Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:16
I knew a church once that needed some major building work. So they found architects and builders and looked forward to the job being done quickly and well. What they didn't know was that the people they employed were, to put it bluntly, a bunch of crooks. They ended up completely ripped off - and very embarrassed.
What went wrong? Well, they were sincere Christians, and naively imagined that everyone would act with the same kind of honesty as they would themselves. They failed to check the credentials of the people they had employed. To borrow the language Jesus uses here, they were certainly “as innocent as doves” - but they badly failed to be “as shrewd as snakes”.
Jesus is sending his disciples out to preach the gospel in the big wide world. It's an exciting prospect, of course, but he wants them under no illusions - it will be hard and even dangerous: "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves..." Which can only mean they don't stand a chance! - not, that is, in their own strength. So they need (as my mother use to say) to "have their heads screwed on the right way".
In many ways it's like that for us too. But the strange - and sad - thing is that many of the dangers we face are likely to come not only from the non-Christian world (they just tend to ignore us), but from the kind of supposedly Christian false teachers and prophets that Jesus often spoke of.
All sorts of misleading messages are being offered to the unsuspecting world. Just take a look some time at the "Body, Mind and Spirit" section in your local bookshop. "New age", spiritualism, "self-improvement" - it's all there, quite apart from the false teaching of other religions such as Hinduism or Islam. Even in supposedly Christian circles there are dodgy people around.
What are the warning signs? I would suggest three questions worth asking ourselves.
First, is there an appeal for money?
It's not wrong for Christians to make financial needs known: not at all. But we need to beware when the preacher or writer gives the impression of being on the make: "Just make a donation to this organisation and God will bless you with riches in the future" - that sort of thing.
Second, is it all very personality-based?
We live in the days of the celebrity cult - pop stars, film stars, sports stars - and this has spilled over into the church. Truly “charismatic” leaders are much needed, there’s no doubt about that, but we need to be wary when glitz and glamour take the place of spiritual depth and Christ-like holiness.
Third, does the teaching strike a suspect note?
Is there some kind of novelty in what is being offered? Does it ring true with the understanding of the Bible that you have built up steadily over the years? (This reminds us, by the way, how important it is to master biblical truth! - and there is no short cut to that.)
There may, for example, be claims made on the basis of "after-death experiences", or teaching about demons and evil spirits which goes way beyond the Bible. There may be sensational claims about healing and other spiritual gifts. There may be detailed predictions of Christ's second coming, or other events of the "end times", which rely on odd verses plucked out of their Bible context.
It's when we come across things like this that the warning bells should start to ring. Time to become snake-like!
Somebody might say, "But didn't Jesus tell us not to judge?" Well yes, indeed he did. And certainly we need to avoid any hint of condemning people too quickly.
But - let's put it this way - he also wants us to be discerning, wise, thoughtful, cautious. Otherwise we ourselves can fall into all sorts of attractive-looking traps, and we will end up unfit to guide others. As John puts it: “... do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
Are you armour-plated against false teaching? Do you know when to be a snake?
Lord, help me to develop the discipline and determination to grow steadily in the knowledge of your word and your truth, so that I myself will not fall prey to false ideas, and so that I may be a reliable guide to others. Amen.