Summer, 1994 – I was a summer research intern at Penn State. While there, I attended a church where I consistently heard clear, biblical teaching. Just like every other church I’d attended to that point, I did my best to approach every sermon and study with open hands – ready to grab whatever knowledge was offered. It seemed that each week my open hands had been filled to overflowing.
Summer, 1997 – I’d notched two years in my teaching career and was participating in a local church for almost as long. I chose my church, in a little city of northern Ohio, because of its – you guessed it – clear, biblical teaching. And I attended with open hands.
That same summer, I took a trip back to Pennsylvania. On that first Sunday of my visit, I was excited not only to see old friends, but also to hear a good sermon. I settled in – hands open, ready to receive.
What happened next sent me into a tailspin.
The pastor of that little church in State College did something he was totally unaware of. He delivered a sermon that completely contradicted one I’d heard a month before at my church in Ohio.
I had no idea what to make of it. Both my pastor in Ohio and my pastor in State College were wonderful men whom I trusted. As far as I could tell, both were teaching from Scripture, yet somehow both had come to different conclusions. I kept thinking How do I figure out the truth? Who do I trust?
I wanted what everyone wants when confused about Scripture: I wanted someone to tell me what to think! Of course, the problem with that was obvious: I would have no way of knowing if that person was actually right.
In addition to that, I kept thinking about the different preaching styles of the two pastors. I had to be honest – I wanted to believe one pastor for the simple (and dangerous!) reason that I liked his style better.
So there I was: not knowing what to think, realizing there was nothing about the pastors themselves that could reliably lead me to the correct doctrine, and battling my own temptation to settle the matter in the most self-gratifying way possible.
Eventually, it became obvious that there was only one solution: the answer was going to have to come from Scripture itself.
And I was going to have to find it.
I spent the next few years searching for the answer in the Word.
That experience taught me to ask some critical questions of myself:
Why do I believe A?
Why do I do Z?
If my only answer was “because [someone] said so,” I was in danger of being led astray and of wasting my life efforts on faulty doctrine. I realized that I am responsible for ensuring that my doctrine aligns with Scripture and for letting it shape how I live my life.
Aside from settling that specific piece of doctrine, I also learned my “open hands” approach made me easy to lead astray.* Open hands allowed me to believe almost anything I heard. Contradiction was bound to happen. In my case, it drove me to find answers for myself, but acquiescing to the teaching delivered in the more appealing style was very tempting simply because it sounded so good! I know that for many others, contradictions like this have left them disillusioned to the point of abandoning their faith entirely.
I’ve since concluded that “open hands” are best filled with a sieve. The mesh for this sieve must be crafted from a knowledge and understanding of God’s Word. All of the teaching we encounter is filtered through the sieve. As our knowledge of God (through His revealed Word) increases, the mesh becomes finer. Over time, less faulty doctrine passes through and is easily tossed aside.
Are you filling your empty hands with any teaching that comes your way, or with a reliable sieve that eliminates faulty doctrine?
Many people seem daunted by the idea of learning from Scripture on their own. I intended to spend this summer developing a class about Scripture study. Then I came across the book Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin. After getting over my raging jealously that she seems to be reading my mind before I even know what I’m thinking 😉 I thought I might teach through her book in the fall. If you are local and are interested, check out the book and let me know what you think below (comments are open,) on my facebook page, or on the contact form on my Speaker page. (If you would like to know more about Jen Wilkin’s philosophy, you can read some of that here. Check out her comment section too because she gives some links for further information.)
If you aren’t local or can’t do a class, don’t worry. You have God’s revealed Word, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the mind of Christ! I will also be posting more in the next few weeks about how to do personal studies. Stay tuned!
*I do not think either of my pastors were trying to do this.
Disclaimer: This post is not meant to suggest that we should completely ignore teaching from the brothers and sisters God has placed around us. I am suggesting that we are all responsible for discerning right doctrine, and that the only way to do this is by developing a strong knowledge of God that is consistent with Scripture. (It is also my opinion that any Bible teacher worth a plug nickel would welcome this kind of thinking from those they teach.)