Beware of False Teachers?

Image result for false teachersBy Joe LaGuardia

Beware of false teachers, who come to you in sheep’s clothing” (Matt.  7:15).

Lets reflect on false teachers for a moment.   We don’t talk often enough about them, and I have a feeling that we hesitate to call anyone a false teacher because we don’t want to be jerks.  But Jesus commands us to do so in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:15).

The question is, how do we differentiate between true and false teachers when, in the very same chapter, Jesus instructs us to “judge not, lest ye be judged” (Matt 7:1)?  Google an image  of “false teachers,” and you will get montages of famous pastors and preachers that have the loudest voices among us.  That’s not very nice.

The first step in any biblical exegesis worth its salt is to put yourself in the shoes of those who heard this command in the first place.  Jesus was talking to his disciples upon a mountain around the Sea of Galilee.  He was far from the Temple, and he had yet to interact with the official priests of Jerusalem.

In warning his followers of false teachers, however, Jesus was setting himself apart.  He came not to abolish to law, but to fulfil it.  He began his teachings with repentance  and the Kingdom of God, (which implied revolution and revolt from the first-century worldview), but then reversed expectations by blessing the poor, the meek, and the weak.

His signature teachings did not perpetuate violence against oppressors, but included the unavoidable fate of persecution and the forgiving of enemies.  What kind of teaching was this?

Later in the Sermon, around Matthew 7, Jesus accentuates the authority of his teaching.  Only God can judge, but you are to discern true and false prophets by their fruit.  Those who hear Jesus’ words and fail to obey him are like people who build homes on sinking sand.  Ask, seek, and knock and God will take care of you.

This Teacher has authority, and the fruit of his teaching are attested by the works he accomplishes (see Matt. 4:23-25).  When crowds amass, however, beware of distractions, false teachers, and the self-righteous.

Nowadays, we want to apply the label “false teachers” to anyone who touts a  theology we either deem heretical or exploitive.  We poke fun at television evangelists, and the downfall of not a few major celebrity preachers have only reinforced our habit to judge those who are famous.  I’ve been called a false teacher several times by people who are so far to the right even Jesus stands to the left of them.

We can’t call just anyone we don’t like false teachers, and we can’t be jerks or judgmental!

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So there must be a second step in figuring out what Jesus means in his warning, and that is to see what people he confronted the most: namely, the Pharisees, scribes and experts on the law.  He called them white-washed tombs.  He warned his disciples to “be not like the hypocrites” who stand in the marketplace with elaborate prayers.   He didn’t want his followers to make their righteousness rather than God’s grace the center of their testimony.

But if this is true, then this brings us to a definition of “false teachers” by a very uncomfortable standard: Jesus warned his disciples against those who were the most religious among them.

Pharisees were normal folks like you and me; their concern was obeying God because they believed that Roman occupation was a result of Israel’s sin.  What is wrong with a group of people policing others for the sake of holiness and obedience?  Seems legit to me!

But that is the very problem.  Jesus says that false teachers are “ravenous” (RSV), and their appetite for others are in their concern not for the log in their own eye, but for the speck in others.  People who fail to accentuate God’s love and grace, mercy, kindness, and redemption are too focused on the letter of the law rather than the Spirit of the law.  They push for an agenda of personal, feel-good spirituality at the expense of an active faith that works and persists in doing justice.

Their teaching is divisive, and results in distrust, discord, and (often) unnecessary disharmony as a result of this kind of religious zeal.  How many churches split because one group of people believe they are running the church more effectively (which translates into “more holy”) than another group in the church?

The fruit of false teachers are false because the fruit turns sour.  It sucks the life and air out of rooms that can otherwise be safe sanctuaries in which people are filled with the Holy Spirit.  False teachers don’t start off as such; rather they become false because their season of fruit turns bitter.

That means that you, if you are a leader, can become a false teacher if you are not heeding Jesus’ warning.  No one is exempt from this temptation!

As a religious leader I am cognizant of the power that we pastors wield in the lives of others.  I often ask: Do I offer a life giving word of God, bearing fruit that feeds others and leads them into the relentless grace of God; or do I embody bad news that focuses too much (without a sense of perspective) on the downfall and failure of others?  Its a good question to ask and consider.

