Matthew 7 15Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. 16You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. 18A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. 19So, every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. 20Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.
False ideas, false teaching, and false prophets are all manipulating means working to their own end. How can we know if the fruit is good to eat and accept? One of the best ways is to listen and watch and see what they present as their emphasis. If their emphasis is about a vision or dream, be careful … because all false ideas and false teachers have a dream and a vision. A dream or a vision is not the criteria for a valid ministry … Jesus Christ is the criteria. The bottom line for all visions and dreams is how any idea or direction of a ministry is submitted to the Holy Spirit and the plurality of leadership.
Let me list a few red flags I have learned over the years:
1. The first red flag for me is when someone tells me what their vision is and I ask, “Who is the vision about?” Is Jesus Christ at the center of the vision, or is He just an add-on to the project? Many times, when people have a vision, they use that vision to manipulate in raising money or convince people to join them in the vision, but very little of that vision is about Jesus. Many visions take on a life of their own, and in time, the real purpose of that vision is revealed. Too often visions become worshipped and even become the main focus of the ministry … Jesus is only a means to get the vision done. I know that sounds harsh, but it is reality.
2. The optimum word that I use to describe the second red flag for me is manipulation. Persuasive people are people who know how to sell an idea or a product. Religion is a perfect place for persuasive people to find a home. There are always well-intended people who are easily persuaded to believe in a vision. The most efficient way to convince someone of a vision or spiritual direction is to attach a Scripture verse or spiritual principle to the persuasion … this way it legitimizes that it is from God. Visions are a dime a dozen in the Body of Christ but the key is to find out if God is behind them. Manipulation is not a fruit of the Spirit.
3. The third red flag for me is the character of the person or persons who are pushing a vision. I have found through my work in radio and podcast interviewing that many leaders either have a touch of narcissism or are full-blown narcissists. Now, that stands to reason because we are all fallen people but when narcissism is the main characteristic in a leader’s life, there will be problems somewhere along the line in that person’s ministerial life. Narcissism is easily dismissed in the church because most people who have this characteristic are very successful in what they do. Many times, when I have raised some questions about narcissistic tendencies in a leader’s life, I’ve been told, “Yeah, but look at what they are able to do.” And that is why the sorts of people like James McDonald and Bill Hybels were able to last as long as they did in their sinful behavior … it was all about the success. When did success become the criteria for Godly living and Christ-like leadership? Is someone successful because God has blessed them or have they just learned the system that it works so well for them?
4. The fourth red flag is about those who follow a vision. The question I always ask is, “Are they brainwashed, naïve, or are they just easily persuaded to follow a dream with little or no regard to discernment?” Again, that may sound harsh, but sheep do what sheep do, and what they do is ‘follow.’ Some sheep will even add to the teaching of the visionary and the vision really can get convoluted. For example, Christians who observe the traditions of the Torah are people who make the emphasis more about practicing the law over the emphasis of faith in Jesus. I realize the law is important, but it is not the emphasis for Christians. Our emphasis should always be that Christ is the fulfillment of God's law. Many of the Messianic congregations in the West are primarily Gentiles who are convinced that placing an emphasis on practicing Torah is somehow adding to our faith in Christ. Again, there has been a resurgence of the importance of Israel and the Hebraic root recently in the Body of Christ, but it was never meant to add to Christ … only to honor Christ in knowing God has been faithful to His promises to Israel. The Hebraic vision of our roots is important, but people take it beyond what it was designed to accomplish. Watch out for the strength of an emphasis if it detracts from Christ and the power of the Cross.
5. The fifth and last red flag for me has to do with accountability. Many visionaries have little to no accountability to their lives. When asked who their accountability partners in the vision are, we often hear, the Holy Spirit or a mentor or two, but real accountable partners do not surface. This is why ministries get into trouble. They have a strong leader who is trusted and believed but has no accountability sources to make Godly inroads into their lives. We leave them alone because they are usually leaders who will only be self-taught (their own vision), they will not listen to any advice, they will not be willing to be taught by others. Now, let me ask you a question. If someone is not willing to take advice or be taught by others, what would you say about that person? This is more often the case with visionary leaders. They have a direction, they sense God is in it, and they only need the resources and the people to accomplish what they see is important. Leaders such as this develop cults and ministries that do not compliment the Word of God in terms of serving. They serve themselves, their vision, their emphasis in their ministry is all-encompassing, and the blinders go up.
Now, I know these are my red flags and they are only red flags. Are these red flags as reliable as Scripture? Of course not, but these red flags may be enough discernment to make sure you are not fooled by visions and dreams that may sound like God but are far from His heart. Strong human nature can taint anything that may be a vision of God initially, but in the end, becomes a trophy of success for the leader. Our goal as believers is to honor each other, serve each other, and always put Christ first in all we think, say, or do. Test all visions, people, and teachings to see if they are of God. Amen!
1 John 4:1 Dear friends, do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit. You must test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God.
Challenging the Culture with Truth … Larry Kutzler