Testing the doctrines and teachings of Christian groups and individuals
“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” 2 Peter 2:1-3
This is the second half of a two-part series. I recommend reading the first part Background Checks Introduction first. Below is a small portion from the introduction.
There are many in the world who claim to teach the truth about God and His word. Unfortunately some who bear the name Christian have doctrines or teachings that contradict the Bible. Each has their own degree of departure from Biblical accuracy. Some departures are more obvious than others. It is important that we recognize them. There are things we can do to help us recognize them. Below are details about a method that I have developed to assist me in this work. I affectionately refer to it as a background check.
So just how do you go about investigating groups and individuals? As always, the best way to begin is to compare their teachings to the Bible. Work from their official original material. Compare what you already know about the Bible to what they’re saying in their writings and media. If they say something is in the Bible, check to make sure it actually is. Look up the Bible verses they use. Check the context. I have seen verses terribly misused because they were taken out of context. Also note if Bible verses are used at all. I’ve come across some who present teachings and do not provide any scriptural support.
If the group or individual you are checking out has a considerable following, most likely someone has already investigated them. In the old days I would head to the local Christian bookstore and hope to find a book on whatever group or teacher I was investigating. Today the information is likely just a few key strokes away. It is easy to search online and find more than enough information to help you come to a conclusion. (It sort of feels like cheating to me because it was more challenging in the past.) If you happen to have a Christian bookstore in your area, you might be able to find helpful books in stock or place an order for what you need. If not, there’s always Amazon.com. Reading book reviews and doing an online search of the author’s name are good ways to determine the author’s viewpoint and bias.
If you search online you will most likely find sites supporting and sites opposing/critiquing your group or person of interest. Remember it is important to use discernment here too. It is necessary to do a background check on the sites you are using to do your background checks! There are some wacky sites out there. Not everyone is going to represent the positions that they are critiquing honestly or have their facts right. I suggest reading the About pages and Statements of Faith if they have one to get an idea of the beliefs they hold and where they are coming from. They will approach the matter from a certain perspective, and that has to be taken into consideration.
The supporting sites will usually include the major website of the group or individual. This is a good place to confirm their official teachings. Do be aware that what you find there might not be the sum of their teachings. They may also have offline material in books or other publications. How much of this official material you chose to look at is up to you. I also find it helpful to view official material whenever possible in order to confirm the claims of opposing or critiquing sites that quote it to demonstrate error. I like to check the original material myself to make sure it was quoted correctly and in context. Along with the major websites you will most likely find other smaller supporting sites. They are worth reading too as they may help explain the teachings of the main sites.
Some of the opposing/critiquing sites might be apologetics ministries if the group or individual you are researching are known to have problems with their teachings. These sites can be incredibly helpful. They have usually done their homework and can save you a ton of time. Some opposing/critiquing sites will be run by individuals who are simply moved to report on the errors they have found. You may also come across sites that are run by people who have been hurt by a group or teacher. These sites can be very compelling. Reading first hand testimonies brings the matter to a different level. It is not just about the teachings. It’s about the real lives of those who have been led astray. Some of these stories are heartbreaking. Finally, some opposing/critiquing sites might be a mix of true and erroneous information. It is important to cross check the information with more than one source as much as possible. After you have done a few background checks, you’ll probably discover a number of sites that are consistently fair and biblically solid. It’s good to bookmark them for future searches. I have listed some that I have used on Gardiner Gateway under “Apologetics & Counter-Cult Ministries”.
When you are researching online it is a good idea to read a number of articles from both sides. When the opposing/critiquing sites are presenting evidence, see if they are using original quotes and giving references. If possible check to see that the quotes have not been taken out of context. It is likely they will compare the teachings to what the Bible says. If there really is a problem with a teaching, it should be obvious. Any arguments that either side presents should be clear and logical. If you have to jump through hoops to see what they’re trying to say, it may not be accurate. Sometimes articles will have comments below them. I have not always found these comments to be helpful. Unfortunately, they can get a little heated. I think it’s best to not give them too much weight unless they are presenting additional helpful information in a calm and respectful way. The goal should be to speak the truth in love, not to injure.
When I research I try to keep an open mind. I may have a strong feeling about the outcome because of past experience, but I will not come to a conclusion without solid evidence. When I read any material that is claiming that a group or individual strays from solid biblical teaching, I place the burden of proof on the author.
If you really want to get to the heart of the matter quickly, try searching keywords like these:
(You do not need the quotations marks)
“subject being investigated” and “problems” or “concerns”
“subject being investigated” and “false teachings” or “doctrines”
“subject being investigated” and “heresy”
For example, you could type in: “Jim Jones” and “false teachings”
Searching like this will quickly reveal if there are any known problems. Of course it is then time to carefully check out the results that are presented, but you will be led quickly to any major known areas of trouble.
If your research reveals that one of the groups or individuals that you have been trusting has doctrinal problems or questionable teachings, you may need time to process that. It can be very upsetting especially if you have invested a lot of time, energy, and money into them. In serious cases, it can lead to an outright rejection of all religion. It’s important to realize that it is man that fails us, not God. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, not a particular group or individual. In Him you can find comfort and peace. When you are ready, ask Him to lead you to those who are faithful to the Bible. There are some sites dedicated to helping people in this position. A search online should lead you to them. You may also reach me though my Contact page.
Wrapping It Up
The work involved in a background check might only take a few hours or a few days, but it could be longer if you are investigating a major group or sect. It also depends on how deeply you want to dig. Remember, it is worth the work. It is far better to do the work than to end up holding unbiblical beliefs or taking up unbiblical practices as a result of missed error.
If you’ve bought any books, save them! You never know when you might need a refresher or want to lend them out to help someone else. Once you are done with your online research, you may find it helpful to bookmark all relevant web pages for future reference. I have gathered a decent amount of web pages and have organized them by group and individual. This makes it very easy to find the information again when I need it. There are some I end up coming back to again and again because I sometimes forget important details or because I want to share the information with others.
I hope you have found this information about background checks helpful. With the knowledge that not all who claim to teach the truth about God and His word actually do, I am grateful that there are many trustworthy teachers out there. While human error will always be present in every ministry to some extent, God has provided for His church by setting up faithful servants of the word. I pray that you are already being blessed by their work.