by Rayola Kelley and Jeannette Haley
But he [Jesus] turned, and rebuked them, and said,
ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.” – Luke 9:55
Some of us older folks are sure to remember when Hollywood used to make decent Westerns. In those days the good guys usually always won while the bad guys lost. Many of those old movies featured either vigilantes or bounty hunters. The latter were generally cast as hard-hearted individuals whose main goal was to turn a profit regardless of what lengths they had to go to.
The vigilantes, on the other hand, seemed to operate in a gray zone between the good guys and the bad guys. Sometimes they hunted down and hung hardened criminals in the nearest tree, but more often than not, they were guilty of executing innocent victims who never had the opportunity of a fair trial.
Back in 1864 the Montana vigilantes hung 21 people within a two-month period including the renowned Henry Plummer. Until 1993, when a posthumous trial was conducted inside the stately Madison County Courthouse, it had always been assumed by the general public that he was guilty. However, closer examination of witness’s accounts reveals that he was falsely accused and condemned.
The world has recently witnessed this vigilante environment in Iraq. Saddam’s regime controlled with fear. When that cap of fear was lifted by bringing down the regime, chaos erupted into grave proportions. Fear that held down rebellion, resentment, anger, and hatred expressed itself in looting and destruction of property. Nothing was sacred including hospitals. As a result, small groups of vigilantes were being formed to bring order.
Vigilantes are like the phoenix that rises out of the ashes to bring semblance to something that is dead or lacking. They are often born out of necessity, because righteous boundaries are missing. And, without such boundaries human nature begins to reveal its defiant side. The fallen nature will justify all attitudes and actions regardless of the destruction it may bring. This can be clearly observed in the Iraqi situation. We watched Iraqi people tear down their own cities. In fact, the citizens of Iraq will probably end up doing more destruction than the war.
We could accredit this reaction to the tyranny or culture of Iraq, but the reality is that this is the natural response of undisciplined human nature. After all, it was just over a decade ago that we watched a similar situation take place in the streets of Los Angeles.
When there is chaos, vigilantes become a necessity, and can serve a vital function in bringing order. Those who usually organize these groups are people who have a sense of justice and will not sit back and silently watch anarchy. Such groups start out with the best intentions, but even vigilantes can get out of hand and become as bad, or worse, than the unlawful chaos they oppose.
There are reasons why vigilantes in different societies cease to be a solution and become a problem. In fact, vigilantes without proper leadership will produce tyranny. Depending on the strength and character of leadership in these organized groups, vigilantes can abuse power. These groups who are ruled by the brute force of organized people find their power in standing united. As a result, the concept of vigilantes can serve as a mask that hides or justifies the same undisciplined attitudes and ways as those who are out of control.
Vigilantes that become a law unto themselves are dangerous. Law is meant to protect everyone. Therefore, it is not partial nor does it exist to serve the purpose of a few. When vigilantes determine or interpret the law, it is in light of personal preferences and prejudices. This allows those in the group to consider their activities in light of what will serve personal agendas. Whenever self reigns in this capacity, it will clearly display prejudices. Instead of people seeing justice bring order, they watch as mercy, or judgment, is distributed according to personal likes and dislikes.
Another problem vigilantes can have is that they lose sight of why they were formed. These groups are meant to have a short life span. For example, once law and order is established, it is time for such groups to disband. When vigilantes fail to disband, they lose sight of their purpose and begin to take up personal causes. These causes have nothing to do with law and order, but with changing the conscience of the people.
Causes in this type of situation will always turn into crusades. Crusades are meant to influence or change people’s philosophy. No matter how noble or religious crusades may seem or sound, they hide nothing more than tyranny and prejudice. At this point vigilantes lose their credibility, and become a stench to others.
While vigilantes and bounty hunters have passed from the Western scene, they are very much alive and well within Christendom. However, unlike their historic counterparts who constituted a private group and who tried their victims in secret, these vigilantes operate as judge, jury and executioner in broad daylight. Such individuals should not be confused with those who truly discern and contend for the faith within the body of Christ.
