We’re faced with information from so many different directions these days. It’s difficult to know what’s of God and what’s not. While it may be tempting to want to identify the “false prophets,” it’s just as important to be able to identity who and what is truly from God. Scripture gives us a few things to look out for; but overall, scripture focuses more on what a “true prophet” looks like. I won’t identify false prophets in this post, but I will lay out the warnings found in scripture.
Who Is a Prophet? (The Prophethood of All Believers)
While we are talking about the authority of the spiritual leaders (pastors, deacons, etc.) around us, we also need to respond internally. With the Spirit alive and active in all believers, we also can expect all believers to operate in the gifts of the spirit within the body.1 Just as discernment should be used in leadership, discernment among believers is also important. We must identify true prophetic messages from the false ones so we are not deceived and led astray.
Here are 10 ways we can distinguish between true and false prophets:
1. Orthodox vs. Heretical Teaching
This can be the easiest to observe, but sometimes the hardest to detect. In order to distinguish between heretical and orthodox teaching, we have to know what orthodox teaching is. One of the biggest concerns we read in the New Testament is to watch out for those who teach a different gospel or contrary to Jesus (2 Corinthians 11:4; Galatians 1; and, 1 Timothy 6). This is all the more reason to learn and be discipled in what Jesus taught.
2. The Narrow vs. the Wide Gate
If the message is easy, than it’s probably not true Christianity. That might be a broad statement, but Jesus clearly explained that “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14, ESV). With that said, it’s only through the narrow gate that we find freedom in Jesus. True leaders are recognized by their true #freedom, while false leaders are recognized by their demise. Click To Tweet False prophets remain a slave to their own desires. As Peter wrote, “they promise…freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption (2 Peter 2:19-21). True leaders are recognized by their freedom, while false leaders are recognized by their demise.
3. Selflessness vs. Selfishness
If the message is one of self-concern, and not concern for others, we should evaluate its authority. Culture speaks about “taking care of ourselves before others.” The beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), however, define Christianity as being selfless.
4. Unworthy vs. worthy
Many look for qualifications in a leader. Yes, education and experience are important things to consider; however, a true spiritual leader should be “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3) – realizing that their influence and ability rests in God’s empowerment. Paul understood himself to be unworthy of his calling and yet empowered through God’s grace (1 Corinthians 15:9-10). True prophets understand to be unworthy of their calling & yet empowered through God’s grace. Click To Tweet If a spiritual leader deems themselves as “worthy,” it’s reason for concern.
5. Contentment vs. Discontentment
We probably see this the most with money and fame. If the message of greed (ie. the prosperity gospel) and/or desire to become the next “big thing” is observed, it’s safe to say the message is false. Paul wrote:
“There is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith…”2
6. Spiritual Unity vs. Ungodly Division
A true prophet has a strong desire to grow spiritually – building up in the faith, praying in the Spirit, keeping in the love of God, and waiting for God’s mercy (Jude 20-21). False teachers pursue their own ungodly desires and cause division, rather than unity. This of course can’t be confused with an ungodly response to spiritual unity and leadership. A true prophet has a strong desire to #grow spiritually. #discipleship Click To Tweet
7. Good Fruit vs. Bad Fruit
The true prophet is approved by their fruit. Jesus said, only good fruit can come from good trees and only profitable things come from good fruit (Matthew 7:15-20). In other words, spiritual leaders can look the part, but how they live out what they believe will determine their authority as a true spiritual leader. Perfection isn’t attainable, however, a true leader should be working towards profitable fruit in their lives – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
8. Will of God vs. the Will of Man
Everyone has a choice to make: will I follow God’s will or my own? Scripture clearly states that my own will (the flesh) is flawed and leads to destruction, while those who follow after God’s will live forever (1 John 2:15-17a). The true leader prays and submits to God’s will, not their own. The true leader prays and submits to God’s will, not their own. #leadership Click To Tweet
9. Godliness vs. Godlessness
Paul wrote some significant words to Timothy: “…in the last days…people will…have the appearance of godliness, but deny its power” (2 Timothy 3:1f). Paul wasn’t speaking of unbelievers, but godlessness rising up among believers. True prophets will work towards godliness (as seen in number seven), while false prophets are recognized by being “lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, loves of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:2-4).
10. Love vs. Deceit
Love can be misunderstood. Paul wrote words of correction to Corinthian Church, but clearly said his passion was based out of his love for them (2 Corinthians 11:11). Similarly when we are called to examine the sin in our own lives and humbly help those around us work through their sin, we are called to do so in love (Matthew 7:1-6; also see “Healthy Juding?”). In any case, the greatest commandment calls us to love and true prophets should speak that same language. False prophets, however, pull us in the opposite direction and painfully deceive those who follow (2 Corinthians 11:13f; 2 John 7f).
To inspire Timothy (a pastor), Paul wrote:
“Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (1 Timothy 6:12)
No one is perfect, but true prophets and leaders fight the good fight of the faith. No one is perfect, but true prophets and leaders fight the good fight of the faith. #1Timothy6 Click To TweetWe need to recognize what’s true and what’s false, and choose to follow the truth. Scripture certainly paints the picture that this process is, and will continue to be, difficult. The choice, however, will lead to us an everlasting reward as we help build the Kingdom of God.
Have I missed any other attributes?