Do Not Be Carried Away by False Teaching
It might have been 2,500 years ago when these words were first spoken…”Don’t forget to like, share and subscribe!” YouTube and Facebook may not have existed back then; but “social media” sure did. Lets compare today's social media with then.
It might have been 2,500 years ago when these words were first spoken…”Don’t forget to like, share and subscribe!” YouTube and Facebook may not have existed back then; but “social media” sure did. As far back as 500 B.C., the Romans had their Rostra (see Wikipedia, Rostra) and the Greeks had their Pnyx (see Wikipedia, Pnyx). These were public forums where anybody with something to say or something to preach could take the center stage. Anyone with a theory or philosophy was able to present their idea to the public in hopes of gaining “followers”. Neither the Roman authorities nor the Greek authorities censored what was said in those forums. It was the responsibility of the audience to decide what had merit…what got the thumbs up and what got the thumbs down.
Social media of today uses a different kind of forum, the internet. But the primary concept of social media has not changed for 2,500 years. Whether it be politics, advertising, religion or other subjects the presenter must convince the audience to buy into their idea by whatever means it takes.
The need for discernment
Since the days of the Forum and the Pnyx, presenters have worked hard to make their presentations effective in converting others. The idea or philosophy does not have be correct or truthful. How the idea is presented is often what matters the most. Early presenters followed some basic presentation concepts…give only facts that support the idea, do not discuss other options, subtly demean the opinions of others and be eloquent. But around the 4th century B.C. the entire game of presenting was taken to a new level by Aristotle.
Aristotle is credited with developing a system of tactics in oratorical persuasion called rhetoric (see Wikipedia, rhetoric). The Rhetoric is regarded as the most important single work on persuasion ever written. Socrates decried rhetoric as a tool that became used to manipulate others by appealing to emotion and omitting facts. A comprehensive list of rhetorical examples is available at Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 31 Useful Rhetorical Devices.
Aristotle also wrote a text called Sophistical Refutations (see Wikipedia, Sophistical Refutations). He listed thirteen tricks, or illusions of thought, that were successful in misleading or hiding the truth to refute the arguments of others. Today, there are over forty “Logical Fallacies” documented by www.logicalfallacies.org.
Politicians, lawyers, advertisers and preachers are all very skillful in the use of rhetoric and logical fallacies to convince others to buy into their misinformation. So, knowing about these tricks is important. But don’t panic, this article is not a course on seventy rhetorical and logical fallacies, nor politics.
Guard your faith
The Apostle Paul advises “Test everything; retain what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) In Paul’s discourse concerning the diversity of gifts (Ephesians 4:7-16), Paul writes “…so that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, from their cunning in the interests of deceitful scheming.” (Ephesians 4:13-14)
Jesus warns us “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15) If a preacher looks like a sheep and baas like a sheep, that does not guarantee he or she is a sheep. Pastor, preacher, priest or bishop…it is not good to automatically follow anyone simply because they come in the name of Jesus with convincing words. Christians need to put everything and everyone to the test before accepting any doctrine. “The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge.” (Proverbs 18:15)
The rest of this article presents some basic tips in discerning human trickery and deceitful scheming in order to help the reader avoid falling into the hands of wolves with false teaching. Warning! Discernment requires homework. But the time is well worth it in guarding one’s faith.
Start by separating facts from opinions
Facts are statements that can be proven true by evidence. Evidence must be tangible in the form of references to Scripture, science, history, dates, news, written publications, eye-witnesses, etc. Once facts are separated from opinions, like the sheep separated from the goats, each fact must be tested. If the facts test positive, the presenter’s idea can be considered potentially acceptable. Keep in mind, the presenter may only be providing supporting facts and the audience may have to do their own research pertaining to opposing facts.
There are two important considerations about facts. First, if the presenter states a fact, but does not reference the source, that fact must be disregarded. The audience must be able to personally validate all facts in the article or video. Second, once a fact is validated, the fact cannot be disregarded because it is contrary to one’s personal opinion. Sorry, but the world really is round.
Opinions express beliefs, attitudes, values, judgments or feelings. Opinions are debatable. Opinions must not be accepted or rejected because they sound good. Facts must prove opinions. To accept an opinion regardless of the facts is to be brainwashed. To reject an opinion without regard to facts is to be biased. Neither is productive. This is actually being called “open-minded”.
Be cautious, because opinions can be hidden as facts or informed opinions. One might say “God spoke to me in a dream…” or “I had a miracle happen to me…”. These statements sound factual, but in fact cannot be tested and proved. It does not mean the other person is lying, it just means the unproven fact cannot be accepted as a valid argument, because we just do not know for sure.