In our years of ministry, we have encountered two types of people: Watchmen and vigilantes. The watchmen are those who sincerely guard the souls of God’s people. These watchmen will adjust or change according to the problems challenging God’s people. The vigilantes are those who see the destructive condition or atmosphere of the Church, and raise up to bring instruction, warning, guidance, and order. Since vigilantes address a condition rather than the current situation, they are often unable to adjust as a group.
There have always been watchmen among God’s people, but spiritual vigilantes come and go. The latest group of spiritual vigilantes came on the scene in the 1980’s to combat the onslaught of heresy invading the Church. Initially, these groups served a valuable purpose as they strived to bring the Church back to the one true foundation of Jesus Christ. They inundated the Church with facts, warnings and instructions about dangerous philosophies of the world and doctrines of demons. They made the information available through various sources. Praise God for their work because many souls have been snatched out of the grip of Satan.
Needless to say, these groups received recognition for their commitment and information. They gained the trust of those who struggled with heresy or found themselves falling prey to it and were delivered from its snares by the information that was provided. Because they served such a vital purpose, individuals begin to look to these spiritual vigilantes to discern other matters. Unfortunately, some of these vigilantes have been idolatrously exalted and have become the final authority concerning many of their followers’ beliefs and understanding.
It has come to our attention that some of these once-valuable spiritual vigilantes are now becoming crusaders or bounty hunters. The reason for this shift is because they have outlived their purpose. Instead of changing their course, or ministry, once the truth was firmly established, they continue to insist on riding what has now become a dead horse to maintain their status. Instead of being a source of new, vital information, these groups are now trying to indoctrinate people to their way of thinking. Indoctrination is nothing more than abusing present power and influence. Such abuse will end up betraying the trust of people. Instead, of upholding the Word of God, they are now serving as the scribes who interpret it for everyone else. And, if someone dares to disagree with them, they become the bounty hunters that will make an example of that person or group for defying their authority.
As a result, these groups are losing credibility with those who once appreciated their information. People are getting tired of the same rhetoric. After all, most individuals want to be informed—not inundated with the opinions, beliefs or theology of others.
This brings us to another difference between genuine watchmen and vigilantes. It comes down to their motivation and intent (spirit). Most of these spiritual vigilantes started out in the right spirit, but some lost sight of their real purpose in God’s kingdom. When the time came to change direction, they failed to respond, opening themselves up to another spirit. Like James and John who zealously wanted to call fire down on the Samaritans to supposedly uphold Jesus’ honor, these spiritual vigilantes appear to display a zeal for truth, but do not know what spirit they are operating under. (See Luke 9:51-56.)
Maybe the term “friendly fire” is acceptable to the military and news media, but once a self-appointed, hard-nosed vigilante or bounty hunter within the Body of Christ targets a servant of Christ who does not agree with everything they believe, watch out. There will be nothing “friendly” about their well-aimed missiles of destruction.
Whenever there is conflict between people in the Body of Christ it can usually be traced back to the fact that somebody is not adhering to the basic instruction of the Word of God. For example, the Bible clearly tells us in 1 John 4:1: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” The problem with many of the vigilantes and bounty hunters within the church today is they do not know how to discern the spirit behind anything. Instead of discerning what spirit they are dealing with, they judge others according to their own narrow frame of reference, which is usually formulated out of an extreme over-reaction to the heretical teachings flooding the church. To give one example, within the false movement there is an emphasis on experiences. Therefore, whenever a believer tries to give a legitimate testimony of an experience they have had with the Lord, they are immediately categorized as giving forth false information, even if there are two or three witnesses present. We need to consider that nowhere in the Bible are we told to discern spirits by personal doctrine because people can and do preach sound doctrine, and yet still have a wrong spirit such as a spirit of light, or a religious spirit.
