I have always admired people who are good at swimming. I admire how they control themselves in the water as if walking on dry ground. Mostly I admire their confidence in the water. A good swimmer appears totally comfortable in the water, seemingly without even a thought toward the ever-present risk of danger. So, to all the good swimmers out there, I admire you.
The reason I admire good swimmers so much is that unlike them I am not comfortable in the water. Although I took swimming lessons at school, the frequency of these lessons and my lack of extra practice left my skills underdeveloped. Thus, as an adult I am admittedly a very poor swimmer. My performance in the open water starkly contrasts with an experienced swimmer’s. The experienced swimmer appears relaxed, I feel panicked. The experienced swimmer seems confident, I am completely unsure. The experienced swimmer feels safe, whereas I feel the constant looming prospect of a life-threatening emergency. Swimming for the experienced swimmer is enjoyable; for me, it is rather something I try to avoid. As we will see through this reflection, being a Christian can at times resemble a person’s relationship to water depending on their experience and ability in the water.
For those curious about Christianity, for new Christians, or for those who have claimed Christianity for years, there are always times when we need people to help us along the way. As Christians we accept that there is no higher power than God to help us in our need, however, Jesus himself reinforced the concept of fellowship and the strength of his disciples together. Christians need each other, we exist for God as well as for the encouragement and support of other Christians. But when we are in need, whom shall we approach for fellowship? How should we approach them for “good advice?” Perhaps one seeks or receives council in a church, perhaps in a Christian friend or mentor. Regardless of the source of assistance, it is important for a Christian to be wise and thoughtful in this process so as not to be misled. That can be very difficult to do, as anyone who has needed wise counsel but not known where to find it can confirm. It is this helpless feeling that best highlights this idea of swimming without confidence, completely at the mercy of the great body of water. James commented on this state of Christian life when he said:
James 1: 5-6
5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.
Before I had fully given my life to the Lord or learned anything about him, I heard Christians say certain things that used to make my judgmental eyes roll. One idea that I often heard but never believed was that, “the Bible has the answers to everything.” However, it must be confessed that this snap-judgment of mine was made without any inquiry into the Bible itself. While the Bible does not answer every question literally (for example you will not find how long you need to preheat the oven when cooking a turkey), the Bible reveals the source of every challenge that stands in the way of our progress as human beings and a collective community. But in regards to the issue of spiritual counsel and whom we should seek and avoid for said counsel, the Bible actually answers this question rather specifically.
While Jesus did himself address the problem of false teachers or advisers, let’s look at what the apostle Peter had to say about it:
2 Peter 2: 1, 3, 12-14, 17-19
1But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them —bringing swift destruction on themselves…
3 In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories…
12 But these people blaspheme in matters they do not understand. 13 They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. Their idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. 14 With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed —an accursed brood!
17 These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them.18 For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. 19 They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.”
For the next few weeks, our Thursday reflections will lead us in examining these hallmarks of the false teacher. These passages in Peter’s epistles teach us of certain qualities that false teachers or dangerous spiritual leaders possess. A dangerous spiritual leader can be identified mainly by looking at the relationship of their teaching to Jesus. We can deduce that a spiritual leader is dangerous by examining their:
Motivation and Jesus
Power and Jesus
Purpose and Jesus
We hope that as this series helps illuminate the dangers of false teachers, it also reminds us of our need for true spiritual leadership, and the certainty of finding it in Jesus Christ.
Motivation and Jesus
It is an unfortunate thing that, in a world so diseased with self-centeredness, we tend to suspect charity or assistance. Upon discovering that someone has gone out of his or her way to help us we ask ourselves, “why?” “Why has this person so inconvenienced himself or herself for someone like me?” “Why would they take time out of their schedule for me?” “Why would they waste their money on me?” a constant spring of doubts and suspicions that never run dry. The question to these questions is, “why?”
