By Max Aplin
In 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 the apostle Paul instructs the church in Thessalonica:
‘. . . do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test everything, and hold on to what is good, . . .’
Paul is clearly telling his readers to weigh up what is said when one of their number claims to have spoken a prophetic revelation. He wants them to be people who don’t accept prophecies as genuine without examining them properly.
It is possible that when Paul says ‘test everything’ here, he simply means that the Thessalonians should test all prophecies. That would fit the context. On the other hand, however, he may be referring to testing more than just prophecies. That would also make sense of his words.
Nevertheless, regardless of exactly what Paul was telling the Thessalonians to test when he wrote this, it is surely true that he would have wanted Christians in his day to make a habit of testing all kinds of important things. And it is just as certain that this would have been God’s will too.
Testing things today
As far as today is concerned, we should have no doubt that God wants Christians to be in the habit of testing a wide variety of things, trying to find out if He approves of them. We should constantly be playing the role of spiritual sentries, only letting things pass when we have received all the right answers to the questions we ask.
Testing things in this way is something that every Christian, from the time of conversion, should be doing. And it is important for church leaders to encourage their flocks in this practice.
How do we test?
There are various ways we can put something to the test:
First, we can do our best to see if the thing in question fits with the teaching of the Bible.
Second, we should pray, asking God to give us insight.
Third, just taking the time to think about things is often very useful.
Fourth, we can get the advice of people we respect.
Our ability to test things should improve as we mature spiritually. Nevertheless, it is a fact that before death we will never be able to hear God clearly about everything. Part of what it means to live in this fallen world is that we often have partial understanding of things and see them unclearly (1 Corinthians 13:9-12). So we shouldn’t be discouraged by those times when we try to test something but are unable to discern God’s will.
Nevertheless, although we will meet with some failures, we should also expect to have some successes. And every Christian should therefore be doing his or her best to put anything of importance to the test.
Failing to test is a big problem
In the church today, the failure to test things properly is a big problem. Sometimes things God approves of are rejected by Christians who are simply uncritically following the views of other people. And much more often, things God disapproves of are accepted by Christians who are, again, just automatically following the opinions of others.
There are a number of areas in which Christians often fail to put things to the test properly. I will mention several important ones.
Failure to test the values of society
First, there is the failure to test the values of the societies in which we live.
As someone who lives in a Western country, I see this constantly. Time and time again Western Christians approve of things held in high esteem by Western society, without really stopping to ask if society has got things right. Nor is it just new Christians who do this. Often believers of real spiritual maturity just unthinkingly follow the values of society in various ways.
In centuries past Western countries endorsed Christian values to a moderate extent. And today many believers seem to think that the core values of modern Western society are similar to core Christian values. This, however, is a big mistake. Rather, the values of our societies need to be put to the test.
Here are some examples of the sorts of things that many Western Christians today approve of without testing:
- The Western attitude to the will of the majority of people in a country
- The concept of human rights
- The United Nations
- The European Union
- The reign of the present British queen
- The American Declaration of Independence
- The French national motto
- The Olympic Games and similar events
- The space programmes of various nations
- Nobel Prizes
I would suggest that everything on this list is in large part (although admittedly only partly) opposed to the will of God. I don’t want to give reasons why I believe this here, since it would take me too far off topic. My aim in this article is just to stress the importance of testing things, not to discuss individual issues. Nevertheless, I think there can be no doubt that large numbers of Christians go through their entire lives without stopping to put the things I have listed to the test. And the same is true for many other things as well.
An important biblical verse on this issue is Luke 16:15, where the Lord Jesus tells us:
‘. . . that which is highly valued by people is hateful in God’s sight.’
Of course, this shouldn’t be taken literally as meaning that God hates everything which most people approve of. But it does mean that He hates many such things. Whenever we see the world clapping its hands approvingly at something, that is a sign to be especially watchful. In probability it will be something that is, at least partly, hateful to God.
We must never, then, automatically approve of things that the societies we live in hold in high regard. Instead, we must test these things to the best of our ability.
Failure to test what parents say
Another way in which Christians often fail to properly test things is in following the values and beliefs of their parents.
This is actually often the biggest problem for those who have had the best experience of being raised by parents.
Christians who had a happy upbringing that involved good Christian parenting often go through their entire lives without questioning anything of significance that their parents taught them. Either they imagine that because their parents were such good parents, they could not have been wrong in anything important. Or they experience feelings of guilt about questioning their parents’ teaching, because they think (often largely subconsciously) that this would be disrespectful. They therefore immediately suppress all thoughts of questioning what they were taught.
However, first, it makes no sense for a believer to suppose that great Christian parents cannot have been wrong in any important issue. Such an idea ignores the obvious truth that there are bound to be other excellent Christian parents who believe contradictory things in some respects.
And second, we must be careful not to confuse love and respect for parents on the one hand, with accepting what they taught on the other. These are very different things. It is quite possible to love and respect parents deeply, yet also disagree with some of what they taught us.
Failure to test denominational beliefs
Something else that leads to failure to test things is unquestioning loyalty to denominations of the church. Sadly, many Christians go through their lives uncritically accepting everything that is taught by a certain denomination. This point actually overlaps with the previous one, since often the reason believers do this is because their parents are convinced that the denomination in question is correct in its beliefs.
It should be regarded as a fact, however, that there are devout and strong Christians in various denominations of the church. And I, for one, find it very unrealistic to think that one denomination is correct in every important area of disagreement. Instead, different denominations have different strengths and weaknesses, and we should be unembarrassed about picking and choosing what is best from each of them.
If all Christians were prepared to put denominational beliefs to the test, I am sure that they would be able to learn so much more from God. Many of their mistaken ideas would be corrected.
Failure to test Christian leaders
Yet another way in which believers often fail to test things is in following Christian leaders. No Christian should ever automatically accept what they are taught by a pastor or other church leader just because they hold that person in high esteem.
In some ways, the better the leader, the more this is a potential problem. If a leader is well known for getting things wrong, those listening to him will probably be on their guard when he teaches. However, if someone is used to hearing really good teaching from a Christian leader, they will often not be ready for the bits and pieces that are incorrect.
All of us who are involved in Christian teaching will teach some error, regardless of how much we pray that God will guard us against this. So no one should automatically accept what a leader teaches just because they respect that person.
Failure to test prophecies
Similarly, we should never automatically accept prophecies as genuine without testing them as best we can (see 1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21).
I have seen devout Christian prophets give prophetic messages that were certainly from God. But at other times these same prophets have given prophecies that I am sure were incorrect.
I don’t understand this. I would have expected that if a prophet ever prophesies correctly, it would have to mean that they recognise God’s voice, and therefore that all their prophecies would be correct. In my experience, however, this is not always the case.
Nevertheless, regardless of why it is that the same prophet can prophesy correctly and incorrectly, we should always put prophecies to the test to the best of our ability. We should never automatically accept them just because they come from someone we respect.
Beware of idolatry
Often when Christians fail to test things it is because they have set something up as an idol in their heart. This idol might be a parent, a church leader, a Christian with a certain gift, a denomination, a culture, a country or something else.
According to the Bible, however, idolatry is a grave and grievous sin. It is something that we should always hate and reject.
Instead, God is the one who commands and deserves our full devotion. We must submit to Him in everything. And often that will necessarily mean questioning things and testing them.
If we are not doing so already, then, each of us must get into the habit of putting things to the test. We should all be constantly weighing things up, doing our best to find out the will of God in matters that are important. The more that Christians do this, the stronger the church is bound to become.
I have been a Christian for over 30 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland. Check out my blog, The Orthotometist, at maxaplin.blogspot.com.