Turn back the clock ten years or so, and in a dorm room find a 24-year-old taking the Lord’s Supper on his own. Since this meal is also called ‘communion’, being alone should be a little bit of a “hey, whatcha doing!” moment—but when you’re convinced that you’re doing what God wants because a preacher said so from the Bible, that becomes a mere background technicality. “Isaiah 53:5 says, ‘By his wounds we are healed’. This means Jesus’ death brings you physical healing,” the preacher said. “Since the Lord’s Supper represents Jesus’ death, taking the Lord’s Supper brings physical healing.” And so an ill young man takes the Lord’s Supper in the belief that God would heal through it. This 24-year-old was me.
God’s promises are to be believed, right? That’s how we’re saved. “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom 4:5). God’s promises are trustworthy, but false teaching abounds, and it was the false teaching that I was believing.
It’s not that I wanted to be a subscriber to falsehood. I wanted to be faithful. And faithfulness meant believing what I thought God promised and wanted from us. So I left $1500-worth of camera gear sitting alone on a table while visiting the restroom, because God would protect it, right? I thought getting a vaccination before a short-term missions trip to Vanuatu would have been an act of faithlessness, because God would protect me, right? And I rubbed ‘anointed’ oil on my achey shoulder because that’s one of the means by which God heals, right? I just wanted to be faithful. If God promised it, then we should believe it—but the problem was that God didn’t quite promise those things.1
Skip forward a year, and on a bus find a 25-year-old listening to a sermon. Me again. The preacher I’m listening to plays a clip from a Joel Osteen talk… before proceeding to shoot it down. As it collapses in a burning heap, my brain makes some logical connections: since this preacher’s critique of Osteen’s sermon makes sense, and since the church that I am a part of is bringing Osteen in to be the key speaker at our annual conference, then maybe my church isn’t as dependable as I thought it was.
I had joined the church as a newborn Christian. I’d heard the gospel only four months prior and God mercifully gave me faith in his Son three months after that. Everything was new. I’d never heard of the church I joined before coming to Sydney, but my new Christian friends at home said go and so I did. Discernment was not something I could practice because I had zero maturity. It took two and a half years before I was ready to leave.
Maybe you’ve got family and friends who believe things taught by preachers that aren’t quite biblical. I haven’t got anything profound to say. No six-steps sure-fire way for getting them into their nearest reformed-conservative-evangelical church. But having come from ‘the other side’, perhaps I can bring a perspective that may be of some use.
While I was still attending a church in Singapore that I wouldn’t recommend, a friend of a friend remarked to someone else behind me, “If that could even be called a church!” Perhaps they were discussing my church because I had shared about becoming a Christian and joining it recently. I don’t know if it was something that he meant for me to hear. But it stung.
Apart from the fact that it’s quite an unkind thing to say, snark is counterproductive. What it does is harden the hearer’s heart to “all those other Christians who hate us” and the loving correction that they may bring.
You may not be a snarky person, but probably you know someone who is, and they get a laugh when they mock false teaching. Do discourage it, please. It’s hurting the mission. I don’t think people want to be mean on purpose; I suppose it’s a lack of empathy.
When your God is misrepresented because of false teaching, it’s understandable to be somewhat affronted. But recall that 24-year old above. The dude was like a sheep without a shepherd. You wouldn’t mock a lonely, vulnerable sheep, would you? Sure, he’s responsible for believing what his ‘itching ears’ wanted to hear (2 Tim 4:3). But he really also didn’t know any better. He wasn’t born into a solid gospel-loving family, and people who had off-centre theology provided his early spiritual diet. And hey, left to ourselves, none of us would ever approach orthodoxy. Shall we boast in what has been illuminated to us by grace?
Also, I suppose it might be easy to imagine Christians from prosperity-false-gospel churches living the high life. You know, BMWs and Learjets. And that’s not a thought that is fodder for empathy. But remember our young man and there’s good reason to pity the hoodwinked. Sincere beliefs in promises God never made only lead to disaster. And we wouldn’t wish that on others: we want them to be persuaded by truth.
In those unrecommended churches there really was a genuine love for Jesus and a commitment to Scripture—making them open to winsome biblical persuasion. Yes, their Bible-handling is somewhat lacking, and they may not be strong on things like thinking about the author’s purpose and context, or whether something is descriptive or prescriptive. To be fair, the people in the churches I came from haven’t had good models. But it doesn’t mean that they’re not open to reasonable persuasion from the Bible. 2 Corinthians 8:9 gets twisted to say that Jesus became materially poor to make you materially rich. But look at the text with them and zoom out a teeny bit to include verses 1-15, and it should be seen that verse 9 doesn’t make that claim.
But shoulds don’t always result in woulds, and so with patience we pray and chip away with the Word.
Here are some questions you might like to use to begin or continue an ongoing conversation:
You should listen closely and tease out why they find a false teaching so convincing—which will probably bring you both to the Bible. It could be that it’s a verse that is clearly being misinterpreted that you feel able to discuss immediately, but maybe you’ll need to take some time to ponder it over. Once you’ve thought about it, the next thing to do is to gently ask them, “Hey, you know that book/sermon/author that you were telling me about the other day? I’ve been thinking about it; do you think we could open the Bible and talk about it again?”
God used a podcasted sermon heard on a bus to help me escape false teaching. And for that I am thankful. But if a friend of yours subscribes to false teaching, you’re probably already in a way better position to help them escape than a preacher on podcast. And just as I had real humans at my AFES group that I could talk through my confusion and decision to move churches with, your friends have you.
1. The camera was safe but I was nervous throughout; I got the vaccinations because that’s what the team leader wanted; the oil didn’t work but I got state-sponsored surgery a few years later (it was a service injury). My shoulder is great now, if you’re wondering.↩