A man recently came to our church and raised some issues concerning the way we are conducting our church affairs. He said all of our leaders where in sin and made some rather intense charges against them. He claimed to have wisdom beyond his years and to be able to see things that the rest of us couldn’t. How can we know whether this man is speaking for God or with God’s best intentions in mind?
The first thing we need to do is to put the whole issue into a Biblical context. Apart from the charges, what is the man claiming about himself? Usually the person who claims to speak for God is making some sort of prophetic claim. In Charismatic circles it might be that he is explicitly claiming to be a prophet. In non-Charismatic circles he might simply be claiming to be someone with wisdom sharing what God has revealed to him about you and your situation. Of course, as with most things, there is a spectrum of claims. But at the base, this man is claiming to have some sort of special giftedness to know something about your church, and about God, that you don’t have.
God does not leave us in the dark concerning these things. The Bible gives us several tests of a man and of his teaching that help us wade through this testing/tempting dilemma. There are a couple of ways this should be handled: the tests of a prophet and the tests of church leadership.
Tests of a prophet
There are essentially three: First, Deuteronomy 13:1-3 says, “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams.”
Suppose a man comes to you and says, I’m a prophet and to prove it I’m going to heal that man over there who is sitting in his wheel chair. Then suppose he calls the gentleman to the front of the church and says, “In the Name of Jesus, I tell you to rise up and walk.” Then, in response to the command the formerly crippled fellow jumps to his feet praising God. So far so good according to Deuteronomy 13, but the next part is yet to come. What does the “prophet” say next? If he tells you that the Mormon god are the god you should worship, he is asking you to worship a false god and you should not follow him. He is a false prophet—a false leader.
But the world is not as straightforward and simple as this example makes it seem to be. The young men who ride around on their Bicycles smiling and waving at the passing traffic are not who we really need to worry about in this context. Those guys are clearly false teachers. We know not need to listen to them.
Our false men of God (prophets) are much more subtle than this. They come to us performing acts of kindness and charity. They schmooze us. They charm us. They enter our lives and make grandiose claims to importance. They quote the Bible left and right, making “religious” sounds. Their signs and wonders are much more subtle and much less “spectacular,” but at the same time they are just as convincing.
Now suppose this same “wonder worker” tells you that God never really meant that we should do what he did, say what he said, or be what he said for us to be. Suppose he says that God really wanted us to “feel” Christ within our hearts rather than do what Christ specifically said. Suppose he says that we shouldn’t imitate Christ by talking about Hell as much as he did, or by challenging the enemies of God (inside the church and outside). This god, the prophet is trying to get us to follow has the same name as the God of the Bible, but he is clearly not the same God of the Bible. This is the same kind of thing as the Mormon missionary, who talks about loving Jesus, but his Jesus is not the Jesus of the Bible, the lie is much more subtle.
We know what the test looks like, but what are we responsible for in order to perform the test? Just as in any examination the one giving the test must know the answers. This test it isn’t any different. If you don’t know God well enough, the charismatic (in the attractive sense) false prophet will “snow” you and will convince you that the god he is trying to get you to follow is the true God. And in the end you will worshiping a golden calf called YHWH (cf. Ex. 32:4, 5).
So the solution is to know God. But lest you despair of ever knowing God well enough, you should know that God has given you a remedy for this problem. You are not alone. You are members of Christ, his church. You are to make sure your church leaders are qualified to lead and one of the requirements in this regard is to be able to recognize and refute false teaching in all its subtleties and intricacies (cf. Tit. 1:9-11). When we have leaders who know their Bibles and their God, we can trust them to “deal” with these false teachers. We don’t all need to know our Bibles inside out, but collectively our leaders do.
The interesting thing about this test of a false spokesman for God is that God goes on to say, “For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst (Deut. 13:3-5). The false teacher was sent by God to test our faith. God wants to know if we will do what he says (cf. 1 Jn. 5:3). Will we love him with all of our hearts and souls? Do we know him well enough even to know that a false teacher is amongst us? Are we going to stand up for what we believe, or are we going to follow after the glitz and glory? Notice too how important identifying the man as a false prophet is. God required the Jews to kill him. Certainly, that we put him out of our midst. It is pretty serious stuff to claim to speak for God.