Holly Pivec, October 15th, 2018
“Eat the meat and spit out the bones” is a common refrain in NAR. Typically, it means that if you hear a teacher give a questionable teaching — something that you don’t understand or that seems off somehow — ignore that particular teaching. But don’t stop listening to his other teachings.
Bill Johnson, one of the movement’s most influential “apostles,” delivered an entire sermon promoting this idea. It’s titled “Don’t Eat the Bones.” In context, Johnson is speaking about men, including the “prophet” William Branham and the “healing evangelist” Todd Bentley, who claimed to operate in miraculous power and led major revivals. Yet they fell into heresy or sinful lifestyles. Critics of NAR have argued that the heretical teachings and immoral lifestyles of these men — and of other influential NAR prophets, such as Bob Jones and Paul Cain — raise the question of whether these individuals actually may have been false prophets. Their unsavory behavior challenges the validity of the revivals led by them — or so the critics say.
But Johnson argues that it’s a mistake to write off these “prophets” and the “moves of God” they pioneered, or their other teachings, simply because of their failures. He prays that Christians will be able to discern how God sometimes works through “unusual tools,” including individuals with lifestyles of secret, hidden sin. He states:
You can’t tell me you’re hungry and have me give you a chicken and say, ‘I’m not gonna eat it because there’s bones in it.’ Learn to eat meat and throw out the bones. (00:30:25)
So what’s wrong with this popular refrain? I can think of at least two problems.
It’s not biblical
The idea of eating fish, and spitting out the bones, certainly sounds reasonable when the subject is dinner. But when it comes to responding to false teaching, this maxim doesn’t have the support of Scripture. For example, the apostle Paul told the Romans to “watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned” and to “Keep away from them” (Romans 16:17). In light of those serious warnings, can you imagine Paul telling the Romans, “Don’t worry about false teaching, guys; just eat the meat and spit out the bones”? Sound teaching matters.
Character matters, too. Jesus warned his disciples to watch out for false prophets. He said the way they could be identified is by their “bad fruit” — that is, by their sinful lifestyles (Matthew 7:15-20).
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
In other words, Jesus says, “Watch out for bad fruit. It’s a sure sign of a false prophet.” And what would that bad fruit consist of, according to Scripture? It manifests itself in bad character. Sexual immorality and idolatry are specifically associated with the false prophetess Jezebel at the church in Thyatira (Revelation 2:20). Paul describes the false prophet Bar-Jesus as being a “child of the devil,” an “enemy of everything that is right,” and “full of all kinds of deceit and trickery” (Acts 13:10). Old Testament false prophets were characterized by greed (Micah 3:5, 11; 2 Peter 2:15) and drunkenness (Isaiah 28:7-8).
It’s a faulty metaphor
Second, fish dinner is not an appropriate metaphor. When eating fish, you can easily pick out the bones and there’s no real danger. But the metaphor implies a simplicity of division and a lack of danger that may not be present when listeners are absorbing teaching. The meat is easy to swallow, and the bones are obviously inedible. In the case of chicken or fish, they’re easy to separate. And their presence does not taint the entire fish. That’s not always the case with teaching, however, especially when the person teaching is held in a position of extraordinary authority and claims to possess supernatural power. Who are these average Christians to question Healing Evangelist Bentley or Prophet Branham? If Bentley says it’s all fish, you’d better eat up or you’ll be missing out on the move of God. Swallow it whole or get left behind.
Instead, another metaphor may be more apt. What if, instead of eating fish, you were drinking a milkshake and it had been laced with poison? In that case, it would be ridiculous to advise someone to just “Drink the milkshake and spit out the poison.” Such a task would be impossible. The poison couldn’t be separated out. It would contaminate the entire milkshake. In a similar way, dangerous teachings and immoral lifestyles–even when mixed with some good teachings–are so corrupting that following a teacher who engages in them is too risky.
What Matters to Johnson
When listening to Johnson’s sermon, one may get the impression that, for him, the bottom line isn’t orthodoxy vs. heresy. The line is not godliness vs. immorality. The issue for Johnson appears to boil down to one word: power. If a person has the supernatural goods — that is to say, if they work miracles — then they obviously have a special anointing from the Holy Spirit that trumps any concerns about other, false teachings or about an immoral lifestyle.
But again, this doesn’t match Scripture. Jesus gave multiple warnings about “evildoers” and “false prophets” who would appear to work mighty miracles (Matthew 7:21-23; 24:24). Their miracles would be so convincing that even God’s elect would be in danger of being deceived by them.
So instead of “eating the meat and spitting out the bones,” followers of Christ would do better to heed the apostle Peter’s words and “crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (1 Peter 2:2).
Holly Pivec is the co-author of A New Apostolic Reformation?: A Biblical Response to a Worldwide Movement and God’s Super-Apostles: Encountering the Worldwide Prophets and Apostles Movement. She has a master’s degree in Christian apologetics from Biola University.