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Home: Articles / Bible Studies: Apologetics

"Questions to Ask When Evaluating Parachurch Christian Ministries and Popular Bible Teachers"
By Fred Butler

Throughout the Bible, the biblical writers warn the people of God to be on the look out for an infiltration by false prophets and teachers.  Peter writes, for instance, that these religious fakers secretly bring in destructive heresies (2 Peter 2:1).  The idea is that they are stealth-like with the promotion of their theological errors; they bring their false teachings in the backdoor of the church, as it were, when no one is looking. The Apostle Jude even affirms this truth with similar words when he writes, For uncertain men have crept in unnoticed (Jude 4).  They are like thieves sneaking into a house at night, but their theft is to steal away doctrinal soundness from the Christian believers.  In addition to these two warnings, Paul’s final words to the Ephesian elders were even more vivid when he exhorts them to take heed to themselves and the churches they shepherd because, as Paul puts it, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock (Acts 20:28, 29). 

 

These biblical warnings, and others like them, are even more necessary to heed by Christians in the 21st century, as they were when the prophets and apostles first wrote them.  The proliferation of Christian radio, television networks, and the advent of the internet have given hundreds of secret inroads for false teachers to smuggle doctrinal error in to the congregations of local Churches and the personal lives of Bible believing Christians.  There are hundreds of Christian radio and television parachurch[1] ministries that pepper the landscape of evangelicalism in America, each one supposedly offering “solid” teaching for the supporting audience.  These parachurch ministries are beneficial for believers for the most part, however, there are some of these ministries, acting under the guise of a biblical authority, that serve up some of the worse spiritual poison imaginable.  On top of these broadcast ministries, the internet has given rise to literally thousands of theological websites. There are those “Christian” websites that are blatantly bad, where as others are less conspicuous, introducing their error in unsuspecting ways.

Now, more than ever, is the time for Christians to be on the alert to the possible presence of these “spiritual serial-killers” stalking the people of God, either in the form of broadcast radio, cable television, published books, or the internet.  False teaching is deadly serious; because on one hand, it can damn the souls of those blinded by its error never allowing them to understand the truth, while on the other, it can entangle Christians with wrong thinking that will rob them of the joy and delight of walking with Christ.  Furthermore, it will cause divisions within congregations and before a church realizes it, false teaching will disrupt the godly fellowship believers have with one another. 

 

The reality of spiritual invasion by false teachers should cause believers to cultivate discernment.  This is especially true when they encounter the variety of so-called ministries with in any of the mediums mentioned above.  Because of this danger, I wanted to offer a series of questions I usually pose when I come across any new “ministry” or popular Bible teacher.  This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but these questions do help a wary Christian to protect himself, along with other believers who may be uncertain about a specific teaching ministry or Bible teacher.  I have eleven of them to offer.

 

(1) Does the ministry teach orthodox Christian doctrine?

 

This is the most important question that must be considered when evaluating a Christian ministry or the teachings of a popular, Bible teacher and author.  Generally, most pseudo-Christian cults and other unorthodox groups depart from biblical Christianity in four key areas:

 

  • They will put aside the final authority of scripture for the man-made teachings of the main group, or leaders of the group.  Usually, this is seen with how the literature of the ministry will highlight certain biblical passages that supposedly support their “doctrines.” They will then provide their interpretative spin on the passages, and claim it is what the Bible teaches.  The leadership will never allow any challenge to the validity of those interpretations that may point out other biblical passages contradicting them. Moreover, any objections to their core beliefs are explained away in a clever way or perhaps ignored altogether.

      In some instances, the group may even re-translate the Bible to fit their pet teachings, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their New World Translation; or the group will add more “scriptures” to the canon of the Bible, claiming that it is newer revelation meant to supplement the previous Old and New Testaments.  The Mormons do this with their Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrines and Covenant.

 

  • They reject what the Bible reveals about the triune nature of God.  In other words, they will despise and reject the biblical teaching on the Trinity.  The literature of such groups is filled with cutting remarks against the doctrine of the Trinity, and in some cases, revise the history surrounding the affirmation of the Trinity by the historical Christian church in order to make it appear fraudulent or influenced by pagan sources. 

