Biblical Discernment in Christian Literature

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Volume 26, Issue 4, August/September 2020

Biblical discernment today, if not at an all-time low, is surely bumping along at the bottom of the pond, and nowhere is that more evident than in Christian literature.  Most people, if a book or blog post is written by a credentialed Christian author, and published by at least a semi-respected Christian publishing house, let down their guard and accept unquestionably whatever is disseminated. This is true not only of the average believer but also of many in leadership.

For example, Subversive Sabbath, the Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World by A. J. Swoboda, won Christianity Today’s 2019 Book of the Year award in the spiritual formation category, and thus would presumably represent spirituality as understood by mainstream evangelicalism today. Written by a pastor/seminary professor, the book’s strength lies in its reminder that the believer needs rest as grounded in the Sabbath principle and modeled by the Lord Himself in the creation account. If the Lord rested after His work of creation, the author insists, so should we. On pragmatic grounds, Swoboda promotes Sabbath-keeping since, he claims, it will result in better health, more productivity, and freedom from a Messiah complex, in which we see ourselves as essential for the world to function.  Yet, despite the many accolades and awards that it has received, Subversive Sabbath has virtually nothing to do with Sabbath teaching as found in Scripture. Rather it is an argument for rest in a hectic world (not a bad idea).  The book, however, distorts the teachings of Scripture on the Sabbath, leads the reader in wrong directions, badly mishandles Scripture, and draws from a wide assortment of nonbiblical sources.  That there is a Sabbath, or rest principle ingrained in God’s universe, is a defendable position.  That Sabbath is to be practiced as outlined in this volume is not. The central theme and message are well-represented by the first quotation given by none other than that eminent theologian Winnie-the-Pooh, “Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing, or just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”  Notwithstanding the source, this is a winsome invitation and explains the draw of the book.

Why would the editors of arguably the leading evangelical magazine published today select as their book of the year on spiritual formation, a book which so badly distorts and misrepresents the teachings of Scripture? And why, based on CT’s recommendation, will thousands read the book without registering any level of discomfort, or apparent recognition that they are being fed blatant falsehoods disguised as biblical teaching?  Because discernment has fallen on hard times.

In our relativistic age, many consider it unnecessary, unwanted, and down-right mean-spirited.  To spend even a small fraction of time critiquing false teachings (as our Lord directs us to do, by the way) is to invite charges of negativism, division, and worse.  Yet, we must decide whether we want to please the Lord or people and, since Scripture commands us to “refute those who contradict” sound doctrine (Titus 1:9), we have no viable choice.  Sadly, in our pluralistic, postmodern age, many dismiss even gracious critique as legalistic and critical.  Why not simply tolerate the theological and philosophical views of others, even if those views are seriously flawed and unbiblical? After all, since we are brothers and sisters in Christ, aren’t we just airing our dirty laundry in public?  This short article attempts to demonstrate the necessity and value of biblical discernment, in all areas of life, but especially regarding literature aimed at the Christian community.

The Biblical Necessity

As we survey the Word of God, it is impossible to miss the prominent place that God places on truth and the deep concern that our Lord has when His people err in doctrine or practice.  The Old Testament is permeated with calls to live on the basis of God’s truth and with warning against those who stray and teach anything else. For example, the heartbeat of God is evident in Jeremiah 23:1, 16, 28:

Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord… Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; they speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the Lord” …The prophet who has a dream may relate his dream, but let him who has My word speak My word in truth.

When we come to the Gospels, we find that Jesus continued this theme, very clearly warning about the danger of false teaching.  In Matthew 16:6, Jesus cautions His disciples, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  Later the disciples “understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (16:12).

Acts 20:27-32 speaks of wolves, often coming from within the church, who will do great harm to the flock.  Paul could not have been more passionate when he wrote, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (v. 28).  But cautiousness was not enough; the true safeguard is found in verse 32, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”  Exhortation and warning are both vital parts of proper care for the sheep.

Even a superficial reading of the New Testament epistles reveals that large portions combat false teachings of various kinds.  Some of the more direct passages include:

  • Jude 3-4 and 2 Peter 2 both exhort us to contend earnestly for the faith against those who would distort it.
  • Galatians 1:6-9 pronounces a curse on those who pervert the gospel. One of the strongest rebukes in all of Scripture is reserved for those who offer a different gospel from the one Paul had given the Galatians.  Paul wishes these false teachers to be accursed – that is, damned for propagating their false gospel.  Perhaps only the final warning found in Scripture rivals this one.
  • In Revelation 22:18-19 John notifies anyone who dares add to or subtract from the prophecy of the book of Revelation that they will have added to them the plagues written in the book.

