Those of us who live inland are sometimes blissful unaware of the dangers of coastal navigation in boats. In old times, it would be routine for some sailors to make their living guiding out-of-town boats through the waters even of a harbor out to the ocean, assisting them in avoiding submerged rocks, and sandy shoals that could sink a ship, or cause it to become stuck. When such a pilot was not available, those operating the ship would have to keep their eyes peeled for clues as to the dangers at hand, and proceed cautiously. Thus, "Rocks Ahead" would be a call of alarm, much like the call "Iceberg Dead Ahead" became a chilling warning of impending doom in the cinematic portrayal of the Titanic's demise.
So to, I'd like to try to help a bit in this regard. There are a few rocks that I've noticed, that I'd like to draw to your attention - rocks that are especially dangerous to young or new Christians, rocks that are especially dangerous to developing Christians, and rocks that are dangerous to mature Christians.
I. New Christians - Zeal and Love without Knowledge
Many who come to faith in Christ, whether young or old, come with great zeal and love of God. Usually, however, they have a rather minimal understanding of theology and the Bible. They are eager to serve God who they love, but they don't always know how. This can pose a danger because their lack of knowledge can lead to gullibility or to misdirected zeal.
The solution, the way to avoid these rocks, is to study Scripture. Learn what God has to say in the Word. That is not to say that one must only study Scripture unassisted by human aids. When one uses human aids, even the aids of excellent commentators like Matthew Poole, Matthew Henry, or John Gill, one needs to be cautious carefully comparing what the commentator said to the Word of God, remembering that the commentator is a man, and that men sometimes make mistakes: even Godly men.
II. Developing Christians - Inadequate Methodology
Christians who have started studying sometimes seem to forget the rock summarized by the adage: "A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing." These are Christians who have found some useful tool or other for studying Scripture, have been delighted by the influx of knowledge they have gleaned from it, and have overlooked their own lack of experience in using it or (perhaps) lack of gifts in applying it.
The most frequent example of this sort of behavior that I have seen is the misuse of lexicons. These days one can find on-line dictionaries and, for Greek, parsing software, that can enable a person with very little training or actual linguistic or even grammatical skill to unearth some of the nuances of the Bible.
This sort of thing can have its place, certainly. Strong's lexicon and concordance are an invaluable (that means "of enormous value") resource. It is helpful to be able to learn sometimes that the Greek word for "suffer" in the verse "suffer the little children to come" means to permit, not to torture. Another example, is to look up the Greek word underlying "whosoever" in John 3:16 to discover that the Greek word means "all."
A lexicon, though, has to be used carefully. Languages, especially ancient languages, are full of traps for the unwary. One typical example of such a trap is the use of paraphrastic constructions: ways of saying something in a roundabout or indirect manner. We sometimes do this in English, though much more rarely. For example, one might consider the expression "I am going to sell my house," to be an example of an English paraphrastic way of saying, "I will sell my house." Someone who did not know English, and who only had a lexicon and/or some parsing software might conclude, by looking up each word individually, that the person was trying to say that he was presently ("am") moving ("going") to a closing on the sale of a house. In fact, the person simply means that he will sell his house, and "am going to sell" is a round-about way to express that.
Another example of this sort of error can be found in the use of "word studies." I have met many Christians who seem to live and die by word studies. Typically, these people will do the word studies in English in some English version (such as the KJV), but a few will do the same in Greek. Again, these studies can have value. For example, one might want to know the semantic range of a particular Biblical word, such as "Lord." A word study is a way to discover (in English) that the word "Lord" is used of a variety of different referents, and not only about our Lord God.
On the other hand, these word studies can (especially when performed only in English) be misleading and dangerous. For example, while it may be helpful to find out that some particular word is used 99% of the time in the context of judgment, that statistical analysis (at best) provides a default position for understanding the term in the context you are considering. Assuming that the Bible always uses words the same way is a sure way to lead to absurd results. Consider, for example, the problem with assuming that the words in "For God so loved the world," and "If any man love the world," are supposed to have precisely the same meaning.
