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The Importance of Being Careful About Truth
"Latter-day Prophets and Apostles"
Recognizing Christ's True Apostles
Sifting Out False Teachings
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by Rev. Sterling M. Durgy
Driving down the road each day to and from work, I generally pass dozens of cars in the hour it takes me to go each way. Most of the time I don't even have to think about these other cars, much less worry about them. That is because it is generally accepted by the drivers that they should keep their cars within the narrow lanes allotted to them on the roadway. Alongside these lanes are gullies, rocks, road signs, and sometimes road barriers. To depart from these lanes usually results in immediate distress caused by a collision with obstacles or another vehicle!
This isn't true with spiritual things. We can go off in our own direction for a very long time, convincing ourselves that we are doing fine when we are really headed for disaster. Jesus said, "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14, Proverbs 14:12). Immediately after this, Jesus warns his listeners about false teachers.
Jesus' teaching is clear: Whether you are a Christian or you are exploring the Christian faith, you need to be careful to make sure you have the real thing. It is possible to fool yourself and it is possible to be fooled by others in these matters. If it is important to you, if this is more than a game, you will be certain that you aren't fooling yourself or being "conned" by someone else.
The word "con" is, of course, slang for "confidence." The "confidence racket" is a type of fraud where a criminal attempts to deceive a victim into placing unmerited faith in the criminal. A "con man" will offer wonderful benefits while pretending to ask very little in return. But that same con man will do everything possible to keep you from thinking about what is happening. If you thought about what you were being offered, you would realize that you were being fooled and back out. As long as you don't think about what is happening, you are sure to fall victim.
The "racket" part of the confidence game is that the victim is given something of less value than the "bait" being offered.
In some con games the victim is made to "feel good" and gets absolutely nothing else in return, not even an inferior product, only to find that he or she has given the confidence man a lot of money or valuables. But it is also true that all confidence games work this way to some extent. Making the victim "feel good" is the con man's path to success.
Religion is a fertile area for the confidence game. This is because what is promised is often an "intangible." Who can tell if a fortune teller has told the real future? How do you know if that wonderfully uplifting feeling is from God or not? How do you know if that terrific thing that just happened would not have happened if you hadn't donated a great deal of money to a certain "preacher?"
The worst frauds here are those that do promise tangible things - such as wealth or health - but make them conditional upon the "victim." While taking money from the "believer," the religious con man says the victim is responsible if the blessing does not follow.
Many, if not most, religious "con men" are in it for the money. It is important to recognize, however, that you can be equally fooled by very sincere people who have fooled themselves into believing falsehood and, sincerely believing they are doing well, seek to have you accept the same falsehood as well. You can also fool yourself - wanting to believe something so strongly that you don't look at the facts and you don't make decisions on the basis of the truth.
The person who seeks to understand the Christian Gospel will seek out those who truly represent the faith. The search for God through Christ is a search for truth and for those who teach it. Those who seek anything else can easily be led astray.
If you are seeking the truth in Christianity, then you are seeking to know a God who has revealed Himself through Jesus Christ. Since there are many varieties of Christianity in the world, if you are truly seeking God through Christ, you will want to know that you are truly following Christ, not the teachings of those who misrepresent or misunderstand Christianity. It is worth some thought and effort to be sure.
In our discussion of religious truth, when we name or describe certain modern teachers or religious organizations, we are making no judgment as to whether the leaders and members of these groups are deliberately trying to deceive (trying to "con" others) or whether they themselves are honest victims of deceit. Some may be motivated by greed or personal gain, others may be sincerely seeking your welfare in trying to have you embrace their erroneous teachings - in which case their motivation is not wicked, they are simply wrong. For the true seeker of God, the important thing is to avoid error and to truly find God.
As we think about how we can be misled about the teachings of Jesus Christ, it is helpful to study The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), popularly called the "Mormons." The LDS began in the mid 1800's and retains a strong following to this day. The Mormons hold many beliefs that are significantly different from those of traditional Christianity. Many of the members of this religious group are zealous, moral, highly motivated individuals. However, their view of God, Jesus Christ, eschatology (last things), God's plan of salvation, and so on, are quite different from the teachings of traditional Christianity -- so different that traditional Christian denominations have had little hesitancy in labeling the Mormons a Christian cult.
