Discerning False Spiritual Leaders and People

No one likes to be duped or led astray, neither do we like to be used or abused. We want to know what people are truly made of so we can best know how to relate to them. Jesus understood this and furthermore, counsels us to be discerning of those we follow, bring close to us, and give ourselves to. For many of us, this includes Christians, spiritual leaders, organizations and alike.

During a long teaching session (Matthew 6-7), Jesus addressed the issue of discerning false spiritual leaders, specifically false prophets.  Though this teaching addresses false prophets specifically, I believe it also has significant application to spiritual leaders in general and Christians.

Matthew 7:15-29  

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ 24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” 28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching,29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law

There are several principals of tremendous values that Jesus teaches…

0.01 False Spiritual Leaders and People look right, real, and righteous on the outside, but are lawless on the inside.  

As the passage above shows, Jesus refers to them as ones having the appearance of a sheep. Yet, something is very concerning about what is going on inwardly in their life. This is the first important aspect of discerning false spiritual leaders and people. That is, it’s probably not good to judge a book solely by it’s cover. Appearances can be deceiving if we put too much weight on them.

Jesus further described this principal and truth…

Matthew 23:27-29 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, pretenders (hypocrites)! For you are like tombs that have been whitewashed, which look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything impure. Just so, you also outwardly seem to people to be just and upright but inside you are full of pretense and lawlessness and iniquity.

Isn’t this interesting, the greatest keepers of the law are discerned by Jesus as lawless on the inside.  The very thing they keep on the outside is evidently not what is being kept on the inside.  They have no Lord, governor, nor guide to their inward lives to which they submit. They are not only self-righteous, but also self-guided, self-driven, self-evaluated, and self-governing.  The very external law and values they project on the outside are the very laws and values they do not submit to within.

That’s why false spiritual leaders often have a devoted looking public life, but a divided private life. They aren’t spiritual progressing in their private life so they have to put on a spiritual show in their public life. Like a microwaved frozen hamburger, they may look all done on the outside, but take a bite, and you may just find they are frozen on the inside.  Nobody is perfect for sure and we all make mistakes, but these are the spiritual leaders and people who knowingly sport a good bit of consistent, blatant duplicity. What you see on the outside is not what you would see if you could get a look into their private lives. And unfortunately, we often don’t find that out until their private duplicity leaks out into a public moment or manifestation.  We may see it in a moral failure, things spoken behind doors, deeds done in darkness, a scheme revealed, a broken or rebellious family life, a rooted stronghold, an illegal action, etc.  For them, it wasn’t as much of a random mistake as it was a moment where they slipped and let their reoccurring, private iniquity seep into public view. They knew it was wrong or a problem, but they gave it save, protected harbor.

The reason? Ultimately, the only thing they submit to is themselves. The strongest voice in their life at the end of the day is their own, not to mention, how much they enjoying hearing it. This is the beginning essence of a false spiritual leader or person.

o.o2 “Fruit” are not works or spiritual accomplishments, but are what comes from the heart.

In the opening verses of the passage above (Matthew 7), Jesus not only begins to describe the essence of a false spiritual leader, but then how to discern them.  In His teaching, He draws upon the image of fruit. Unfortunately, in our Christian culture we have mistaken “fruit” from what I believe Jesus is truly driving at.  Most of the time, we think of fruit in terms of what a Christian and or spiritual leader is able to accomplish. Whether it be that they are a well liked, have personality, know a lot, work hard, get a lot of things done, do spiritual things, or get ministry results. What we call fruits, I believe Jesus would call works.

In fact, if “fruits” were referring to spiritual works and accomplishments, then the pharisees, other false leaders and false followers would be all set.  They worked hard, knew a lot, got ministry results and did a lot of spiritual things. In fact, in Matthew 7, Jesus speaks of false prophets (leaders) as being able to drive out demons and do miracles. Spiritual works and accomplishments can be fabricated and done mechanically, but true fruits cannot.

