Tuesday, April 17

Prophets and prophecy in the church today

So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers,
but fellow citizens with the saints,
and members of God's household,
built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,
with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone.


According to Eph.2:19-20, God's household, the Church, is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.

Much has been discussed about the role of apostles, who they are, whether or not they continue to exist, etc. (See recent examples, Bart Barber's Are missionaries apostles? and Strider's On being apostolic.)

But little has been shared about prophets. They are the other half of the team who Paul writes are the "foundation" of God's household. Who are these people? What is their role? What do they do? Are they still active today?

Wolfgang Simson in his, "Houses That Change the World" says,

"A prophet's perspective is radically different from that of the pastor. He hears from God and quite mercilessly questions everything, including the pastor, from God's perspective. That, however, is his healthy and God-given duty. For that reason, there is also a historical tension between the pastor and the prophet: one is a defender of the status quo, who wants to maintain the community; the other questions everything and is seen (rightly) by may others as a threat, because he disrupts things and wants 'movement now'."

A.G. Gardiner, as quoted by Arthur Wallis, "In the Day of thy Power", adds this thought...

"When a prophet is accepted and deified, his message is lost. The prophet is only useful so long as he is stoned as a public nuisance calling us to repentance, disturbing our comfortable routines, breaking our respectable idols, shattering our sacred conventions..."

I believe there is as much need for prophets/prophecy today, as there was in the first century church.

I would like to explore the subject of prophets/prophecy by presenting some Pauline teachings and thoughts gleaned from observations taken from 1 Corinthians 14.

I begin with a quote from George Patterson which sets the tone for my own understanding of the prophetic word in today's church (emphasis mine)...
The apostle Paul defined New Testament prophesy not as foretelling judgment, which it often was in the Old Testament, but, as he revealed in 1 Corinthians 14:3, “One who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation.” As believers talk together and listen one to another, their gifts from the Holy Spirit are made “manifest” through words of encouragement and works of mercy. You must coach new worship leaders to enable groups to converse and interact as 1 Corinthians 14:24-33 requires, not depending on sermons and lessons alone to meet everyone’s needs. --MentorNet45, George Patterson
The emphasis of chapter 14 is less on the issue of "tongues" and weighted towards the role of prophets and prophecy in the church.
  • We are to earnestly desire to prophecy. 1Co 14:1 Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.
  • We are to prophecy to each other for mutual edification, exhortation and consolation. 1Co 14:3 But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation.
  • Prophecy is intended and directed towards believers. 1 Co 14:22b ...But prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers.
  • More than one prophet should be given the opportunity to address the gathered believers. 1Co 14:29a Two or three prophets should speak...
  • The believers have a role in evaluating the prophecy and speaking to the prophecy. 1Co 14:29b ...and the others should evaluate.
  • We should be eager and have an ernest desire to prophecy. 1Co 14:39 Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy...
  • What is the end result of prophecy in the church? Conviction. Accountability. Secrets of the heart are disclosed. The falling on one's face and worshipping God. The clear understanding that God is among you. 1Co 14:24-25 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.
  • How does the above manifest itself within the church? The whole church participates actively according to their gifting for mutual edification. 1Co 14:26 What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.
Paul's teaching on what should be taking place when the church gathers is quite different from what is usually practiced in today's institutional churches. One question for me is, do our current worship traditions and practices lead to conviction, accountability, secrets of the heart being disclosed, falling on our faces in the worship of God, a clear understanding that God is in our midst?

If our honest answer is no, could it possibly be because we have ignored the role of prophets and prophecy within our churches? Like apostles, we don't know what to do with prophets and prophecy, so we simply substitute them for more comfortable structured church programs.

I think what has taken the place of prophets and prophecy in today's churches is pulpit preaching. Preaching is certainly not bad, but what we have done is relegate to the pastor and pulpit that which was intended for the entire church. Instead of observing the above admonitions of Paul, we now look to the pastor/pulpit to fill the needs which Paul places upon all the congregation.