 

The 4 Spiritual Hungers of Our Time

Image result for hungry baby birds

By Joe LaGuardia

Writing as far back as 1947, O. O. Boggess hits on four spiritual hungers in his article “Your Body, The Temple of the Holy Ghost” that resonate today. Although the article is a bit dated, these hungers still drive us to find meaning and belonging in community; they engage us and create a yearning that leads us to the spiritual; these four hungers drive us to do things that sometimes defy reason–often at our peril.

If we can articulate them, and then focus on fulfilling them in a healthy way, then perhaps these spiritual hungers can make us more effective in fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives. If churches can meet all four needs in equal measure, perhaps our pews may fill too!

The first spiritual hunger is for safety and security. This hunger begins at the very start of life, as our parents nurture us and create a sanctuary within a loving environment. This carries into our adulthood, and we continue to crave stability and predictability. I used to tell people in ministry that I, as a pastor, seek to be predictable, if not perfect — because people find solace in predictability from their leaders!

If trust in the institutions, norms, and surroundings in which we find ourselves diminishe, then fear increases and we begin to do and say things that are unhealthy. We see the world as a hostile, combative place in which we pit ourselves against others, winners and losers. We seek protection at the expense of urgent profession, and we spend more time looking over our shoulder than we do putting our arm around someone else’s shoulder to guide them to the care and love of Jesus Christ.

How many of our churches and institutions have given into fear by trying to satiate this hunger by placing their trust in the ways of worldly culture and weapons of war? Yes, we need to make our institutions and places of worship safe–to do otherwise is nearsighted and naive–but putting processes in place will not ultimately quench this instinctive hunger. Only placing our faith and hope in Christ–the only constant and certainty in our world–will fulfill this yearning.

The Bible warns us against putting a disproportionate amount of faith in our man-made systems. Psalm 44:6 says, “For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me; but thou hast saved us from our foes.” And the prophets warn Israel against making alliances with other nations. God is our source of strength, and the Holy Spirit our source of power. We should not give into the politics of fear.

The second hunger is for companionship. How many of us fall in love with the wrong people because we are searching so diligently for a sense of belonging? Again, we place our trust in each other, as if our love for others will somehow bring a relief to our beating heart once and for all. The old adage is true: There is a Jesus-shaped hole in our heart that only Jesus can fill!

Do not look for love in all the wrong places, and submit to the Holy Spirit so that you’re empowered to live your life so you don’t become the subject of a country song. God makes us for friendship, companionship and love, but only within the bounds of kindred spirits. Set boundaries, create healthy relationships, and communicate with honesty. Trust that the closer you draw to Christ, then the more healthy your relationships with others will prove to be.

The third hunger is for knowledge. God put in us a drive to learn about the world around us, and curiosity should drive us to experience life with a sense of wonder, humility, and awe. We should be open to the Spirit’s movement in the world, and we should anticipate that God will surprise us as we seek to learn new things.

My wife and I are educators, so we commonly tell people that we are life-long learners. We learn in the things we experience, whether they result in blessings or failures. My greatest lessons came about when I saw circumstances as opportunities to grow, and when I’ve been open to learning something new about myself.

Of course, learning something new means being open to changing our minds and our hearts about things–this is critical in growing in knowledge; we cannot remain unchanged throughout our life. Stagnation hinders spiritual growth!

The last hunger is to know God personally. I’ve met countless individuals who know about God, know of God, and have studied a lot about God–but they do not know God personally. They see God as an idea or a worldview or as a lofty, inaccessible ethereal Being who has no time for us as individuals.

If there is one thing that has sustained my faith through the years, it hasn’t been from intense studies of scripture or time spent with other believers at church (though both are life-giving), but with regular, daily time spent abiding in Jesus Christ.

Christ calls us to be his family, and the Holy Spirit indwells within each of us so that we can walk with God on a personal level. Jesus said, “As the father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…that your joy may be complete” (John 15:9-10, 11b).

As I reflect on these four hungers, I can’t help but think of how lopsided we’ve treated some of them. We are gaunt and malnourished in some areas, and we are too fat on others. We teeter too much to one, and neglect others so that we walk around like zombies, half-dead roaming the earth.

Churches would also do well to attend to each hunger, and provide balance in meeting each hunger in community. Its not a matter of having gifts to fill one or two of these hungers, but approaching God so that Jesus nourishes us completely, in the abundance of life he has promised so long ago.

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Source: O. O. Boggess, “Your Body, The Temple of the Holy Ghost,” in The Holy Spirit (Anderson IN: Warner Press, 1947), pp. 109-115.