Perhaps the first thing we notice about the Mormons is that, in spite of the judgment of traditional Christians to the contrary, they claim to be fully Christian. At they same time, they themselves strongly distinguish themselves from other Christians. They call themselves the "Latter-day Saints," with a mission to all other "saints." The word translated "saint" in our Bibles is literally "holy one." It is a term that applies to all Christians by virtue of the fact that they are "those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus" (I Corinthians 1:2), made "holy ones" by the work of Christ (I Peter 1:1-2). Thus, in the Scriptures, "saint" is another name for "Christian." Many of the writings of the New Testament are addressed to the "saints," the "holy ones." The "Latter-day Saints" believe that the teaching of all other denominations has been affected by an "apostasy" or "falling-away" from true Christian teachings and that they, the "latter-day saints," have the mission of restoring all Christians to the truth. When members of the LDS complain that others accuse them of not being Christian, they are asking us to ignore that they have, even by the name they have taken for themselves, accused all others of living according to falsehood. In other words, while they may maintain an overtly friendly posture towards other Christians, their separation, existence, and beliefs condemn all other who call themselves "Christians."
Members of LDS pursue their mission based on their belief that God's revelation did not cease with the writings of the New Testament. Basic to their beliefs is the conviction that the offices of prophet and apostle exist today in exactly the same way as in New Testament times. Their faith is thus built on the teachings of prophet/founder Joseph Smith, other "prophets" since his death (such as Brigham Young, who took leadershp of one branch of LDS after Smith's death), and the teachings of those who lead their church today. In addition to the Old and New Testaments (some of which they believe has been mistranslated by traditional Christians), they recognize as Scripture The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price, all authored by Joseph Smith. They consider all three of these books to carry the same authority as the Bible. The Utah branch of the church is led by a President, who is considered to be a prophet, and by a council of "Twelve Apostles."
The belief in modern "prophets" who yield guidance from God on the par with Scripture is one the Mormons share with other sects that began from the 1700's to our own day. For instance, the Shaker sect (Shaking Quakers) believed that their founder, Ann Lee, was a prophetess, as were many Shakers who lived after her. Just how important a departure this is from traditional Christianity can be seen in The Revelation to John, the last book of the New Testament to be written and recognized as sacred Scripture by the Christian church. The closing verses of this book plainly forbid additional prophecies of the kind that produced Scripture (Revelation 22:18-19). In chapter 21 we read of the "new Jerusalem" (v. 2) that "It had a great and high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels; and names were written on them, which are those of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel . . . And the wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb" (Revelation 21:12, 14). This was the author's way of communicating that the foundation of the salvation of the people of God is revealed through the teachings of the Old Testament (John 4:22) and the teaching of the Gospel according to the apostles of the New Testament, those who had personally witnessed the ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ (Acts 1:8, 22-26, I John 1:1-3, John 16:14).
Paul demonstrates that the term "apostle" also had a wider usage in the New Testament church. The apostles were those who were sent by the risen Christ to found His church. This group included Paul because he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (I Corinthians 15:8-11) and was accepted by the other apostles as having a Divine commission to help institute the Christian church (Galatians 2:1-9, II Peter 3:15). However, it is clear that in the New Testament sense of "one who was personally commissioned by the risen Christ to found the Christian church" there have been no new apostles since New Testament times. Not everyone who built the church of Jesus Christ or authored Scripture was an apostle. However, those who authored Scripture, if not those commissioned apostles, were personally known by the apostles and their ministries were approved by the "twelve" who actually knew Jesus Christ and sat under His ministry -- the "twelve foundation stones" referred to in The Revelation to John.
The word "apostle" has been used in a wider sense in the Christian church. It has often been used to describe missionaries who travel to establish a Christian church in foreign lands and cultures. This usage is based upon the general meaning of the Greek word apostle, "one who is sent on a mission" or "commissioned to do a task." On this basis, some equate the spiritual gift of being an "apostle" with a spiritual gift for missionary work. This usage does not contradict the New Testament as long as it is kept distinct from the office of the apostles who were commissioned by the risen Christ to establish His church in the world. No missionary has the right to change the Gospel of Christ, author new Scripture, or invent new teachings. By their own words, even the apostles commissioned by Christ were obligated to do His bidding, not their own.
The word "apostle" is also applied to Jesus Christ in the Scriptures (Hebrews 3:1). In this case, the word emphasizes that Jesus is appointed by God the Father to be the Messiah. "Apostolic" is often used to describe a church or activity that is faithful to the teachings of the New Testament apostles. When used in this manner, it is, of course, thoroughly Scriptural. However, when used to imply that there is a new apostolic mission like that of the New Testament apostles but subsequent to their work, it signals a departure from Christianity as taught in the New Testament and affirmed by the Protestant Reformation.
