15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.
16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?
17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.
18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.
19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
One of the greatest dilemma any believer can face is identifying who a false prophet is. Sometimes one faces the temptation of casting a preacher in a mold by describing him as false even when he is not. By using the word false, we presuppose that the preacher is deliberately on a mission to sell what is false for gain. And that he is a messenger of the devil. In many instances, our definition of false is often coloured by the personality involved, the circumstances and our own biases.
If a pastor is somebody we respect so much, no matter what he preaches we don’t hesitate to jump at it. Our love for him sometimes makes us not to question his words because we believe he can never go wrong.
Indeed, the average Christian in Nigeria is hooked to a hero worship mentality. He hears no evil. He sees no evil. He believes his pastor can’t go wrong. So anytime he goes to an assembly to worship he goes with a closed mind. He goes with a mind that “my pastor is the mouthpiece of God and whatever he vomits is from the throne of heaven”. He is unlike the Berean Christian who takes time to go through the word of God to be sure of what he heard from the preacher is in the Bible.
The case is made worse because many don’t take responsibility for their spiritual lives. So when a pastor tells them anything they do not query it. If the pastor tells them they have to eat grass to gain eternal life they obey. If he tells them they have to empty their accounts for God to bless them they obey without raising any issue. They can’t raise issue because they don’t even hear from God. If he tells them the only way to be delivered from demons is for him to suck their breasts in the case of women, they don’t mind. It is believed that the pastor can never go wrong.
And the pastor is wise. He has a way round the Bible. He knows that his congregation will never read the Bible. So he cherry picks some scriptures that make all his actions justifiable. He runs to “touch not my anointed” and also “believe his prophet and you will prosper” those two phrases are the easy recourse of many false pastors.
But the issue that we should address before we can effectively take a plunge into asserting our faith is our ability to know what is right and what is wrong. If we cannot identify the right from the wrong, if we lose our perception when a pastor is preaching, it will be difficult not to be tossed to and fro and get carried away and eventually lost in the sea of error.
So who then is a false prophet? I think there are three issues to deal with when addressing this question: man, motive and message. There is a need to critically look at the person of the pastor. What is his antecedent? What is his track record? And who is he? By addressing those question we would have touched on whether a man is false or genuine. By taking time to know the man you take time to look at his lifestyle. That is the starting point. A man that is not consistently progressive in his walk with God cannot be trusted.
A man who displays greed for instance, who acquires what he does need, who is an oppressor whose moral life is questionable, who cannot be taken by his word should not be taken seriously when he mounts the pulpit. Even if the man vomits fire on the pulpit and raises the dead a believer should not be carried away. God does not judge the preacher by what he says and the miracles he performs but the fruit he bears. This is because signs and wonders are not exclusive to the church. Jesus was quick to caution his disciples not to rejoice when the demons were bowing to them but told them to rejoice because their names were written in the book of life. So the starting point is the person. And do not forget Jesus’ declaration that a bad tree cannot produce a good fruit.
A false teacher is also identified by his motive. Many preachers fail this test. If the motive is wrong the act will ultimately be wrong. If many of us are placed under spiritual stethoscope, one would discover that the motive behind what we do in many cases is wrong. Check the motive behind the universities being built by many church leaders, you will find ego and inordinate ambition. What is the motive behind five services or four services in some churches? It is the spirit of competition. Even when they know they can decentralise their church and create satellite centres to reduce the pressure on the headquarters they would rather introduce more services to create an impression to the world that they are big. While some genuinely need those services many resort to it to boost their ego. What is the motive behind the big auditoria we build every now and then?
What is the motive behind the crusades, the retreats, the books and the various programmes we hold in our churches? To raise funds or to touch lives? While we cannot rule out the need for money in ministry we must constantly put our motive in check. The person who writes a book for instance should expect to make money. But making money should not be his primary goal. What we don’t understand is that money follows after good intention.
But if our goal is for self-promotion, money making and inordinate ambition, then we cannot escape being tagged as false. Motive is perhaps the barometer to gauge our stand with God. Motive is key. We sometimes do the right thing for the wrong reason and the wrong thing for the right reason. Between wrong and right motive is at the middle. If we can answer the why question we would have put to rest many of the issues troubling our relationship with God.
Then the issue of the message. Many pastors fail when it comes to the message and this sometimes could be subjective. It has to do with rightly dividing the word. Some ministers of the gospel deliberately twist the word for personal gain. So there is a need to follow up critically on the message employed by a preacher and take time to study by oneself if one does not want to fall victim. Paul had admonished Timothy to “study to show yourself approved, a workman that needed not be ashamed rightly dividing the word of truth”.
Whenever our message fails the integrity test, when it fails to point people to Jesus, when it is about self we are in the false mold. Many may have good intention but their lack of basic understanding of the word put them into trouble. Some don’t even understand the implication of the Old Testament and how to rightly preach from it bearing in mind the sacrifice of Jesus.
What is the content of our message? I think the basic responsibility of the preacher is to point people to the cross, tell them about the kingdom of God and emphasise their need to have relationship with God. The pastor is not the middle man between man and God. The pastor is just a preacher of the word sent by God to show the way and preach the way. He is not supposed to stand in the way of his listeners but rather give them direction. Everybody is supposed to have a personal relationship with Jesus. When a man has personal relationship with God it will be difficult for that person to go wrong because his action and inaction will be directed by God. But when he sees God through the lenses of his pastor he may derail especially when his pastor is no longer following in the way. With the law of God written in our hearts and our daily connection with heaven it will be difficult for the enemy to get hold of us. The ministry we are called to is to reconcile man with God. Our relationship with God is like a marriage relationship. By the time we are married to Jesus, the person who introduced Jesus to us gives way. The best he can do is to support the new lover in prayers and feed him with the word. But even at that the message must point people to Jesus, it must be about life in the kingdom, it must be about the life of God. Motivational messages are not the same with the message of the kingdom. That a pastor motivates his listeners on how to acquire material prosperity does not translate to the message of the kingdom. Those are business seminars. But the pure gospel is essentially about living the life of God.
Do we then go about looking for who is false and who is original? That is not the intention of this piece. It is to put us on guard. The truth is that whether somebody is false or original inasmuch as the word of God is being preached that word would serve its purpose. The danger however is that the listener may be lured to eternal doom if he is daily being fed with the wrong doctrine. So it is not about looking for the false it’s about staying on our guard and taking responsibility for our spiritual lives through personal study and devotion.