Is Honesty the Best Preaching Policy?

man writing in front of booksBy Joe LaGuardia

They say that, in writing, honesty is the best policy.  Stephen King advises in On Writing that writing is best when it tells the truth.  In Right to Write, Julia Cameron has an entire chapter on honesty and its merits in writing.  Creative writing coaches will tell you, if it ain’t the truth, it ain’t worth putting on the page.  Honesty has sold millions of books and millions of dollars in movie sales.

Yet, in preaching every week, I wonder whether honesty has a place in the pulpit.  I am not saying that we preachers lie or manipulate our congregations, but honesty implies that you, rather than the God about whom we testify and the scripture that we seek to exegete, takes center stage in the preaching event.

Some say that personal stories have no place in sermons.  They distract from the doctrines we need to teach.  Others say that the only godly way to preach is by expository preaching, which leaves neither room nor time for personal exploration.  So where does honesty have a place  in the pulpit?

I come from a school of theology (as many Baptists do) that makes room for what is called narrative preaching.  Narrative preaching, popularized by the likes of Fred Craddock and John Claypool, not only focuses on scripture for  the sermon, but does so in narrative and story-form.  Since we live the story of the Gospel in real time and in real situations, than real life–in all its beauty and ugliness–have a place in the sermon.

Some narrative preachers tell stories and preach so well, in fact, that the congregation forgets they’re preaching in the first place.  The sermons are like good movies–the moment you forget you’re watching a movie, the director and actors of the movie has moved you into the best that cinema has to offer.

Narrative preaching (and, in Claypool’s methodology, “confessional preaching”) places the preacher squarely in the center of the story.  It is disingenuous (as the notion goes) to say that the preacher can “stay out” of the sermon–we bring all of who we are — our personality, life, experiences, and struggles — to bear on the text, so to think that we can somehow not make it personal is the least honest thing we can do.

In reading Julia Cameron’s chapter on “honesty” recently, I got to thinking about the place of honesty and storytelling in the preaching event.  I find my home squarely in the narrative preaching tradition.  I cannot do expository preaching (I’ve tried, with great failure).  I cannot do outline preaching (precept upon precept)–I bore myself to death.  I do not consider myself a teacher of scripture–that’s for Sunday School.

I am a preacher who stands in the tradition of a Lord who told stories in order to help people experience the Kingdom of God.  Jesus never preached in expository style–he didn’t teach about God; he helped people meet God.

But that doesn’t mean I am required to be honest, at least not in the way that creative writers mean it.  Let me explain.

In writing, honesty implies that you reveal your deepest conflict or assumptions about life.  It is a type of writing that values memoir over embellishment.  We write from the inside out because people do not deserve deceit or fanciful exaggeration.  We write what we see, and life does not need help in communicating something true and valuable.

In preaching, however, storytelling still does not create an ecosystem in which the “I” takes precedence over the “Thou.”  We are still not at the center of the story,  and telling the truth can be misconstrued as pushing an agenda more than bearing witness to what we–as the congregation–can learn together about being God’s beloved community.

We go to church and experience all of worship (not just the sermon, only a fraction of what worship is supposed to be about–those long sermon times are for another column!) because we come to together to experience God and bear witness to how God has redeemed us and is ever redeeming us.

We preachers need to be honest in our shortcomings.  We mustn’t pretend to have all the answers or go out of our way to convince the congregation that they need to think like we do.  We need to be honest about those areas of scripture with which we wrestle–and explain why they are difficult–not provide cliches that gloss over a Word that is beyond us and still contains deep mysteries that we will never really know about, completely at least.

We must be honest by acknowledging that we are not all that great of people, and that we’re like everyone else aside from our vocation as professional expositors of the text.  Instead, we must be humble by keeping our sermons concise and focused rather than allowing pride to prove to others how verbose we are.  Our vocation as preachers is one of function, not of elevated spiritual divinity over others who work in and on behalf of Christ’s church.

Every week, I wrestle with this idea.  I take great pains not to let myself (or my family or my situations past or present) get in the way of the Gospel message.  I use personal anecdotes at times to illustrate or accentuate a point, but it is not the destination of the sermon.  These stories, like other methods of storytelling, are merely resources to help others experience God.  Being honest is valuable, but its not the point.  No one comes to church to hear about me.  Honesty is a policy, but its not always the best way to communicate God’s Word.