It is the belief in Divine revelation separate from the commonly recognized Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments that leads the Mormons to doctrines that are entirely foreign to historic Christianity. This belief stems directly from their contention, not supported by the teachings of the New Testament, that God brings about guidance on the same level with Scripture in our time through modern prophets and apostles. For this reason, the Latter-day Saints can be correctly thought of as part of a much larger, modern movement of those who claim to either restore or advance Christianity based on the teachings of modern prophets and apostles. This movement could be called "the latter-day prophets and apostles" (LDPA) as opposed to historic, orthodox Christianity. Like the Mormons and Shakers, they often claim that they have a Divine mission to prepare the church and the world for the imminent return of Jesus Christ.
What is important in identifying a person or group as part of the LDPA movement is not only whether that person or group claims their "prophecies" are on the same level as Scripture, but whether the group treats their "prophecies" as if they are sacred Scripture even if they do not make that claim. Many charismatic Christians believe that the offices of "apostle" and "prophet" continue to this day as in New Testament times. However, they are not a part of the LDPA movement if they recognize the unique place of the New Testament apostles, reject that Scripture can be produced in our time, and subject their prophecies to rigorous evaluation, checking them carefully to see if they are fully consistent with the teachings of the Holy Scriptures - in other words, if they truly place them under the authority of both Old and New Testament Scripture.
Many groups and individuals who claim to make the Scriptures their authority, nevertheless, relate their "prophecies" to the Scriptures in only the most superficial sense. Among these are those in the LDPA movement. They match words and concepts in such a careless way that the most outrageous teachings are claimed to be Biblical. The Word of God is sufficiently large and varied that, when used in a superficial fashion, the Scriptures can seem to justify a wide variety of beliefs that, in reality, are completely incompatible with what the Scripture actually teaches.
What evidence did the New Testament apostles give of the genuineness of their office and teachings? The following can be confirmed by reading and studying the New Testament:
First, the apostles were individuals who taught honesty and accountability. Many of the twelve had been disciples of John the Baptist and had committed themselves to the strict moral teachings demanded by his preaching even before following Jesus, whose teachings left no room for dishonesty. Further, their teachings made strict honesty a requirement for the followers of Christ.
Secondly, the apostles were willing to suffer and give their lives for their faith. If they had profited from their teachings, we might have questioned their sincerity. But because they were willing to suffer and die, we know they were in earnest about what they taught. And the dangerousness of being a Christian in the New Testament times is not questioned by any serious, objective historian.
Thirdly, the apostles witnessed to God as He revealed Himself in history. The message of the apostles was not first to what God did through them or to an experience that would come to those who follow Christ -- it was first to God's actions in history, particularly in Jesus Christ. It was on the basis of God's acts in history, and supremely in the bodily resurrection from the dead of the crucified Christ, that we can believe that the benefits He offers us are real. This is also the assurance that the God who has already entered human history will do so again at the end of this age.
Fourthly, in the writings of the New Testament the apostles often showed themselves in a poor light. Their sins and shortcomings were not hidden. Their interest was in exalting Christ, not themselves. This was unique in the writings of the ancient world and further verifies their commitment to honesty.
Fifthly, the teaching of the apostles was accompanied by miraculous events. If one questions whether these really happened, one must also explain the growth of the faith, especially when followers also brought their lives in danger. The apostles did not credit themselves for these signs and wonders but gave the credit to God. They did not claim that this made them special but that it verified their teaching concerning the risen Christ. They did not use this to create personal followings but to build a church that worshipped God through Jesus Christ.
Sixthly, the teaching of the apostles concerning Christ was strongly related to the teachings of the Old Testament. Their teachings show how Christ fulfilled the prophecies of those who wrote hundreds of years before Christ was born.
Seventhly, the teaching of the apostles resulted in transformed lives that later changed society for the better. From the very beginning, Christianity taught respect for all people, elevated the place of women, ultimately brought about the end of legal slavery, taught people to work hard and contribute to their families, churches, and communities, and to help the sick, orphaned, and poverty stricken.