In leading Bible studies the past few years, I’ve found that the most convenient places to meet are coffee shops. A beautiful habit that arose through our Bible studies was that the duty of paying for the coffee each time passed through the hands of each member quite naturally. No one was keeping records of who owed who, nor was there a situation where someone without money would end up coffee-less. When coming to a Bible study we could expect three things to happen. We would encounter the Word in its uncompromising truth, we would enjoy our fellowship together, and the coffees would be paid for.
Often we are blessed with new attendees to the Bible studies and they too fall into this system of group accountability in regards to the coffee bill. It’s interesting to see the reaction of some people who, already approaching Bible study with hesitation and suspicion, when they find that their coffee is paid for. The question that went unspoken but clearly read on their expression was, “Why did you do that?” This person might then be asking, “What was the motivation to do such a thing?” Or, in other words, “What do you want from me now?”
Today, where the Church meets the non-Church daily, there tend to be more occurrences where Christian charity is questioned and judged rather than accepted. Some years ago, Tim Tebow swept the media off its feet due to his unusually explosive and unique style of play that almost took him and his Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl. But the aspect of Tebow’s character that dominated the media spotlight was his openness as a Christian athlete and his love for Jesus Christ. In one of the many stories about Tebow that dominated the media frenzy surrounding him was his charity work in various third world countries and through charitable organizations in the United States. The astonishing thing was not that he participated in charity work, but that these instances of charity were met with an aggressive backlash of judgment and suspicion regarding his motivation, as a Christian, to do such things.
Unfortunately, there are many cases where we Christians have not helped our situation. Often, ulterior motives break the trust in selfless charity. This is why it’s always important for a Christian to not only repent for sins committed against God but also to repent for the righteous things we presume to do for God. We must never forget the words of Jesus when he said that, “no one is good, except God alone.” Christians must never claim absolute possession of that which Jesus claimed to be the sole possessor.
When Christians seek spiritual leadership, we need to be aware of “motivation.” As a young and growing Christian, or someone merely interested in Jesus, there is an ever-present awareness that more of the Bible has been unread than read, and that more questions exist than answers. As infants in the faith, we are at our most helpless, needy and vulnerable state. It is in this position that we most desperately and most likely seek or receive spiritual guidance.
When receiving spiritual guidance from someone, regardless if it comes from a friend, family member, pastor, mentor or stranger, we must always be aware of his or her motivation in helping us. What drives them to help us? Why do they take such an interest in providing said assistance? We must ask these questions, because there are many dangerous spiritual leaders in our world that are more aware of the helpless and vulnerable Christian “infants” than we are of them. Jesus described these individuals, called “false teachers” in Scripture, in detail: “they are wolves in sheep’s clothing.” A wolf is always on the hunt and clever in the way that it pursues its prey. False teachers know all too well that Christian infants are trusting of and reliant on their own kind and the best way to get close is to appear close.
The apostle Peter had much to say about false prophets in the Church. In my experience, I have found that the presence of “prophets” gets a lot of churches and Christians excited. From time to time I hear of a church that has long been described to me as dull and boring suddenly resurrected in the presence of a guest speaker/”prophet.” The guest is accompanied by an influx of excitement in the church. The congregation hangs on each and every word as if Jesus were actually in their presence. Matthew 25 comes to mind when I hear about things like this:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left…
41 “Then [the King] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
I wonder how many homeless, hungry and destitute people we Christians have judged or walked by and not welcomed into the Sunday service while providing the royal treatment to self-proclaimed prophets of God. In response to this, Jesus might tell the “Christians,” “I never knew you.” In these stories there seems to be unquestioned belief in the prophet and each prophecy, but few people stop the show, so to speak, to ask the question, “Why?” “Why am I excited about this person?” “Why do I instantaneously put so much trust in them?”
