Test everything. Hold on to the good.
1 Thessalonians 5.21
Not Everything That Glitters…
We all want the best for our families, our communities, and ourselves. As lofty as this sounds, the downside comes with always wanting better. The best we’ve got is seldom the best we can have. It’s good for us to desire improvement. Human progress and our personal development depend on it. Yet we can get swept up in seeking to better our circumstances and ourselves to the degree that we risk what losing what we’ve gained for ideas that prove more harmful than they appear. A playground analogy explains what I mean. Kids often become so fixated on winning the friendship of one playmate—the most popular or athletic, say—they’ll sacrifice friends they already have in the process. They don’t really know the kid they want to be with. Is he loyal? Is she kind? Is he/she anything like the person he/she projects? But immaturity spurs the ambitious child to leap before looking. And when the coveted friend turns out to be a selfish brat or a manipulative nightmare, the neglected friends look like lost treasures. It’s a lesson we learn again and again and again: not everything that glitters is gold.
Sounds Good to Me
The Early Church’s inexperience and gullibility leave it no better off than children at play. Living on this side of history, with much of our faith already worked out, doctrinally sanctioned, codified, and ritualized, it’s impossible to imagine what first- and second-generation believers deal with. There’s next to no organization, no established liturgy, documented theology, or living precedents to emulate. They figure it out as they go—not just what all these new concepts mean, but how they work. A visitor could infiltrate their ranks and introduce a crazy idea (e.g., Gentiles must convert to Judaism before becoming Christians), and without written Scripture or prior teaching to refute it, the response could amount to something like “Sounds good to me.”
The apostles devote much time to firefighting—stamping out misguided, unbalanced embers before they spread out of control. They’re not shy about painting advocates of errant doctrine in the worst possible light. John calls them “false prophets” sent by “the spirit of the antichrist.” (1 John 2.1, 3) In Titus 1.10, Paul warns of “many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers.” Peter calls them “brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish.” (2 Peter 2.12) Since dependency on their efforts can’t go on forever, though, they urge early Christians to assess fresh ideas based on what they know thus far. If it doesn’t match what they learned, they’re told to ignore it. “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God,” John writes. Peter says, “You must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.” And in 1 Thessalonians 5.21, Paul goes furthest of all, saying, “Test everything. Hold on to the good.” In other words, if it doesn’t sound right, leave it alone.
The Marketplace of Ideas
The mass-media explosion has created what communications gurus call “the marketplace of ideas”—an unregulated forum of opinions, theories, and beliefs. It’s a tantalizing place that encompasses every aspect of life, including faith. Straight-Friendly, like every other blog, discussion board, podcast, program, and publication centered on Christian belief, is part of it. Yet simply because so many untethered ideas float around, we should heed Paul’s advice to test everything, throw out implausible and reckless ideas, and keep the good stuff.
There’s plenty of good stuff, too. If you’re unconvinced, click through the blog roll here. While the writers and their responders don’t blanch at grappling with new ideas, their sites are first and foremost testing grounds. The good stuff rises to the top, more than a reader can digest in one sitting or day. What we must be wary of, though, is being seduced by far-fetched, extraneous opinions that gravely conflict with—or directly contradict—our knowledge of the truth. They may make sense on their own. They may actually cite Scripture to support their views. This is hardly new. In 2 Peter 3.10, we hear “[Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” Such distortions run the gamut from malignant doctrines of exclusion and punishment to dangerous skepticism about the lordship and reality of Christ. If it doesn’t sound right, it’s not for us. We hold on to the good stuff. The rest we let go. (And we let it go without argument.)
We test everything, hold on to the good stuff, and let the rest go.
(Tomorrow: To Be Seen)
Postscript: Online Bible Study
The next Straight-Friendly online Bible study will be held on Thursday evening, July 30, at 8 PM CDT, with a second opportunity on Saturday morning, August 1, at 11 AM CDT. The topic will be Thinking Like Christ—an exploration of what distinguishes the believer’s thought processes. A study guide will be published early next week, along with study site access codes, etc. If you’ve not yet participated in an online study and are curious about how it works, you can find out more here.