Eighthly, the documents of the New Testament that witness to their teaching are not in question. There are more ancient texts to establish the original text by far than any other document from the ancient world. There are very few places where there are serious questions about what the original text actually said. These affect no major doctrine or teaching of the New Testament. In may places where the text varies to some degree, the meaning of the passage is unaffected by the difference in readings.
Finally, it is the witness, not only of the early church fathers, but of those of the Protestant Reformation, that the Christian faith is based on the teachings of the New Testament apostles - not continuing revelation through new apostles.
This is enough evidence to give the New Testament apostles and their teachings priority in any search for God through Christ. And by their teachings, no other group would have their unique office until the physical return of Christ to establish His eternal reign over the earth.
What would be the motivation for claiming apostles and prophets in our time who have the same authority as the apostles and prophets of the New Testament? There is only one benefit from such a contention, and that is the justification of teachings that are not found in the New Testament and that are not consistent with the teaching of the true apostles - and therefore, not consistent with the teachings of Christ..
Paul instructed the Colossians, "Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind" (Colossians 2:18). Notice that Paul indicates that while the evidence of these false teachers seems to indicate spirituality and fellowship with God, the source of their "visions" is a mind that is out of touch with God - fleshly - derived completely from human thought -- completely devoid of Divine revelation and guidance. The presence of the supernatural in dreams, manifestations, and visions is not conclusive evidence, by itself, of the presence of God. Paul warned the Galatians, "But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8). Clearly, false teachers were a problem in his day too, those who claimed specific revelation apart from the teaching of the apostles (II Peter 2:1-3). There were also false apostles (II Corinthians 11:13, Revelation 2:2). Paul did not consider them benign (Acts 20:28-31), nor do the words of Revelation 22:18-19. Those who seek the truth will be careful who they follow.
There are things we can look for to help us distinguish the true from the false in Christian teaching. The first sign that we should look for is the "bait and switch" of claiming to be thoroughly Christian, yet also claiming to have revelation beyond that of traditional Christian churches; claiming to be a friend of traditional Christians, yet condemning them as believers in falsehood. To be sure, the people offering us true Christian teaching and then serving up error may not be aware of what they are doing. They may be so wrapped up in their "movement" that they do not see themselves as other than nice people who want to help others to the truth. But, the "fruit" of their actions is the same whether they are sincere or not, and the true seeker of God will not want to be led astray in either case. The answer to the question "how will we know an individual or group differs from historic Christianity" is that these people will, like the Mormons, tell us this themselves if we pay attention to what they are saying. Often, though not always, like the "Latter-day Saints," in their name. Also, in their derogatory attitude toward traditional Christian churches and denominations.
A second sign is the claim to "latter-day prophets and apostles," especially those preparing for the return of Christ. It is on the basis of these new revelations that false teachers will seek to enlist followers. Scripture from the Old and New Testaments will be reinterpreted or taken out of context to support these new revelations, but the way in which these revelations are used will tell you that they are not to be relied upon. In the end, it is these, rather than the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, that will be appealed to again and again by the false teachers to support the teachings of their group.
Finally, we can look for doctrines that differ significantly from historic, traditional Christian teachings because they are based on the teachings of the "latter-day prophets and apostles." To support their claims, these groups will sometimes provide their own detailed histories of the Christian church to back up their beliefs in "new" or "rediscovered" doctrine. But, in order to do so, they will embrace the teachings of those on the "fringe" of the Christian community in the past. The "newness" of the teachings of those who would "restore" Christianity is because the falsehood of these teachings caused them to be rejected by knowledgeable Christians in the past, not because the teachings have been kept to the last days before Christ's return!
While it certainly isn't true that it is impossible to have a new insight from the Scriptures, it is extremely unlikely that there will be the discovery of an important doctrine that devout and dedicated students of Scripture, with the Lord's help, haven't already discovered in the nearly two-thousand years the Christian church has existed. If you think you have found one, or someone else tells you they have, you had best study carefully why others in the past missed it! If presented a history of Christianity that emphasizes things not usually emphasized in Christian histories, it is best to examine it carefully for the reason why.
Above all, those selling falsehood do not want you to study or think. If you did, you would quickly see how their teachings differ from those of traditional Christianity. They may even glory in being "irrational." But, as with "con games" and frauds, it is those who do not think who become the victims.
Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.
Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.
Permission is granted to reprint "Seeking Christian Truth" or any portion as long as all copyrights are included, this statement is included, the text is not altered in any way, and the text or reprint is not sold to the recipients.
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This page was last updated October 23, 1999.