A couple of times in our lives, my husband and I attended churches where we didn’t quite agree with everything, but we felt these churches were the closest we could find to our own understanding of Scripture. The differences weren’t a matter of false teaching or heresy: they were areas where good people could differ and should be able to give each other grace. We felt as long as the Bible was preached and taught rather than a particular system, then everything would be okay.
In one church, over time, we began to notice that everyone from the pastor to Sunday School teachers to lay leaders began quoting the same authors. Then their vocabulary began changing to match the authors they revered. Concepts that used to be alluded to were now main points. Sermons and lessons changed emphasis to feature points from these authors, and Bible passages were viewed through their lens. When one man spoke about this belief system as being “in the club,” it almost seemed a little cultish.
In another church, the issue wasn’t a particular belief system. But every Christian bestseller that came along was eventually taught in our church. When we moved, I found sermon notes from our first year there which were rich and meaty and directly from the Bible. Later sermons were second- or third-hand thoughts from popular books.
One of my favorite writers reads and quotes authors that I am uncomfortable with because their view of Scriptural truth seems a little skewed to me. Instead of following standard hermeneutics, principles for interpreting Scripture, they twist things a little to get a different outcome more in line with popular culture. They are not quite heretical yet, but this subtle shift will lead that way if continued. This lovely author, with so much talent and potential, is getting more entrenched in this kind of thinking every year. It grieves me to see it.
We’ve seen a couple of young men we’ve known get caught up in belief systems that, again, I don’t think are heretical, but I don’t agree with. It wouldn’t be a problem except that these belief systems now dominate their conversation and online presence. They like to bait and argue over their points of belief. Even though they are not being heretical, their ministry and outreach has been hijacked into debating rather than gently persuading people of God’s truth.
We observed over the course of years a definite shift in thinking and beliefs in each of these cases. The speaker or writer didn’t come to their new views from their Bible reading, but from the books they read. Those books then colored their view of Scripture.
One of our former pastors used to frequently quote Charlie “Tremendous” Jones as saying, “You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.“
If that’s true, and I think it may be, we need to be watchful about what we read. Of course, these days many people read online articles and listen to podcasts as well.
Does this mean we should only read books where we know we’ll agree with everything? Not necessarily. It’s good to exercise discernment. Sometimes when we are entrenched in our own tenets and lingo, we can get a little myopic.
But we should filter everything we read through the Scriptures. The Bible tells us to “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Early Christians were called noble because they checked everything even the apostle Paul said against the Scriptures.
We need to be careful not to swallow everything an author says just because they use Scripture or religious talk. The devil does that. “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 11:14-15). With Eve, Satan questioned what God said and then skewed His meaning. He quoted and misapplied Scripture when tempting Jesus. Peter said of Paul’s writing:
There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.(2 Peter 3:16-18).
Some writers don’t go that far–they are not exactly heretical. But a subtle shift in emphasis can skew their teaching, and therefore our thinking. Then a particular facet of their understanding becomes a hobbyhorse. So we need to be discerning not just with writing we might be prepared to be on guard with, but also with popular writing.
We need to make sure we are spending more time with the Bible itself than even books about the Bible. If we’re spending thirty minutes a day in a theological book and ten minutes in the Bible, we’re off balance. One former pastor used to say that bank tellers were instructed in discerning counterfeit money not by studying counterfeits, but by studying the real thing. The more familiar they were with legal money, the more easily they could tell when something was a little off with money they were handling. “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). As we read and study, we need to pray with the psalmist, “I am your servant; give me understanding, that I may know your testimonies!” (Psalm 119:125). Then our “powers of discernment” will be “trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14).
We need to ask God to search our hearts, show us our blind spots, and “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18).
I love good books. I’ve had my thinking shaped in good ways by authors who faithfully studied and represented God’s truth shared in His Word. I especially love writers and teachers who, like the Levites in Nehemiah’s time, “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8).