I would be interested in your understanding of these things and interpretation of the 1 Cor. 14 passages quoted above. Where do prophets and prophecy fit in today's churches? Why has prophecy all but disappeared from most churches today? Or, if it hasn't disappeared, what shape does it take it today's church structure?

22 comments:

Larry Who said...

I look forward to reading what you and others have to say.

One point that I would like to mention is that the prophetic gifts (prophecy, word of knowledge and word of wisdom) in 1 Corinthians 12 which are available to all believers do not come under the same headings as a prophet. There is a similarities and yet differences.

The spiritual gifts need to conform to 1 Corinthians 14:3 "...edification, exhortation and consolation..." while the words from a prophet may not always fall under these guidelines. As in Acts 5: 1-11, Acts 13:8-12 and Matthew 3:7.

David Rogers said...

There seem to be a lot of different understandings of what NT prophecy was and is. From "forceful preaching," to "not being afraid to speak your mind," to getting "words from God" and mystically and authoritatively proclaiming "Thus saith the Lord..." in a church service, etc., etc.

Wayne Grudem's book, The Gift of Prophecy in the NT and Today, purports to be a middle-ground approach between Pentecostal/Charismatic and Evangelical/Non-Charismatic approaches to prophecy. To me, personally, Grudem's exegetical arguments are convincing. However, I would venture to say that the majority of Pentecostals and Cessationists alike would not be happy with his conclusions.

Are you familiar with Grudem's book?

Kevin, Somewhere in South America said...

Guy,

This should generate some interesting comments. As you have already stated in some fashion or another, we need to consider carefully the value of the gift of prophecy.

I am not sure I agree with your observation that pulpit preaching has taken the place of prophecy. I believe I have seen the gift in action in many forums, not just in the pulpit. I believe I need to hear a deeper explanation of that perspective before I could agree with it.

I am going to look for Grudem's book when I travel to the states, thanks to David Rogers' comment.

Alan Knox said...

Guy,

This is a good summary. I also appreciate your challenge and application of 1 Cor. 14. Here are a couple of things that I would add:

First, NT prophets should be tested and their prophecies should be weighed by other believers (1 Cor. 14:29). One of the remarkable benefits of the indwelling Holy Spirit is that all believers are able to recognize something and someone from God.

Second, all believers are able to prophecy (1 Cor. 14:31). This is not limited to specific individuals within the body of Christ.

Third, due to the close connection of prophecy, prophets, and revelation in 1 Cor 14:29-31, it seems there is a close connection between the prophetic gifts and prophets.

Fourth, Paul could see a possibility of no one speaking in tongues when the church comes together (1 Cor 14:28), but he does not recognize the same possibility for prophecy.

Thanks again for this study. I also recommend Grudem's book (mentioned by David).

-Alan

Larry Who said...

Believe it or not, I have read and do have Wayne Grudem's book. It's somewhere in my garage.

I like what one prophetic teacher explained: "There are many different streams of prophetic voices in the Body of Christ. Each has their own separate revelations."

But what I believe is that the streams need to overflow the banks so that we learn from each other. Nobody - Baptists, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Vineyard or whoever - has it all figured out.

I suggest that we all need to be seekers of the truth with our hearts open to learn from each other.

Alan Knox said...

Larry,

You and I probably disagree on a couple of points related to this post. We probably disagree on other points as well. However, there is one thing that we agree on... You said: "I suggest that we all need to be seekers of the truth with our hearts open to learn from each other."

I could not agree more! And, I am certainly willing to listen to you and other brothers and sisters. I do not believe that I (or my tradition) has cornered the market on the truth of God. As you said, we need each other.

-Alan

GuyMuse said...

Larry,

You write... "The spiritual gifts need to conform to 1 Corinthians 14:3 '...edification, exhortation and consolation...' while the words from a prophet may not always fall under these guidelines. My understanding would be that the words from a prophet WOULD fall under the 14:3 stipulations. Acts 5:1-11 sounds more like a 'word of knowledge' or 'discerning of spirits' and not so much 'prophecy'. Same for the Acts 13 passage. The Matt.3:7 verse could be a word of prophecy in the sense that John is exhorting the Pharisees. This is just my own understanding, but I can see your point.