For more information concerning facts versus opinions, see Mometrix, Distinguishing Fact and Opinion.
Putting Scriptural facts to the test
Scripture is the unerring word of God. But that does not mean it is used unerringly. Tactics and human trickery can be used to make the Bible appear to mean something that, in fact, it does not. As with all facts, if the presenter quotes Scripture but does not provide a reference to it then disregard it, unless one is willing to search for it themself. For each verse referenced by the presenter, it is always best to personally open a Bible and read not only the verse but the entire chapter. (You were warned there would be homework!) Look for any of the following Bible tricks:
False translation. Bible translations matter. Many are led astray in the salvation teaching by the verse often quoted as “We are justified by faith alone and not by works” (Romans 3:28) Many who quote the verse in this way might be shocked to know that the word “alone” does not appear in that verse in the original Greek text. Martin Luther added the word “alone” to his translation for emphasis (see Wikipedia, Luther Bible). The original text reads “We are justified by faith and not by works of the law.” Works of the law are not the same as works of charity.
Generally, the only Bible I use to check other people’s references is Bible Hub. It provides the original Greek text (Hebrew for the Old Testament) translated word by word.
Incomplete teaching. This trick occurs when someone quotes a single verse or so out of the Bible and ignores all other verses in the Bible that provide clarity or fullness to the teaching. Some will quote Romans 3:28 as above but conveniently ignore “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24), which provides more context to the salvation message. Others might justify their drunkenness and over-consumption of alcohol by claiming Jesus changed water into wine. They fool themselves by conveniently ignoring Galatians 5:19-21; where Paul lists drunkenness as one of fifteen sins and writes “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
It very important for one’s spiritual well-being to learn the fullness of truth before accepting one or two verses as the entire truth. If one does not have full understanding of a spiritual teaching, the Catholic Catechism or a spiritual advisor can be invaluable to one’s spiritual life.
Interpretations. Interpretations are debatable. They are not facts and should be disregarded.
Example: A preacher was asked this question…”How can you believe in salvation by faith alone when the only occurrence of ‘faith alone’ in the Bible (James 2:24) says that salvation is not by faith alone?”. The preacher’s response included: “The Bible does not need to contain the precise phrase ‘faith alone’ in order to clearly teach salvation by faith alone.” This statement is an opinion, it is debatable and it is not a fact. Many would argue Scripture must be read literally. The preacher continued by explaining what James really meant by the word “justified”. This is also an opinion because the preacher was not there to ask James the meaning when James wrote it. In fact, his interpretation conflicts with Scripture in the original Greek text. Using the online Bible referenced above, the Greek word translated into “justified” in this case literally means “to render innocent”. Again, Bible translations matter.
I can’t help myself and have to include one more example. Anyone who claims Jesus was speaking figuratively at the Last Supper, “This is my body”, is also only stating an opinion. The interpretation is debatable, unproven and the person was not at the Last Supper to personally ask Jesus. If we accept the Bible and Jesus at their word, without personal interpretation, then the Eucharist is the true flesh and true blood of our Lord.
*Note: In the first example, the website is not referenced to avoid being accusatory. However, if the question is copied and pasted into the internet, one can easily find the site.
False context. This trick pulls a verse out of an entire paragraph or chapter and applies it to a particular situation to mean something else. The original meaning and context of the verse is ignored.
Example: End-times survivalists often preach that, when the Tribulation comes, we must all flee to the mountains. They justify this concept by quoting “When you see the desolating abomination spoken of through Daniel the prophet standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains.” (Matthew 24:15-16) But the chapter begins with Jesus talking about the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (which happened in 70 A.D.). Here, Jesus is answering His disciples’ question “When will this (the destruction of the temple) happen?” Nonetheless, if Jesus specifically said “those in Judea” are to flee how can someone apply the verse to those not in Judea?
Sometimes, one can only understand the true meaning of a verse within the context of its chapter.
Putting other facts to the test
All facts must have valid references, be complete and be relevant to supporting the opinion. When it comes to facts, remember: “Garbage in, garbage out”.
Lack of references. I again state that any fact without a reference must be disregarded, because this is such an important concept. Facts must be confirmed and validated. Those with nothing to hide are always willing to support their facts by citing references.
Example: In one video, a preacher stated “If you have been following the Middle East you already know…” and then failed to give references. This statement appears to be a valid excuse to avoid providing references. However, whether the audience knows or not, references must always be given to allow the audience to confirm statements of fact.
Note: When references are not given, such as in the example above, we do not judge the fact as false or a lie. The fact is simply unconfirmed and unusable as proof. The ease of publishing anything on the internet without going through an editor has led to much laziness and abandonment of proper writing techniques. So, unless one is willing to spend the time and effort to personally validate a fact on their own, just ignore that fact.
