“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 thornbushes, 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.” -Matthew 7:15–18
Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. -1 Thessalonians 5:20–21
My local subway is not as cool as London’s, but it does have its own way of saying “Mind the gap.” The admonition “Be Aware and Stay Safe” is not only the name of the game on the Portland Metro, but also the biblical command for everyone who seeks to grow in their learning. It can all be summed up in one big word: verification.
Be Aware and Stay Safe
Scripture places tremendous emphasis on the concept of verification. Words and concepts of testimony and witness thread the entirety of the Bible, appearing in all sorts of ways—from formal trials (Dt. 19:15–20) to personal interactions (1 Sam. 20:12) and even to sacred furniture (Ex. 26:21). God’s Word consistently uses the number two as a symbolic motif of this precept and often uses the numbers three and four to represent an abundance of verified proof. Every religious and civil authority within the Bible was subject to verification; that is, their place of authority was confirmed explicitly through God’s words and signs and implicitly through their own activity (Dt. 31:3; Josh. 4:14; 6:27). Even the Lord Jesus subjected Himself to this requirement (Jn. 1:33–34; 5:31–34). Were that not enough, God led by example by providing His truth through a “cloud of witnesses”: four accounts of the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus, given by four very different men, along with the accounts of over forty witnesses composing the entirety of the Bible. God has not only expressed His expectation that we pursue truth but has also taken the initiative in showing us how to do it. In Scripture, we find three practices that ensure responsible verification.
Mind Your Motives
If our hearts are oriented toward something other than the truth, our efforts will prove fruitless (Prov. 1:7; 4:23). Frequent, honest examination of our motives is imperative because no amount of dedication or resources can help a person who is determined to go the wrong way. We seek information for dozens of reasons—necessity, curiosity, fear, covetousness, anger, and more—but the nature of those reasons and the degree to which they affect us will impact our ability to see clearly (Mt. 6:22–23). An honest accounting of the state of our mind and heart before God, our Teacher, is the way to acquire truth in every situation (1 Sam. 2:3; Prov. 1:7).
Mind Your Teachers
Few roles have as much power to help or harm as the role of the teacher (Mt. 15:14). A host of people engage us daily in a wide variety of settings seeking to inform and influence us with their knowledge. This activity is usually intentional and never neutral in impact. A healthy scrutinizing of our teachers is not merely sensible—it’s obedient (Mt. 7:15; 1 Th. 5:20–21). To what extent do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd when this teacher speaks? Do their words and works demonstrate submission to Christ and the Word of God? How do they treat those who question them and those who oppose them? When teaching is characterized by godlessness, legalism, intimidation, or manipulation, there is good reason to be concerned.
Mind Your Sources
Information comes our way not only through people but also through the materials they produce such as books, lectures, documentaries, and infograms. Like teachers, these information sources are neither static nor neutral, and therefore they demand the same amount of vetting as those who seek to instruct us. A source that refuses to supply references is not worth your time, especially if it questions longstanding, established research. Sound Bible teachers can supply a wide range of appropriate biblical and extrabiblical references to enlighten their pupils (Acts 17:2–3, 22-29). The same principle holds true in subjects that the Bible does not directly address, such as physics, archaeology, or ancient languages.
Teachers who try to refute decades of research are obligated to provide their audience with an abundance of sources supporting their position. While in print these appear as footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies, they should also be given by speakers as they deliver their talks. Don’t be afraid to seek out the source and look into the matter further! Most importantly, however, evaluate the teaching and the source provided; a bad argument with a good source is still a bad argument (Acts 17:11, 20). Take note if a teacher relies on their own works as the primary reference or limits their sources to a small segment of the evangelical and academic community (Acts 26:25–26; 1 Cor. 11:16), as these practices are another way of avoiding the biblical mandate of verification.
I don’t doubt that this has stoked up some thoughts in your own heart. What are you thinking? Let us know in the comment section below.
“When teaching is characterized by godlessness, legalism, intimidation, or manipulation, there is good reason to be concerned.”
I would add one more to that: subversive and divisive behavior. A teacher who attempts to gain followers for a cause without a humble attitude and a clear line of truth to guide the way, will often find it necessary to engage in secretive behavior, and may attempt to break people up into factions. Titus 3:10-11 warns what is really behind a divisive person if he won’t hear two warnings about his conduct.
A great observation! Thank you!