I chose the title unChristian Christians because in some sense what I want to share might have in mind the Christians described by Kinnaman and Lyons in their book unChristian. Yet in this post I want to talk about the unChristian Christians Jesus has in mind. To do that, let’s read a passage from the Gospel of Matthew. These words, spoken by Jesus, are quite alarming. Matthew 7:15-23 reads:
15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. 21Not 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!'”
Alarming? They ought to alarm us. They’re words of judgment. They tell us that there are some people who appear to be the Lord’s people but are not. Instead they are false prophets! People whom Jesus will deny ever knowing! People under the judgment of God!
But Who Were These People?
Most of the people I have heard in my lifetime referring to this passage have either quoted or paraphrased verse 15 and then verses 21-23. Usually this is done as a proof-text with little, if any, consideration of the context. In other words, verse 15 and verses 21-23 have become ad hoc proof-texts used to label and condemn anyone who did not preach sound doctrine—according to their standard of sound doctrine—as false prophets, the people whom Jesus denies knowing. Growing up in the Churches of Christ, the false prophets were the church goers and preachers among other denominations because they may have held a different view on baptism than we had, or because they used musical instruments in their worship, or because they had a different understanding of the end times, or because… And one and on it went.
Of course, I know many of these other denominations considered the Churches of Christ to be false prophets for the same reasons . . . doctrinal differences. But it all completely misses the point of what Jesus is saying. In fact, it’s an easy conclusion to perpetuate if we only read this passage out of context to rehash what we have been taught and accepted with little question. And let’s not be mistaken, this view is not one that we would likely reach if we were simply reading the Bible for ourselves!
Who The False Prophets Really Are!
When Jesus warns of false prophets and the people he will deny knowing, he does not have in mind all the many doctrinal disputes that we have assumed. As I alluded to earlier, the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:15-23 has a context and it is the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). Read through this sermon, if we dare. Rather than addressing
matters of Christian doctrine the hobby-horse issues of our churches, Jesus is preaching about the way of life his disciples are to live as people who belong to the kingdom he has started proclaiming (cf. Matt 4:23).
So in the middle of this passage from Matthew 7:15-23, Jesus reminds us that we will recognize false prophets by the fruit they bear. However, given the context, it seems that the difference between good and bad fruit is whether or not people embody the way of life imagined in the Sermon on the Mount. That has nothing to do with Christian doctrines and to say it does or apply this passage to those who disagree with us on different doctrinal issues is to go beyond this text (a problem in itself for those who claim to take scripture seriously). So the false prophets Jesus is warning us about are the people who profess the name of Jesus, who may be able to quote scripture after scripture, and who may even be more than able to defend every doctrinal issue they deem important, but ignore the moral and ethical way of life Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount.
And This Matters Because…
Believe me, I’ve met some preachers and some churches who thought they were the epitome of “sound doctrine” but had little idea of what it was to be merciful, to leave their gift at the altar and go reconcile with their fellow Christians, to love their enemies, to pray the kingdom prayer Jesus teaches, etc…
I’ve been one of them at times. I’m trying not to be one any more.
This is also to say that we all should take Jesus’ warning about being quick to pass judgment on other Christians, accusing them of being false prophets. For if we take Jesus seriously and keep his alarming words in context, the false prophets may be closer to home then we would like to admit. And one of them just might be us . . . which ought to be alarming.
May we be people who follow Jesus, bearing good fruit as we live the life our Lord has taught us to live in the Sermon on the Mount!