A fruit on the tree is a product of the tree itself, it comes from within the tree and then out to vine. Fruit is not a work of the tree it is a product of the tree. Fruit can’t be faked, but church work, being liked, having personality, ministry results, intellectualism, and doing spiritual things can be. Furthermore, some spiritual-looking results can be produced demonically. In fact, the Bible warns, “For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ.  And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.”  2 Corinthians 11:13-14

By “fruit,” Jesus is speaking much more about matters of the heart, not the hands. He is speaking of the condition of the heart shown in the person’s attitude, character, and openness to the Spirit of God and His Lordship. This is a very critical aspect of discerning false spiritual leaders and people.

That’s why…

o.o3 False Spiritual Leaders can look very spiritual on the outside.  

False spiritual leaders can be great teachers, counselors, prophets, preachers, elder, deacons, artists, and hard  church workers. They can accomplish many spiritual-looking things and give the appearance they are accomplishing great things for the Lord. But as Matthew 7:23 states, none of that necessarily shows up on Jesus’ radar screen. Why? Because what matters to Jesus is inward devotion first. Read the scriptures, for Jesus it’s all about heart first, habits second. You can fake habits and actions, you can’t fake matters of the heart.

So, what in the heart makes a person a false spiritual leader or follower? Jesus answered this question in Matthew 7:24-27

o.o4 False Spiritual Leaders are often unteachable and resist accountability, authority, and counsel. 

Matthew 7:24-27   “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Why does the wise man put the Word of God into practice? Because he is teachable, open, directable, and willing to submit. He has an attitude of humbleness and desire to come under God and the things of God. His heart is moldable, leadable, shapeable, coachable, and teachable. In short, his heart is fruitful. In fact Jesus describes what this wise man does inwardly (applies the Word) without ever mentioning what he accomplishes on the outside.  He is a true spiritual leader and person because he is first a true follower at heart.

Find a person who is unteachable, uncoachable, uncorrectable, resists accountability, undermines and bucks spiritual authority, and lives to the beat of their own drum and you will have found a false, spiritual leader or person no matter what truth, good thing, knowledge, or result they seem to accomplish. What makes them false is not their results, but their heart. They have bad fruit.

This is the essence of Jesus’ teaching. Notice He didn’t say that bad fruit can’t produce good works. No, in fact, this is the matter at hand for the pharisees as Jesus declared from Isaiah, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”  They were producing a good work (honoring with their lips) from a bad heart (unteachable, unleadable, uncorrectable, undirectable, uncoachable) and that’s what made it all bad.

o.o5 They dissect, separate, and piece the Word in ways that promote their own agenda.  

Notice when Jesus talked about the essence of a false prophet (spiritual leader) He used the imagery of rock and sand.  Rock is one, solid, complete and whole piece. Sand is rock that has been broken into many scattered pieces.

You will find that false spiritual leaders and people will build their ministries or their cases on a few, scattered passages of scripture or less. The foundation of their ministry or agenda isn’t the whole counsel of God, but rather their emotions or agenda as they use a few passages here and there to spiritually justify them.

Furthermore, they are great at dissecting the Word and making it say things it doesn’t say and connecting dots and lines where God never connected them.  They often take what is straight forward and plain to read and make it complicated and intricate so as to fit it into their plan, actions, feelings, or agenda.

Along with their agenda, you will find that they are often hypercritical and even militant against those who do not subscribe to or challenge their point of view or agenda. As the saying goes, “the hypocritical are often the hypercritical.”  Perhaps this is the ferocious aspect that Jesus referred to in Matthew 7:15. When Jesus challenged the false, religious spirit of the Pharisees, they killed Him.

Additionally, you may also find they love a debate, primarily because a debate about things on the outside (theology, opinions, actions etc.) keeps one from looking on the inside. And some hold strongly to the traditions of man because they are great at keeping one from a transformation of the heart.


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