David,

No, I am not familiar with Grudem's work, but would be most interested in hearing what he has to say. I really consider myself a learner and certainly no authority on these matters. I especially like the idea that Wayne takes a"middle-ground approach between Pentecostal/Charismatic and Evangelical/Non-Charismatic". Thanks for the book tip!

Kevin,

My point is not to knock pulpit preaching, but to ask whether or not we have moved away from the practice of NT prophets/prophecy within our church gatherings. I think there is a role for messages and teaching by gifted individuals, but not at the expense of the whole church being able to share as described in 1 Co.14.

Alan,

Excellent points to add to the dialogue! Thanks for the good observations. I don't know how I missed 1 Co.14:31 "1Co 14:31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted..." but it is a well taken point when you say that ALL may prophecy.

WTJeff said...

Wolfgang Simpson's definition of a prophet certainly frames the current tension between pastors maintaining the status quo and those questioning the way things are currently done. I'd be willing to call them prophets if I could point to scripture(s) that would seem to agree with this definition. It's not that I don't agree, but none really come to mind as I read this. I'll study this tonight to see what I can find, but would be interested in everyone's thoughts.

Jeff
Amarillo, TX

Burkhalter Ministry said...

Prophecy/hearing God's voice has been a theme in my life over the past 2 years or so...first, it was exploring what the Scriptures say which was a great learning experience. However, the "fun" part has been to "see it in action" over the past 8 to 9 months in both small meetings and larger meetings. I don't see why baptists are so afraid of prophecy? Maybe it is because of the extremes. In reality, baptists prophesy often they just don't call it prophecy...sometimes, its a "I sense something from the Lord..." or language like that.
Travis

jeff w. said...

Guy,

What I see as a problem with many pastors in the pulpit is that they see themselves primarily as Bible-teachers. We have trained a generation of attenders of church to this way of thinking.

This has led to the "baby-bird" syndrome. People expect the pastor to study the word, read the commentaries, analyze the Greek and Hebrew and then fully digest all of this for them. On Sunday morning the pastor is to put bite-sized portions into their open mouths while they dutifully take notes and under the Bible where he tells them to. The final result is immature Christians who are not accustom to God speaking directly to them from His Word.

I definitely believe we need more prophets on Sunday mornings - and other times as well.

Jeff

GuyMuse said...

Jeff,

Interesting observation about wanting Scripture to back the Simson quote about prophets. I too would be interested in hearing anything you might find in your own research. My understanding of where Simson may be coming from is that prophets like John the Baptist and other OT prophets were always shaking up the status quo and saying things that people didn't like hearing. Many prophets in OT were quite unpopular (eg. Jeremiah) due to their speaking God's messages, and not their own.

Travis,

I hear what you are saying about our fear of prophecy. Most of us feel more comfortable with other terminology, but the reality is that God does speak through the gathered church. The inspiration for this post has also come from real life experience with prophetic words shared within gatherings of believers over the past several years. I personally would like to see us go back to 1 Co.14 type of prophetic practice in our churches, rather than rely as Jeff has expressed below about having someone do all the work for us in hearing God, and then expecting them to digest what has been shared.

Jeff W,

You are exactly right. It is this very concern that I think we need to address more as churches. When Christians rely upon someone else to "hear God" for them, and to spoon feed everything, we end up with immature believers. What fascinates me is that we call ourselves "people of the Word" and yet there are whole blocks of Scripture like 1 Co.14 that we have all but rewritten to conform to our present practices and traditions.

jeff w. said...

Guy,

I think the problem is a critical factor in the "dead" status of the American Church. Unfortunately, it is a problem that we have exported to some places.

If you look at what most church members consider "church" - the Sunday morning service - what part of that is following a scriptural basis? There are some elements there, perhaps, but nothing like I see demonstrated in the NT.

