False Prophets Are Known by Their Fruit

"Bible with Cross Shadow," David Campbell, Flickr C.C.
“Bible with Cross Shadow,” David Campbell, Flickr C.C.

Yesterday, the daily gospel reading was Matthew 7:15-20:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.

Google is filled with legalistic, fundamentalist explanations of what a false prophet is. Usually it has something to do with supporting homosexuality or questioning whether non-Christians go to hell. Unsurprisingly, none of these explanations engage Jesus’ statement that “you will know them by their fruits.”

Fruits are results. Good teaching has good results. That’s how we judge whether it’s good or not. An authentic gospel produces people who are authentically loving. A fake gospel fails to transform people’s heart or worse turns people into toxic, self-righteous monsters.

Notice what Jesus didn’t say. He didn’t say false prophets are those who criticize past church tradition or claim that God is speaking in a new way. If contradicting tradition were the measure of false prophecy, then every prophet would be a false prophet, because what prophets do mostly is call out the ways that the religious tradition has been corrupted. No biblical prophet has ever been called to say that the religious status quo is working out just fine. Consider these words from Isaiah 1:13-15:

Bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
    I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.

Isaiah is telling the Israelites that following the sacrificial protocols established in the Torah has failed to make them godly people. He’s not saying the Torah is wrong per se, but that people can be completely “biblical” and completely fail to honor God because their “hands are full of blood.”

So how do we know whether a prophet has good fruit or bad fruit? Jesus doesn’t specify. But Paul gives us a reasonable answer in Galatians 5. Bad fruit looks like “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing.” Good fruit looks like “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

In anxiety-filled, numbers-driven United Methodism, “good fruit” is a euphemism for church growth. Our entire debate about sexuality is driven by the underlying presumption that anti-gay evangelical megachurches are growing while pro-gay mainline congregations are declining which means that a pro-gay reading of scripture is statistically proven to be false prophecy. But which is more fruitful according to Paul’s standard? A church that is growing explosively because the messianic pastor has created a magnetizing cult of personality and authoritarian leadership structure which manipulates people effectively into zealously promoting their church. Or a small, aging church where people are gracious and kind but don’t have charismatic, zealous, extroverted leaders.

Zeal and buzz are not fruits of the spirit. Some of the biggest churches in our country are big because of toxic prosperity gospel and end-times lunacy that no evangelical could call remotely orthodox. What measures the validity of a church’s teaching is whether its community becomes loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. In some cases, this will involve explosive growth and sometimes it won’t. Now there is a very revealing toxic fruit that manifests itself in conversations about church growth: gleeful schadenfraude about the decline of your ideological opponents’ churches. Anyone who would celebrate church decline because it gives them talking points for their argument is clearly under the throes of false prophecy.

Now there’s a very convicting corollary to Jesus’ statement. If I am called to speak prophetically, then I betray my call whenever I engage in toxic behavior that allows others to dismiss me as a false prophet. Wherever we stand on social issues or other prophetic matters, our truth is rightly measured by the fruit of our spirit. We should be seeking to exude the aroma of Christ with everything that we say.

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