In addition to these direct statements, the epistles devote much attention to areas of false teaching and living, not directly related to the gospel itself.  The Corinthians misunderstood the sign gifts and tolerated numerous sins in the congregation; the Colossians replaced godly wisdom with human philosophy; the Thessalonians had been discouraged by bogus claims about the end times; Timothy had to battle “strange doctrines” and “myths;” the letter to the Hebrews opposed a movement back to the Old Covenant, and on we go.  To ignore these cautionary themes is to dismiss much of the New Testament, which is perhaps why topical preaching has virtually replaced expositional preaching in most pulpits today.

The Writing of Many Books…

There are thousands of books and blogs written every year by those who profess to be Christians. Many of these have serious theological problems that can derail readers who do not engage such works with biblical discernment. Christians must learn to exegete such literature using the same hermeneutical principles they use when reading Scripture.  In addition, they must develop the skill of filtering everything they read through the grid of Scripture to determine whether what they are reading truly emerges from the Word of God.  It is not enough that a piece of writing does not contradict the Bible; the issue is whether it is drawn from the teaching of the Bible itself.  If not, then what is being read may be practical, helpful, or interesting, but it does not carry the weight of “thus says the Lord.”  This is essential when an author is explaining their understanding of the gospel, or sanctification, or spiritual disciplines, or the functioning of the church, or doctrine.

Approaching Christian literature in this matter would quickly reveal destructive teachings in many of the most popular books and websites floating around within evangelicalism today.  Books like, Girl Wash Your Face would be exposed as second-rate motivational teaching, The Circle Maker as a false system of prayer based on myths rather than Scripture, The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective as a personality typing system drawn from Roman Catholic and Muslim mystics, with no biblical base, Deep and Wide as a pragmatic church methodology lacking biblical ecclesiology, and Jesus Calling as an affront to the inspiration of Scripture.[1]  Scores of similar books are read annually by millions of Christians to their detriment. Such literature often replaces the Bible in a real sense for multitudes of believers, and few are aware of the consequences.

The Value of Discernment

The goal of exhorting in sound doctrine and refuting false teaching (Titus 1:9) is not to develop critical and negative people who are looking under every rock for someone who has slipped up, then clobbering them with the Bible.  Rather, it is to “equip the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12), and thus leading God’s saints to maturity (Heb 5:11-14).  I believe the apostle John reflects the heart of God when he tells us that he has no greater joy than to hear of his spiritual children walking in the truth (3 John 4). Jesus promised us that “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Free from what? Free from the power of sin, the treachery of Satan, the doctrines of demons, the fear of death, and the judgment of God.  Our Lord places a high premium on truth and consistently exposes and roots out error.

Conclusion

Despite the clear mandate given throughout the Scriptures concerning the necessity and value of biblical discernment and critique, most continue to be critical of the whole concept.  Many Christian leaders in the past, however, have seen the importance of defending the faith. For example, J. Gresham Machen made a great observation at the height of the Modernist-Fundamentalist battles in the early 1900s: “What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires.”[2]   Early Church Father Irenaeus wrote in Against Heresies,

Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected.  But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself.[3]

Princetonian theologian B. B Warfield commented,

The chief dangers to Christianity do not come from the ante-Christian systems.  Mohammedanism has never made inroads upon Christianity save by the sword.  Nobody fears that Christianity will be swallowed up by Buddhism.  It is corrupt forms of Christianity itself which menace from time to time the life of Christianity.  Why make much of minor points of difference between those who serve the one Christ?  Because a pure gospel is worth preserving; and it is not only worth preserving, but is logically (and logic will always work itself out into history) the only saving gospel.[4]

These men understood as we must today, that the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” is worth defending.  We must not allow the objections of those who lack the courage or the insight to fight for truth to cause us to cower from this important God-given obligation.

by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/Teacher, Southern View Chapel, Springfield, IL

[1] Reviews of all these books can be found on our website: www.tottministries.org.

[2]As quoted in George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, (New York, Oxford University Press: 1980), p. 137.

[3] As quoted in Richard Mayhue, “A Biblical Call to Pastoral Vigilance,” The Master’s Seminary Journal Volume 7, No. 1, p .49.

[4] As quoted in Iain H. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), p. x.

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