 

  • They will alter what the Bible teaches regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ.  These groups tend to reject the divinity of Jesus Christ in their teaching by making him a created being, or perhaps some lesser god.  Moreover, they will deny his satisfying atonement for sinners on the cross.  Christ’s death will be viewed as any thing other than the substitutionary death that saves sinners.  And also, these groups may deny Christ’s bodily resurrection from the grave and even his second coming. 

 

  • They will change the nature of salvation from justification by faith through God’s grace alone, to one of man-centered works.   These groups have devised many elaborate methods for people to either earn their salvation from God, or to complete it in one way or another.  Whatever the case, legalistic works are added to salvation to be carried out by the convert.  In their view of salvation, faith upon Christ alone is not enough. 

 

If the ministry being considered departs in orthodoxy from biblical Christianity in any of these key doctrines, it should be looked upon with suspicion.  This question presupposes that believers are familiar with their Christian faith.  That is why it is imperative for Christians to know the Bible, to be grounded in basic Christian theology, and have a handle upon what the gospel actually entails.  Knowing proper doctrine provides a wall of defense against the encroachment of false teaching.

 

(2) Does the ministry or it leader(s) claim to have special revelation apart from the Bible, teach unique doctrines, or claim any special, spiritual authority?

 

This question is semi-related to the first point above in that pseudo-Christian religious groups usually claim to have some special revelation or special teaching that provides them a superior spiritual authority over their members, as well as all other religious groups.   However, there are some churches and ministries that would be considered orthodox in their beliefs, but would advocate the teaching of special revelation by their leader or key leaders.  Many Pentecostal and charismatic ministries fall into this category.  A Christian should be suspicious of a ministry that claims to be led directly by God, or a Bible teacher that asserts he or she has a channel from God that reveals to him or her what to teach.  Anyone testifying that he has a special “in” with God by personal revelation, or claims to be led by the Holy Spirit apart from the Bible being rightly interpreted in context, is spreading theological error.  This would also hold true for any individuals or groups teaching that God’s will can be known apart from the application of biblical principles. 

 

(3) Does the ministry or group base their doctrines upon the sole teachings of one particular individual, or small group of individuals?

 

This question flows out of the previous one.  Historically, the false teaching of pseudo-Christian groups centers on the teachings of a person who is believed to be uniquely illuminated by God.  The major cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, World Wide Church of God, and Seventh-Day Adventists for example, all have their beginnings from the unusual teachings of one man or woman.  The person is typically charismatic in his or her personality, has a giftedness of sorts to teach and influence others, and believes he or she has a special anointing from God that constitutes the authority by which he or she teaches.   The followers enshrine the leader’s writings and sermons to inspirational status on par with scripture.  If any ministry or church group has a heavy emphasis upon the teachings of one specific person, there should be an alarm of caution sounding in the Christian’s mind. 

I would offer one word of exhortation, however.  There are exceptions of this rule.  By that I mean there are many solid, God honoring and Bible believing ministries centered on the teachings of a gifted person. Christian radio, for example, broadcasts the ministries of men and women that promote their exclusive Bible teaching.  The primary distinction a Christian should note is the emphasis placed upon that teaching.  If the church group or ministry elevates the teaching of the person to a status of near inspiration, that is reason to beware.  Godly people who have been used and blessed by God to teach many people over the years, however, do not place an inspirational premium upon their own personal teaching.

 

(4) Does the ministry provide an articulate doctrinal statement?

 

If a person is unsure what a ministry may believe, he should ask them to provide a doctrinal statement.  A ministry that is biblically sound will readily comply with the request.  Any ministry that is hesitant with supplying a doctrinal statement may be trying to hide their error.  Even worse, the ministry may be orthodox, but ignorant of fundamental Christian doctrine.  That is why it is important to notice how specific the doctrinal statement is.  Does it articulate clear, Biblical teaching? Or, is it vague?  Even if a ministry may be orthodox with their beliefs, if the leadership is unable to articulate what they believe, that may be a warning flag to exercise caution.

 

(5) Does the leader(s) of the religious group, or ministry, conduct himself with personal integrity?

