’t care about recognition, and they don’t try to control and manipulate others.

If someone always rambles on about their “anointing” (*eye roll* at this word that is used excessively by charismatics), then there might be a problem. Real Christ-followers know that we are all mere servants of Christ who only have the authority which was given to us by Him, and would never use this authority to control others.

  • Look for humility.

What I’ve frequently noticed with genuine Christian leaders is that they all have one thing in common: humility. They don’t have a weird control problem, and they point people to Jesus rather than to themselves. They don’t give themselves impressive-sounding titles such as “apostle” or “prophet,” and they don’t need to convince people that the things they say come from God because it’s just evident when their words come directly from the Spirit.

Now I’m not talking about false humility. People can make statements that make them sound humble yet still behave in a way that draws attention to themselves rather than God. Don’t just listen to what people say. Do they speak and act as if they are equal to other Christians, or do they act like they’re some spiritual guru who everyone simply must listen to? This is a really important question to ask.

  • Compare everything with Scripture.

At the end of the day, the Bible should be the lens through which you look at everything. We should strive to read the Bible as objectively as possible. That means not adding any weird new teachings, twisting certain verses to fit your agenda, or ignoring the things that don’t fit your preferences.

Obviously interpretation is going to vary slightly from person to person, but at the end of the day we should all walk away knowing the same Gospel. If a leader comes out with teachings that you haven’t seen anywhere in the Bible, don’t be afraid to question them and call it out.

I believe that many people have wacky doctrines because they either a) don’t read the Bible for themselves, b) listen to certain leaders’ inaccurate interpretations, or c) focus on their favorite verses while ignoring the rest. If we want to live truly Christian lifestyles, we can’t be doing these things.

There are so many Christians who base their lives off of man-made religion or personal experience, when our foundation should be Scripture. Jesus is revealed to us most clearly in the Bible, and we can’t cast His word aside in order to pursue our “ideal” religion. Don’t listen to leaders who promote their own subjective views rather than the true Gospel of Christ.

I hope that you find this advice helpful or encouraging in some way. As I have already stated, I am not trying to cultivate cynicism, but rather autonomous thinking and true discernment. I believe we can be both loving and discerning.

Real love rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6), so we should seek the truth before we seek happiness or “unity.” Paul wasn’t afraid to call out false teachings, so we shouldn’t be either. However, we should always be humble and loving and should avoid falling into an attitude of cynicism and distrust.

Scriptures about discernment and false teachers:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. |Matthew 7:15-16|

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father Who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name and in Your name drive out demons and in Your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from Me, you evildoers!’ |Matthew 7:21-23|

If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit. |Matthew 15:14|

…many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. |Matthew 24:11|

But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and He is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. |Matthew 23:8-12|

For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. So be on your guard |Mark 13:22-23|

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, Who makes things grow. |1 Corinthians 3:5-7|

One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? |1 Corinthians 1:12-13|

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. |1 Corinthians 2:2|

The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things |1 Corinthians 2:15|

For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. |1 Corinthians 3:11|

So then, no more boasting about human leaders! |1 Corinthians 3:21|

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. |1 Corinthians 5:12-13|

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely |Philippians 1:15-17|

The Spirit clearly says that in the later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. |1 Timothy 4:1-2|

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord Who bought them – bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. |2 Peter 2:1-3|

Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. |2 Peter 3:15-16|

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. |1 John 4:1|

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. |Revelation 2:2|


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