Beware False Prophets
In this week’s scripture reading, John 10:1-10,  Jesus warns us to beware the false prophet and heed only the true one. But how can we tell the false from the true?
To answer this question, M. Russell Ballard, in a lecture given at the 1999 Latter Day Saints Conference, quotes Joseph Smith, founder of his faith, as saying, “We can accept nothing as authoritative but that which comes directly through the appointed channel, the constituted organizations of the Priesthood, which is the channel that God has appointed . . .” Anyone else, though he may claim to have received revelation from God, is an impostor. 
You will know these impostors because they deny Smith’s visions, doubt Christ’s resurrection, and “fashion new interpretations of the scriptures.”  In other words, false prophets disagree with Ballard and his LDS hierarchy.
Uncovering the False Prophet
Other writers use a similar test. For instance, in the article “How Can We Discern False Teachers?” on the bible.org website, an unnamed author explains that false prophets preach a message that conflicts with conventional Christian teachings.  Because you’re going to be damned if you’re convinced by these false prophets, you want to know who to listen to. Yet the bible.org article explains that false prophets look the same as true ones. They may be ordained, they may speak as if with great wisdom, and they may even do kind and charitable things. Like Satan, they disguise themselves as angels of light. 
No wonder some patients at the hospital where I work refuse to talk to me because I don’t belong to the right religion. It may be true that, as a chaplain, my job is not to change their beliefs, but to love them, and it may be true that chaplains are supposed to be able to work with people from any faith tradition, but patients are in a vulnerable position. What if we influence them and take away their faith? That’s scary.
So most of the time, I don’t share my denominational allegiance with patients. Yet could this silence about my own beliefs be a manipulation, a lie by omission? Perhaps in subtle and devious ways, I encourage the doubt that struggles within a person’s soul, or I sow doubt if it isn’t already there. How pure am I really?
Testing Your Prophet
No biblical prophet was pure, except perhaps Jesus. So does my impurity make me a false prophet? Of can I duck the question because, as a chaplain, I’m not really a prophet. Maybe a teacher. If I’m lucky, I’m a healer. But just because I’m ordained, just because I convinced the hospital staff to hire me, and just because I appear kind and compassionate doesn’t mean I am doing God’s work, or the work of love or justice. I can say my intentions are good, yet so what?
If the consequence of believing in false prophets is certain death and eternal misery, we don’t want to take any chances. So how do we recognize prophets that are false?
The bible.org website offers three ways to test a prophet’s validity:
- listen to his doctrine,
- look at how people live when influenced by his words, and
- examine his moral character.
Applying the Tests
The doctrine the author’s talking about is the official message of the Christian church, taken from the teachings of the Bible. I might ask which part of the church the author means, or how the author interprets the Bible, but that’s probably just me being cunning and false.
Other ways I’m false, at least according to bible.org, are that I don’t talk about God’s judgment and eternal damnation, preaching instead a message of universal salvation. I question the inerrancy  of God’s word and embrace the truths of many different faiths. Since false prophets “speak from their own delusions” rather than expressing God’s truth , how do I know I’m speaking what God wants me to? I could be deluded, couldn’t I? Of course, couldn’t anyone?
I suspect that’s why there’s more than one test. I’d like to think I could pass the second one, anyway. Over and over, I speak about love. I tell people to reject false idols, to give up their addictions and superficial distractions, and to embrace God, life, and love. I invite all of us to seek healthy relationships with one another, nature, the sacred, and ourselves.
But that’s not what the author is talking about here. He (or she) is talking mostly about doctrine. The false prophet uses lies and divisiveness to convince others to reject God’s word and end up straying from the one, true path. Again, the false prophet is the one who disagrees with the author.
The Test of Character
So what about the third test. Could I pass that one?
Do I, for instance, have a good moral character? I’m not sure the bible.org author would think so.
Am I prideful and greedy? Sometimes.
Do I prey on the vulnerable and weak? I hope not.
Do I use authority as a weapon while refusing to accept the God’s authority over me? I don’t like to think I might do this, yet power is seductive, especially when we fall back into our addictive patterns. I’m sure I have hurt others by abusing the power and authority that comes with my ministerial role, though if so, I hope I have offered amends.
Given this, I guess I’m a false prophet, and a dangerous one, because my kindness and ostensible goodness lure people into trusting me. Then I warp their souls and lure them from the one true, narrow path to salvation.
God forgive me if this is true.
Relationship, Not Doctrine
I cannot help but marvel, though, at the masterful technique of developing a theology that contains within in it the threat that if you dare to doubt its truth, you will be damned. Sometimes I see the pain of this kind of message in the people I visit. Many conservative Christians appear content and even joyful in their faith, but some reveal the agony of a mind that cannot accept such dogmatic ways, yet knows that if it is to survive, it must somehow force itself to bow to this conservative doctrine. The anxiety, fear, and hopelessness that arise for them is agonizing.
How do I help them? Not by giving them answers, but by staying with the questions.
This is what I promise, that I will do my best to stand by you, to stay with your questions, to hold your pain, to celebrate your joy, to encourage your growth, to listen to your heart speak, to help your soul heal, to love you exactly and entirely as you are. I don’t promise to succeed in this, and I definitely don’t promise to be able to do it on my own. I need you, and my colleagues, and my family, and my god.
Who Is God?
So who is my god?
According to Ballard and the bible.org author, my god is a false god. My message of love and inclusion is a false one. Be careful. If you’re anything like me, you will end up in hell. Or so they say. My Universalist heart cannot believe that.
Still I know it’s possible that I will discover, after I die, that I have been deluded all my life. If it turns out that God condemns all but that tiny swath of individuals who were blessed to get it right, then I hope I will not feel sorry for myself as I burn in hell. I hope my heart will still rebel, still cling to that different god, that god of love and hope and courage and acceptance. I don’t know how to respect any other kind god. Just because a tyrant has power doesn’t make him less of a tyrant, even if he is God, and I hope I never bow to a tyrannical deity, human or otherwise.
So I make my way through this world, trying to understand the truth, trying to see and hear and know something of the divine. We get whispers. At times, an energy that feels like God flows through me. No matter how many lists we read that purport to help us discern the true prophet from the false, we won’t know for sure, at least not on this side of life.
In the end, though, it’s pretty simple. For me, the only test of a prophet that matters is whether or not, through the prophet’s teachings, we have learned to love.
In faith and fondness,
- Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
- Smith, Joseph, Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed., 1939, 41-42, quoted by Ballard, Russell M., “Beware of False Prophets and False Teachers,” General Conference, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, October 1999.
- Ballard, Russell M., “Beware of False Prophets and False Teachers,” General Conference, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, October 1999.
- Anonymous, “How Can We Discern False Teachers?,” January 2001, https://bible.org/question/how-can-we-discern-false-teachers.
- Paraphrasing Corinthians 11:14.
- Inerrancy is the belief that the Bible is infallible, without error.