Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16). He never told us to judge ourselves by our fruits. If we want to know whether or not we are saved from evil and promised a place in heaven, we look to the Word of God. We trust what God has said there about our forgiveness and our place in his kingdom. We turn to the Church—the people of God gathered around God’s Word—and to the special blessings of the Church for confidence that we are the people of God, redeemed from all sin and evil, and guaranteed eternal life in a new creation.
We do not judge ourselves, but we do judge others. Especially those who claim to be prophets and teachers must be judged so we will be safe from false prophets and lying teachers. The best way to judge such a teacher is to compare the teacher’s words to God’s Word. If their teachings differ from the Bible, they are to be corrected; if they refuse correction, they are to be ignored. (Under the Law of Moses, they were to be executed.) Another way to assess the fruits of a preacher or teacher is consider their lives. I Timothy 3:1-7 describes the qualities that the leader of a congregation must have. Fourteen qualities are listed. While I do not want to comment upon all fourteen, several are worthy of special mention.
“Above reproach”—no one but Jesus is without sin, but not all sins are equal in this world. All sins equally separate sinners from God, and all sins are forgiven through Christ’s sacrifice, but in other ways some sins are worse than others. A leader who does not abuse authority can be considered beyond reproach. One who uses authority over others to take advantage of them does not belong among the leaders of the Church. The Church’s leaders are to be servants rather than lords.
“The husband of one wife”—aside from excluding polygamy, this qualification has generated controversy. Can the leader of a congregation remarry if his wife dies? What if the marriage ends in divorce, but it was entirely the fault of the wife? I am uncertain of the answer in these cases, but in other matters I am certain. A church leader who commits adultery, or one who abuses women or children, cannot remain in leadership or return to leadership. The sinner might repent, confess, and be forgiven, but even being forgiven that former leader cannot return to leadership. The harm he has done to others is too great to ignore, even under forgiveness.
“Not a drunkard”—sad to say, many Christian leaders buckle under stress and turn to alcohol or other addictive substances or behaviors rather than finding their strength in the Lord. While a person is under the power of an addiction, that person cannot lead others. Following recovery, including repentance and confession, I believe such a person can return to leadership in the Church.
“Not violent, but gentle; not quarrelsome”—how many prominent leaders in the Church do these words disqualify? When a person is causing fights and schisms in the Church, either by beginning such fights or by entering them as a participant rather than working as a peacemaker, that person should not be entrusted with a position of leadership. In this case, also, recovery, including repentance and confession, can be considered grounds for returning to leadership.
“Not a lover of money”—anyone who considers wealth to be proof of genuine faith and Christian living is unworthy of leadership in the Church. Anyone who teaches others to believe the same is unworthy of leadership in the Church. Some Christians are obsessed with money and worldly property. They have turned their backs upon God and upon treasures in heaven to claim as much wealth as they can seize on earth. Worse, they are using God’s name to gather such wealth. If they persist in this error, they face serious judgment on the Last Day. Meanwhile, those who will not be corrected should be ignored.
Many famous and prominent leaders in the contemporary Church fail to show these qualities. They are not fit to lead God’s people. So long as they persist in their errors, they should be regarded as ravenous wolves. Every Christian is advised to flee from such wolves and to seek protection from Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. J.