Are you following a good teacher, or a cultish teacher?
In preparing a sermon on Liberalism, I began reflecting back on my time as an « Emergent » seeker. At the time, I left traditional church because of the legalism and control issues I saw in traditional church. It pains me to say it, but in hindsight, I ended up finding that some of the false teachers in the « emergent » movement were even more controlling, and « cultish » than what I came from.
The names change, but some principles stay the same. Here are some things to be aware of, and things to look for in a teacher:
7. False Dichotomies
- « It’s not about truth, it’s about a relationship«
- « It’s not about doctrine, it’s about the Spirit »
- « It’s not about rules, it’s about love »
- « The Bible is not about history or science, it is about the deeper principles of life »
In logic, a « false dichotomy » is a logical flaw that is made when someone presents an unwarranted either-or choice. Sometimes in life, the choices really are black and white. But in these cases, false teachers can use a false dichotomy to reject something that is important to your faithby pretending that if you accept one truth, then you must reject the other. Beware of this tactic!
6. « Everyone is wrong! » (except for me)
Someone recently excitedly showed me a video clip for a new Christian movement. In the intro, the speaker excitedly said, « The Early Church was really onto something. But then…the church lost sight of it. And with Constantine, they really lost their way! Then the Reformers tried to bring it back…but let’s face it. They failed too. But God is doing a new work now with our ministry… »
So…basically, what this group believes is that out of the entire 2,000 years of church history, only about ten (maybe twenty?) years at the beginning was good. All of the rest was bad. Oh yes, and their ministry is good too. Of course.
Beware of people like this. Also, beware of people who speak only, always of all of the flaws in others. An excessive emphasis on the flaws in others may be used as a blind behind which to hide their own flaws.
5. « We don’t need Theology »
Sometimes, churches get too stuck on right doctrine, and people find a lot of freedom in backing off from that and « just getting back to the basics. » I want to recognize and affirm that.
However, you need to beware of someone who claims to be a teacher, but says, « We don’t believe in theology/doctrine/reason/truth/argumentation here. »
Theology is nothing other than the study of God. Doctrine only means « right belief. » If people aren’t passionate about studying God and believing right things about Him, you need to ask, « Why are they a teacher? »
Sometimes, these sorts of people will make the false dichotomy (see above) « Christianity is not about theology, it is about a way of life. » The problem with this statement is that the statement itself is a doctrine. And so is it true that Christianity is not about doctrines? None at all? Ok, then the above statement is not a part of Christianity, and invalid. Oh, what’s that? We need to keep that statement as a part of Christianity? Ok, if that statement (that « Christianity is not about theology, it is about a way of life ») is a part of Christianity, then Christianity is about both a way of life, and some right beliefs as well. Therefore, that statement is false.
4. Replacing truth with anger, charisma, eloquence, name-calling, etc.
Some people are very eloquent, persuasive, powerful people. In itself, this sort of ability is not wrong: Apollos is someone in Scriptures who seems to have had this sort of a natural gift of persuasion. However, the ability to convince people is a sort of power: and like all power, it needs to be stewarded carefully, or it can corrupt.
Beware of someone who does not provide solid evidence for his/her claims, but instead deflects questions, gets angry, tells stories, calls people names (see below), goes on rabbit trails, or begins monologuing.
3. Won’t tell you up-front what they believe
Beware of people who are always telling you to read one more book, or to go to one more seminar before they will tell you what they really believe. Good teachers love nothing more than to tell you, up front, right away, what they believe is true. They do so because the love the truth, and because they love you and earnestly believe that « the truth will set you free » (John 8:33). In fact, good teachers can be annoying with how much they want you to know the truth!
But false teachers can sometimes be cagy about what they believe, hide the truth, change definitions, and « shut you out, so that you need to seek after them. » (Gal. 4:17) Beware of such people.
2. They shut you down, and shut you up, if you disagree
After listening to a good teacher, you should feel smarter than when you started. Of course, good teaching always leaves us hungry for more, and aware of our limitations. But good teaching takes us by the hand, to lift you to higher truth.
But a bad teacher is anxious to hang on to his position as teacher, and as the « smartest person in the room. » If you disagree with him, he may begin a) using excessively large words without explaining them, b) dismissing you or others with dismissive language.
- « Yeah, well, what do you expect from a woman? »
- « That’s just mansplaining… »
- « What could a rich old white guy contribute to the discussion here…? »
- « When you’ve read the Bible as often as I have, you will understand… »
- « You’re too young. You’re too old. You’re too uneducated. You’re too educated. »
Good teaching is not about personalities. It is about the truth. And the truth is, by definition, out there, not owned by any one person or group, but available to anyone who will seek it out.
1. « Are you in or are you out? »
Ultimately, this is what it comes down to. If you agree with the charismatic leader on top, then get in line. If you don’t agree, then be gone. You have nothing to say, no place, and nothing to contribute here.
Now, there is such a thing as Church discipline. Christians are to be « called out ones, » who live a certain lifestyle. If people claim to follow Jesus, yet do not live as He has commanded, then there is a time and a place to lovingly call them to obedience. Jesus said that at times, this means that people need to be put out of fellowship (Mat. 18:16-18).
However, this is a slow, caring, difficult process which is very different from being excluded from a group because you do not agree with their « ultra-spiritual » leader.
What does good teaching look like?
I don’t want to leave this post entirely on a negative note. What, then, should you look for in a good teacher, and in a healthy Christian community?
5. A good teacher/church will tell you up-front what they believe
Usually, a church will have a doctrinal statement on their website. If not, the pastor should be able to explain in a few minutes what they believe.
4. They can tell you why
Good teachers have reasons why they believe what they believe. They can prove it from Scriptures. They often have stories of how truth has changed their lives. They can back up their beliefs with arguments, reason, and Scriptures.
3. You are allowed to disagree
The best teachers are able to distinguish between what is important and what is essential. They are able to say, « Well, I don’t quite agree with you on that topic. However, I am glad that we agree on the essential doctrines. We can agree to disagree on that one… »
Good teachers should make you feel affirmed in your process of learning and growing, even if you are learning and growing in a different direction than they did. Even if you disagree on fundamental issues, good teachers are able to release you to God, and wait patiently for Him to convict you of truth.
2. Let’s discuss that…
The best teachers welcome discussion. They are not afraid of questions, because they are willing to do work, they are aware that they don’t know everything, and they have a profound belief that their own faith is on the side of Truth, and that if one digs deep enough, that truth will prevail.
They will not shut you down, make you feel stupid, or try to pressure you to believe as they do. They will give you space to flourish.
1. If proven wrong, they will change their beliefs, and thank you
I have saved the very best for last. The very best teachers do not hang their self-worth on their ability to be « right. » Rather, their greatest love is Truth. For that reason, if you point out that they are wrong on a topic, they will not become defensive, angry, or go on the offensive. (They may be a little embarrassed – hey, nobody’s perfect!) But ultimately, they will change their beliefs if they come to see they are wrong, and they will even thank you for helping you see an issue clearer.
This list is not complete. What would you add?
What are some of the indicators you would add as « warning factors » for a false teacher?
What are the characteristics that you have seen to describe the best teachers?
I’d love to hear your answers in the comments below. Have an awesome day!