Discerning Even the Best of Teachers

September 24, 2020  - By Lara D'Entremont

Well-Watered Women Blog - Discerning Even the Best of Teachers

A Choice to Trust

Five years ago, I stood at the edge of a 30-foot wall with belts and ropes cinched around me as my boyfriend (now husband) coaxed me to step backward. “You can do this, Lara,” he said. “You’re going to be fine. It’s completely safe.” He and a fellow co-worker had convinced me it would be fun to propel down the climbing wall. “I’m terrified to do it, but you’re better than me, Lara. You can do it,” she had said when we stood at the foot of the towering wall.

At first, it did sound fun. But standing on top of the wall, peering over the edge at the gravel below, fun was no longer my word of choice. “Just step backward off the top of the wall and put your feet flat against the side,” Daniel said. “Once you’re perpendicular to the wall, you can just bounce your way down. It’s really easy.”

But everything in my body screamed against it as I stepped back onto the ledge. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” I gasped, grabbing Daniel’s arm. “I can’t do it.”

Who to Trust?

I had two alliances challenging one another: my love and trust for Daniel (that he would do everything in his power to keep me safe) and my body’s natural instincts telling me to flee to safety. Both had proven trustworthy in keeping me safe in the past, but both had also failed me in the past. Where should I place my trust?

Each of us is faced with decisions in life, and the hardest ones often involve people we love and know to be faithful. But have you ever felt this tension between Bible teachers you know and love? Perhaps you read a book that critiqued the beliefs of a beloved Bible teacher, or you heard an episode on your favourite podcast criticising them. Maybe like me, you’ve felt this tight tension and you don’t know what to do with it—maybe it’s even rattled your faith a little. How do we discern what’s true even among the best of Bible teachers? 

Every Teacher Is Capable of Error

Many of us have a collection of Bible teachers and resources—such as local pastors and leaders or well-known theologians, expositors, and writers—that we look to for help in understanding God’s Word. And if not, you should! God has blessed us with people who are gifted in understanding and explaining his Word in order to protect, build, and equip us (Ephesians 4:11–12). We were never meant to work out our faith alone.

But because we live in a world of sin and weakness, every teacher isn’t saying the same thing. Some are wolves that pretend to be shepherds so they can devour the flock. Others truly love God’s flock but, in the weakness of their minds, misinterpret God’s perfect Word. And yet others can’t be said to be definitely wrong—because we all have incomplete knowledge and some minor doctrines aren’t as clear as the foundational ones. These are the messy weeds believers need to step through as we seek good food to graze on. 

One thing is certain, though: All pastors and teachers must be heard with discerning ears. We don’t have the luxury of turning off our brains and simply absorbing whatever a teacher says as pure truth, no matter how educated or trustworthy this teacher has proven to be. We should always be testing what we hear and read against Scripture because only Scripture is infallible (Psalm 19:7–9).

The Danger of Idolizing Teachers

In the past, I have idolized teachers. Though I would have never said they were incapable of error, I acted as if they were. They said it, so it must be true. Even when I struggled to reconcile what I knew to be true from the Bible with their teaching, I pushed the thoughts away and forced myself to accept what I heard.

But as I broadened my resources and heard from other teachers, I saw I wasn’t the only one who had trouble agreeing with what my favourite teacher had taught. I had to discern who to believe as right, though both were proven to be trustworthy. In some ways, it felt like that moment on the climbing wall, and I struggled to discern who to trust.

We need to guard ourselves against idolizing Bible teachers. While it’s good to have a group of trustworthy sources we can reference and learn from, we don’t want to lift them to a place of infallibility—because everyone falls short. We need to remind ourselves that no level of education, height of platform, denominational adherence, or level of faithfulness to God’s Word exempts a person from error. We all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

Consider God's Word

While we feed on their words, we need to consider what we know to be true of God’s Word. We need to compare their words and the fruit of their ministries with other solid teachers. We need to consider what church history has declared to be true throughout the ages. If we seclude ourselves around one teacher, it’s much easier to fall into idolizing them. But by surrounding ourselves with a herd of fellow sheep and shepherds, we will have the opportunity to healthily compare, seeing where some may disagree and challenge each other in truth and love.

This kind of disagreement between good teachers shouldn’t cause us to question God’s Word or our own faith. It should strengthen it. It should press us deeper into Scripture and help us develop a better understanding of it. Consider, for example, if your Sunday school teacher shared a different view on how to interpret the book of Revelation than the teacher on your favourite podcast recently shared.

Eschatology (the study of end times) is a secondary doctrine that believers can faithfully disagree on. This could be an opportunity for you to study and better solidify what you believe about the last days. Moments like this don’t have to shake our faith; rather, they should make us more confident as we seek to better understand what we believe. 

Who Can We Trust?

I once saw a Twitter thread where a woman grieved, “Not another one! Who can I trust?” A discernment blogger had published an article critiquing and condemning yet another Bible teacher for errors she had found in her teaching and had declared her as “not recommended.” This is the dangerous, opposite side of idolizing. Just because a teacher has a few minor things we disagree with doesn’t mean we need to write him or her off as a false teacher or unworthy of our time. 

Everyone we learn from is going to make mistakes and probably have areas where we will disagree with them. If we disown them for it, there eventually won’t be anyone we can trust. We should guard against false teachers who misrepresent God and misconstrue the gospel, but teachers who interpret minor doctrines differently than we would are far from dangerous.

That day on the climbing wall I chose to trust Daniel and my co-worker. I unclenched my fingers from his forearm and stepped off the edge. I pushed my fears aside and let a shrill of laughter come from me as the wind whooshed underneath my back. Within several jumps, I landed at the bottom with wobbly legs. Though that day I chose to trust Daniel, other days would come when I wouldn’t—like on a higher zipline course where I chose to watch from the sidelines. Does that mean he’s not trustworthy? Does that mean I should never trust him again in the future? Not at all.

Practicing Discernment

We will always be practicing discernment. We will realize some teachers aren’t worth listening to because they’re propagating doctrines the Bible condemns. Some teachers will become a frequent reference, though we may disagree with them on how to interpret some secondary doctrine. And some teachers we will nearly agree with on every point. But through it all, we must continue training ourselves in discernment, as all growing believers must do (Hebrews 5:11–14). 

Lara d’Entremont is a Biblical Counselor-in-training, and her desire in writing is to teach women to turn to God’s Word in the midst of daily life and suffering to find the answers they need. She wants to teach women to love God with both their minds and hearts. Lara is married to Daniel and they live in Nova Scotia, Canada.

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  1. Grace Wilson says:

    You have inspired me to be discerning of my teachers, and if I find disagreement, to press into scripture and investigate truth for myself.
    Some dissonance between teachers should not lead us to doubts, but rather lead us to discernment.
    How wonderful that we have a variety of teachers, as we have a vast variety of people who will resonate with different voices!

  2. […] studies yet only teach their own simplistic, surface-level interpretations of the text. We need to be discerning. This doesn’t mean we search for a perfect commentary, because no such commentary exists. Like […]

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