 

The apostle Paul was rather straightforward when laying down scriptural principles of leadership.  In both 1 Timothy 3:1-23, and Titus 1:5-10, Paul provides a listing of what are clear and concise character qualities that should be present in the life of a spiritual leader and those individuals in spiritual leadership.  The leader is to be sober-minded, not a person prone to arguing and picking fights, level headed, have the ability to teach, blameless of any public scandal or sin; a person who is to raise his family according to godliness, and most importantly, a lover of his wife. 

The shores of church history are littered with the remnants of ministries whose leadership did not meet these qualifications in their personal lives.   A life of integrity may be one of the first warning signs a ministry is corrupt and not on the spiritual “up-and-up,” so to speak.  If the key leader or leaders of the group have a reputation of being flirtatious with women, or are known to be pugnacious, always arguing or causing dissention among the members of the congregation, there is a reason to be concerned.  Moreover, if the key leader or senior pastor has no accountability with other people in the ministry or the church he leads, that is also a concern.  I have personally heard of a handful of nationally syndicated radio ministries, as well as some large, nationally known churches, where the main leaders, or pastors, do not have any contact with their staff and do not hold themselves accountable to those individual with whom they serve. 

In addition to those things, a leader must have a good marriage/family life.  If the person has a troubled family life that he or she will not acknowledge and refuses to put aside the public ministry to take care of those family problems, that person is not living a life with integrity, regardless of how tremendous a teacher he or she may be.

 

(6) Does the leader, and the ministry he leads, have financial integrity?

 

Following on the heels of the previous question, a more specific area of integrity to consider is the financial integrity of the ministry and the leaders who serve it.   Does the ministry handle all the money they take in for support in an upright, honorable manner?  In other words, do they spend the money as they promise they would?  One telltale sign of good financial stewardship is a readily available financial report made public to those who would ask. Does the report demonstrate that they properly spend the funds in the manner they are designated? 

Furthermore, look at the leaders of the ministry.  Do they dress in a modest fashion and drive reasonably priced cars?  Modest dress is not defined as second-hand, worn out suits and a reasonable car is not defined as a 15-year-old clunker.  The idea is that the person is not wallowing in excessive materialism.  He is not consistently sporting 1,000-dollar suits and has two 100,000-dollar automobiles. 

Other questions to ask are, does the ministry constantly fund raise? Are they always asking for more money in their literature and on the radio/TV broadcast? Does the person use manipulative fund raising techniques, such as promising spiritual blessing if you give a certain amount? Or, perhaps put a guilt trip upon the supporters to give more than what they may have been giving on previous occasions?  I once heard a good example of a “guilt trip” being placed upon listeners on my local Christian radio station.  The host of one daily program proclaimed that if there was anyone listening to him who was not regularly supporting him financially, those people were stealing from him and from God.  The host discredited what was otherwise a respectable program with this comment and others like it.  He revealed that he had a wrong-headed view of finances. 

 

(7) Does the main Bible teacher, or the ministry, promise quick and certain spiritual growth and blessing with the reading of his or her books, the attendance of seminars or the supporting of the ministry?

 

Once, when I was in college, I had a gentleman encourage me to attend the seminar of a well-known Bible teacher.  According to this fellow, if I were to attend these series of seminars hosted by this teacher, I would learn more in a weekend than I would learn four years in seminary.   Thankfully, in God’s grace, I didn’t attend, and it spared me from what I later discovered was a teacher who had a deplorable method of abusing biblical principles that took verses out of context and misapplied them to spiritual situations.  The famous teacher and his seminars promised quick and certain spiritual growth in a short amount of personal time on the part of the attendee, but in actuality, the misapplication of biblical principles only led people into legalistic bondage. 

The Bible teaches, on the other hand, that spiritual growth is a steady, upward movement in the life of a Christian (Philippians 3:12-14), that it entails a putting off of sinful habits and the putting on of godly character (Colossians 3:8-17), and the renewing of the mind to think God’s thoughts after him (Romans 12:1,2).  Though Christian seminars, or good books, can be helpful in a believer’s life, it is both naïve, as well as unbiblical, to suggest spiritual maturity can be accomplished in a relatively short time.  A Christian would be served better to avoid any ministry or teacher promising such quick spirituality.

 

(8) Does the leadership, and/or members of the ministry, ridicule and condemn other Christians who may disagree with their theological opinions or the ministry’s doctrinal statement?

