August 2, 2020 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When Jesus warns us to beware of false prophets, it is a bit like He is telling us to not take candy from strangers. We need to do more than just know that false prophets and false doctrine exist. We need to be alert to risks and dangers in our own families and congregations.
To protect children from abuse we need to do more than teach them to be wary of strange adults offering them candy. 93% of sexual abuse happens to children from people they know: their own relatives, teachers, and coaches. And it isn’t just adults that do this to children. Sometimes children do it to children. That doesn’t mean that children should get into cars with strange adults. They shouldn’t. But they need to be taught more than just how to avoid obvious threats outside the home and school. They need to be taught that no one should be touching them without permission. They need to learn to recognize and get away from suspicious or uncomfortable behavior no matter where it is or the situation.
There is a similar reality when it comes to false prophets. We are more likely to be deceived and manipulated in our own homes and churches than we are by fake faith healers on TV. That doesn’t mean that fake faith healers can’t hurt us or mislead us. It simply means that we must not think the danger ends at the church doors. We aren’t to look at our pastors and teachers with constant suspicion or fear any more than we should look at our relatives and coaches that way. But we must remain alert.
This is what Jesus means when He says: “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” He also tells us what to watch out for: “You will know them by their fruits.” They will act and teach according to their nature. You must judge them in what they do and what they say. We do not trust in pastors no matter how much we like them. We trust God and His Word. Pastors are fallible men who can and do fail in various ways and at different points.
The acts and words of pastors need to be watched and judged by Scripture. If they slip, we don’t treat them like perverts that we are superior to, but we seek to restore them. It is possible for pastors to misbehave and not be removed from office. If it wasn’t, then there would be no pastors. We do not expect them to be perfect. But we do hold them to a stricter reading of the Law and we demand that they respond appropriately to rebukes and corrections.
Imagine that a pastor loses his temper at a meeting. Maybe he is provoked. Maybe he is depressed. No matter: he cusses and calls names and stomps out. If that happens once, he does not have to be removed from Office, but if he keeps doing it he will probably have to be removed. So also if he raises the stakes and physically hurts someone in his rage, he will likely have to be removed. But if he simply fails in the moment to act in charity in a moment of weakness but is then open to rebuke, makes confession, asks for forgiveness, and accepts help, he can likely retain his office. We should not ignore misbehavior even when it is minor. If we do, we do not serve him but we betray him. At the same time, we act with generosity and mercy. Love covers a multitude of sins. The measure we use, will be used also with us.
It is much the same with doctrine. When he is under pressure, he might conveniently overlook what our doctrine demands. For example, he might look the other way when the daughter of a wealthy member moves in with her boyfriend. Or he might find a false doctrine excuse for his own children who are living in sin, making up, for example, a new definition of marriage. If and when he does, he needs to be rebuked and corrected. He should not love money or his children more than God. Doctrinal failures are always, in some sense, moral failures.
We must judge him by his fruit. We can’t ignore suspicious behavior. If we do, what starts as a moment of weakness could grow into full blown abuse. In any case, we are more likely to experience false doctrine here, than we are anywhere else. That is likely because this is where we get the most doctrine and also where our guard is likely to be down. Thus Jesus warns us: beware of false prophets. They come in sheep’s clothing. Sometimes they are trying to fool themselves as much as they are trying to fool the sheep.
We should also be careful that we don’t give the pastor too much authority in regard to doctrine. He is required to defend his position from Scripture and to clarify as needed. He is called to interpret and apply Scripture. He is not the Lord and Master of the Bible and Doctrine. He is not all-wise. It is inevitable that questions will arise that are not answered by Scripture directly or clearly. He should not be silent because of this. He should interpret and apply the Bible but he should not be dogmatic when it is not clear. Silence might seem noble and perhaps it can be but “no prophecy” or a refusal to prophesy from a prophet is a kind of false prophecy. The pastor needs to preach and teach and open the Scriptures with us to help us find answers and wisdom and peace. He is not free to deflect difficult questions. At the same time, he should qualify what he says and explain what principle or example in Scripture is driving him. He should not force his own opinion or interpretation. He must not present the traditions of men as the doctrines of God. Instead he is to help us read the Bible and seek God’s will in all of our lives.
So beware. Remain alert. Pay attention. Don’t take candy from strangers. Don’t let the coach touch you where he shouldn’t. And don’t be bullied by pastors or bamboozled by fancy words. You have the Holy Spirit given in Holy Baptism who speaks in Holy Scripture. You know your Shepherd’s Voice. This is not a subjective test or a judging of men’s hearts. It is not a contest of wills or an attempt to dominate. It is simply a desire to live in the forgiveness of sins, by grace, in the fullness of grace. You belong to Christ. He has died to free you from sin and death, for your redemption and sanctification. If you continue in Christ’s Word you will know the truth. You can and you must judge the spirits. Jesus warns you to remain vigilant. Even on this side of glory, while afflicted with doubt, faith is certainty. Jesus is not issuing platitudes. “You shall know the truth.” You know it as you abide in His Word because He is the way, the truth, and the life. He has given you ears to hear and His Word for your faith. Now use it. Relish it. Embrace it. Rejoice in it. For with wariness of false prophets come greater awareness of the true Prophet, the One like Moses, who has drawn us out of the waters of Baptism and claimed us as His own.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.