Finally, a third example combines the last two techniques, in a way. In the third example, the person uses Strong's number for the word (translated "X" in English) in question in verse A and finds out that the same word has been translated with meaning "Y" in one or several other verses. The person then concludes that since the word can mean "Y" in those other verses, it can mean "Y" in verse A. This sort of analysis overlooks the complexity of translation, and the importance of understanding a word's semantic range as limited by the context in which the word is used. What one has to be especially cautious of, is finding a word in a verse that does not fit one's theology, running to a lexicon, and finding a definition within the general semantic range of that word that does fit one's theology, and then insisting that the word has been either poorly translated or mistranslated by others (especially when this means claiming that the verse has been wrongly translated by virtually all the previous translators).
The solution for each of these errors is to be cautious and cognizant of one's own academic, linguistic, and grammatical abilities. Don't assume that Strong's Concordance makes you a Greek scholar, and be cautious about standing opposed to Greek scholars when it comes to translating Greek (or Hebrew for that matter, though fewer people seem to get hooked on trying to re-translate the Hebrew). If your translation of a verse doesn't jive with either the traditional translation (KJV or the like) or the newer translations (ESV or NASB), consider whether perhaps you may have made a mistake, and try to learn why the other translators translated it the way they did. They may know something you do not. In fact, they may know plenty that you do not.
III. Mature Christians - Pride
Knowledge truly can puff up. It's easy for mature Christians, having studied the Bible extensively, having learned theology in many nuances to become proud and think that have arrived at a full understanding or a methodology that does not need external correction. This is sometimes seen in the "Not Invented Here" (NIH) syndrome. NIH rejects ideas that one did not think of oneself. If someone tries to provide new light on an issue, a person suffering from NIH simply rejects it out of hand, "I never heard of that."
This kind of stubbornness can be helpful in keeping the mature Christian from being buffeted by every wind of doctrine. On the other hand, this can stop the growth of the mature Christian. It is always important for the mature Christian to be ready to go back and reconsider his views in light of Scripture. That does not mean we hold views that have been demonstrated from Scripture without tenacity. Instead, it means that we are careful to remember that we two are merely men, and in need of the sharpening iron of our fellow Christians.
This kind of stubbornness can also lead to another problem: disrespect for God-given spiritual authorities. That is to say, Christian men can (aware of their own well-developed knowledge) become scornful of the elders that God has given them for their spiritual edification. It's fairly common knowledge that in many households one of the main items at Sunday lunch is Roast Sermon, in which problems (real or perceived) in the sermon are dissected and amplified as though under a microscope. That is not to say that there is not a place for sermon criticism, simply that it is easy for people to forget that their elders have an important and God-ordained rule in providing teaching and spiritual rule. We can disagree Scripturally with them, but we must not allow ourselves to become disdainful of their gifts, while pretending to be under their leadership.
This problem extends beyond the man-elder relationship to the wife-husband relation and the child-parent relationship. While children normally would fall into one of the two previous categories, should a child by God's grace develop a mature understanding of Scripture while still a child, he must still remember the place and purpose not only of his elders, but of his parents as well. Likewise, wives need to remember that their primary human authority in spiritual matters is their husband. This can be especially difficult for wives who are more well read in theological matters than their husbands. The solution there is partly for the wives to learn humility, but also for the husbands to study harder: study the Word so that your wife will not have to ask for your help, but will be eager to ask for your help when it comes to understanding what was preached in church, or what is taught in Scripture.
With these cautions, let us do our best to navigate (with the help of our brethren and that Pilot of our souls, the Holy Spirit) the sometimes rocky harbor of this life, until we reach at last the open sea of heaven, a sea where there will be no icebergs - but we will have the Light of the Lamb to guide and teach us.
Praise be to the Lord!