Don’t Get Eaten By Coyotes: Discerning Unsound Theology
By Jeanie Layne
When I was young, my family lived on a small farm in rural Missouri. Our farm teemed with chickens, sheep, pot-bellied pigs, and a literal herd of cats. Unfortunately, the plethora of small, defenseless animals also attracted coyotes. The hair still stands up on the back of my neck when I recall the sound of coyotes prowling around outside my bedroom window.
Over the years, my fear of coyotes grew and developed into a phobia of anything canine. I remember well the day my parents brought home a puppy, and I ran—screaming in terror—from the tiny ball of fluff and energy. While I remain convinced that six-year-old Jeanie was wise to fear the coyotes howling outside her window, my fear of puppies was ultimately displaced.
Sometimes I do the same thing with theology. I fear that I may fall prey to false teaching through polished words and persuasive tongues. Yet, Scripture is clear that we are to submit ourselves to regular teaching within the context of the local church. Our task, then, is to heed what is true and avoid what isn’t, and we do this by distinguishing between the coyote and the puppy.
So, how do we tell the difference? The puppy is cuddly and lovable. The coyote may look similar from a distance, until you are close enough to see its mange and fangs. In the same way, how do we recognize when a false teacher is prowling around outside our window? Here are a few basic guidelines:
Your theology may be a coyote if it contradicts God’s Word.
Scripture is inerrant, which means that there is no flaw, discrepancy, or contradiction in it. John 17:17 tells us that God’s Word is true, and 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that all Scripture is breathed out by God and no portion of it should be dismissed. This coyote may persuade you that God’s character changes or that God’s Word doesn’t say what it says. If you hear teaching that seems to contradict Scripture, run from it. If God’s Word is true, then anything contrary to it is not true.
Your theology may be a coyote if it tickles your ears.
Paul writes in 2 Timothy 4:3-4 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.” When we fail to heed sound teaching, we listen to whatever doctrine is most appealing at the time. This teaching may sound good, but it will ultimately lead to destruction. Here are two false teachings that tickle our ears:
- Some in the church teach that believers can expect to live the best life possible right now. These false teachers claim that if we do the right things, say the right words, and act the right way, we will be rewarded on this side of eternity. While there may be earthly benefit to living a godly lifestyle, Scripture is also clear that following Christ can be difficult (2 Tim. 3:12). Believers should expect to suffer as they live counter to their culture. Our aim should not be to have our best life now; rather, we look forward with hope in Christ to a glory that is yet to come (Matt. 5:10-12). Any teaching that emphasizes earthly treasure over eternal glory may be a coyote.
- Some in the church will teach that believers can do as they please now that they are saved from their sin. Paul speaks against this in his letters to Timothy, referencing “myths” or stories that taught the believers they were free to act immorally and idolatrously. We are prone to the same beliefs. We do not like to hear that our sin is sin, and any teaching that persuades us to remain in our sin is likely a coyote. Rather, the gospel frees the believer from bondage to sin and death and makes her captive to Christ, given over to a new and holy life (Romans 6:1-4). Flee from the coyote that leaves you wallowing in bondage to your sin.
*Sidebar: In case there is any confusion here, the gospel is pleasing to those of us who know and understand it, but it does not tickle our ears because the gospel (1) is true and (2) provides a heavy dose of reality for us. As believers, we are sinners who were owed damnation (neither of those sound great to my ears) but who have been redeemed by the blood of a holy and righteous God-Man. This sounds good because it is good, but it is good purely because it’s true. (Want to hear more about the gospel? Check it out here.)
Your theology may be a coyote if it proclaims anything other than Christ.
The king of all coyotes is that of the “false gospel.” The false gospel distorts the claims of Christ in any number of ways, saying that man can earn his own salvation or that Jesus is not the only path to salvation. It may claim that Jesus was not the Son of God, wasn’t born of a virgin, didn’t die on the cross, or didn’t rise from the dead. Any variation of the false gospel diminishes the work of Christ, and it should be seen for what it really is: a coyote. Flee from the false gospel as quickly as possible. If you believe it, it will eat you for lunch—and eternity.
Fortunately, no matter which of the coyotes you encounter, God has given you what you need to master the beast. He’s given us the bible so that we can identify when we’ve just heard something contradictory to His revealed Word. God has provided us with the Holy Spirit to guard authentic truth from a counterfeit when we’re faced with an ear tickler. Finally, He’s given us the true gospel of Jesus Christ to defeat the false gospel. Know the Word, heed the Spirit, and wield the truths of Christ to put to death any false teaching you encounter.
The apostle Paul was convinced that false teachers, determined to twist the truth, would make their way into the flock of God’s sheep (Acts 20:29-30). We know that some will manage to sneak into our camp and attempt to distort our understanding of truth, but as followers of Christ, we must learn to be alert to their ways.
I once worked with a group of rural cattle keepers, and every night, these young men stationed their best and brightest on the outskirts of the camp to watch for encroaching lions. They knew—often firsthand—the danger to their cattle and their own lives in allowing a predator into their midst. Their experience made them wise, and they learned to protect the things they loved.
We love our God, and we love the Word; thus, we seek to protect the sound teaching entrusted to us. In 1 Peter 5:8, we are reminded to, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Sweet sister, don’t get eaten by lions, or coyotes, or any other ferocious beast. Instead, be alert. Be watchful. Recognize the beast by its teeth and its roar, and run screaming in the opposite direction—towards a sound truth that will not devour you but will nourish you with its goodness.
*If you would like to hear more about addressing false teaching, listen to Pastor Nathan’s recent sermon from 2 Timothy 2:14-19 here!
Points to Ponder:
- What are some common “coyotes” of false doctrine that you hear on a regular basis, and what are some passages of Scripture that would help you to counter the claims of these false teachings when you hear them?
- Is there a distinction between a differing interpretation of a passage and a false gospel? What is the difference, and how can we distinguish between the two? How do we keep ourselves from labeling different interpretations as heresy or from excusing false doctrine as merely a different interpretation of a text?
- Read through Matthew 7:13-27. What does Jesus have to say about false prophets and how we can identify them?