The other way of testing or discerning is the fruit test. We should all be familiar with this statement of Jesus: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit” Matthew 7:15-17. The question is, can a false teacher or prophet produce counterfeit fruit? The answer is, yes; however, the key is who is being lifted up? Is any man, church, group, cause or doctrine being exalted—or Jesus Christ?
Another example of what often comes under fire is the gifts of the Spirit. Because these gifts have been so greatly abused, many vigilantes and bounty hunters reject any supernatural occurrence that does not fit into their narrow belief system. The problem lies in the fact that they fail to test both the fruit and the spirit behind those who exercise the gifts of the Spirit. People who are truly ministering in the Spirit end up being falsely judged and condemned because they don’t line up to the dictates of these “authorities.” The test should be who is being exalted and given the glory—God or man?
It grieves the heart of God when Christians step over scriptural boundaries in their zeal to expose heretics and false prophets. What many fail to realize is that the Word of God does not address every issue that confronts the Church. It establishes a right foundation and confirms the move and work of God. But, the Word is not a formula that can automatically be applied to uncomfortable situations that do not fit into personal understanding or theology. This is why people are to test the spirit. If they are not Spirit-led their flesh, pride, and self-righteousness will pervert the Word as a wrong spirit takes over and blinds them to the board that they have in their own eye. Obviously, Satan loves it when brother turns against brother with unmerciful and unloving false accusations (slander). Never forget, Satan always operates in extremes! As one Christian leader put it, “Any truth, carried to extremes, becomes an untruth.”
Every believer needs to fervently seek God for the gift of discernment and for the wisdom to understand how God wants this gift administered in all humility. They must realize the things of God can only be spiritually discerned, and that those who discern on the basis of the intellect, feelings and personal preferences are operating according to the flesh (1 Corinthians 2:14). The problem with each of us is simply this—we are human. Nobody has “arrived” at some super-spiritual place where he or she has all of the answers to all things all of the time. Only God has all knowledge and He is the one we need to seek on a daily basis, always keeping in mind that He never operates contrary to His Word or His character.
This brings is to another extreme with some in the vigilante camp and that is the idea that God is limited to the literal interpretation of the written Word. The truth is that while the Bible is truth, it does not contain all truth. Those who operate from the basis that everything must fit within the black and white letters of the Bible will make God’s Word dead-letter (Romans 7:6 & 2 Corinthians 3:6). In other words it ceases to be a revelation about the infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful, unchanging God, and becomes about the limited words of the Bible. For example, if an experience or particular understanding of a spiritual matter is not literally described within the Scripture, then it is considered heretical by those who operate within this limited perception. The problem with this attitude is that even if the Word does make reference to something in line of the questionable experience, but fails to meet personal specifications, it is considered wrong, and the experience deemed as unacceptable. This is an example of concrete theology or personal opinions serving as the final authority over a spiritual matter.
We must distinguish the difference between healthy disagreement among the brethren and opinions that serve as the final test or authority to spiritual matters. Christians have different experiences. These experiences are determined by the person’s heart, call and spiritual growth. These experiences can’t always be explained, but if the person has come out with a greater awareness of God’s character, a greater knowledge of Jesus and manifests the fruit and power of the Holy Spirit, one can deem that it is of God. Although one might question such experiences, it must not be based on what he or she knows, but according to the spirit and fruits that are produced. Disagreements on spiritual matters that operate in shades of gray must not be immediately judged or criticized, but discussed in meekness. Even though the different parties may fail to come to an agreement about a particular issue, it does not give either party the right to pick up their weapon and fire it in the name of truth. We have learned a long time ago that different experiences will create different opinions and conclusions about Scriptural theology and understanding. Godly love allows saints to overlook such matters and chalk it up to the diversities of growth and ministries.
In conclusion, may we continue to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3b) while keeping in mind that what this “faith” is all about is the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, while it is true that we must fight the good fight of faith against the world, the flesh, and the devil, our primary goal, along with the Apostle Paul, should be that we are “determined not to know any thing…save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).