I love books. I am a bit of a resource junkie. I spend a fair amount of time in my ministry researching and reviewing resources available for counseling and mentoring. I read good Gospel centered books to sharpen my skills as a counselor, to challenge my thinking, to encourage myself in the Gospel, and to use as helpful tools as I counsel and mentor others.
There are several very good “how-to” books on Biblical Counseling in general that can sharpen our discipleship skills and challenge us to think Biblically about people and their problems. There are also many blogs that cover these same concepts. There is no shortage of reading material for today’s Biblical Counselor or Mentor.
There is also a fairly large array of topical books in the Biblical Counseling realm these days. The list is continually growing. Organizations like CCEF, individual published authors, and individuals who do self-published works are writing great books on topics that pertain to specific counseling issues. I often assign book reading to my counselees as homework on a particular struggle they are having. This kind of assignment can spark some great counseling discussions in our sessions. I also require some of this type of reading in my training program, because I want trained mentors to be exposed to various topics from a Gospel perspective so that they will have a good understanding of struggles that they may encounter as they seek to mentor and help others.
There is a downside here, however, that I want us to consider as we engage in any form of one another ministry. I have had to check myself often as I minister to someone, to be sure I am not relying too heavily on a topical book to guide them, or that I am not jumping the gun and diving in to topical discussions rather than thoroughly covering the basics first.
Because I am so familiar with so many great resources written by my colleagues, I am tempted to listen to my counselee’s struggle and in my mind I am thinking “she really needs to read __________(fill in blank with any number of books on that topic!)”. It may be true that having her read that book will be very useful and helpful, and that it will give her some great counsel while she is reading. It will point her to a Biblical worldview, and to Scripture that pertains to her struggle. But…..here is what I have seen happen too often:
We may jump right in to a topical book together and start to dig in to some discussion over it. But as we talk, I start to discern that she is not quite “getting it”. What seems so clear to me is so unclear to her. She either does not agree with the book, which prevents her from learning from it, or she does not understand its concepts, or she simply does not have insight in to how it applies to her. At this point, I stop to consider why. More often than not, I realize that she can’t discern what God is teaching her in that book because she is still tripped up in her Gospel understanding. If I have neglected to be SURE that she not only understands and can articulate the clear Gospel, how can I expect her to discern the book’s teachings when her “Gospel filter” is clogged?
First, unclog the filter. We do that by covering the basics of the Christian faith before we delve in to topical book studies. Starting with the topical studies is a backwards approach, and won’t bear fruit. In fact, it can tend to confuse someone and sometimes even make them feel condemned or hopeless because they just don’t “get it” and start to feel like they are not a “good Christian” because the book doesn’t resonate with them.
Here’s your clue: If you hear someone say “this book makes me feel like I’m doing everything wrong” or “I don’t get it, I don’t think I’m smart enough to understand” or “I can’t do what this books says, it’s too hard and doesn’t apply to me” or similar comments, this is a red flag. Stop reading the book, take a few steps back, and go back to basic doctrines and theology first. Spend as much time in basic discipleship teachings as necessary. This is good discipleship. Neglecting to do this is sloppy discipleship. Let’s guard against sloppiness in our ministries.
This is a good caution for all of us who help others, whether the person is a brand new believer or has been a believer for years. Be very diligent about this especially when she is a fairly new Christian. Many 1 new believers are not initially discipled well with basic teaching, and instead are thrown in to small groups and topical studies that may be too much meat before they are ready. Start with the milk. It’s refreshing not only to them, but to you as you teach it to them! The Gospel never gets old, it’s a privilege to review it often with others!
Let’s not replace THE BOOK with good books. Take your counselees and mentees back to basics, no matter what their history is or what they tell you about their head knowledge. Walk with them through some good basic doctrine and theology first, to ground them in the Gospel. We can’t expect someone to learn how to apply the Gospel unless they are rooted in it firmly. More often than not, someone seeking counsel either does not have a solid foundation, or they have gotten stuck and in a sense have lost their footing. Start with the first thing, the main thing: The Gospel. Once she has her footing, move on to those great topical books and dig in together and enjoy the fruit you will see!
Hebrews 5:12 “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food…”
1 Corinthians 3:2 “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready,”
1 Peter 2:2 “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—“
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It is far too easy to accuse “Bible Teachers” of being heretics, unsound, ungodly, and maybe not even true believers. Google any big name, and you will find blogs and discernment ministry websites that will blast a person, and others that will defend that same person. As interesting as it is to read other’s opinions, let’s not let those opinions alone help us to form our judgements. Especially when we are judging fellow siblings in Christ (as far as we can know).