I like to look at Acts 2:42+ for how the early church operated. They devoted themselves to prayer, the word, the fellowship and breaking bread. All these are relational activities - between God and people and people and people. These are all things of "being". Only after this and the "awe" did Luke mention doing - ministry, evangelism, and worship. It seems to me that God became real to these folks and out of that realness, they loved God in worship, each other in ministry, and the lost in evangelism.

In the American church, we "do" evangelism, ministry, and worship at church without first "being". I think if we spent more time being, a lot of the doing would come naturally.

That is why I like reading about your house churches and the reason I keep coming back to your blog.

Jeff

WTJeff said...

Guy,

Just from a very primitive search, I don't find anything that describes the tension between pastor(teacher) and prophet, like Simpson advocates. Pastors or teachers and prophets are only mentioned together in Eph. 4:10-11 and 1 Cor. 12:28-29. Nowhere in these passages is any such tension described, nor anywhere else I can find for that matter.

I know for a fact that there are those who look to shake up the status quo, turn pew sitters into missionaries, and turn our focus away from empire building to kingdom building. These voices are most definitely at odds with many pastors today. I'm just not sure we can call them prophets.

That's the way I see it through my fallibility. What do you guys think?

Larry Who said...

Guy,

What did the people perceive Jesus to be? The people said he was a prophet.

If you look at many of the words Jesus spoke, you will see over and over again variations of the three prophetic spiritual gifts - prophecy, word of knowledge and word of wisdom.

Prophets don't just prophesy; they usually walk in variations of word of knowledge and word of wisdom, too.

Alan Knox:

Hey, so what if we disagree. My desire is to see the kingdom of God built. If I was walking with you in your ministry, I would be a Baptist's Baptist. No tongues. No disagreements on scripture. I'm a grace man.

Strider said...

Good Post Guy! I fully agree with what you have said. I agree that Simson has not given us a full blown biblical study on this or the other ministries he talks about but I agree with where he is going over all.
In my life I have always sought to keep the prophets close at hand in my ministry. They are quite annoying. One guy we had on our team would challenge us during every discussion about our ministry and say, 'Ok, but how is this going to get us to church?' That is the role of a prophet no matter what you want to call him. The guy who keeps calling us back to the path God wants us on is the one being prophetic.
God is raising up many more of these types of people and we can embrace them and use them or we can cast them out to our own peril.
One thing I have learned about them, most don't know much about their function. One guy I had a couple of years ago on the team recognized that he was gifted this way and really spent time trying to grow in his gifting. The results were remarkable. He went from being perceievd as pushy and manipulative to becoming a real visionary and encourager. One of our problems in the way we react to these gifts is that we expect Pastors and Preachers to take years of training and experience but if a prophet doesn't show up practicing his gift perfectly then we either conclude that he is not a prophetic type or that there is no such thing as prophesy! Personally, if that is the criteria I have seen a lot more evidence that there is no such thing as preaching.

Tim Patterson said...

Guy,

Good post. I think one reason for our difficulty in recognizing prophets in the church is our reluctance to share authority in the church through a more pluralistic New Testament leadership structure. As you stated in a comment over at Bart Barber's blog:

"If there are still prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers around, why would we want to eliminate apostles from their badly needed role within the Kingdom? Might I respectfully suggest the reason so many dismiss the work of modern day apostles is that this function has been assumed by the modern day Pastor (with a capital "P"). Not only is today's pastor an apostle, he is prophet, evangelist, teacher, administrator, and a host of other things all rolled up into a single "super-pastor" package! No wonder there is so much burnout amongst pastors!"

Even though the context of the above quote is concerning apostles, the principle is the same for prophets. The Pastor with a capital "P" leadership model is only a good one when that pastor allows others in the church to exercise their leadership gifts. There is no need for a position or job title for a "prophet" or "apostle"... just need to allow for the function of that gift to the church and encourage their participation. Pastors that encourage other leaders and share authority in the church will be on the cutting edge of kingdom expansion.

GuyMuse said...

