Any prophets who require you to accept their message before you check their credentials may be false prophets, because God commanded you to test the spirits to see if they are of God (1 John 4:1-2). If you make a practice of accepting messengers who refuse to let you check their employee badges, you run a great risk of getting the spiritual equivalent of a letter bomb. Real prophets let you check up on them (John 3:20-21).
If you are in a leadership position in the church, and any prophets refuse to disclose the burden of their message to you before they present it to your congregation, they may be false prophets. Real prophets understand that you must test the spirits and they are willing to submit to your examination before going public (Ephesians 5:21). False prophets don’t want to let the cat out of the bag and are suspicious of your motives (John 3:20-21). You don’t always have to know in advance what the message is, but the prophets’ willingness to cooperate is a key test.
Any prophets who won’t submit to the authorities of the church, whom they can see, can hardly submit to the authority of God, whom they cannot see (Hebrews 13:17, 1 John 4:20-21). You and the other authorities in the church may be corrupt or off track, but you are still ordained of God. For example, Jeremiah thought that Zedekiah’s foreign policy was wrong, but he submitted to Zedekiah in his role as king. Real prophets work within the parameters that they are given.
Any prophets who say that entire portions of the church are apostate without exception or qualification may be false prophets, because they have set themselves against the Word of God and a promise from our Lord’s own lips. The gates of hell never prevailed against the Church of God and never will (Matthew 16:18). While many things in other church bodies may not be to our taste or may even be in error, God has a multitude of saints in every one, including yours, in the leadership as well as in the rank-and-file. False prophets want you to believe that the church leadership is corrupt, so that they can escape scrutiny.
Any prophets who ask you to accept their message immediately without judging it may be false prophets, because God wants you to evaluate the messages that prophets deliver (1 Corinthians 14:3, 14:29).
Any prophets who say it is an emergency may be false prophets, because urgency is not a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26). Real prophets would have arrived earlier, so that you could have tested them and evaluated their message.
Any prophets who denounce sinners who are not present may be false prophets, because our Lord taught us to be humble and not arrogant, not to think of ourselves as more worthy than others (Luke 19:9-14, Romans 12:3). Our Lord sent us to rescue the perishing, not to denounce them (Matthew 28:15, 1 Timothy 1:15). The false prophet’s denunciations encourage pride, paranoia, and elitism, none of which are fruits of the Spirit. False prophets call you to circle the wagons, a true prophet calls you to reach out. False prophets encourage you to fear your enemies, real prophets inspire you to love them.
Any prophets who try to weed out the sinners from among your people may be false prophets, because our Lord plainly taught that no one has the gift of weeding the garden (Matthew 13:24-30). We must allow the wheat and the tares to grow side by side, because in pulling out the tares, we may uproot the wheat. The Lord has decided that He Himself will separate the wheat and the tares on the last day. Real prophets encourage people to examine themselves and to repent of their own sins, false prophets enjoin them to usurp the prerogatives of God and pronounce final judgment on others now.
Any prophets who have a message that is primarily political may be false prophets—or at best they are secular prophets—because the Kingdom of God is not of this world (John 18:36). As it grows, it supersedes the kingdoms of this world and includes all their peoples (Daniel 7:13-14, Revelation 7:9-10). A true prophet is not concerned with repairing what has no substance, but with building what has substance.
If any prophets claim that their failure to live up to these criteria derives from the fact that they are Old Testament prophets, glance at your watch and tell them that they are at least two thousand years late or flip through your Bible and ask what page their message is on.
Prophets who wander from place to place, meeting with rejection everywhere they go, may imagine that the prophetic nature of their work causes this to happen, but in reality, they might just be unstable. They need friends, but they are so hurt that they repel acceptance. The term ‘solitary Christian’ is an oxymoron unless it describes an accident of circumstance. Christians are members of a body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). Therefore no one can be a healthy Christian, let alone a prophet, without being in long-term fellowship with other Christians as well as being in favor with Christ. Real prophets have a home church or they have equivalent, stable ties to other Christians. Therefore, when you encounter lonely wandering prophets, greet them first as spiritually homeless people. Offer them the fellowship and the home that they lack, but do not reject them. They may turn out to be real prophets who have battle scars because they’ve been assigned the tough cases.
If you think that you are dealing with false prophets, do not act inhospitably (1 John 3:16-18, 4:20). Love them as long-lost brothers and sisters. Bind up their spiritual wounds—their disillusionment, their alienation, their loneliness—and nurse them back to spiritual health. Offer them a home, but not a podium. If they refuse your offer and decline your love, then at least you have acted honorably and obediently, but if they turn out to be real prophets, you will reap the benefits of their work.