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