Scripture provides protection against abuse and false teaching
It’s worth noting how False Teaching works. In 2 Timothy 3:13, Paul talks about imposters who “go on” both “deceiving and being deceived.” The subtlety of deception is that we can even convince ourselves of the stories we tell. The level of sincerity with which a deception is held to provides no excuse or justification. Romans 16:17-18 again highlights the subtle craft of the false teaching describing how “By smooth talk and flattery they deceive” (v18) with the intention of causing divisions (v17).
False teachers will use flattery and deception to try and isolate their target from the body of God’s people. That is what division is all about. A sheep that has been separated from the flock is vulnerable to attack. So the message you are meant to hear is “no-one else really understands you: only I care.” Then the false teacher seeks to silence God’s voice. They will undermine their target’s confidence in God’s Word. There are various ways that they can do this. For example, in our day and age, the simplest way is to discredit the reliability of the Bible and question inerrancy so that the truth of Scripture is replaced with the false teacher’s own ideas and opinions. However, a false teacher can claim to be committed to Scripture whilst deliberately misinterpreting it, ripping it out of context and wrongly applying it. They may well insist that you should only read Scripture through the lens of their own personal interpretation (e.g. through a prescribed study book or magazine). The target is weaned away from dependence on God to dependence on the false teacher. The aim of the false teacher is to gain and control a following for their own benefit (popularity, material wealth etc).
That’s why consistent reading and exposition of Scripture in church life and personal meditation and study are vital. Those who have heard the true shepherd’s voice will know to distinguish it from a false shepherd. Those who through consistently solid Bible teaching have developed confidence in God’s Word will know not to be distracted and misled by alternatives which promise much but in reality offer little.
We need to make sure that we read Scripture correctly
Mishearing what someone says can be potentially embarrassing, costly and dangerous. If we believe that we know God as he speaks to us through Scripture, then we will want to make sure that we read it correctly. After all, as we have seen above, false teachers are capable of twisting Scripture to fit their own aims. We too can misread Scripture.
This is why the discipline of Hermeneutics is an important one for believers to master. Hermeneutics simply means the way in which we read or interpret something. It has sometimes been referred to as the lens through which we read a book, piece of art, play, film, object, scene, factual description etc.
How do we know how to read Scripture correctly? How do we know that the interpretation we have made is the correct one, especially when so many people have different interpretations? These questions are worthy of further detailed study and discussion, but I would like to make a couple of observations here.
First of all, the best way to read something is in the way that it asks us too. We respect an individual by accepting their account of who they are, their personality, their likes and dislikes, their history at face value unless we are given good reason to suspect what they disclose. It’s the same with a book and especially with the Bible as God’s self-disclosure. The Bible invites us to read it as God’s inspired word, not as human speculation. It promises us truth that will be useful and sufficient for all of life. That’s our starting point. It also gives us clues about how to read the different parts of it so we distinguish between poetry, wisdom literature, history and story-telling. As we read and re-read the text in the light of its own self-disclosure, our understanding becomes sharper, just like when the optician adjusts the lens. This circling in to a more and more accurate reading has sometimes been referred to as the hermeneutic spiral.
Secondly, I encourage people to read Scripture together. There is a corporate dimension to this. We don’t sit down in isolation and come up with our own speculative interpretations. We challenge each other, we check things out and we listen to wise teaching. That’s why gathering as a church and in small groups is so important. There is a right sense of “tradition.” This is not about the church handing down oral traditions as well as Scripture and it is certainly not about church leaders being able to develop their own new ideas. Rather, there is the sense that the church has held onto a right understanding of Scripture through the tests of time and we want to be careful of novel interpretations.
Thirdly, once again I’m indebted to Mike Ovey who used to remind his students that in a real conversation (as opposed to an imagined one) the other party may well disagree with you. We respect the other speaker when we permit them to disagree with us. If we find that Scripture never challenges us, never disagrees with us, always leaves us feeling reinforced and comfortable in our own ideas, then it might be time to stop and have a look at how we are approaching it. If God is genuinely speaking, then he must be allowed to disagree with us. If it is God who is speaking, then when we disagree, my only right response is to accept and obey what he says. In effect, I repent; I change my mind so that it is conformed to God’s Word rather than my preferences.