A Critique of the Prophetic Ministry

After my post about prophesy a few weeks ago, one of my Facebook friends posted the following response (I have cut out only the salutations):

“My thoughts are that you have touched on a side of the prophetic that gives the church a bad rep and I have also lost patience with oily televangelists. LOL! Sometimes I feel utterly pained at the way God is portrayed on public platforms. However don’t forget that the primary function of the prophetic is to build, comfort and exhort the body of Christ. When someone prophesies, they are essentially making themselves vulnerable to possibly get it right for someone else – and only see in part. No vessel is infallible, but the aim the receiver is to “Test all prophecy, and hold onto what is good”.(So that is weighing it up against scripture, praying into it and waiting on Holy Spirit to witness to its truth in your spirit, weighing it up over previous prophetic words you have had and also holding it very lightly until it may come to pass.) I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly as have been in the prophetic ministry for a few years now. But I want to encourage you that Paul also says to pursue spiritual gifts, especially prophecy : 1 Corinth 14:3 (for one who prophesies speaks to men for their upbuilding and constructive spiritual progress and encouragement and consolation). Interestingly enough this comes AFTER the chapter of pursing LOVE above all else which should be the foundation. I have seen a few people never prophesy before, and when they are start to prophesy they are surprised it is accurate. I realised early on that prophecy is designed by God to be a gift that works much to all our surprise. The challenge is training, and equipping the vessels to do this in an appropriate, edifying and servant-hearted way. I believe God can use fire, miracles etc to verify his vessels. But I also believe he can come in a whisper to an open heart through an unlikely vessel. I just don’t think its worth throwing the baby out with the bathwater because of one fruit loop prophet (of which there are quite a few), when the Holy Spirit can display a truly beautiful thing through a well delivered word. My personal favourite is seeing people encounter Jesus and be radically transformed after knowing that God has seen them and knows them. Its incredibly humbling to watch and often has me in tears 🙂 One of my desires is to see Purity, Integrity and Holiness restored to the prophetic – and I have a load of friends who feel the same. If the prophetic is restored, then the church will be able to edify, comfort and exhort to a fuller and more glorious stature as the body of Christ.”

I am very grateful that she took the time to provide such a thoughtful and sincere response. When I challenge it, as I must, I trust that she – and you – would not see it as a personal attack, nor as a criticism of her faith. I have many friends who are actively involved in ministry in Pentecostal or independent churches. I regard them as my brothers in sisters in Christ. The reason I denounce many of their practices is not because I question the authenticity of their longing for and devotion to God, but because we are family, and I believe that their worship habits contravene Scriptures. I am not in the habit of passing judgment on those whose core belief systems differ from my own. I reserve such criticism only for those who align themselves with me, who fly the same flags and muster beneath the same banners: my brothers and sisters. And I do so because it would be irresponsible not to say anything when those who serve the same cause I do, or who claim to do so, act in ways that impact negatively on that cause, when they break the accepted protocol of the group. It is not because I believe myself to be superior. Far from it. I am merely trying to act responsibly. I trust these words will be seen in that light – not as antagonistic but as a sort of calling to account.

 

Now I need to make it clear that I do not believe that there is a church where the norms and values are fully in alignment with the Bible. The charismatic churches, in this regard, are no different from the mainline Protestant churches or the Orthodox churches. But I believe that all Christians, no matter their denomination, ought to seek to align their practices with Scriptural guidelines. Over time, all practices and beliefs become normalised through use. We accept the truth of the world we are born into. We become blind to the flaws in our systems and our beliefs through familiarity. That is why it is crucial we get into the habit of stepping outside of our normal reference points to examine our practices rather than merely accepting them.

 

And, as Christians, we need to judge the way we conduct church activities against Biblical prescriptions, not against “results”. I have no doubt that God has touched many lives through the ministry of the Pentecostal church. But that does not validate their practices. God, I think, touches lives in spite of us often, rather than because of us. Bringing it back to my more mainstream Protestant experience, for example, I would argue that much of the Calvinistic interpretation of Scripture that has informed the church doctrine I grew up with, particularly with respect to teachings about God’s wrath, has resulted in child-rearing practices that amount to a form of abuse: teaching young people that they are miserable worms and that God so hated that world that He sent His only son to die for it. Despite that, I – and countless others – have come to glimpse God’s grace and love. But we have been scarred by the experience too. I’m sure that those raised in charismatic churches carry their own church-induced scars, despite having come to love God. The fact that God has worked in people’s life through the church, and through “prophetic ministry” specifically, is not necessarily an endorsement of church practice. It is a testament to the power of God’s grace, not our efficacy. And I believe that the charismatic perspectives on prophecy hinder Christian growth more than they promote it.

 

I do not believe that God envisioned a church that scarred people and revealed Him to them in equal measure. That is why we constantly need to examine our actions. They must be aligned with Scripture because that is how they will ultimately become defined by love. That is how we reduce the scarring.

