7 Ways to Discern Subtle False Theologies

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We need to understand how to read Scripture.
We need to understand how to read Scripture. (Flickr/Creative Commons)

One of the most important lessons I have learned, from years as a pastor and leader who works with other leaders, is to have a robust, full-orbed theological foundation that is practical enough to meet the challenges of ministry, cultural engagement and life.

By "theology" I am referring to the study of God, the Scriptures and their application to every aspect of life.

Jesus tells us in John 8:31-32 that we need to continue in His word in order to know the truth. Thus in this passage Jesus connects obedience, action, and doing to epistemology. Or, to say it simpler, Jesus connects doing and practical experience with the ability to understand and discern the truth. James says that faith without works is dead (James 2). Hence, there is an inescapable connection between theology and practical experience!

The following are things I base my theological grid upon, based upon my own opinion, research and experience:

1. The Bible is the Primary Reference for Theology

Unfortunately, many pastors and leaders read more books about the Bible than the Bible itself! Every leader needs to have a practice of reading through the Bible every year and focusing more of their time and attention on the Bible.

In reading the Bible as it relates to serious theological study, we need to focus on understanding the author's original intent rather than superimposing our own subjective, moralistic messages upon biblical passages. After we properly exegete a passage, we have a green light to determine other secondary meanings and applications to our lives and churches.

Thus, we as pastors and marketplace leaders have to both do serious inductive study as well as reading whole books of the Bible quickly for the proper context, resulting in a comprehensive understanding of the metanarrative of Scripture so we can properly interpret the Bible as the foundation for practical theology.

2. Christocentric/Trinitarian Theology

Jesus teaches us in Luke 24:27 and 44-45 that much of the Old Testament Scriptures point to Him. We need to have a Christocentric approach to both testaments in order to fully grasp their meaning. It helps to read the gospels, especially the gospel of Matthew, to see how the apostles interpreted Old Testament passages in light of the coming Messiah. Of course, we cannot fully understand any of the epistles or the book of Revelation unless we understand major parts of the Old Testament, which teaches that its complete fulfillment is only understood in the person and work of the Messiah.

Furthermore, we also see the Trinitarian Godhead manifest in so many Old Testament passages that it would be too numerous to attempt to cite them all in this paper. Having an understanding of the Godhead revealed in Scripture will enable us to interpret hard-to-understand passages such as Genesis 1:26, where God said let "us" make man in "our" image, as well as in Genesis 18:1-3 where it seems three persons are referred to as Lord, and Genesis 19:24 where it says the Lord rained down fire from the Lord out of heaven (one Lord seemed to be on the earth and the other in heaven). Suffice it to say, there is much more to be said about this particular point, but we will go on to the next point for the sake of space.

3. Theology and Personal Spirituality

Although I strongly believe there is a proper historical-grammatical way to exegete Scripture to understand the original intent of the authors, Scripture also teaches us that only spiritual men and women can understand the full import of Scripture and have the mind of God; the natural man does not understand the things of the spirit of God because they are foolishness to him (1 Corinthians 2:14).

Before I gave my heart to Christ I intellectually understood the Bible but had no real personal connection to the Lord who inspired the prophetic and apostolic writers. Thus, I had no real personal experience to fully comprehend what was written.

For example, how can an unconverted person understand the groanings of the Spirit (Romans 8:26), the witness of the Spirit for salvation (Romans 8:16), the leading of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:14), answers to prayer, faith to move mountains (Mark 11:23), intimate fellowship with God in the Most Holy Place (Hebrews 10:19), taking up our cross (Mark 8:34), or walking in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-17)? An unbeliever may be able to intellectually understand some of these concepts but would be unable to know the unknowable, which is only by faith and experiential knowledge of Christ.

Thus, as we grow in grace and (experiential) knowledge of our Lord Jesus (2 Peter 3:18) we will also grow in our understanding of Scripture which will inform our theology in the manner God wants us to know it. We cannot separate hermeneutics (the science of interpreting the Word) from spirituality and maturity in Christ.

4. Theology and Community

Many pastors and interpreters of the Word have made the mistake of relying solely upon their own individual studies to determine their theology. But the Word of God teaches us in 1 Corinthians 12 that we are all part of the Body of Christ, and in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 Jesus says to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church. Thus, there are some things God will not teach us or speak to us unless we are in community with other believers.

Sound biblical theology is molded by being immersed in the local church and also by having honest dialogue with peers who are also serving in leadership roles in the context of the kingdom of God. I strongly believe we need to establish hermeneutical communities in order to properly interpret the Scriptures.

I thank God He made me pastor of a church for almost 30 years because when I travel and teach networks of leaders internationally and when I go to local churches to preach, I am able to preach practical things I would have never learned if I had not been a senior pastor for so many years. My prophetic bent actually could have done great harm to local churches if it wasn't tempered with all the trials and tears of establishing a local church! Now I am very careful and not quick to shoot off my mouth and give opinions when preaching in other churches.

Not only that, but my theology has also been tempered by dealing with real people, challenges and situations; many passages in the Bible would not even make sense to me if I were not serving in a local body and serving other pastors and leaders in our networks.

It is essential that every pastor and leader have a community of people in which they discuss and interpret Scripture. This will also protect us from going off into left field with outlandish impractical theological beliefs. It is also helpful to peruse some of the writings of the major theological magazines and bloggers (Christianity Today, First Things, Charisma) to keep up with what others around the world are saying about the church, culture and the Scriptures.

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