A teacher of mine (who is also an author) once taught his class to consider the source of those whose books we read. His advice included studying what school certain authors had attended, to help us understand their most likely point of view. This is important when evaluating what someone is saying (like the Bereans), since an author may be describing something to us against the backdrop of a particular world view, or – let’s be honest – he or she may be trying to persuade us to accept their worldview.
Furthermore, I would also encourage us to evaluate the person who is teaching us. God uses fallible people (since that’s the only kind of us that there are) to do His work, so we can’t discard good teaching from God’s Word, just because the messenger isn’t perfect. However, if our testing of the spirits (see 1 John 4:1-3) shows a core incompatibility with God’s Word, or if we find a lack of spiritual fruit (see Galatians 5:22-23) from a teacher or preacher, we should review what we are being told much more carefully.
This is good advice, regardless of what we are reading or who we are listening to. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you ask the cashier at the store about his educational theology, when he asks if you want paper or plastic grocery bags (after you “claim” that you left your reusable grocery bags in the car). However, this guidance is important for evaluating those who are trying to teach us deeper and more significant things: where there is a right and wrong answer, and where the implications – of whether or not what they say is true – are more significant.
In order to get us started with this evaluation, a quick web search of an author and/or a school will often provide insight into either’s background. (Be prepared for the usual range of both supportive and hostile comments, though. The Internet is not a particularly civil place.) We can also see what else has been published by an author or a college, and talk with trusted Christians for their insight.
For evaluating individuals, let’s revisit the two verses mentioned above:
In the first passage, we are instructed to check out what others say. This isn’t just a good idea, but a command. If someone you’re listening to (or reading from) disagrees with the basic truth about Jesus, that’s probably a good sign that this person shouldn’t be directing the important elements of your path.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
1 John 4:1-3 NASB
Next, in passages like Matthew 7:15-20 and Matthew 12:33-35, we are taught that what someone says reflects what is inside of them. The book of Galatians gives us descriptions of the fruit that we can look for.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Galatians 5:22-23 NASB
Finally, to evaluate what we are taught, there’s no better source than God’s Word, itself. Especially when complemented by our listening to the Holy Spirit’s internal leading, we can build confidence in being able to determine whether or not something is true.
So, as we learn from others, let us consider their background, and seek out those whose message checks out (when measured against the truth), and whose lives give evidence that they are aligned with God, Himself. These should receive more of our attention than those who are just quoting human wisdom (not that God doesn’t impact wisdom to us that we can share, but when we mix opinions and human guesses into the mix, that’s when we start to go off the rails).
That’s enough to work on for now, but we can apply some similar criteria to those who God led to write the various books of the Bible. More on that in the second part of this article.