By David Murray, Crosswalk.com
I don’t want to minimize in any way the horrendous damage that false prophets do to the church and to individual souls. But our sovereign and wise God can turn even this great evil into a good in four ways:
- by helping us discover the questions people are asking
- by guiding us to a better understanding of the Bible
- by highlighting where the church has been silent
- by encouraging true Christians
1) What’s the question?
If there’s one thing false prophets are really good at, it’s identifying the questions that people are asking. They “sniff the wind” with their super-sensitive marketing antennae and skillfully pick up signals about the issues people are struggling with. They provide the wrong answers of course, but they are experts at detecting where people are at, with the aim of maximizing their audience.
For example, when “evangelicals” start moving their churches to accept gay marriage, we should realize that they are responding to serious challenges and pressures from within their congregations and/or families.
When Rob Bell “questions” the doctrine of hell, we should understand that many are asking real questions about hell and are not liking the traditional answers.
When Joel Osteen promotes the prosperity Gospel, we should conclude that many are trying to find a way to think more positively about themselves and their lives. (By the way, this realization of how false teachers can indirectly benefit the church came to me as I was writing a critical review of Joel Osteen’s, Your Best Life Now.)
When a preacher throws out God’s commandments and replaces them with his own “10 Guidelines,” we should figure that lots of people are wondering about how to get rid of God’s law.
2) What does the Bible say?
The second benefit is that we are forced to study the Bible more closely to figure out what God really says about these issues. That’s been the pattern throughout church history. For example, whole epistles of Scripture were written in response to errors in the New Testament church.
Also, challenges to the deity of Christ in the early church resulted in more thorough Bible study and then clearer credal and confessional statements about what the Bible really teaches about Jesus Christ. Similarly for justification at the time of the Reformation.
And that’s what we see happening today as well. Witness the tremendous work that’s been done by conservative modern scholars in exegeting the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality and gender. The same goes for the multiple books and papers that have recently been written to prove the eternality of a literal hell. My own study of Osteen has forced me into the Scriptures to discern the accurate interpretation of passages that Osteen perverts, and also to find passages which disprove what he teaches.
3) Where have we been silent?
As lies thrive in a vacuum, false prophets usually target subjects that the church has neglected, moving in where Christians have been silent. For example:
- When ministers are not teaching and preaching about hell, that’s fertile ground for Rob Bell.
- When the church doesn’t explain the place of the law in the Christian life, you get the law being discarded or being re-written as personal guidance.
- When the church hasn’t constructively addressed sexuality, you end up with confused Christians embracing homosexual propaganda and caving in to the redefinition of marriage.
- When the church doesn’t address the nature and use of suffering, Benny Hinn will step in with promises to remove it for a fee.
- When the church doesn’t help people develop a healthy self-image, Joel Osteen’s self-image-making will attract many.
Whenever I see the particular emphasis of a false prophet, I ask myself, “When was the last time you taught or preached about that?”
4) Who are true Christians?
The Bible says that one reason for heresies in the church is to expose and highlight those who are not real Christians, but only have the name of Christian (1 Cor. 11:19). When people are swept away with false teaching, they demonstrate that they were never really true Christians. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us” (1 John 2:19).
But if we stay the course when others are dropping out, if we refuse to be swept away by false teaching, we may use that to encourage and assure ourselves that we really are true Christians by the grace of God.
Notice, I’m not saying that we should all study what false prophets are teaching – that would be a foolish waste of time for most, and a dangerous path for many. But in today’s hyper-connected world, it’s difficult not to encounter their teaching here and there, and even in some very surprising places. As we do, let’s use their falsehood to help us discern what questions people are asking, to make us study our Bible more thoroughly, to highlight where the church has been too silent, and to encourage ourselves that He who has begun a good work in us is continuing it until the Day of Jesus Christ.