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I recently gave vent (as I so often do) about my frustration with how to apply Jesus’ injunction to beware of false teachers to our modern-day system of famous pastors and books, DVDs, and podcasts produced by people whose lives we will never see up close.

Rest assured that I have not only burdened you with these ponderings, but have brought them up in face-to-face conversations as well.

Something one face-to-face friend said reminded me about my Historical Theology class from college (sorry, but this is how my brain works). I remember talking about an early-church controversy revolving around priests who had recanted their faith or turned out to be a heretic. There was great concern that since they had abandoned their faith – that the sacraments administered by them (baptism, marriage, etc) might be invalid. Did they need to be re-done by a faithful priest?

Perhaps an odd worry for Protestants, but the answer the early church fathers came to is instructive (at least to me!) in my modern-day puzzling. The early church came to the conclusion that the power and blessing of the sacrament did not rest with the priest, but in the sacrament itself. It didn’t matter who your priest turned out to be – you would still be married under the church even if the man who performed the sacrament became a heretic later.

This is the conclusion many of you came to in your comments after my first post. You said to check the Scriptures, to see if what Mr. Famous Pastor’s book is saying lines up. In short – you said that the validity, power, and blessing of a message does not rest with the messenger, but in the message of truth itself.

I can buy that conclusion to an extent. But, again, Jesus’ words pose a problem to this explanation. He did not say that we could recognize false teachers by measuring their doctrine. He said, “By their fruit you will recognize them. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” Matthew 7:16, 18, 20

The main criteria by which to identify false teachers is their life fruit. The love, joy, peace, patience that’s supposed to be ripening in our lives with the work of the Holy Spirit.

In the world of Jesus, religious teachers were revered beyond what our English word conveys today. Perhaps a better word for us to use would be “guru”. True students of their teacher left their homes to live and study under the tutelage of their teacher. It wasn’t just an informational transaction of knowledge from student to teacher, it was a life transaction. You learned from your teacher wisdom – the act of living out knowledge in the world. You molded your life to reflect his.

Which would be why Jesus warned his listeners to not look only at a teacher’s doctrine, and to not be impressed by their famed ministry success – but to examine their life fruit. To adopt a teacher was to adopt a lifestyle and to have your life-goals and aspirations largely shaped by a single guru.

So while I can almost agree that a fault in the life of the messenger doesn’t completely invalidate the message, there is a fundamental danger in letting our worldview, our thought-processes, our aspirations be defined by a single teacher whose life we cannot examine, whose claims we cannot verify.

If I only ever read books written by mega-church pastors, then I may come to believe (consciously or unconsciously) that large churches are the goal of ministry and the criteria of success. If I only ever listen to podcasts produced by people from a certain stream of theology, I become blind to the weaknesses of that point of view or the strengths of another line of thought.

Perhaps, then, in our long-distance relationships with teachers, theologians, and pastors it is wise of us to read widely and diversely. Read people we don’t necessarily agree with. Temper theology with spiritual discipline/devotional reading. Listen to sermons by men and women preachers, Calvinists and Arminians, Anglicans and Charismatics. Perhaps that’s a way to allow our life to be shaped more by truth than by a single teacher whose life we cannot verify.

Do you read a wide spectrum of teachers – including people you don’t always agree with? Do you agree with the conclusion that the power and validity of a message rests not with the messenger but with the truth of the message? 

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