In many ways, Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.”1 With special gatherings with family and friends, we share in God’s bounty and love as expressed in the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ. But the message of Christmas carols, stories, and movies can be rife with words and deeds that obfuscate or distract from the truth of Scripture. Even more disappointing and alarming is when Christmas sermons present unbiblical ideas or challenge clear teaching from God’s Word. Since even the Apostle Paul’s teaching was subject to evaluation, according to the Bible (Acts 17:11), we should also scrutinize the teaching of today’s church leaders. In fact, James warns, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). James justifies his warning by saying, “For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (verse 2).
For a variety of reasons, a pastor may sometimes “stumble in what he says.” For this reason Paul encouraged Timothy to “keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). Paul also admonished Timothy to “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” (2 Timothy 2:15). While evaluating his own teaching himself, a wise and humble man will accept instruction from a reproving friend, as the Scripture says, “Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning” (Proverbs 9:9). The big picture here is that we want God’s Word to go forth as clearly as possible through his human agents.
What Teaching Is This?
Imagine being in a church meeting and your pastor just said something that didn’t seem quite right according to the Scripture. What kind of error was it? There are varying categories of false doctrine ranging from blatantly wrong to improperly dogmatic. The key to determining what kind of teaching it was—and therefore how you should respond—is the Bible, not your own opinion. The following sections portray a few types of potentially troublesome teaching.
There are varying categories of false doctrine ranging from blatantly wrong to improperly dogmatic.
Contradicting Clear Biblical Doctrine
We hope that you would not be exposed to teaching that directly contradicts the testimony of Scripture. Sadly, though, Scripture gave clear warning that false teachers would infiltrate the church and teach things they should not teach (Acts 20:29–30). Did your pastor dismiss the virgin birth of Jesus or deny the humanity or deity of Christ? This is false doctrine that should not be accepted and must be addressed strongly and immediately. Even Peter was publicly and directly reprimanded by Paul when he was acting contrary to the gospel of grace (Galatians 2:14).
Challenging Biblical Authority
Did your pastor claim that history or science contradicts the Bible? For example, did he suggest that the genealogies of Jesus recorded in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 contradict each other? Or did he report that, contrary to Luke 2:1–2, a Roman census did not occur under Quirinius, who wasn’t even “governor” during the latter years of Herod’s reign? These kinds of assertions typify the battle between God’s Word and man’s word, and we must affirm that God’s Word is our authority. The truth of the Bible stands firm, and scientific and historical evidences, rightly interpreted, confirm the testimony of Scripture.
Speculating Too Much or Making Incorrect Claims
A difficulty in studying history is that much of it happened a long time ago. Without complete eyewitness testimony, it is often hard to reconstruct what truly happened and why. The Bible’s accounts are trustworthy, but oftentimes we have more questions than we seem to find answers for in the Scriptures. Sometimes ancient literature or archaeology sheds new light on old events, and we gain a better understanding of what happened. But we must be careful about asserting things that the Bible does not specifically say. For example, was Jesus born as soon as Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem? Did the three “kings” arrive on the night of Jesus’ birth? Was Jesus born on December 25?
It can be helpful to consider background information from material culture,2 ancient customs, idioms of language, and so on. But we have to take care to verify the reliability of the source and how applicable it is to any particular Scripture. While we can trust the Scriptures implicitly, we should be cautious in presenting what may be speculative (cf. 1 Timothy 1:4).
Did your pastor just say something that is not entirely true, such as claiming that Xmas means people are taking Christ out of Christmas, or that the Christmas star was a conjunction of various astronomical bodies? Again, we must take care to avoid authoritatively teaching what is conjecture or opinion, and we must emphasize the truth of Scripture.
Speaking Truth But Not as Carefully as Possible
Perhaps your pastor spoke truth, but he was not as precise as he could have been. He may have claimed that the early church didn’t celebrate Christmas, or that Jesus was born in a stable full of animals. Even familiar Christmas carols have this issue: did the angels sing their message to the shepherds? Or did your pastor relegate the nativity to a morality play, suggesting, for example, that because the innkeeper showed creative hospitality to Joseph and Mary, you should be kind to strangers too? Overall, did his teaching fall short in significant truths? Even the eloquent preacher Apollos was taken aside to learn the truth more accurately (Acts 18:24–26).
