Home > History > the long shadow of Deuteronomy 18:17-22

the long shadow of Deuteronomy 18:17-22

One of the distinctives I grew up with dealt with the interpretation of Deuteronomy 18:18-22, which I’ll cite in the King James Version here:

18 I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. 19 And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him. 20 But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak , or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die . 21 And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken ? 22 When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass , that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken , but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.

This is a complicated passage, and I won’t attempt to put it completely in its historical context or parse out everything it means. I’ll just give the interpretation that had the greatest impact on me growing up: if a preacher says anything that isn’t true, he is a false prophet (or false teacher) and should be shunned.

This meant several things:

  1. If your preacher gets something wrong doctrinally you need to leave that church
  2. If your preacher says something that is factually wrong you need to leave that church
  3. If your preacher says something is going to happen and it doesn’t, you need to leave that church
  4. If you’re not willing to leave the church, you have to pretend/believe that your pastor is always right

The first three are just variants on what it means for something to be true, but they were at the root of our belief that everyone in our area who attended another church was going to Hell. If you add in our tendency toward separatism, especially separatism from those who continue fellowship with those from whom we have separated ourselves, and you have a complicated problem with a simple solution: we’re the True Church and everyone else isn’t.

We sort of backed into the fourth, because it had to be true by implication. If we were at the one true church, then our preacher could never be wrong; if he actually said something that was wrong we had to ignore the problem it presented us. We couldn’t leave our church because all the others were false.

Unfortunately this tended to put the preacher on a pedestal. As a result the pastorate attracted men who wanted to be on that pedestal and didn’t know how to get off. So we ended up with preachers who believed they couldn’t be wrong, brooked no dissent or discussion, and were incapable of learning anything that might lead them to admit they had previously been wrong.

This tendency to separate preachers into two categories: “true” and “false,” did not serve us well; it’s taken me years to learn to think differently.

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