Here is an old joke that I vaguely remember my Father using: People tell me that on every public bus there is always one nut-job. A complete wacko. An absolute loon. Look around, they’d say, and you’ll always find one. So I keep riding the bus to find out, constantly looking for the one nut-job. I could never find him.
I’m going to be honest here. Just like the joke about being the one nut-job, I’m afraid of being the false teacher Scripture warns about. It is a creeping fear crowding behind me right up until I walk towards the pulpit. Then, even when I open my mouth, I can feel the fear behind me whispering a warning: don’t fall into the false teacher’s trap.
Now, don’t start telling everyone “Rey says he’s a false teacher.” Hear me out.
The reason for my fear is that false teaching has an attractive pull in (at least) two directions. It not only draws hearers but it’s attractive to those who are handling the truth. And because it’s strong allure, I think it’s more pervasive than we think.
Allured By Self
I am a joke teller. I am loud. I like to laugh. I (really) like food. I like movies. I love comic books. Super heroes are one of my favorite pass-times. I can sit down and easily marathon a TV-show, or a trilogy (like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or Back to the Future) without batting an eye. I like to study. I like to read. I devour books that are on a subject I like, and I take copious electronic notes both when I want to stay awake and if things are interesting.
Conversely, maybe surprisingly, I’m easily lazy. I enjoy lying down on the couch. I enjoy not doing anything. I find it much easier than having to get up and be busy. I feel overworked and, with my often short-term memory, find myself re-learning many things. Proverbs 6:10 is exceedingly attractive to me and verse 11 always gets me down.
So when I preach or teach, it would be easy for me to ignore the hard work of relying on the text and instead rely on jokes or stories, overlay theology on movies to keep things interesting, and mold my message based on the audience reaction. I can read the crowd. I know when they need another joke—why not use it?
The Allure of Sin
Indeed, I want to do it. I don’t want people to dislike what I’m saying. I don’t want people to clench their teeth saying, “Scripture doesn’t say that,” when it actually does. I don’t want people to cringe from the hard truth. I would much rather they smile and like me while applauding when I’m done.
Here’s the truth: I know that nothing good dwells in me (Rom 7:18). I can feel it in my bones, calling me to give in and go the easy route. I can hear the siren song that soothingly says it is better to cause smiles than kick up soil. Indeed, I feel it more and more the closer I approach the coming glory.
I find it very attractive to be a verbal ear-scratcher (2 Tim 4:3) but I have a Scriptural mandate to keep my head straight (2 Tim 4:5), preach the word (2 Tim 4:2), and to do so without compromise (I Timothy 6:20,21). All of us who preach the word have this mandate but we still struggle with the sin coiled within us.
Here’s more truth: I know that nothing good dwells in you either (Rom 3:23). You feel the pull to ignore this passage or that; you have that tugging in you that pulls away from God and wants to crawl into a nice, comfy, sinful, cocoon.
You might wake up on Sunday mornings hoping to bend your ear to the teaching of the Word but something always pulls at you. Maybe you think this preacher is boring. Maybe you think that one needs to do more application. Maybe you think that other one needs to contextualize his message to the world today to make it relevant. The type of lure might differ, but the pull is there—sin cringes from what is right.
Me and The Nice Heretic
I remember preaching a hard-hitting Gospel-centered sermon underscoring the unrelenting, unabashed, freeing, and humiliating grace of God. I spoke about how the good news strips us of our power and leaves us as a ball of need before finally rescuing us from our utter condemnation.
In the back of the chapel sat this sweet older lady who was always handing out books, money, or bags of groceries to people. Her life was adorned with good works. And she was an encouragement. In almost every sermon, you would hear her voice underscoring the preacher’s last point with an audible “Amen!”
I didn’t hear her say “Amen” during my sermon, though. As I finished my sermon and went to get my things, she approached me and gently held my arm.
“Rey,” she said, her voice a bit quavery, “you preached salvation by grace through faith alone—”
“Amen!” I said, “The point came through!”
“You’re preaching a false gospel!” she said.
“If people believe that message they will go off believing that their salvation isn’t dependent on themselves—“
“AMEN!” I said again.
“—I fear that you have condemned this congregation to hell.”
At this point I tried to probe if this was a matter of confusion or of error by asking her questions about several passages from Scripture.
Suddenly, this usually sweet woman changed and she hissed at me saying, “Anyone can preach whatever they want from the Bible. But to preach the truth you must preach from above with the Angelic Wisdom—you can’t preach that shit of Salvation By Faith Alone! I’m a member of The New Church, the Jerusalem of above, and I’m here trying to save people from that false gospel of “faith alone”. What you’re doing is making sure people are damned to hell by listening to man’s wisdom found solely in a book!”
I was taken aback, not only by her words and the spurious glitter of her good works, but by her confessed mission. Here was a wolf pulling of her lambskin coat!
Many Lures for the Fish of the Sea
Here’s the point of that story: false teaching is widely attractive to the listeners and teachers for different reasons. Here are a few:
- Sometimes, people do not know what is right so they either teach (or believe) what is false.
- Sometimes it’s to soften the blow of the truth—so we either speak less sharp words or find teachers that don’t hit us as hard with the truth.
- Some folk slip into error simply by inordinate emphasis.
- Others like the idea of new discoveries—so they either teach foreign things or are seduced by teachers who speak new things.
- Others have simply acclimated to the culture preaching or accepting the secular lies.
- Some folk are enveloped in sin so they refuse to preach what’s true—or refuse to listen to what’s true (1 Tim 1:19).
- Honestly, some false teachings, like this woman’s Swedenborgism (or like Reiki, or Yoga, or Chiropractic, etc) are outright the doctrine of demons (1 Tim 4:1)!
There are countless ways to be drawn to error in teaching and hearing.
Whatever the appeal, be it for the audience or the speaker, its allure is away from the truth. Now, this might not mean in the exact opposite direction from the truth, never touching the truth at all. In fact, it might touch the truth at just the right point bouncing off on a tangent. Think about how His Satanic Majesty tempted Jesus: he quoted Scripture (Mat 4:1-11). Or think about how this woman adorned her life with good works while her message was nowhere there.
Therefore, it’s important as teachers to be aware of that allure within us but it’s also important as listeners to know about our own proclivity against truth. We might not get the false teachers we deserve, but we do get the ones we enjoy. It is very possible that the voice of that one nut-job on the bus, or the false teacher in the assembly, is the voice we enjoy the most.