Bad teaching has been a problem since long before the church began. And as we see throughout the Book of Acts and many of the Epistles, the apostles struggle to pass on accurate information about God while attempting to respond to the wrong and opportunistic teachers cropping up all over the place.
John addresses the problem in his first letter:
“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, New International Version).
“They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 John 4:5-6, NIV).
Paul addresses the creeping spread of false teaching within the church at Philippi:
“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:9-10, NIV).
If false teaching was already creating problems when the people closest to Jesus were still around to confront it, how much more dangerous is it nearly two thousand years later?
A true disciple is going to be able to distinguish good teaching from bad, but how do we teach them to do that? Here are five tips to help discern between the two:
1. Good teaching isn’t overly reliant on experience
One thing you notice about bad teachers is that they support their teaching with personal stories and anecdotes. Naturally, if the teaching is genuine, they’re going to have some experiences to back it up. But we need to pay attention.
If their instruction relies entirely upon stories about things that have happened to them or others, beware. If the whole point of their story is to convince you that they’re right because of a confirmation they received by men, an angel, or God Himself, it’s probably safe to dismiss it entirely.
2. Good teaching isn’t confirmed by feelings alone
Just because something feels true doesn’t necessarily make it so. In fact, there are times when the truth doesn’t conform to our feelings one iota. So never allow someone to tell you to disbelieve or accept something based on how it makes you feel.
I once had some missionaries come to my door and throughout the conversation, I disagreed with many of their statements. In the end, they encouraged me to pray about it and see if I felt a burning in my chest that confirmed they were right. Needless to say, I didn’t do that. An emotional response is not a trump card.
3. Good teaching is balanced
Paul spends a lot of his Epistles ensuring that the church doesn’t become too morally lax or too autocratic and legalistic. It’s important for the church to maintain a balance.
In the book of Galatians, we see Paul wrestling with teachers who are pushing for strict, literal, and excessive conformity to the law. On the other hand, he’s dealing with egregious sexual sin that no one’s addressing in his first letter to the Corinthians.
Healthy churches can negotiate both extremes.
4. Good teaching isn’t justified by success or popularity
Judging someone’s teaching by his following is dangerous. He might have a church of thousands and multiple best-selling books, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that his teaching is trustworthy.
A large following isn’t a good indicator of whether a teacher handles God’s Word accurately. People are drawn to good teachers just as quickly as they’re drawn to terrible ones. So don’t be too quick to put too much stock in a teacher’s celebrity status.
5. Good teaching allows for questions
In the 17th chapter of Acts, Luke commends the Berean Christians for looking into Paul’s teaching to make a decision for themselves on whether or not it was true. Questionable teachers don’t want their teaching tested; they want you to take their word for it.
When you feel like your genuine questions and concerns about someone’s teaching are being dismissed or squelched, that should be a red flag.
Falling for false or wrong teachings can have a disastrous effect on our faith and the faith of those around us. We need to be vigilant about distinguishing life-giving teaching from counterfeit.
To better learn what God says in His Word, you can follow along through the questions and Scriptural references in the We are All Missionaries guide.