Whether in the case of a self-proclaimed prophet or a friend, we always have to ask ourselves what the motivation for the assistance is. If the motivation is to increase the profile of the teacher, we know that the assistance is misguided and dangerous. If the motivation is to increase the awareness of a church or congregation, we know that the assistance may be misguided or dangerous. If the motivation is to strengthen the relationship between the helper and the helpless, the assistance may be misguided and dangerous. We learn from the scriptures that at the heart of sin is a self-centered idea of one’s relation to the world and to God. At the heart of sin is an idea that we can be King, and ought to be served as such. Therefore, as we tread the often rocky and tumultuous path of spiritual guidance, we must always identify the motivation of the individual providing the guidance in terms of sin and self-centeredness.
The guidance that one can trust acknowledges the one and true King. Guidance we can trust comes from a motivation to strengthen the bond between the “lost sheep” and the “good shepherd” and no one else. Christian fellowship and leadership primarily seeks to glorify the Father, and the Church does this simply because at the heart of helping one another is Jesus, the reason we help and the only one that has truly helped us. Living on this foundation reveals a selflessness born of the Spirit that can truly guide and strengthen others with a genuine and natural motivation to serve.
Power and Jesus
Along the path of discipleship, so full of challenges that require guidance, there will, God willing, be moments of breakthrough. Given that the Spirit is alive and at work in the dialogue of seeker and leader, there will inevitably be moments of inexplicable growth and healing. In these moments, the Christian seeking help can discover one of two things. On one hand, the Christian seeking guidance can discover and foster a stronger faith in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, these moments of power can be claimed by or misattributed to leadership.
Living the life required of us as Christians is impossible without the aid of God’s holy omnipotence. The more we take Jesus and his teaching at face value, the more we realize that upon a foundation of our own strength we are defeated before we have even begun. With this humbling realization, when we actually do experience these moments of power and healing, it’s obvious that God enabled the experience. There are many moments in the life of a Christian where outcomes can be chocked up to mere coincidence. However, there are also moments with no rational explanation for why something happened the way it did or why something problematic has now been completely solved. These moments open the door to questions, and the responses can either find us safe from the pull of the tide or can leave us even vulnerable to powers beyond our strength, feeling even more insecure.
When we get sick, and realize that it cannot be remedied by rest, water or Tylenol, we make our way to the doctor’s office in the search of a cure. Hopefully, for most of us, this yields positive results and we receive the appropriate diagnosis, advice and treatment to fix the problem. Humbly we read the directions, follow the doctor’s orders and await the miracle. What usually follows is exactly that, a miracle.
On my own I will never understand the science behind medicine and how it works. Grasping the sciences has long left my scope of ability, and I admire the people that fully understand things of that nature. What I do understand is that when I begin to take the prescribed medication, I am usually healed of my sickness within the period predicted by the doctor. This, to me, is like magic. But I also understand that, although my doctor understood how to fix the problem, the true source of recovery was within the medication. The power of my healing was in the medicine and not the doctor. The experience of spiritual healing is not unlike a visit to the doctor’s office. In moments where we experience a radical change or breakthrough in our spiritual health, where something incredible happens, we seek an explanation for it.
In a Bible study some years ago I was having a discussion with an attendee, a self-professed non-Christian. However, as much as she doubted the Bible and the claims that it makes, she found that, over the weeks, several inexplicable things began to happen. One particular miracle was that the Bible was not what she at one time perceived it to be. It was not what she expected. Expecting to be bored and unaffected, she was excited and deeply affected. Listening to her describe these feelings in her limited English, I am sure that there were a few things lost in translation. However, the clear point was that she was trying her hardest to define these experiences using any possible explanation besides the Bible. She wanted answers because she knew something had happened but had no logical framework to explain it. The more she tried to rationalize, the more it became evident to her that the answer was right in front of us, laid out within the pages of the Bible.