Being Overly Dogmatic
An old saying suggests that sometimes a pastor can go “from preaching to meddling,” that is, he is speaking truth against specific ungodly attitudes, beliefs, and practices. But is he preaching facts from God’s Word or mere human opinion? For example, did your pastor assert that Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas, or that we should give to the poor and needy whatever money we had budgeted for Christmas gifts?
How Should You Respond?
Church members should not rush to judge a pastor, giving due respect to him because of his position as a shepherd. Paul says to the church in Thessalonica, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13; cf. Hebrews 13:17). This does not mean, of course, that pastors can teach just anything and still be honored, since they must be careful to speak the Word of God to the church (Hebrews 13:7).
How significant of an issue is this? Is God as upset about this as you are?
So give appropriate consideration to what he said that troubled you. What Scripture did he contradict, challenge, or violate? Was it merely a passing comment or a central tenet of his preaching? How adamant was he about the teaching? What are the implications of his teaching? If the teaching was mostly true, would others be confused or misled about this? How significant of an issue is this? Is God as upset about this as you are?
As you contemplate if and how you should respond, remember that you can show honor and love to your pastor by evaluating his teaching with him. Recognize that “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6), and “iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (verse 17). Godly love acts out of the best interests of others, so be willing to speak truth to your pastor in love. Speak words that seek to help and not to accuse, to build up and not tear down (Ephesians 4:29).
Hopefully you have already cultivated an open and ongoing conversation with your pastor, so this intended discussion will just be a part of the growing relationship. Be sure to talk to him in person, not about him to others. Don’t send an anonymous note. Give your pastor the opportunity to resolve the issue with you directly.
Know that it may not be the best time to speak to your pastor right after the church meeting when he may be busy or others are around (cf. Proverbs 15:23). Make an appointment to talk to him, specifying what you want to talk about. If you are seriously troubled by something he taught, don’t wait too long, otherwise misunderstanding, anger, bitterness, and other distancing attitudes could develop. Deal with the matter at your earliest mutual convenience (cf. Ephesians 4:26).
Your motivation should be zeal for the truth of God’s Word and love for your pastor and the congregation. Your conversation should be characterized by gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15), manifesting a pleasant reasonableness in tone and content. Remember that “the tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, but the mouth of fools spouts folly” (Proverbs 15:2, NASB).
Be sure to pray consistently as you prepare for your conversation with your pastor. Here are some key things to ask God for:
Pray that you would speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
Pray for a humble spirit in yourself and in your pastor (1 Peter 5:5).
Pray that your pastor would receive the instruction (Proverbs 18:15).
Pray that the truth would be recognized, received, and celebrated (Psalm 86:11).
Pray that Christ would be exalted (1 Peter 4:10–11).
Pray that the church would be strengthened in the truth (Ephesians 4:15–16).
Ask Questions and Listen
When you meet with him, thank your pastor for his preparation and devotion to teach the Bible. Be mindful of your body language and tone of voice. Make sure that you are being consistent in your communication in word and deed.
Begin by asking questions instead of making accusations. Some of these questions may be more or less relevant, depending on the type of issue you are concerned about.
Did I hear you correctly when you said ________ ?
What did you mean by this?
What is your source for this statement? How credible is that source?
What are the implications of your statement? How important is it for somebody to believe this?
How devoted are you to this idea?
Depending on his answers to these questions and the general course of your conversation, conceivably your concerns will be allayed. However, if you are troubled by your pastor’s response, you will want to follow up with your church’s leadership team.
Emphasize biblical authority, and encourage him to preach the Word.
Be specific in stating your concerns. What could he have said that would have been more accurate according to the Scriptures? Emphasize biblical authority, and encourage him to preach the Word. The church is “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), and a pastor has a specific responsibility to “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).
Christians must be valiant for the truth and aggressive in love. Especially in the Christmas season, we want to give proper attention to the truth of God’s Word so that we may “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). May the Lord allow his Word to be taught clearly and humbly believed in his church.