Jeff W, Jeff P, Larry, Strider, and Tim,

Good comments and observations from all. I appreciate the thoughtful, helpful responses from each of you.

Frank Viola, in his, "Knowing Christ Together" says the following about prophecy which I have found helpful...

To prophecy is to speak forth the present mind of the Lord. When people prophesy, they are speaking from a present burden granted by the Spirit of God. Prophecy may contain a word of wisdom or a word of knowledge. It may be lengthy or short. It may be given to a corporate assembly or to an individual...It may be expressed through the language of Scripture (Luke 1:67-79), it may be delivered through an analogy (Acts 2:11), or a direct message (Acts 21:4) ... The difference between teaching and prophecy can be summed up thusly: through teaching, the believer expounds, interprets, and applies the Scriptures. Through prophecy, the bliever reveals God's will for the present moment...It conveys God's present burden for His people...is usually designed to recover God's perfect will when it has been lost sight of...Through prophecy, the present mind of the spirit is uttered, ministering exhortation, edification, and comfort to the church...Because prophecy is such a valuable gift in edifying the church, Paul spills a good deal of ink discussing it." Sorry for such a long quote! Anyway...

One thing I keep coming back to is the tremendous need for this gift to be active in our churches today. I know I need it in my own life, and have seen over and over again the powerful manifestation of this gift when used properly to edifying individuals and the church. I fear that in our structuring and formalizing of the way we "do church" we have lost the manifestation of this gift.

While many pastors and sermons indeed speak a present word of the Lord to edify, comfort, and exhort the church, I fear it is usually more in a general sense. I would imagine this would be the case these days with the VA Tech killings with many sermons and messages being shared to seek to speak s prophetic word to this present tragedy.

But what so many of us are needing is a personal word of consolation, exhortation, and/or edification to our own present circumstances. This can only reasonably be dealt with when the gift of prophecy is opened up to all the saints and we hear from those in the Body who do have this gift. This will most likely take place in smaller group settings, rather than larger groups.

Again, I am a learner on these matters and remain open to hearing from others much more experienced in these things.

David Rogers said...

Guy,

I like your quote from Viola.

Also, noticing you haven't yet read Grudem, I thought I'd let you in on his "abbreviated definition":

"Speaking merely human words to report something God brings to mind."

The main points here are:

1. God does indeed supernaturally lay on the prophet's heart a message He wishes to communicate.

2. The N.T. (of the non-canonical sort) and current-day prophet is not infallible in his/her communication of God's message. The words they use to communicate are their own human words. Thus, if someone with the N.T. gift of prophecy is mistaken in some detail or another, we should not necessarily stone them.

From what I can tell, Viola's definition does not seem to be incompatible with this.

GuyMuse said...

David,

I like the two Grudem points. It is especially helpful to hear that current-day prophets are not infallible in theri communication of God's message. One of the things that bothers me is when we encounter brothers who proclaim a "word from God" and expect everyone to conform to it. Seems they forget a word like this is subject to the 1 Co.14 instructions of evaluation, etc. from other prophets. Key to this whole issue is the whole Body discerning together the "word" received, rather than a blanket acceptance.

Philip said...

Thanks, that has helped me think through what we are to do with the 'prophetic'. Much appreciated.
www.everyhomeachurch.blog.co.uk

Bill Lollar said...

Excellent post! We seem to share similar thoughts on these things.

I'm doing a series of blog articles on the matter of pulpit preaching, so I may quote your next-to-last paragraph and refer my readers over to simultaneously wrestle through the matter of prophecy in the church.

Bryan Riley said...

I don't know my history well enough, Guy, but I recently heard someone teach that Constantine elevated the office of pastor and began the move in the Church to leave behind the offices of apostle and prophet as a way of controlling the church. I found that interesting and would like to study it further. (He also sees that it is significant to the Church that there seems to be an awakening to the importance of these roles in the Body.)

This same speaker's definition of a prophet was very good. A "prophet" is "one who calls people to intimate relationship with God and who exposes idolatry, which is a false intimacy."