 

Sometime ago, I encountered a group of religious protesters handing out their literature to the people passing by them.   It wasn’t apparent what this group actually believed, but the one thing that stood out to me with these protesters was the tee shirts many of them wore.  They were covered with condemnatory statements of several figures from Church history.  They named such individuals like Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, the Puritan John Owen, and the Reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther, as false teachers and heretics.   That was a rather bold assessment, seeing that all of those men were successful ministers and contributed greatly to the Christian Church.  I asked the fellow who seemed to be leading the protesters why they condemned these godly men as heretics, and he proceeded to rattle off for me a list of objections to the doctrines these men held.  It became clear that his condemnation of them was not based upon any substantive, biblical convictions, but upon silly things such as, John Owen believed in infant baptism and Charles Spurgeon didn’t preach hard enough against Roman Catholicism.  His whole defense of judging these people boiled down to the idea that any Christian who departs from what he and his church believed the Bible taught, has left the Christian faith. 

This was not an unique occasion, I have seen this attitude displayed in churches were the pastor and members will condemn any other church that doesn’t preach against abortion every Sunday, or regularly protest in front of abortion clinics.  In a similar fashion, other churches may condemn Christians who use any other Bible translation other than the King James, or who refuse to enforce legalistic standards upon their own lives and the lives of their families.  So, if a Christian uses the New American Standard translation for his Bible study, or owns a television and periodically visit the theater to catch a movie, he is viewed as worldly and an apostate from the faith.  This is an important rule to note: any church or religious group that condemns other believers because they may disagree with them about their convictions is a group that needs to be avoided.  Their attitude essentially poisons any true and meaningful biblical discernment. 

 

(9) Does the Church or ministry have a disdain for a Bible college or seminary education?

 

It is important for Christians to grow in their faith and one of the primary means of growth and discipleship for a Christian is secondary theological education.  A fine secondary theological education can be found at a sound Bible college, or seminary, or by attending a local Bible institute hosted by a Church.   However, there are groups of Christians, as well as whole denominations, that have a dislike for any such secondary education.  These individuals will consistently run down Bible colleges and seminaries, claiming that those institutions are only in it for the money and teach liberal theology.  Bible colleges and seminaries, they argue, have become unbiblical and will only confuse young people and steal their faith.  In addition, they will discourage young men from any theological training if they so desire to pastor and preach.  It is believed that the Bible alone and the leading of the Holy Spirit are sufficient to train men for the ministry. 

This mentality grows from the idea of an unbalanced view of the autonomy of the local church. It is believed that any institution, other than a local church, is unbiblical and not ordained by God. Though these convictions seem to be noble on the surface, they can lead to a spiritually weak church that has members with no ability to discern truth from error, and whose pastors are unable to properly teach the Word of God. 

 

(10) Does the ministry emphasize politics and Christian social activism over solid Biblical teaching?

 

This question applies to those ministries or churches whose leadership encourages Christians to be actively involved in conservative politics and even to a degree, social activism, in order to “Christianize” the secular world.   Though the Bible lays down principles exhorting Christians to be good citizens, pay their taxes and honor the government authorities (the king, Caesar, or a president), the Bible does not sanction the Church to involve itself in political activism in order to affect moral and social reform.  It is the consistent, clear preaching of the gospel and the teaching of the whole Word of God that affects true moral and social reform as Paul argues in 1 Corinthians chapters 1 and 2.  The ministries that promote moral change through politics tend to de-emphasize sound, doctrinal teaching and biblical evangelism.  Any pastor who promotes politics over the gospel will preach sermons that may begin with the Bible, but quickly spiral toward a lament upon the current state of governmental affairs.  Secular leaders are ridiculed and their policies criticized; and though these criticisms may be correct, God’s means of true change is by-passed and man-made political processes are elevated to “savior” status. 

This is not to say that Christians should avoid political involvement.  In order to be a good citizen as the Bible exhorts, Christians (especially those who live in the United States) should participate in voting for those individuals that best represent biblical values.  The distinction, however, is that the Christians must keep any political involvement in perspective of the scriptural mandate to preach the gospel and proclaim faith in Christ as the true means of moral and cultural change.  A ministry or Church that values political/social activism to the point that the Gospel of Christ is subservient to, or just an amendment to that activism, woefully skews that important distinction between the gospel and politics.  More than likely, those ministries or Churches will not provide a healthy environment for a Christian to grow spiritually.

