on prophecy and community (or, on prophecy and sex)

I shared in part one not only the conflicting definitions of prophecy, but some of the legitimate conflict we experience in the body of Christ over how prophetic gifts should function. As a former professor of mine liked to say, “Abuse leads to no use.” In other words, when a gift is used destructively, there often follows an over correction where the gift is outlawed. That has been especially true in church history with regard to all so-called “supernatural” gifts of the Spirit, going back to the days of the prophet Montanus, whose stark prophetic claims led many to reject the idea of prophecy altogether (outside of that already revealed in Scripture).

I have both witnessed and experienced prophetic abuses in its most severe, destructive forms, and am yet more adamant than ever that despite my ambiguity and even hurt over these experiences: it is a greater risk to ignore the voice of God in this way than to embrace it. One of the chief markers of a follower of Jesus is the ability to hear His voice. In His own words, “My sheep hear my voice.” It is the Spirit of Jesus who will “guide us into all truth,” and while that claim certainly speaks to the Spirit’s ability to guide the disciples to write Scripture, that is not where it ends (with apologies to Frank Turek).

God does not speak in a personal way that will violate the parameters of Scripture, but the idea of a God who has spoken once and for all in this kind of divine revelation and then shut His mouth is as frightening to me as a God who doesn’t speak at all. All around the world, perfectly “ordinary” Christians in ordinary Christian communities are able to hear the word of God, speak the word of God, discern the voice of God. They are not super Christians or “deeper” Christians. Most of those who operate in this kind of rhythm of listening and speaking by the Spirit are not only not self-congratulatory about it–it is such a natural and normal part of their existence they might not even be fully aware of how remarkable it is. And one of the most potent ways that happens is through the gift of each other–one brother or sister lovingly submitted to the Lordship of Jesus and the authority of the local church speaks on the Father’s behalf to another brother or sister.

There are many beautiful dimensions to this idea. For one, the Spirit of God is the great equalizer. As He is no respecter of persons, He speaks to and through whoever He wishes, whenever and however He wishes. Thus even in a radically patriarchal culture, the Spirit upset the power structures of the world in Acts where finally “the sons AND the daughters will prophesy.” Black and whites and Asian and Hispanic–both men and women, speak forth the words of God with equal divine power. The Spirit is able to speak to the lowest and least within any Christian community in terms of worldly power, affluence or success. It is one of the most remarkable functions of the Spirit’s work, and when it is on display among brothers and sisters who operate in love within community, it is breathtaking indeed.

And yet as the creation narrative of Genesis reminds us, there is one who is at work to subvert the elegant handiwork of the Creator, as it has been from the beginning. The most beautiful things God does in Christian community can become the most distorted and grotesque, precisely because they carry the potential for such unrestrained beauty. It is tempting to share some of my harrowing experiences of this here, but I am far too skittish about my own inner reasons for airing such things even in a veiled way. I do not trust my motivations enough to do that, as sharing tales of profound hurt from a public platform so often carries the stench of vengeance. I am not into that. After all, there is no abuse within my own Christian community that I do not ultimately take responsibility for myself as the leader God has placed within it.

So I will skip the details and get to the constructive part. Ecclesiology is the word we use to simply name the theology of the Church, what we think about being the Church. And the problem with so much understanding of prophecy (or lack thereof) is that it is not grounded in Ecclesiology. In fact, I would go so far as to say that any person who claims a prophetic gift or anointing who does not adequately understand the nature of the Church is a danger to themselves and others, however well-intentioned they might be.

Churches thrive when there is divine order. The gift of prophecy (and all other spiritual gifts) are subject to the discernment of the leaders within the Christian community where those gifts function, as I Corinthians 14 clearly indicates. The problem with many “prophets” is that they are their own ultimate sense of authority. They would never admit this, because they would say their authority comes from the Spirit alone, and they must do whatever the Spirit tells them. “I am in submission to God.” And yet submission to God means nothing in the abstract if not expressed in the particular by being submitted to actual persons.

Ironic how people who think they embrace a way of being Church that is innovative or creative define their innovation by being authority-less. As in, “we are in a people of the Spirit–we don’t need stupid titles and man-made structures, we listen to God.” And yet is there anything less creative, less innovative, or more bourgeois than this American idea of autonomy? Strangely enough, this brand of creativity brings us back to the most uncreative lie of democratic societies–that it is possible to live without authority. That there is no higher form of wisdom and discernment than that provided by the autonomous self. What is coded as “I listen only to God” ultimately means nothing but, “whatever I feel or discern is best for me is what I do.” I have better discernment than the community, and set myself outside it as its objective judge–because I hear from God. Without actual authority expressed in an actual community, this lie will be the source of mischief at minimum and utter devastation at its worse.

Those who feel like they operate in prophetic gifts must be subject to authority. Some of the worst mistakes of my ministry have been in extending too much so-called grace to those who re-buffed correction, or at least did not actually take it seriously. If this begs the question, “what about those leaders–who should they be subject to?” That is why I am passionate that there should be some form of authority beyond the local Church, and why I actively seek out spiritual fathers and mothers and actively submit to authorities above me in the Lord. I practice what I preach here. Big-time.

And secondly I would offer this: prophecy should not operate in private within a community. You heard me correctly. Prophecy should never be private. There must be at least one (preferably more) additional witnesses that can verify or invalidate the accuracy of the prophetic word. The worst prophetic abuses I have seen have been from people who generally prophesied in private, thus keeping their experiences outside the light that believers walk in and in the dark where the enemy and division thrive. Prophecy in private means that individual believers can be manipulated and coerced. In the worst of these scenarios, they are even fed visions of so-called greatness that causes them to feel apart from/better than the community–or co-dependent on the prophet rather than the voice of God Himself.

Private prophecy is dangerous. Prophesy submitted to communal discernment is healthy and vibrant (though still complicated–the blessings so far outweigh the complexities we learn how to navigate). Prophesy is like other things that take two to make things go right. Prophecy outside community is like sex outside of marriage–a cherished gift that cannot fully be appreciated or enjoyed outside of covenant love. Prophecy outside communal discernment is a selfish, masturbatory act that brings satisfaction to the “prophet” but ultimately expresses contempt for the people of God. The community brings the safety, parameters and pastoral affection where these gifts can be experimented with, explored and discerned in the context of authority. In the discipline of being subject to one another and subject to leadership, prophetic gifts express love for God’s people rather than self-love.