I have been on varying sides of these issues through the years, and finally realized that I needed to develop my own guidelines for helping me to discern whether someone is a Bible teacher that I want to listen to or read. It is not a fail-proof guideline, that would be impossible because our own experiences, biases, pet-doctrines, backgrounds, and denominational preferences can sometimes create roadblocks to our discernment.
The reason this issue is so important to me, is that as a teacher of God’s Word myself, and an avid resource junkie who reviews quite a few things out there that Christian women are reading, I realized that in order to give good guidance as to what I might or might not recommend requires that I be diligent and considerate. The only way I can do that is to read that author or teacher myself, in context. Watching a short video clip or an excerpt from one book is not enough for me, because too often those are removed from context and do not represent the whole of what that teacher believes. Every single speaker, my pastor and yours included, makes these kinds of errors by saying something poorly. If we take that one statement, pull it aside, put the recording online, and say that this reveals his heretical bent…well, yikes, this could happen to me! And to you! The truth is that these speakers/authors might occasionally speak an error or word something in a way that raises red flags in others. It has happened to all of us. How terrible if we are tossed aside by the body of Christ for being human.
Having said all that - here is what I see as the main thing to look for. It is the basis for considering whether someone might actually have some good things to teach us, even if we don’t prefer their denomination, or something they said that we didn’t quite understand or agree with and might spin differently, or even if they dress funny, speak with a thick accent, or are from a certain part of the country we don’t prefer (yes, I have heard women tell me all of these reasons for disregarding certain teachers). Ladies, let’s not forget what our Message is:
The Gospel. If a teacher can articulate the clear Gospel, I will listen. I might not like every single thing they say, but if the Gospel is clear, I’m going to give her a listen and be gracious in those areas where I might disagree. I cannot think of a single Bible teacher I can honestly say I personally have agreed with 100% of the time. Not the big names, not the lesser known names, not the Biblical Counselors I use as resources in my counseling. But if the Gospel is clear, I am listening, asking God to grow my discernment, filtering through Truth rather than what someone else has said about her or my own biases and preferences. He is faithful to do that! If I am leading one of their Bible Studies, and there is something I feel should be articulated differently, I teach that to the class and talk about how to discern these things in what they are reading. It has been most beneficial to my ministry, and I see the fruit of growing discernment among the women I serve. And in myself.
If a teacher articulates any kind of false Gospel, I am not interested in reading their stuff or listening. A false Gospel is not a good starting point for anyone’s ministry. Not interested. And yes, there are some popular big name people right now who fall in to this category. They may not be the ones you are thinking as you read this. If you want to know, go read their own words (or listen to a teaching, in its ENTIRETY, in context), and see what God reveals. Don’t just rely on opinions of others….and quote them only….let’s be diligent about giving advice based on what we ourselves have discerned, seen, heard, and read.
I realize this takes time. I get so many questions about resources, so I set aside a certain amount of my ministry time for reading, researching, and making sure I give advice based on being informed first-hand. It’s a standard that is important to me because the last thing I ever want to do is lead women astray! And a false teacher with a false Gospel will do just that. But a teacher with a clear Gospel (but some different spins on the peripheral doctrines that any number of us won’t agree about this side of heaven,) will only lead us astray if she is not rightly dividing God’s Word on the essentials. The rest of her teaching can teach us to be even more discerning, seek God’s Word on the subject, and remember that only God’s Word is 100% trustworthy. (If a teacher leans heavily towards error, I don’t recommend her, but I want to give SPECIFIC reasons why to whoever is asking.)
When determining the appropriateness of a sister or brother in Christ’s teachings, let’s be diligent. Let’s be gracious. Let’s remember that most of us have changed our minds over any number of doctrinal points over the years, and not all of us will ever agree. I think of one very big name preacher several years ago who made a public apology about his doctrinal teachings on something, because God had changed his heart since he taught it. That is how we should all be - willing to be wrong, willing to let others be wrong, as long as it is not the Gospel itself that they are getting wrong.
And, be gracious to one another. Don’t fall in to a trap of judging someone who prefers a teacher you don’t. Never assume that when you disagree with someone that you are the one automatically right. It is just as possible that you are wrong. Be teachable - even though this can be hard for us! Iron sharpens iron, so let’s be teachable, engage in healthy grace-filled discussion, and don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Especially when that baby is your sister in Christ. Can we agree to remain respectful and appreciative of one another even when we disagree on anything other than the clear, one, true Gospel? I think we can!
What a great privilege to walk through this life with our gracious Savior and his daughters and sons who desire to become more like Him!
2 Timothy 2:15 ~ Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. ESV
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