 

So when I advocate questioning Christian practice am not, I believe, “throwing the baby out with the bath water”. On the contrary, I believe that prophecy is a vital part of the way God interacts with people. I am, however, skeptical of the claim that what is practiced in Pentecostal churches under the banner of “prophecy” ought to be regarded as such. While it is certainly true that prophecy exists to edify and strengthen the church, that is not all it is. It would be unwise to build a doctrine on prophecy around one verse or chapter. Paul himself closely aligns prophesy with “revelation” and “mystery”. It is a gift given by God, in other words, that leads to a new understanding of God’s nature and will. It is not merely a comforting message, nor something that one simply practices to get right. It demands certainty, not “seeing in part”. None of the Biblical prophets “saw in part”. Of course, they could not grasp the fullness of God’s plans, but they were absolutely certain that what they spoke was from him, that the message brought new understanding, and what they promised always came to pass. There were dire consequences otherwise:

“The prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die. And if you say in your heart, “How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?”—when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:20-22)

 

Prophecy, in every Biblical expression of it that I can find, is more than simply a generic comforting message. It is revelatory and specific in nature. Look at 1 Kings 21 and 22, for example, when Elijah prophesies to Ahab. The revelation is very specific about what behaviour needs to change, and what will happen if it does not, and it all happens 100% as Elijah predicted. Look at Moses confronting Pharaoh in the book of Exodus. Look at Daniel confronting Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4) or Nathan confronting David (2 Samuel 12). Prophecies are public, specific, and absolutely certain. That is the prophetic pattern repeated throughout the Scriptures. Even Paul emphasises that, even though it would be desirable, not all are prophets (1 Corinthians 12:29-30). Being filled with the Holy Spirit does not – as is taught in many charismatic churches – entitle one to speak in tongues or prophesy. It is not a question of just trying it and seeing if it works out. The genuine prophet has no doubt about his divine mandate, and is certainly not given to vague utterances about God blessing those who are good, which characterises most of what happens in the charismatic church ( I am not saying that such words of comfort have no value, only that I don’t believe they can be classified as prophetic).

 

If these “prophecies” were truly Spirit-driven, my question would have to be this: why, in the 2000 years since Christ ascended, have they been absent from church experience, apart from a few aberrations, and why (at least until the beginning of the 20th Century) – when “prophets” have appeared, have they been largely rejected as heretical or deluded by church authorities? Furthermore, if the 20th Century prophetic ministry is of the Holy Spirit, why is it not a practice rooted in the universal church of God – the church that transcends time and culture and denomination? Why is it so specifically rooted in a specific sector (historically, geographically and ideologically), of the church at large, if it is initiated by the unifying Spirit of God, who recognises no such distinctions?

 

It is not good enough to say that it is because there was/is some or other spiritual problem in sectors of the church. If erroneous theology or sinful behaviour were enough to prevent God from working, a) he would not be God, and b) God would not ever work through any church ever, because there is no perfect church. I remind you, once more, that God works despite us, not because of us.

 

I think part of the answer is to be found by exploring its origins. Prophesying only really enters liturgical practice in the 20th Century. And its introduction can be traced to a man by the name of Charles Parham. In fact, tongues, prophesying, and miraculous works, which had been virtually entirely absent from church experience since the Apostolic era until then, make their appearance though him, along with other dubious doctrines, like “baptism of the Spirit”.

 

Originally a preacher in the Methodist church, Parham was prevented from preaching by church authorities because his ideas were deemed unBiblical. While I am not suggesting that being excommunicated from a church should automatically disqualify somebody from being taken seriously as spiritual teacher (one of my mentors as a young man in the Methodist church had been excommunicated from the Baptist church by a young and entirely too hot-headed minister for questioning the infallibility of Scripture), it should certainly raise some red flags. The Methodists, in particular are quite open-minded and liberal in terms of who is allowed to preach, so Parham’s having been asked to leave is significant.

 

Parham then journeyed across America, visiting various fringe sects in the quest to find a meaningful spiritual experience. And I stress the word experience, because that is what has come to underpin much of the charismatic churchgoer’s spiritual journey. The tendency is for Scripture to validate experience rather than the other way around. If I am brutal, that is what the young lady’s response to my post about prophecy reveals. Validation of practice is done through experience, more so than through Scriptural analysis. When the Bible is consulted on issues like prophesy or tongues, it is interpreted in such a way that it relies on narrow interpretations of one or two verses to justify the practice, rather than by looking at the Bible’s teachings on the issue more holistically.

 

Parham’s own story illustrates this: Parham himself believed that tongues were existing languages. He opened training centres for missionaries, whom he taught to adopt a ‘just do it and see what happens’ approach to speaking in tongues. He believed that when the believers opened their mouths and spoke in faith, the Spirit would allow them to speak foreign languages without ever having to take the time to learn them. The missionaries who went abroad, after having studied under him, invariably came back, surprised that when they opened their mouths to speak it was not Chinese or Japanese or Hindi that emerged, but gibberish. He quickly lost credibility.

 

Instead of abandoning this sort of speaking in tongues as unSpiritual, which would have been logical, the practice morphed into a more ‘personalised Spiritual language’, based on a dodgy interpretation of isolated verses in 1 Corinthians 14. In other words, the Scriptures were interpreted to validate experience rather than the other way around. The same thing, I believe, applies to charismatic teaching about prophecy. In many things, the charismatic churches tend to use experience as the primary tool for discernment. It’s dangerous, to say the least.

 

At this point I need to reiterate that I am not suggesting that any other churches are any better. Churches get theology wrong in different ways, and hinder spiritual growth and scar their congregants differently. But we need to discern. We need to hold one another, as family in Christ, accountable. We need to be critical of our own practices and beliefs so that we can serve God and others in a more beneficial, and even fulfilling way, for I believe God would desire that.

 

And while I applaud the love-driven ministry of the young lady who responded to my post, I cannot endorse a practice that seems to me to originate with a slightly deranged, albeit well-meaning zealot, who valued experience over Biblical authenticity. I cannot but challenge as unBiblical a practice that contradicts any holistic Biblical definition of the term “prophecy”, nor help but question the Holy Spirit’s involvement in initiating something so clearly not rooted in the universal church of Christ. I think if we are to accept that the expressions of prophecy (and tongues) as experienced in the charismatic church have validity in the universal church, then the charismatic church needs to answer these challenges in a meaningful way. And I don’t believe they have done so.

  1. For those who are interested, Phil Johnson addresses the issue in greater detail and with more sensitivity (http://www.biblebb.com/files/combating_charismatic_theology.htm).
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