There are many instances in the Gospel accounts where things happen and people seek explanations, like my friend at the Bible study. We are logical beings with minds designed to be used logically. When faced with something beyond our rational understanding it is difficult for us to let go without finding something to put our mind at ease. It is difficult for many to attribute an amazing breakthrough to the power of God, but as one discovers more about his character, this conclusion becomes more logical than irrational. A sign that a person is coming into the presence of God is that perception of a power outside of their control. Likewise, the sign that a person is in the presence of a trustworthy leader or steward of God’s word is that, at all times, the true source of the power that brings supernatural change is given all honor, glory and praise.
When a person, whether believer or non-believer, encounters God’s presence, and when it’s clear that something rather abnormal and supernatural is occurring, the danger is that some people see this as a moment for opportunistic ambition rather than a moment of praise. When we seek God with the mindset of “opportunity” we are no longer seeking God for who he is. Rather, we are seeking God for what he can do for us and who we can become. This warped view of God produces false teachers and dangerous leaders.
One of the most notable examples of this is in the story of Simon “the Sorcerer” in Acts 8:9-24. For all we know, Simon was a magician who had developed a substantial following by his magic and sorcery. When he witnessed the healing power of Jesus Christ displayed by the apostles John and Peter, Simon saw an opportunity to become even greater in his own right, if only he could attain this powerful new “skill” he saw used by the apostles. Simon was not seeking Jesus Christ the savior and King, so much as he was seeking Jesus Christ “the mantra” or “magic word” that could bring about greater fame and fortune for himself.
In the passage of 2 Peter Chapter 2, referenced when we introduced this series, we are made aware of qualities that usually accompany the “false prophet” or “false teacher.” Included in these characteristics are greed and pride. Peter alerts us to the fact that a false teacher or a leader will always seek his own glory and put his interests before God. At the center of Simon’s desire for Jesus was prideful ambition and not humble submission. There was only room for one superstar in his heart and he proudly occupied that seat. He desired a power that could enhance his own and he desired the praise that would accompany it. To Simon, Jesus Christ was a tool to improve his life, and to use him so seemed entirely logical to a man seeking worldly praise. But as Peter shows, to take such an approach to Jesus Christ is not only false but dangerous.
As a Christian trying to navigate through a landscape comprised of conflicting voices and opinions it is important to stay true to the source of our path. Jesus is the only person that claimed to be “the way, the truth and the life.” He is the only one that ever claimed the healing power experienced by those around him. His name is the only one that possesses something supernatural. Finding healing and inexplicable experiences is something that a person born of the Spirit of God will inevitably experience. The important moment that will define our journey from there on is this: whether or not we recognize that the source of the breakthrough was not the doctor administering advice, but the medication being consumed.
True healing can only be credited to the medicine that was willfully introduced to an ailing body. Jesus declared that he came to heal the sick, and if we are not in awe of him alone as we heal, we have chosen not to be a Christian but something or someone else entirely.
Purpose and Jesus
At the beginning of this series, we talked about motivation when offering help or doing favors. Motivation and the purpose behind spiritual leadership tend to be quite closely related. The motivation to offer help is directly associated with the purpose of offering help. For example, as an English teacher, my purpose is to give my students an improved understanding over time to the point where I can hopefully see a gradual progress in their ability to speak English. My purpose is not to teach anything else outside of my given curriculum. Science and mathematics are beyond my qualifications and responsibilities and should thus demand none of my attention. In my classes, I am motivated to focus on only what will help achieve my purpose for my students.
When seeking spiritual guidance or leadership, one must keep in mind the purpose of the help. In positive spiritual guidance, two important ideas stand out: the purpose of the help is always clearly identified, and the purpose constantly shapes the instruction. As students enter a new classroom at the start of a semester, the first step for a teacher is to notify the students of the class that will be meeting in that classroom. Often, one or two students, who misunderstood the schedule or misunderstood the class times, will bashfully stand up and walk out of the class. The reason a teacher takes this first step with the class is that for a student to be there who does not belong would be a waste of time for both the teacher and the student. Staying where you know you do not belong is pointless. Once the correct students are in the correct place, the teacher passes out the class syllabus, which details the goals and objectives of the class: the “purpose” of the class. This procedure is tedious to all, but important nonetheless. The students need to be made aware of the end goal of the class and the upcoming lessons so that there are no surprises. Everything required of them is clearly explained from the beginning.