Deception by half-truth. In some cases, a fact may be partially true; but the presenter does not give the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There are a variety of ways to state half-truths to lead others to a false conclusion (see Wikipedia, Half-truth). This trick is similar to using Scripture out of context or using one verse of Scripture as though it were an entire teaching. As with Scripture, unless one already understands the entire truth a half-truth may be difficult to identify.
Deception by numbers. Statistics can lie and results can be skewed into what the researcher wants. When statistics are stated as fact, the actual study needs to be referenced so the audience can verify the study was conducted honestly and the results actually apply.
Example: A video stated a statistic that 30% of Catholics do not believe the Eucharist is truly the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. No reference to the study was given and the word “all” was omitted as reference to all Catholics. Without a reference to the study, there are too many open questions. How many Catholics? Did the study only include non-practicing Catholics? Was the study conducted across the country or only in one region? The shock value of the statistic is great, if it is actually true. But we don’t know for sure, so the statistic is disregarded.
Test the logic
Remember, there are over forty logical fallacies that can be used to trick people into believing misinformation. Becoming familiar with all the tricks is best, but below are some common examples of logical fallacies used in presentations.
Appeal to authority. “He is a pastor, spent two years in a Turkish prison and woke up in a cold sweat from the dream, so we can believe his dream concerning the Middle East came from God.” This makes the person sound like a credible expert in order to make the dream believable.
Appeal to emotion. “If you do not make all these preparations for the end times your suffering will be great.” This uses fear to overcome logic and get the listener to take action.
Argument from Repetition. “You get it, right?” “I’m sure by now you get it.” “I think everyone should be able to understand this.” Repeating something often tries to get the listener to accept it as truth. In one video I heard the preacher say statements like these no less than eight times in thirty minutes. The truth should speak for itself.
Burden of proof. “You cannot prove my idea false; therefore, it must be true.” Facts and truth do not work that way. It is not the responsibility of only one side to prove their point.
Irrelevant conclusion. “Peter denied Jesus and was a great sinner, so Jesus would never make Peter the first Pope.” The facts are true, but the facts are not relevant to the conclusion. Jesus often elevated sinners and His ways are not our ways.
Loaded question. “How can you believe those confused and misguided interpretations of this verse?” The question already presumes the other interpretations are wrong, yet offers no evidence to support that conclusion. Furthermore, associating negative words with other ideas injects a negative view of those ideas into the listener.
I watched a few videos that denounced the Church in order to persuade Catholics to leave the Church. I wanted to learn about the arguments so I might determine how to best respond to those arguments. I began to realize the arguments were flawed in the first place, filled with logical fallacies and trickery. My response to those videos was to publish an article on my website titled Arguments Against the Catholic Church are not Logical. I think it is mostly fruitless to try to persuade someone to change their opinion when they are predisposed to that opinion and use false logic to support it.
Take caution when a presenter states facts or provides examples and repeats them later. Make sure the versions match. There is a trick whereby the presenter states a fact or gives an example that is proven true the first time around, then subtly changed later. The author is hoping the audience has already accepted the information as truth, does not recognize the lack of integrity to the first version and accepts the misinformation as truth.
Example: In one video, an end-times preacher showed a cartoon demonstration of Daniel Chapter 8, concerning the ram and the goat prophecy. In the first demonstration, one could open the Bible and just about read Daniel 8 word for word. Later in the same video, he offered current world events as proof these things were coming true and the Anti-Christ was soon upon us. The problem was, his second version conflicted with the integrity of the first version. In the first version, there was a specific order to things. (The ram conquers, then the goat conquers the ram, then the goat’s horn falls off, then four new horns grow.) In the second version, his explanation had all the world events happening at the same time. If the second version is true, the four new horns are already growing on the goat before the goat actually destroys the ram and falls. Without comparing the two versions of the cartoon, one could easily be fooled into accepting the preacher’s theories.
The Apostle Paul warns us, “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching.” (Hebrews 13:9) Our faith is too important to be left to believing any teaching because it sounds good. Discernment is necessary. Without discernment one can easily be led into false teaching and heresy. Discernment requires some knowledge, and taking the time and effort to do the homework. If one does not have the time or knowledge to discern, one should find a trusted spiritual advisor or at a minimum follow the Catholic Catechism. We are all the body of Christ and should be working together. God will resist the proud, who believe they can do it on their own or that He will divinely inspire them in everything they do.
Do not believe anything or everything just because it sounds good.
Does this article sound good? Did you like it? Don’t say yes! Test the Scripture references and fact sources. Make sure there are no tricks involved here. Then, if you agree, start discerning whatever you read, hear or watch.