JESUS’S warning against false prophets in the Book of Common Prayer Gospel reading for today challenges the tendency in the Western Church to compromise with the secular ideology of diversity and inclusion.
The reading for the 8th Sunday after Trinity is from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel:
‘Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, “Lord, Lord” shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven’ (Matthew 7v15-21 – King James Version).
Prophets in the Old Testament proclaimed the word of the Lord to his chosen people in what they foretold and in what they told forth. True prophets spoke God’s truth about the present and the future; false ones told lies. They did not prophesy truly or falsely apart from their membership of the people of Israel.
The false prophets against whom Jesus Christ as Israel’s Messiah warns his disciples here are therefore part of the visible people of God, the Church. They are professing Christians; they call Jesus ‘Lord’. Yet more than merely professing the Christian faith these wolves in sheep’s clothing are public teachers in the visible Church.
How is the Christian disciple to identify a false prophet? ‘Ye shall know them by their fruits’, Jesus said. The fruits of the false prophets are their words and deeds with the main evil lying in some cases in the former, in other cases in the latter. It is possible for a false prophet to be outwardly orthodox in their public teaching but to deny that teaching by their actions, for example in abusing Christ’s people, sexually or otherwise. The contemporary Church has seen examples of this terrible practical denial of the Christian faith in the clerical abuse scandals which have ravaged the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England.
However, false prophets may be respectably moral in their personal behaviour but through their public teaching they imperil the eternal salvation of their hearers. That is the key concept in assessing false prophecy. This loving warning from Jesus is not a call to obsessive heresy hunting in the Church or for Christians to go in for cancel culture in secular society. There are secondary issues about which genuine Christians can and do disagree, such as whether Churches should be led by bishops or come under some other form of governance.
False prophecy comes into play when primary aspects of biblical truth are being denied. For example, Christ’s teaching on the exclusively heterosexual nature of marriage is a primary issue. If a public teacher presumes to redefine marriage by calling for ‘equal marriage’ for same-sex couples in the Church, he or she would class as a false prophet.
Furthermore, public teachers of the Christian faith who verbally legitimise sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage would also be false because, according to the received biblical teaching of the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, sexual morality is a primary issue.
The Apostle Paul echoed Jesus’s warning against the spiritual dangers of false teaching on primary issues of Christian belief and behaviour in his first New Testament letter to the Church in 1st century Corinth:
‘Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God’ (1 Corinthians 6v9-11).
Christian people therefore need to be discerning about what they take on board in sermons and other forms of Christian teaching and not bow down to the contemporary idols of diversity, equality and inclusion in their belief and behaviour.
The Collect for today is a prayer for protection against the devastating spiritual damage which false prophecy can cause in the Church: ‘O God, whose never-failing providence ordereth all things both in heaven and earth: We humbly beseech thee to put away from us all hurtful things, and to give us those things which be profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’