Full disclosure is a vital part of healthy spiritual leadership. There should be no secrets as to why the help is being given and what the end goal is. In positive spiritual guidance, the purpose should always be to strengthen understanding and faith in Jesus Christ. Anything short of that indicates, to revert back to our first day of class scenario, that you are in the wrong class altogether. If there is even the slightest indication that the purpose of spiritual “help” is to strengthen any relationship other than the one you seek with Jesus Christ, get out!
John the Baptist is famous for many things but one of his most famous sayings comes from the Gospel of John in Chapter 3. When questioned about the authority of Jesus, John responded in beautiful humility:
“He must become greater; I must become less.”
A spiritual leader is either serving to become great or is serving, like John, to make Jesus greater. The moment the attention transfers from Jesus to the leader, you can be sure that the path is not the one you once shared with Jesus and John.
The second sign of healthy spiritual instruction is that the instruction keeps pace with the needs of the student. Too many times, someone seeks advice or council in a spiritual leader but, over time, the assistance evolves into something entirely different. Just as in a class there should always be a constant, active effort by the teacher to tailor the lessons and methods of instruction to best assist the students in understanding the subject better, so spiritual guidance must be personal to the needs of the one learning, rather than the favorite personal style of the teacher. Students are different because people are different. Students have various learning styles and learn in different ways, similar to or unlike their classmates. The situation is no different in the case of a Christian trying to better understand Jesus and his or her relationship to him.
With the purpose always in sight, a spiritual leader should always be aware of how to best reach the goal of a stronger bond between the believer and God. For example, some people find that meditating in silence and in prayer is a very effective way to rest in the presence of the Lord and to grow in faith. While I also believe that silence is often overlooked by a modern Christian mind of ceaseless activity and distractions, this practice affects different people in different ways. For some, the idea of meditating in silence for prolonged periods of time sounds uncomfortable at best. It is difficult for someone to realize the value of meditating in God’s presence when the God in which to share the presence with feels like a stranger. If someone told me to spend one entire minute in the dark with a perfect stranger that I knew nothing about in complete silence, I would not be comfortable at all. In fact, I can think of about one hundred other things off the top of my head that I would rather do before doing that. To someone that does not know who God is, this is not far from what crosses the mind when someone says, “Just get quiet and pray.” Insisting that the person you are advising follow an unexplained, untried method just because it works or worked for you, might prove unfruitful. In fact, it might act as a stumbling block rather than a step up in their relationship with God. Help that helps with true purpose always adjusts the methods of worship and demonstrates the activities of fellowship so as not to place a burden on the Christian in need that may negatively affect the goal that both should be striving toward
There must always be one common goal when it comes to spiritual guidance and assistance. The motivation that inspires the help should never be self-centered. Rather, the motivation should always remain humbly submissive to a Christ-centered mission to serve. The purpose of positive spiritual guidance should always be to achieve a better understanding that the true healing cannot be credited to any person’s wisdom. The medicine gradually working its healing power through the spiritual veins of a new heart for God is only the word and Gospel of Jesus Christ. The doctor can recommend the treatment, but the medication is what truly heals. If we find ourselves more in awe of prophetic preaching from the mouth of a prophet or the healing power of a healer or the lights and sounds of a Sunday service, we must always ask ourselves if all of these things are strengthening or weakening our faith in and love for Jesus Christ alone. If we find that the new leadership or advice we are following is strengthening our relationship to something or someone other than Jesus, we are regrettably still being violently tossed in the tide. The only way to assure security amidst the shifting waters is to grab ahold of “The Rock” which is Jesus Christ. No prophet, pastor, teacher or friend should ever claim to be, “the way, the truth and the life.” Only Jesus can and only Jesus is.