"Tickle me, daddy!"
I'm glad my daughter is still young enough for me to chase her around the house, capture her and hear her squeal as I tickle her feet. The benefit is mutual: She gets the pleasure of feeling secure and I get the pleasure of being needed.
While this relationship is appropriate for fathers and their children, it's terribly dangerous for spiritual fathers and their spiritual children. The Apostle Paul warned Timothy:
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. [2 Timothy 4:1-3]
In his charge, Paul commands Timothy to "preach the Word" at all times [also see 1 Peter 3:15] and to "be careful" in his instruction of others. Then, he warns that a time will come when people will trade the truth for teaching that will tickle their ears. While I am grateful that God's Word is always reliable, in this case, I am equally grieved that Paul's prophecy has come true. All around us are pastors and teachers who are gifted speakers, creative communicators and polished presenters, but the substance of their message is lacking. They tickle their audience with what they know people want to hear because there is a double-benefit: People get what they want and the leader continues to feel significant.
Christians must be discerning of the messages they listen to and be on guard for these tickle-me teachings from the pulpit and on their bookshelves:
1. Messages that do not tell the truth. Some communicators claim "thus sayeth the Lord" when the Lord never "thus sayethed." Some leaders, to gain a wider audience, are unwilling to preach the exclusivity of Christ, the inerrancy of God's Word and the severity of sin. They argue that theology has changed over time to accommodate new cultures. This view ignores the timeless, immutability of God and reflects an egocentric view of righteousness. Be on guard against those who do not say what is true.
2. Messages which do not tell the whole truth. A second problem is preaching that only tells part of the story. This is a buffet approach to Christianity: Take what you like and leave the rest. This is the present criticism of the prosperity Gospel. Some claim that life in Christ will produce continual blessing and goodness if you have enough faith. Try preaching this message in Haiti today. It doesn't work for the godly man I met a week ago who faced the trauma of his triplets being stillborn. It is true that life in Christ produces greater blessings than life outside of Christ and it is true that God sometimes blesses the believer in wild and wonderful ways. But, the whole truth is that God causes His sun to rise of the good and the evil [Matthew 5:45] and that the spiritual life is a continual death to gain life [see James 1:2-12, Philippians 1:29, Acts 20:24]. To preach only half the truth is to preach no truth at all.
3. Messages that tell something other than the truth. Many ticklish teachers fill their messages with ideas that are true, but are not necessarily biblically true. For example, a whole message about how getting organized will simplify your life may be spot-on, but may have no biblical relevance. The problem with these messages is twofold: 1) The audience becomes accustomed to a diet of secular information and loses an appetite the life-changing Word of God, and/or 2) People begin to settle for any truth instead of seeking biblical truth. I can read a book about how to truly understand my unique personality and gain useful information, but if that truth never intersects with God's truth, I've just become smarter, not more spiritual.
I admit that I am tempted to be enamored with big audiences, published books and CDs, well-branded ministries and the proliferation of blogs and the such. These are all signs of a leader that "everyone should listen to!" But, the real measure is: Did they take me to the life-erupting Word of God? Did they explain it in a way that reflects a fearful accountability to God, the Author? Did they leave me impressed with them, or with God and His grace? Did they speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Or, as a spiritual father, did they just chase me around the house of God to tickle my ears?