How to Discern Good and Bad Doctrine
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. 2 Peter 2:1-3
Welcome, New Believer! Today's topic is a difficult one because I think even if you've been a Christian for a while it can be easy to be deceived by bad doctrine when it feeds into our own human weakness and doubts. I think it's especially easy to be taken in when it's a doctrine that's been widely accepted or practiced by branches of the church for a long time. Therefore, today I don't want to name specific good or bad doctrines, I want to give you the tools that I myself use when seeking discernment regarding the teachers I listen to, the books I read, and the worship music I enjoy.
"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; Therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error." 1 John 4:1-6
Test the Spirits
One of the red flags for a bad church that we discussed earlier, was a church that doesn't encourage you to be in God's Word and to test what they teach by what you find in God's Word. Here is reason number one why that is important, to discern bad or false doctrine from good doctrine you must test it by God's Word.
Have you ever sat through a sermon that just rubbed you the wrong way? You didn't know why it rubbed you the wrong way but you felt that something was not right... For me, my first train of thought after a sermon like that is to consider whether I felt that way because God was convicting me of a wrong attitude, wrong belief, or sin in my own life. If that's the conclusion I come to after that time of prayer and reflection, then I take it to God and confess that wrong attitude, wrong belief, or sin. However, if that's not the conclusion I'm coming to then I begin to search the Scriptures and research other teachers' sermons on that same passage and I wrestle with it.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. Matthew 7:15-20
What makes bad/false doctrine so devious is that it often sounds right or is clothed in just enough truth that it is difficult to discern one from the other, there are some doctrines that I've had to take before God and say, "I don't believe this is right Lord, I don't find enough evidence for it in your Word, and it doesn't seem to fit with who I know you to be. If that's my human heart or doubts getting in the way of seeing the truth in this, then God show me and forgive me for thinking I know better."
Look at Their Fruit
Some of these things sit with me for years and as I meet new mentors in the faith or teachers I respect, I'll often seek out what conclusions they came to regarding that doctrine and I watch for the fruits that doctrine produces and the fruit of those who teach it. Fruit doesn't have to do with the size of the church or with the "prosperity" of those in the church in a material sense.
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, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. 1 Timothy 6:3-5
Is their teaching causing controversy for controversy's sake? Is this doctrine producing quarrels resulting from envy, from dissension, or from slander? Are the people who listen to this person filled with evil suspicions about each other or about those who don't agree with them? Even a brand new baby Christian can recognize when there is undue constant friction among people in the church. I love how Paul describes these people to Timothy: depraved in mind and deprived of the truth. Because of the bad/false doctrine, they are being taught these people have become morally corrupt and wicked. They are suffering from a severe and damaging lack of the truth.
But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 1 Timothy 6:6-12
Let me be very clear, Paul is not saying that having money, even a lot of money, is evil or leads to evil. In this very chapter, he continues to give instruction for those in the church who are materially blessed in this life. What he is saying is, What are you pursuing? What is this leader or doctrine teaching you to pursue? Bad/false doctrine will teach you to pursue your own desires and your own version of what you want God to be. Good doctrine teaches you to flee those desires in favor of pursuing righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness. In other words, good doctrine teaches you to pursue God, to make Him your chief desire, to worship and obey Him becomes the purpose of your life.
Examine Your Desires
This brings our discussion full circle, remember that first I reflected on whether it was my own sin that was keeping me from enjoying the teaching of good doctrine. If my discomfort was simply from God calling me out on my sin and calling me to return to Him through repentance. Even though that may not be the original conclusion I come to after testing the spirits of that doctrine and examining its fruit sometimes I'm brought back to the realization that I was deceived by the desires of my own heart. It has even happened that I have believed a doctrine to be good for a long time because it fit with what I wanted to believe in my heart was true, even though it made no sense once I tested it by God's Word. I pray that we are protected from the temptation to only listen to those who make us feel good, fluffy, and prosperous as we sit in our churches but that our teachers would have the courage to reprove, rebuke, and exhort us; to make us uncomfortable in our sin and call us to pursue righteousness. I pray that God gives us the wisdom and courage to flee from teachers who are leading us to pursue our worldly desires.
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For 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 and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. 2 Timothy 4:1-5
Do not overly worry yourself about whether you know and understand all things true from false. There are some things we won't get until heaven. God is holding these false teachers accountable for their bad/false doctrines and He will be their Judge just as He is ours. This isn't permission to stop testing the spirits, searching the Scriptures, and examining your own desires so that you are seeking God and not pursuing earthly things. In fact, this should be yet another warning of caution to us, to know God's Word and seek Him so that we are not guilty of spreading bad/false doctrine when we share the Gospel with others because we too will be held responsible for how we handle His Word. Instead, let this encourage you in your pursuit of God and your pursuit of truth. It is our lifelong commission.
If you have any other questions about how to discern good from bad doctrine, please feel free to leave them in the comments below. I highly encourage you to find a mentor in the faith who can help personally walk you through many of these issues as you grow into a mature believer. This is one journey you were never meant to take alone!