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Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Matthew 7:15-16

A story recently circulated a bit through my Facebook contacts. It’s a story of betrayal, spiritual abuse, and power grabbing at the hands of a well-known celebrity pastor.

Is it true?

We all know there are two sides to everything, two perspectives; the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. Pastors are easy prey and after reading the story, my (pastor) dad grimly noted there have been church conflicts with angry congregants capable of writing up something skewed and damaging about him. But there are also legitimately bad pastors and elder boards out there – capable of high levels of spiritual abuse. We call them “wolves in sheep’s clothing”.

When Jesus warned us about these wolves, He gave us a means to distinguish them from good teachers. He said (twice in Matthew 7:15-20) that “by their fruit you will recognize them”.

When this sort of betrayal of the pastor/teacher-congregant/hearer trust happens at a local level, the issue is sorted out among people who know what’s been going on. The truth of whether or not so-and-so lost their temper or so-and-so is a bit power-hungry is evaluated by people who’ve been shoulder-to-shoulder with the characters in the drama.

It starts getting complicated when we hear stories that reflect badly on a teacher who we’re not in a face-to-face, “fruit inspecting” sort of relationship with.

We absorb podcasts produced by the ministry of a mega-pastor. We watch Youtube videos sliced and diced and edited to present a particular position. We read books written by the latest best-selling Christian author. We’ve never even seen so much as a picture of the person whose Bible study materials we’re using.

With our massive dependence on teaching from non-local sources, how are we to distinguish between a false teacher and a true one? Jesus didn’t say “check their doctrine”, but check their life. It can’t be in numbers or seeming “ministry success” because Jesus says there will be false teachers who can lay claim to incredible ministry success. They will still hear “I never knew you” from the one they purported to be serving.

I used to download a daily podcast of teaching from a well-known pastor. Then I saw some interviews and clips of him discussing some important issues. The stance he seemed to take and the attitude with which he discussed the issues really bothered me. I stopped downloading his podcasts. Was that right?

I’m conflicted about this post. Because I’m telling you I’m beginning to think it’s a really bad idea to absorb teaching from someone whose life you’re not involved with – whose fruit you can’t see for yourself.

But here we are. I’m writing to you – whose daily actions and fruit I can’t see. And you’re reading me – and you don’t really know if I am who I say I am. You can’t see my life, my true life. And when I finish writing this, I will go read other blogs and a book from teachers who I don’t know. I can’t tell if they’re living out their message or not.

I’m confused. Am I in danger of missing out on great, life-changing teaching by ignoring the masses of slick, well-produced offerings from famous teachers? Or am I protecting myself from false teachers by sticking to input from people whose lives I can tell validate their message?

What do we do?