More and more, I am encountering undiscerning counselees who follow popular trends in religion and are being led astray. Our world has grown wider and has allowed greater access to Bible-based materials, but non-biblical material is flowing in as well. I have been surprised to discover the books, blogs, and podcasts which influence members of Bible-teaching churches. I have a friend who disciples women of all ages, from college girls to grandmothers. She shared a conversation which took place during a casual visit to the home of an elderly couple in her church. My friend discovered that they watch a famous TV preacher who teaches a false doctrine. Not only does this couple faithfully tune in but he is their favorite preacher! My friend was accustomed to knowing young women who might not know enough to make these choices, but this was a couple in their late 80s who have attended church for decades!
This lack of discernment is not a new problem. In the first century, Paul promised that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Notice the active verbs describing the problem. The people “will not endure”, “they will accumulate”, they “will turn away”, and will “wander off.” Every counselor will experience this issue. Here are some suggestions which will help you in your counseling.
- Be alert to false doctrine. The skilled counselor realizes that her counselees might be susceptible to false teachers. Counselors genuinely love people, but some don’t think to ask questions to find out what their counselees are reading or hearing. I now recognize the need to dig deeper to find out other input my counselee is receiving. Don’t be surprised when you hear that your counselee’s friend has loaned her a book written by a false teacher. Realize that there may be undiscerning friends and relatives who are influencing her and even contradicting your advice. Other counselors may lack the knowledge needed to sift through popular trends while seeking materials based on orthodox doctrine and substantial scholarship. Even worse, counselees may be affected by people who are purposely seeking to lead them astray. Paul wrote to the Colossians about his concern that “no one may delude you with plausible arguments” (Colossians 2:4). We have the same concerns today.
- Become educated in truth and informed about falsehood. A responsible teacher and counselor should be equipped with sound doctrine so she can point out false teaching (see Titus 1:9). Your counselee might be “carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” The antidote is to know the truth. In the verses surrounding the warning in Ephesians 4:14, we read about the goal to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (v. 13) and “to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (v. 15). Keep the knowledge of the Son of God in mind because it prevents straying. You may have heard the illustration of a bank teller who handles authentic currency all day long. She will quickly spot a counterfeit by how it looks and even feels. Familiarity with the truth will help you recognize error.
- Be ready to give direction with gentleness. A counselor is called to action when her counselee strays from the truth. Our instructions come in 1 Thessalonians 5:14 where we read that the idle and unruly should be admonished with patience. We meet with some people who have never been trained to examine “the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11b). They may be naïve or trust the popularity of a book instead of investigating the author. I demonstrate to my counselees the practice of researching the list of endorsers, which gives a glimpse into the orthodoxy of a resource. Paul felt the burden of watching out for those he loves in order to help them remain true to the faith. He writes in Colossians 1:28-29, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom…For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” Gently point out error to a susceptible counselee. Obey the admonition to speak the truth in love.
- Beware of the temptation to attract your own followers. You do not want any counselee to transfer her allegiance away from a false teacher towards yourself, thus replacing Christ. To avoid this problem, don’t ask your counselee to trust you and abide by what you say. Have her look up verses in her own Bible and teach her to do her own research. Remember the goal of your counseling. It is to proclaim Christ, in order to be “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith” (Colossians 2:7). You may need to speak directly to this issue because some counselees are easily influenced and gullible. If you point counselees to Christ instead of yourself, you will avoid divisions in your community. The Corinthians were following Paul or Apollos or Cephas while others said they followed Christ (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). Paul asks, “Is Christ divided?” He is not. Instead we are to “be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). You can build unity when you avoid seeking your own disciples.
To summarize, don’t be surprised to find out that your counselee is influenced by a false teacher. Paul warned that fierce wolves would arise in the midst of his beloved Ephesian church (read Acts 20:17-38). The counselor should be aware of dangerous teaching and be ready to kindly point out the truth. The Ephesian elders were also warned about the danger of those who would seek to “draw away the disciples after them.” You can avoid this temptation by not making yourself the standard for truth. Consistently point to Scripture as the authority over all teaching. “Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever!” (2 Peter 3:17-18).