“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.” Mt. 7:15-16
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Mt. 7:21
The past few weeks have witnessed the fallout of a well-known name within the evangelical world. While Jerry Falwell Jr. was not necessarily a spiritual leader or model (he himself acknowledged as much), the moral failings of Christian figures often have a profound impact on people. Some within the church find their faith shaken. Some outside the church find additional reasons to dismiss Christianity.
I greatly empathize with these responses and have walked with people affected in these ways. I feel a (righteous, I think) anger at individuals whose lives don’t match their claims, when I see the harm it causes those who looked up to them. It is good and right to hold Christian leaders to a high moral standard, and to be disappointed when they fail.
But I want to press in a different direction here: Is it possible that we are too surprised by these things, and thus too affected by them? Several truths of Scripture should prepare us to respond to the failings of those who claim Christ with a combination of sorrow, humility and continued faithfulness.
- Someone does not belong to Christ simply because they claim to (Mt. 7:21). While a public confession of Christ is significant, it does not assure us one is of the faith. This is especially true in a culture such as ours where Christianity still plays an influential role, and there may be social incentive to claim Christ. It is readily obvious the name of Christ is used by many who know nothing of Christ, and of whom Christ will surely say, “I never knew you” (Mt. 7:23).
- Those who belong to Christ will bear noticeably good fruit (Mt. 7:16). Yes, there will be wolves who will masquerade as sheep, and we may be deceived. But over time, we “will recognize them by their fruits.” Their character, their words, and the affect they have on others will reveal whether they belong to Christ or not. And we should be on the lookout for such fruit, both in ourselves and in others. While we can’t fully know the state of one’s heart, we are specifically called to observe the fruit of ones life.
- The Christian leaders and teachers we most look up to should be ones whose lives we can see. In our age of celebrity, it is easy to most-devotedly listen to and follow those with large, national followings. The problem is we know little about their godly character, and what we do know is often filtered through social media. This isn’t to cast doubt on the character of these figures, or to say there is no beneficial role for such figures. But we should realize it is difficult to “recognize them by their fruits.” In contrast, the pastor/elders of your local church are ones specifically chosen because their character has been proven over time.
- A biblical view of sin should cause us to be humbled (even if also angered) by other’s failings. If our only response to another’s failings is anger, and at no point are we humbled with the realization that we are capable of the same thing, we don’t know our own hearts very well. Truly regenerate believers, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, battle daily with sin and temptation, and may fall and “wander from the truth” (James 5:19). However, Christ will keep those who are his. A true believer will respond to sin with true repentance and sorrow for the offense of their sin before God and for the damage it has caused others.
As always, God’s word gives us wisdom for life. Even when preparing us for disappointment in those who claim Christ, God’s word is “profitable for teaching” (2 Tim. 3:16). May our confidence in God and his goodness be unwavering. And may our view of the failings of others be mixed with sorrow, anger, fear and humility.