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).
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.
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