But we need discernment to know when a teacher is giving the sense of the Word itself or twisting it a bit for their own purposes or from their own mistaken understanding.
And we need to be careful that our thoughts, understanding, and resulting actions are shaped by the Bible itself.
(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)
All teaching needs to be tested against scripture…not the latest best seller.
I agree it’s so important that we test everything against Scripture, and that we learn directly from Scripture and other writers as secondary sources. It’s so much better for us to look what the Bible says than to let others tell us what they think the Bible says.
Yes, prayers continually for understanding.
I agree that it’s important to be careful as to our reading. This doesn’t relate specifically to the Bible, but I’ve noticed so many newer books that deal with transgenderism, LGBTQetc issues, etc., that I’ve almost sworn off “new” books. Many of these books are also in high school libraries now. It’s sad.
So many good books have shown me how to love better, to know God better – but you are so right. They need to tested against scripture. I am always cautious when a sermon is light on bible and heavy on secondary authors. The more I read the bible, the older I get, the more I understand – and see the depth, power and beauty God has for us!
“Light on Bible and heavy on secondary authors” — that is an excellent way to put it. Even if the secondary authors are excellent, the primary focus needs to be the Word of God.
I love a good read, but always want to filter what I am reading through the grid of Scripture. Thanks so much for these cautionary words!
Wow! You are so right. I believe we should indeed be watchful, and I do filter what I read with Scripture. Sometimes if I’m reading a book that the description “sounded” good, when I begin reading, it is not Scripturally sound. I’ll put the book down and never open it again. Barbara, this is a wonderful post. Thank you for shedding more light into this matter. Blessings.
This is a good point. Books do have an influence on us so we need to be careful that we are also reading the Bible and looking at other books through that lens. I agree too that it is good to read a wide range of books, including viewpoints we disagree with.
Thanks, Prayer should return to schools, and teaching the scripture should go hand in hand.
You give wise words of caution. I appreciate this warning, “Their ministry and outreach has been hijacked into debating rather than gently persuading people of God’s truth.” It can be a subtle shift from persuading to debating. Thanks for sharing!
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this today. Thank you for standing up for this important truth that we need to carefully filter everything through the actual Word of God itself.
Another aspect of this is how we approach the authors of the books we read. I have always read very widely, and thus learned early on that I shouldn’t think any author was going to get everything right. No one has the full knowledge that God has. So just as I enjoy talking with people who are different from me so I can learn new things about the image of God, I also enjoy reading from people who are different from me. Sometimes I have found God in the strangest of places (and books!) and grown to love and see God more from stepping outside my narrow comfort zone (and reading zone).
I agree with reading widely and not always within our comfort zone–but with discernment. Not everyone who talks about God truly knows Him.
Exactly. Talking about God is not the same thing as knowing God. Reading with discernment is definitely a requirement when we read widely (or well, even when we don’t! lol). If we’re listening for it, God’s voice is powerful enough to drown out the others if they’re not accurate.
Barbara, I think we could have a very long conversation about all of this! I read books with viewpoints and world views that differ from mine, but when it comes to quoting authors and mentioning books on my blog, I try to be really careful. I know one quote doesn’t equal complete endorsement of another person’s beliefs, but how does anyone else know that? You’re right … praying for discernment when we read (and write) is always a good thing to do.
Such a good and timely article, Barbara. It’s so easy to get caught up in reading books about the Word instead of the Word itself. The bible should be our number 1 go to but that requires effort and time on our part and I fear we, including myself at times, find it easier to just convince ourselves that reading a study or teaching book or listening to someone else’s thoughts on Youtube qualifies as time spent learning God’s word. Nothing wrong with reading outside our comfort zones, we should be challenged, but always take it to the light of the Word for discernment.
Barbara, what a wisdom-filled post! I have seen much the same thing in many writers and teachers. After much prayer and waiting on the Lord, we left a church some time ago where we had been deeply committed and on staff for many years for those same reasons.
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