Okay, so the title isn’t part of an actual Bible verse, but it very well could be. In Deuteronomy 13 it says that if a prophet or dreamer among the people attempts to lead people away from the God of Israel, that he or she must be purged from the people. A bit later, Deuteronomy 18:17-22 says it in a bit more detail, saying:
The Lord said to me: “What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name. But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.” You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.”
God calls some people to be prophets, and if someone says something is from God and doesn’t happen, then clearly it isn’t from God. If they tell people things God didn’t command them to say, or if they are a prophet for a different god, then they need to be killed. And how do we know if a prophet says something God didn’t command? Obviously, if it didn’t happen, God didn’t command it.
Here’s the problem: What about all those times that God tells a prophet to say something and then people repent and/or pray against it because the prophet sent a warning from heaven, and then it doesn’t happen? Does that make him a false prophet? I mean, what we are saying here is that Jonah, who is clearly understood by the Scriptures to be a prophet sent from God, is actually a false prophet according to Deuteronomy 18 because the destruction he prophesied over Nineveh never came to pass. While we don’t know exactly what God told him to say, we do know that all of Nineveh repented in fasting and prayer when they heard the message Jonah gave them, and God was pleased with their change of heart. So how can Jonah be both a prophet and a false prophet all at once?
Which means that the Bible broke the Bible’s false-prophet detector test.
First, I suggest we need to differentiate between a few similar-appearing people: the false prophet, the young prophet, and the effective prophet.
The false prophet’s motive is deception. The goal is to lead astray. If one prophesies with an intent to lead astray and/or with wrong motives, this is a good sign one is a false prophet. These prophecies are likely to be false, but it is equally possible some of the prophecies could come true—just enough to lead people successfully astray.
The young prophet’s motive is typically at least mostly-pure, and he or she wants to encourage people in the Lord. Mind you, we call this individual a “young prophet” irrespective of linear age because this isn’t based on age, but experience—this prophet simply isn’t very good at it. Well, at the very least his or her accuracy has something to be desired. I suggest he isn’t a false prophet because his motives are pure and he has not intent to lead people astray, but he does have some growing to do. Thus, his prophecies might come to pass and might not—it’s entirely hit or miss depending on how accurate that particular word was when he received it, which makes things tough because how on earth is someone else to know if he received it accurately? That’s the tricky part, and why we each have to discern prophetic words.
The effective prophet is a different breed entirely. His words might come to pass and they might not—but when they don’t come to pass, it is for an entirely different reason than because he is false or young. No, if the effective prophet’s word doesn’t come to pass, it’s because he was, well, effective. Think about it. Many prophecies are encouraging, directive for the future, comforting, and more. Some words are warning words though, giving us insight on a need to turn away from a current course of action. If people turn away from a current course of action and the negative consequence in the warning does not occur, the prophet wasn’t false—he or she effectively incited the people to pray and act, and a crisis was averted!
I recall years ago I was at a church and each member of our intercessory group received a similar prophetic warning about a building project. We shared these words with one of the board members who was the head of the intercessory group at the time, and she told the senior pastor about it. The multiple prophetic warnings were disregarded, and years later the words did indeed come to pass. An effective prophet’s goal, at least when it comes to warning words, is to appear wrong each and every time! After all, while his reputation might be put into question by some, those with wisdom and insight will realize that instead of the prophecy being false, a calamity was averted.
This sort of thing often happens when prophetic warnings have dates attached. If a date comes and goes it can be one of a few different things: It can be that the word was false to begin with, or the date was wrong. Or it could be that prayer was effectively mobilized through the release of the word and the outcome changed. The difficult part is that we in the Church are often so quick to judge one another based on appearances that we have to take a step back and discern from the Lord what actually took place. After all, it would be silly to tell someone he was wrong if in fact he was not only spot-on, but the reason he appears to be wrong is because of how incredibly accurate he was AND how effective he was at it!
Some people believe we need to start holding false prophets accountable in the church, and while it sounds really good on paper, it really makes no sense. Look, a false prophet isn’t interested in accountability. He doesn’t really care if you tell him he is wrong or deceived or whatever other potentially accurate label you might give him. His motives are impure and his heart is in the wrong place to begin with. Do you really think telling him as much is going to positively influence the situation? Not likely. On the other hand, if mature prophets decide to take a more active and discipling role with young prophets, it is quite probable they can pass some of their wisdom and maturity on.
After all, how do false prophets become false prophets anyway? I suggest part of it is through rejection by the church. After a while, the inner wounding leaves just the right opening for the enemy, and through pride, envy, and other negative emotions the demonic are able to begin a long process of twisting and perverting the prophetic gift, turning a young prophet into a false one.
Maybe the problem isn’t so much that we don’t hold false prophets accountable, but that we don’t encourage young prophets to be disciple-able. Or worse yet, maybe we don’t expect or encourage effective prophets to do any discipling. After all, one can want discipleship all day long, but you can only follow when someone else is leading. Maybe the problem isn’t even false prophets, but a system that values the prophetic gift more than it values the person who carries that gift. Most likely it is a combination of all of these, together with the schemes of the enemy and the wounded hearts of men. However, I believe if we aim to do things a little better on our end we won’t have to worry so much about stoning the false prophets among us—I imagine that deep down they don’t really want to be that way either, but need help finding their way back home.