Paul the apostle often had to defend his ministry, in part because preaching the Jewish Messiah to the gentiles was a very new thing, and altogether unfamiliar, if not resisted by the Jews. When accused of being a false teacher, he often responded with appeals to his motives, his mission, and his manifestation of God’s power to convince and heal. With regard to motives, in Paul’s approach to the church at Thessalonica, he writes:
For our exhortation didn’t come from error or impurity or an intent to deceive. Instead, just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please people, but rather God, who examines our hearts. (1 Thes. 2:3-4)
Here, Paul lists three illegitimate motives which we ought to keep in mind when listening to dubious preaching, or when attempting to preach!
There are a host of doctrines, both in history and today, that are questionable, if not heresies. 1 These may include prosperity, reconstructionism, oneness, and the doctrine of eternal conscious torment in hell. So how do we know if a teaching is in error?
Every Christian should learn how to use standard, logical rules to understand the intended purpose and application of Scripture. Don’t take their word for it, examine the scriptures yourself! You don’t have to be a scholar to apply some simple rules of interpretation:
- Genre: Do we interpret a passage literally, figuratively, or both? One key indicator is the genre – that is, is the passage poetry or apocalyptic vision? It’s probably figurative and not literal. Is the passage meant as historical narrative or commands? Probably best to think of it literally.
- Prescriptive or Descriptive: Is the passage a command, or is it merely describing what a historical character or group did? Not every action of the prophets is mean to be emulated. We are not all called to be crucified on a physical cross in Jerusalem.
- Audience: Who is the passage directed at? Is the passage meant only for Israel, only for a problem in a specific new testament Church in the first century, or meant as a timeless principle to be obeyed?
- Definitions: Do we properly understand the words? If not, we can look them up with such tools as the EXCELLENT Blue Letter Bible app, which gives access to word definitions, interlinear tools (original language), Strong’s definitions, and Vine’s Expository Dictionary.
- Immediate Context: What is the subject of the passage you are reading? Use that to intrepret meaning.
- Book Context: What is the theme of the book? Does that shed light on the passage’s meaning?
- Biblical Context: How does your understanding of this passage integrate and harmonize with similar passages in scripture? Are they logically coherent?
- Tradition: You are not the first to wrestle with the meaning of a passage. We have 2ooo years of scholarship to consider. You don’t have to figure it all out. Check the commentaries.
1.2 The Holy Spirit and our intuition
Equally important is, what does your spirit, and what does God’s spirit tell you? This is a bit subjective, and we often hear through our own misconceptions, but God can tell you what to avoid, even if temporarily, and what to adopt when facing new teachings.
I am writing these things to warn you about those who want to lead you astray. But you have received the Holy Spirit, and he lives within you, so you don’t need anyone to teach you what is true. For the Spirit teaches you everything you need to know, and what he teaches is true—it is not a lie. So just as he has taught you, remain in fellowship with Christ. (1 John 2:36-27)
This is more obvious. When a teacher comes through recommending attitudes and practices that are lustful, sexually immoral, focused on greed and acquisition, or reasons to escape our moral duties, we should be skeptical. Are they attempting to justify atypical marriage, homosexuality, spirituality as a means of getting rich, or not caring for the poor or protecting the weak? This is not the way.
Deceivers want something from you, usually your money or your time. While there are legitimate requests for your resources, you should always be skeptical about people who desire your resources without a relationship with you, and without time-tested proof of their good intentions. Deception is the purposeful use of trickery to win you over to their camp. No one should be asking you for your time or money the first time you meet. Or the second.
4. CONCLUSION: Please God, not Men
Paul finishes by proclaiming his true motivation – to please God. He may say things that are controversial, and that comes from his desire to please God instead of men when they disagree. He also reminds his hearers that those who preach the gospel are tested by God – that is, through the displeasure of men, the spirit’s demands of integrity while we preach (you have to be doing the things you are preaching), and through difficulties in general. Paul asks “do you think I would persevere in this when all I get is persecution and beatings?” His perseverance in difficulty is part of the evidence that he is well-motivated.
- Orthodox Heresies – 7 false doctrines of the Church (wholereason.com)