Voting with your ears

  • Joe Towns
  • 15 April 2020

What pricks your attention as a Christian? What do you want to hear more about? And is there anything in the Bible that’s made you think, “I don’t really want to hear that” or “I don’t need to hear that”? If we’re honest, we are all tempted as Christians to discriminate between parts of God’s word and be selective hearers. This could be by giving more attention to parts that we like, highlighting only what stands out to us as encouraging, or steering clear of Scripture we dislike.

This temptation to be led by our desires when coming to God’s word relates equally to those who teach, preach or prophesy. A memory verse system might focus only on all positive, uplifting quotes. A preacher may find themselves focusing in on a particularly distinct, unique emphasis that they feel is relevant or ‘fresh’—or they just have their preferred topics. In this way, those who speak to the church are tempted by the ‘sin of omission’: taking away from the message and teaching of the Bible.

The Apostle Paul warns us strongly about this:

The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth… (2 Timothy 4: 3-4)

The surprise of this statement is that Paul lays the blame upon the listener. They are being driven by their own cravings in how they select teachers and whom they gather around. Because they cannot put up with some of the Bible’s teaching, teachers give them instead what they want to hear.

In this our salvation, Christian growth and maturity are at stake, as Paul warns in 1 Timothy 4:16:

Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

One of the greatest risks of selective hearing and preaching is the ever-present danger of false teaching within the church. False teaching only exists because there is a market for it; if there were no pupils there would be no teachers, and so the Bible warns us to vote with our ears.

How do you know if you’re listening to false teaching unless you are listening to all of God’s word, unless you are continually allowing the Bible to interpret itself for you by treating it as one unified message from God? How can you avoid being a false teacher unless you faithfully, carefully hold together all of God’s word and its teaching without adding to it or taking away from it? After warning Timothy about false teaching in the last days (2 Tim 3:1-9), Paul instructs him:

The sacred writings… are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:15-17)

In the Old Testament, Moses warns Israel against false teachers—who may be your brother, mother, son, daughter, wife or friend (Deut 13:1-15). Almost every New Testament book (Philemon is an exception) contains cautions against false teachers and false prophets. And although it’s been with us for centuries, Jesus warns that false teaching will still be a defining mark of the last days in which we now live (Matt 24:11). The issue is so serious and of such dire consequence that Paul can say in Galatians 1:8: “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed”.

So, what can each of us do to safeguard against and resist false teaching? First, there are some obvious big things we can do that are a priority for every Christian in every circumstance:

  1. Make a habit of praying before and after you read or listen to God’s word. Ask him that you will take it to heart by responding with repentance and faith, remembering that Christians are fundamentally those who don’t merely listen to God’s word but who accept and obey it (Ps 1; 119, Mark 4:10-20, John 5:39, John 10:1-29, 1 Thess 2:13, Jas 1:22-25).
  2. Listen through all the Bible as regularly as possible. The 66 books of the Bible were all written to be read aloud, so it’s good to sit back and listen to them in their entirety. They also have one unifying theme and message that progressively unfolds in the pages of salvation history itself. Once you have ‘heard’ and ‘listened’ to the whole of a book, you will have a better grasp of its overall message and context. From there you can slow down and dive into the nuances with a written copy, grappling with (and ideally meditating on) its variegated teaching. But make sure you read and comprehend each part within its whole, in context—and that is much easier if you take advantage of the blessing of audio recordings.
  3. Don’t buy or propagate any material containing teaching you know to be wrong or misleading; this only helps it be more successful. We mustn’t compromise God’s word by supporting material that confuses or even contradicts it. The Bible commands Christians not to support false teaching or false teachers (2 John 7-11).
  4. Make sure you are part of a church that makes expository preaching, based on Bible exegesis, the staple diet of the congregation (1 Tim 4:13). If you can, attend a Bible study group that is progressively going through all the Scriptures.
  5. Speak up with the truth in love to fellow Christians. We are to expect differences amongst us (1 Cor 11:19). Debate is good and healthy, in order to maintain unity in the Spirit—and unity doesn’t arise from coming together (sticking to one another) but from coming around Christ (sticking to him). We are united in him (Eph 4:3-5). This means that the loving way to edify one another is to be speaking the truth to one another and all teaching one another (Eph 4:15-16, Col 3:16). This means we mustn’t be afraid to confront or even rebuke a fellow Christian with the truth of the Bible—and no-one is above this (Gal 2:11-16).

Secondly, there are some less obvious actions that will apply in some circumstances:

  1. Warn other Christians if they are disobeying the clear commands of the Bible or contradicting its clear teaching (after you have ‘spoken the truth to them in love’). In such circumstances we are told to withdraw fellowship from fellow believers as a warning sign to them, so that by God’s grace they will repent of this display of false teaching (2 Thess 3:6-15, 1 Cor 5:2, 13, Eph 5:5-7, Titus 3:10-11). Acts 5:1-11 is a sobering example of how seriously God wants us to treat holiness in his church. We are called to judge ourselves as Christians (1 Cor 11:30-32), and the pattern of Matthew 18:15-20 is helpful here. You could take a second or a third person along after your warning if they persist in disobedience or in false doctrine. If they continue, you should tell the elders of your church so that they can protect the whole flock if needed (Acts 20:28-31).
    (The Bible makes an important distinction: we are commanded to judge those inside the church, not those outside (1 Cor 5:12-13). So, while this point does apply to false Christians, it does not apply to unbelievers who make no profession of faith. Their judgement is not our business; instead we are told in Colossians 4:5-6 to “answer” outsiders with wisdom, grace and a ‘seasoned with salt’ holy life.)
  2. Consider leaving your church if it is supporting false teaching and joining a church where you can be united to Christians devoted to sound teaching (Acts 2:42, Titus 1:9, 2:1). This is generally an act of last resort; if this is your situation then please read and consider the guidance in Time to Go? for wisdom on this very tricky situation.

Paul’s command to us is to “flee” false teaching and instead “pursue” the true fruits of the Spirit:

If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness…. flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. (1 Timothy 6:3, 11-12)

We fight the good fight by voting with our ears—hearing all of God’s word and not listening to (or supporting) false teaching—and with our tongues: speaking up for the truth and sharing it lovingly. And, if all else has failed, vote with your feet. Flee from false teaching in the church and from false teachers, keeping the unity of the Holy Spirit who sets us apart in truth and godliness.