Which false teacher are you listening to?2
A few months ago popular Christian teacher and blogger Jen Hatmaker publicly spoke out in support of same sex marriage, shocking many in the conservative Christian world of which she was presumed to be a part. In the wake of the controversy, Christianity Today published a thought-provoking article about "the bigger story" behind the Jen Hatmaker reversal, observing the outsized influence that the rise of the internet and social media have enabled people like Hatmaker to have in churches across the country. Along this line, the author pointedly stated: "the most influential women’s leader at your church may be someone who has never stepped inside its sanctuary. It may be someone your pastor has never even heard of." That got my attention. I had not heard of Jen Hatmaker. The article goes on to observe that increasingly Christians seem to be looking to “celebrity figures” like Hatmaker for spiritual encouragement and formation rather than their own churches.
If this is true, and I believe it is, it highlights one of the unique challenges facing the local church in the 21st century. How does a church maintain appropriate oversight of her member's spiritual diet when there is unrestricted access to virtually everything under the sun? Don’t misunderstand, I believe that overall the rise of the internet and social media has been a good thing for the Christian church. The fact that you can put Christian content online has enabled the church to reach people and places that it never has. It has given men and women in 3rd world countries access to Christian education that they never would have otherwise had. It enables all of us to listen to good sermons and theology 24-7 if we really want to. But there is a negative side as well. Anybody can now call themselves a Christian teacher and put their content out there for consumption. Anyone can start a ministry, call themselves “pastor,” and proliferate their material quickly and widely. It means that the theology of TV preachers and people like Jen Hatmaker can have more of a spiritually formative influence in church than the pastor and elders.
Many years ago I attended a PCA church in Chicago, IL. It was a good church, and our pastor faithfully preached the Word every Sunday. One Sunday after church I was invited over to another member's house for lunch. I will never forget my shock when the wife casually mentioned how much she liked Joel Osteen! When I asked her about it, she told me that she listened to him almost every day. Most troubling of all, she did not seem to understand that the "Christianity" that Osteen was preaching was very different from the biblical, reformed, Christianity that she was hearing on Sundays. Thus, despite the fact that she was a faithful member of a biblical, reformed church, she was being shaped to a much greater extent by the false gospel of prosperity. How many other Christians in conservative churches fall into this same category?
Meeting this new challenge requires diligence on the part of both church members and church leadership. For church members, if you make a regular habit of following teachers or ministries outside of your church and denomination, do your homework. Do you know this person's doctrinal position? Has this person been endorsed or credentialed by any group or denomination? Does this person have any credible theological training? After all, you wouldn't go to a doctor who didn't go to Med School, would you? Do not assume that if a certain man, woman, or ministry is extremely popular, has large churches, or is seen on TV, then it is a sign of God's blessing. This is simply wrong, wrong, wrong, and many of these people may be slowly but surely leading you away from Christ and the gospel. If in doubt, consult your church leadership. After all, protection from false and harmful teaching is one of the very reasons that the ascended Christ gives the church Elders (Eph 4). Elders are men who have enough knowledge of the Word of God that they "can give instruction in sound doctrine and also rebuke those who contradict it" (Titus 1:9). Finally, make it a priority to benefit from ministry in your local church. Plug into the men’s or women’s ministry. Make an effort to find someone to disciple you that you know and trust. These are the people that will do life with you, bear your burdens, and pray with you. The TV preacher is not going to do that.
For church leaders, meeting this challenge requires a greater effort to equip their congregants to be discerning. This involves first and foremost a commitment to preaching and teaching the Word of God from the pulpit every Sunday. Expositional preaching through passages of Scripture will form the basis of how people understand the overall message of the Bible, and their understanding of basic Christian doctrine. If the pastors are not feeding their people from the Word, they open up their churches to the entrance of serious error from the outside. Secondly, church leaders should do whatever they can to provide good resources on theology, Christian education, and Christian living for their congregation. This can be the value of a good church library with book recommendations for different topics (theology, Christian living, etc.), but it can also happen through book giveaways, thoughtful men’s and women’s ministry programs and events, sponsoring occasional conferences, and many other ways.