Snakes in the Pulpit

While waiting in line to order lunch yesterday I overheard a conversation between a pair of young adults standing in front of me. One had rolled up her sleeve to display a new tattoo encircling her upper arm. She explained to her friend that she had requested a fierce snake weaving its way around her arm and in a striking pose above her bicep. Instead, the body-art specialist created something that resembled a thick worm resting lazily around her arm. She was upset and felt betrayed. She complained that the tattoo artist oversold his expertise and now she had to live with the consequences. Rather than impressing friends with an intimidating serpent baring its fangs, she was subject to guffaws and ridicule. The resulting reality was radically different than the outcome promised.

Sadly, a similar scenario plays itself out in many churches across America every Sunday. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unscrupulous pastors preach sermons as unreliable as the promise of the tattoo artist, telling parishioners exactly what they want to hear irrespective of whether the message has any foundation in Scripture. Like the dodgy designer of body-art these pulpit pretenders say whatever is necessary to close the deal – and keep their pews packed. For them, the role of pastor is not a vocational calling to serve God but an occupational opportunity to exploit. They possess the oratory, charm, and resilience of an elite salesman and use those attributes to finagle their way into unsuspecting congregations.

Unlike the unprincipled tattoo artist who left a (mostly) permanent reminder of his fraudulence on the arm of the young lady, the churchgoer who embraces the deceitful teachings of a dishonest pastor risks eternal consequence. For that reason individuals should rigorously examine a minister’s message before accepting it as truth and living accordingly. They ought to confirm it comports with Scripture, for no decision is more critical.

So what does the Bible tell us about these spiritual snakes disguised as selfless shepherds? Let’s consider several passages that address the issue of false teaching to understand how these messengers of deceit operate and how to avoid falling prey to their lies.

The apostle Peter informs us “there will be false teachers among you who will secretly bring in destructive heresies… and many will follow their destructive ways.” He then notes, “By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words” (2 Peter 2:1-3, NKJV). Peter highlights several important points about those peddling lies in the church.

First, false teachers exist, are active in the church, and introduce their heresies in secret. They are not easily identified and their deceptive words are wrapped in reasonable sounding rhetoric. As a result, many blindly follow their instruction and end up on a spiritual path that leads to eternal destruction. Peter leaves no room for ambiguity; dishonest pastors lead many astray. It is imperative, then, that we listen carefully to what we hear from the pulpit, we understand what the Bible says, and we ensure the two are aligned.

But why do some preachers deceive their audiences and assert untruths as the Word of God? Peter explains that it is because they operate from a position of covetousness. They speak whatever words advance their agenda, even if it costs supporters their souls. They care not about bringing people closer to God, expositing Scripture with integrity, and living the gospel. Success, stature, prosperity, and influence motivate them. They love the world and the things of the world. They prey on the innocent, naïve, and desperate to fund a lifestyle of comfort, excess, and privilege.

However, those who follow agents of deceit are not entirely exculpated. They bear a degree of culpability for failing to exercise vigilance in validating what they hear aligns with God’s Word. When we abdicate that responsibility and simply hope the man (or woman) behind the lectern preaches truth we demonstrate spiritual irresponsibility. We must scrutinize what we hear on Sunday morning, at Bible studies, and what we read in Christian books and compare it with Scripture. If we don’t, we risk establishing a foundation of faith built on shifting sand.

In some instances, though, churchgoers demand false teaching and recruit ministers who preach appealing messages that contravene truth. These are people who “will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-4, NKJV). Many regular church attenders have no interest in hearing God’s Word. They insist on finding a pastor who shares humorous anecdotes, spins a good yarn, and makes them feel warm and fuzzy each Sunday. Biblical truth causes such persons to recoil with disgust. They want a snake in the pulpit spitting out spiritual poison.

Unfortunately, ministers who preach accommodating sermons are becoming increasingly common as are churches that demand them. Many will find this trend encouraging and celebrate the shift away from biblically sound teaching in church. But for those who want to learn God’s Word and ground themselves in truth, the development is disturbing. They must remain diligent to ensure their pastor preaches the entirety of the Bible instead of distorting selected passages. They must exercise caution in arriving at their spiritual beliefs. Otherwise they may find their faith is the spiritual equivalent of a thick, lazy worm that disappoints.

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