Discerning false teachers (March 3, 2024)

How do we know what is true, Naomi McQuiller asks?

Outlook Standard Lesson for March 3, 2024
Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Jude v.17-25

The contradictions on Google

Have you ever encountered a theological question that you don’t know the answer to? When happens to me, I do what anyone else would: I go straight to Google. The thing is, I am often met with multiple different viewpoints while searching for an answer — many of them conflicting with one another.

We live in an age where information is infinitely accessible, but how do we know what is true? Depending on your perspective, access to information can be good, bad, or neutral. For me, it has been overwhelming at times, especially when it comes to the exposure and access to different theologies and denominational viewpoints.

Being Reformed, Presbyterians have a set of beliefs that we subscribe to. For example, we are oriented toward God’s actions in history on behalf of the powerless and emphasize human agency. But what happens when we hear something from another denomination or set of beliefs that challenge us? How can we determine what is true and what isn’t? Jude discusses this in his short letter to a congregation.

Hey, Jude

This one-chapter book was written by Jude (Judah), the brother of James and Jesus (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). The audience for this letter was most likely a mix of Jewish Christians and Gentiles who knew Jewish texts and traditions. According to scholars, the text was meant to be longer, but Jude wrote this letter quickly and with urgency when he got word of the false teachers that infiltrated the church he was addressing.

Jude focuses on the church’s need to defend their faith and the truth of the gospel by pushing aside false teachings. He warns the church against following false teachers who have wormed their way into their community of faith. The book of Jude can be divided into four sections – greeting, appeal and contending for faith, immorality and false teachers, and exhortations. Our Scripture this week falls into the exhortation category.

In today’s reading (v. 17-25), Jude calls the church to persevere. He references the teachings of Jesus’s apostles saying, “They said to you, ‘In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires’” (v. 17-18). The phrase “the last times,” when used by first-century Jews, refers to the events that will mark the end of all humanity and human history. Jude is expressing what a false teacher within their church might look like. In verse 19, Jude provides the church with another way to identify a false teacher — “These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit.”

Jude ends with a benediction, or doxology as the New International Version puts it, like many of the other epistles (v. 24-25). It’s interesting to note this because it mirrors different ways that the Old Testament prophets would deliver oracles (a prophecy or “announcement from YHWH”) to the Jewish people.

Remember who you are

Today, we have a plethora of theological teachings at our fingertips. While access is helpful, it can also be spiritually confusing. How do we know what is true or not? Does it matter? For me, discernment can be a helpful tool in these situations. One way to practice discernment is through remembering.

Remembering is an important part of growing in our spiritual journey. This includes reflecting on what a life aligned with faith can look like, remembering the promises and acts of God, and reminding each other what we’ve been taught by other followers of Jesus (v. 17). When I feel lost or confused in my faith, I remember the ways that I have seen and experienced God in my own life, the lives of others, and in God’s creation around me.

Jude also mentions that you can discern false teachers by the way they create division and mirror behaviors from the surrounding culture. However, I should note that every community of faith will have some sort of division — even if it’s over who is bringing the potato salad to the church picnic. Living in a community with differences can show us a picture of God. So, how can we reconcile Jude’s advice with our lived experience of being a part of a church?

One way is to identify the root of the disagreement or issue. Where is it stemming from?  Is one person demeaning someone else to gain power or influence? Do all members of the conflict love Jesus and try their best to live their faiths? Can the conflict be solved through discussions and active listening?

When it comes to resisting false teaching, we can build our spiritual foundation on the gospel, rely on the love of God, and look forward to eternal life with Christ.

Questions for reflection

  1. In your opinion, what defines a person as a “false teacher” or something as a “bad doctrine/theology?” Have you experienced this throughout your faith journey?
  2. A “shortcut to success” may persuade some people to compromise their standards. How can you remain true to your values in the face of enticing trends?

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