 

11. Does the ministry advocate and promote speculative conspiracy theories?

 

This is an unusual question to ask, but it is an important one, because it is sad to say there are many Christians and Christian ministries that would promote bizarre conspiracy theories.[2]  These theories could involve many different scenarios such as the infiltration of the Christian congregations by Jesuit priests who pretend to be protestant in order to undermine Bible believing Churches, or end time prophecy events that supposedly show how the nations of the world are moving to a one world government and how the antichrist will take control of the people.  The purveyors of the end time prophecy conspiracies will address current, world events that supposedly support their views of the end times and their conspiracies.   The problem with conspiratorial theories of any type is that they are based upon fraudulent information.  The so-called facts are either fictitious to begin with, or they have been revised and distorted, and based upon exaggerated information.  The duty of the Bible-believing Christian is to promote truth, and that involves being accurate with the facts and checking the reliability of particular sources that promote these kinds of conspiracy theories.  One final note of interest to mention along the lines of conspiracy theories is that though these theories may be found in what would be considered mainstream Christian ministries, they tend to be found in abundance among extreme, ultra-fundamentalist, separatist Christian groups.   Where religious fundamental separatism is promoted in strong measure, the adherence to conspiratorial theories often follows close behind.

 

Concluding Remarks

 

These are just a handful of important questions Christians should ask when evaluating any Church, parachurch ministry, or the teachings of a popular Bible teacher that seems to have smitten the Christian church as a whole.  I am sure there could be more questions added to my list, and perhaps as time goes by, my list will grow as I consider further questions to ask of these ministries.  Paul’s words to the Thessalonians are worth noting: test all things: hold fast to that which is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21).  My hope is that this list will serve as a helpful starter for the Christians of our day to exercise true discernment and test all things.

 

Endnotes 



[1] A parachurch would be any ministry or religious organization that is Christian in doctrine and practice, yet is not an official Church with a pastor, elders and deacons, and a congregation that meets regularly for worship.  The purpose behind most parachurch ministries is to supplement the ministry of the local Church.  For instance, when I was in college I was apart of the Baptist Student Union, the college parachurch ministry of the Southern Baptist denomination.  Its function was to give college students from the SBC denomination a place to meet other Southern Baptist college students, as well as encourage the students with weekly Bible study and other similar activities.  The BSU leadership never intended to replace the local Church as the focus of worship and fellowship for college students.  Along similar lines, some parachurch ministries are formed to provide the necessary spiritual tools to equip Christians to grow in their faith, while other ministries may specialize in teaching about certain cult groups that could adversely affect believers. 

The sad reality, however, is that many parachurch ministries have replaced the local Church as the primary means of spiritual growth among Christians.  That is because parachurch ministries fill the gap where the local Churches have failed in teaching doctrine, promoting evangelism, or generally shepherding the people.  That is the danger of some parachurch groups.  Where the local Church leadership has dropped the “ball” on shepherding the members, these members will find a ministry they believe meets their needs that their Church does not.  The parachurch ministry then becomes the key means of spiritual influence in the lives of these people.  Thus, if a parachurch ministry is heretical, these undiscerning individuals can fall victim to bad teaching that leads them astray in to serious, theological error and away from Christ. 

 

[2] Probably one of the most prolific promoters of Christian conspiracy theories is the infamous Jack Chick and his hundreds of “evangelistic” Chick tracts and comic books he has written over the decades.  According to Chick, the Roman Catholic Church is the cause of every major world conflict all the way from the emergence of militant Islam in the 7th century to the Vietnam War of the 1960’s and 70’s.  Though I would acknowledge that the RCC has its theological problems, Chick climbs to great heights of absurdity to revise history, both secular and Church, to establish his theory that he spreads by the means of his cleverly drawn tracts and comic books.  Other similar Christian conspiracy promoters of recent years is Gail Riplinger and her notion that the New Age is being brought into the Church through modern day Bible translations like the NIV and NASB, and Chuck Missler, who teaches that Satan and his demons built pyramids and monuments on Mars to deceive the unbelieving world back here on Earth. 


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