Many false teachers bend and twist Scripture every day. Here are some red flags to look out for when a teacher “preaches from the Word”:
“What it actually means is…” would be a phrase to keep an ear out for. Sometimes, a teacher may have to dig into the original language of a passage, as our English translations (be it the literal or interpretative types) might miss out on some extra bits of information between the lines (for example, a figure of speech that implies something more). That’s fine and all, but many times you will have these in-depth word studies result in completely different definitions than what the original had intended.
I give examples of this throughout my series of posts on Hell, where words like
eternal are redefined to not be eternal or
perishing being synonymous to the concept of annihilation. Again, sometimes there is validity to analyzing a word and see if it uses a specific meaning among many options, but always be sure to double check the claim! If someone were to say “The green grass was as vibrant as the green car.” there is very little reason to believe that the green car “is actually” an electric vehicle, instead of being the simple, straight-forward green colored vehicle that the context has not indicated any reason to redefine.
These redefined words are usually accompanied by “convenience”. For example, Jehovah Witnesses redefine the term “worship” as “obeisance” in the NT to show that Christ isn’t/can’t be worshipped. This, despite the fact that the exact same greek word is used for worshipping God in other places, it just “doesn’t mean that” if the subject is Jesus, which is quite convenient for their doctrine.
A colloquial term used to refer to a reading of oneself (i.e. narcissistic) into the passage. This is a big one with a lot of the youth-oriented/modern churches. When a passage turns into how “you can-” or “you will-” out of the blue, that’s a bad sign. For example, something like John 21 where Christ appears to the disciples and has them catch fish, an interpretation about how “God wants you to throw the net for X reason” is ripe for the twisting. The directive in the actual text is to the fishing disciples, not to us. This is a recorded account of history, not a parable or figure of speech. Don’t read what isn’t there (and you will find many who try to add symbols to anything and everything), especially if that “what” is you instead of Christ.
These type of sermons usually have a pattern where they are very inspirational, or make you feel good, but carefully examined could have been made by literally any motivational speaker. The fact that you sprinkle in a few verses (and they are almost always twisted with you/your life/your destiny as a focus point) does not make it a proper reading of the scriptures. Also common with this “sprinkled verses” method is quoting one passage, and then going on for 10 - 20 minutes (or more) using personal anecdotes or stories, instead of actually reading the passage in context within what is probably an actual appropriate story that will clarify its meaning.
Another common trick is to simply leave out a portion of Scripture, usually because it directly counters whatever the false narrative is trying to claim. It’s fine if you’re just leaving out some verses for the sake of brevity in a discussion or something along those lines, as the verses in between aren’t the “key” ones for the discussion, but using omission to effectively alter the interpretation of a portion is where the problems happen.
For example, an extremely common verse used with omission is the “do not judge” verse from Matthew 7. It is usually used as a means to blanket a protection against any sort of criticism. However, this omits the second half of the verse, and the following 5 verses worth of context which ultimately show that you shouldn’t judge hypocritically, as you will be judged yourself. Verse 5 even expressly states “remove the beam from your own eye first” as a precursor to then removing the “speck from your brother’s eye”. In other words, you can judge someone (remove the speck from your brother’s eye), but you better not be guilty of being in the same boat (have a beam in your own eye), otherwise how do you even expect to help them?
🚩 Web of doctrine
The beauty of the Gospel message is its simplicity. The common man can listen to a disciple preach Christ, and turn his life right then and there. We should therefore proceed with caution when any other doctrines, primarily concerning the Gospel, require excessive leaps and loops to understand. Yes, there are certainly some more intricate topics in scripture that will require larger scale study and analysis, but there are many basics as well. Two examples:
Jehovah Witnesses believe Christ is not God, but rather a god. Earlier I mentioned how they redefine
worship in reference to Him. On top of this, they also string a combination of verses (i.e. proof texting) to “prove” that He is Michael the Archangel. They have a web of verses concerning how Christ was supposedly created as well, all to make a very convoluted case against a basic, core Christian belief: Christ is God.
Similarly, my series of posts on Hell should show how the doctrine of Annihilationism has to create a web of interpretations to ultimately, and incorrectly, conclude that there is no eternal judgment, but rather a ceasing of existence. Meanwhile in Hebrew 6:2 we see that this doctrine (eternal judgment) is one of 4 mentioned basics, of which we are not suppose to “lay the foundation” of again.
If you read scripture and come to a simple understanding of the text, but someone comes and tells you it actually means the opposite, and to prove it has to quote verses from a myriad of different books with a more complex set of logic, be very wary.
🚩 Question authority
A frequent last resort that may occur in a poorly handled portion of text is actually undermining the original texts themselves. If a certain group’s understanding of a foundational passage relies on what is effectively some sort of conspiracy, things are not going to work well.
Once again, an example of this is exemplified by the Jehovah Witness’s translation of John 1, where basically every translation has understood it as “…the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, the JW’s translation changes it to “…and the Word was a God”. Why? Their excuse is how this translation is more accurate thanks to supposed Coptic texts, and that other translations force this translation because of their false trinitarian beliefs. Regardless of the countless scholars, linguists, and translators who have come to the majority conclusion that the text means exactly what is says, the JW doctrine rips it out and slaps the rest of their web to create their Jesus-the-created-god doctrine.
In summary, let me be clear: I am not saying that we never need to do a proper word study, or that scripture is never addressing us as a general audience, or that we have to always read a full chapter just to state the point of one verse, or that a certain translation can’t misplace a word here or there.
My point is there are very common patterns that are exhibited by false teachers, be it intentional or not, which will ultimately result in poorly taught scripture to God’s sheep. This is a very dangerous thing for the teacher, as James 3:1 (NET) mentions, because teachers “will be judged more strictly”. Likewise, the listener is told to “Examine all things. Firmly hold onto what is good.” (1 Thes 5:21 MEV) and not simply listen to whoever and wholly accept their teaching without consulting the Bible to see if it confirms what was said. Let us not be deceived by twisted words of truth.