Prophets and the Local Church

One of my questions or concerns with the language of prophets/prophesy among scripture, especially in the New Testament, is how this plays out in the local church.  The writings of the New Testament were all written with a local community of Christians in mind.  That seems to get lost in our growing culture of Christianity led by celebrity pastors.  As such, we also seem to look for prophetic ministries among those well known to the national and international community of Christians.  I’m thinking of people like the twentieth-century men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as present day people like Shane Claiborne, Bono, Rachel Held Evans, and so on (whether we call these people “prophets” or not, there work has certainly taken on some prophetic aspects).

Don’t get me wrong here.  I have nothing against those whom God has raised up to  a celebrity status.  Whether we agree with them on every issue or not, they serve the universal body of Christ by challenging us all to think more critically and engage our communities more creatively with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Having said that, we cannot forget what ought to be happening in churches at the local level.  Here I want to focus on the prophetic ministry.

In his famous sermon preached on the Day of Pentecost, part of the eschatological promise was that “sons and daughters” and “men and women” will prophesy (cf. Acts 2.17-18, 39).  It seems rather inconsistent and incoherent that we would read v. 39 to say that it renders the commands of repentance and baptism as universally valid while denying the universal application of vv. 17-18.

When we turn to the rest of the New Testament we not only discover that the prophetic ministry is something God has given to the church (1 Cor 12.28-29, Eph 4.11) but that this was a gift being exercised in the local church, hence the need for the local church to (1 Cor 14.29-30; 1 Thess 5.20-21).

So here is my question.  Where are those gifted with the ministry of prophesy among our local church?  Have we silenced them?  And if so, would this not be to our own peril since this ministry if a gift from God given to the church?

I’m thinking out loud with this series.  I have as many questions as I have answers, which space and time will not permit.  But I raise this issue because it seems that just as God raised prophets to address his people throughout scripture, God is doing so today.  If that is so, then our failure to recognize such prophets today, especially in the local church as the New Testament seems to be indicative of, is to our detriment.

What do you think?

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9 responses to “Prophets and the Local Church

  1. One item of note is the Lord did not raise up the truly prophetic voices on a daily basis. Also of note, the more prosperous Israel was, the less likely the true prophetic voice was found/heard among the people – especially the religious. For instance, what if a prophetic voice arose today denouncing any sort of factionalism, called everyone to simply follow the Scriptures, encouraged all ministers to find a daily job other than preaching, etc.? What if that individual(s) were to tell men they were to have twice daily devotionals with their families, study their Bibles and turn off their televisions, and question the impact of lessons shorter than an hour where the minister cannot quote – at length – vast passages of Scripture? What if this man (or these men) denounced congregational thinking where the budget was spent on all sorts of ‘ministries’ and building expansions when conversions were dropping? Would we hear such a voice? Those voices existed in the 19th Century and were men like Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Jacob Creath, Jr., etc. I would suggest those voices are still here, but they are not given much of a forum from which to speak in American society today or within religious circles because they go against virtually everything which is considered a part of ‘how it is done.’ It is the same fight as the one experienced in Israel. Prophets, by their nature, are shunned as much as possible and experience a love/hate relationship with the people and leaders. There have been at least 4 prophetic voices in churches of Christ in the 20th century IMO. M. Keeble, Jimmy Allen, D. Lipscomb, and James Harding. The latter two died in the early portion of the century. M. Keeble passed away in the latter half of the 20th century. Jimmy Allen is still alive and well but has been marginalized.

    • Thank you for calling attention to the fact that God did not raise up prophets on a daily basis. I think that is something to remember. I also think you are right to question whether we, in our current culture, would listen to such prophets.

      As far as the Restoration Movement and Churches of Christ go, I would include Rubel Shelly in that list…and he to has endured much criticism and rejection.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your blog. I feel like All the pastors and people that preach about God are a vessel for his voice. Hes using them and us to
    help and reach the ones that need to find there way or just need a little help down the right path. And I agree with you about your questions something to think about. Thank you for a very deep thought:)

  3. Well, I predicted in a staff meeting, summer of 2006, that the economy was going to tank soon. And that we should not plan nor budget too ambitiously as a church. Everybody tried not to look at me like I was looney. Of course, I got it wrong that Little Rock was going to get hit aming the hardest because of its preponderance of banking and telecom companies. We did really well, compared to most cities our size and larger. What do I know? I figured cell phones would be among the first nonessentials to go and banks would be merging and failing right and left.

    But … no, I guess that’s not the same thing as speaking a prophetic word.

  4. Thanks for this. I’ve thought often about how prophecy, and other gifts to the church in the Spirit, might shape our churches’ schedules and spaces. How would we shape a corporate meeting if we expected that any member of our church might be called to build up the church? If Sunday morning is unwieldily for this, when else does/could that happen? Would we do well to consider supporting a ministry to draw out and apply our gifts, the way we sometimes support ministries to guide our congregational song? Your question assumes that there might be more than one voice worth listening to together, and I like imagining that.

    • You are asking the same questions I ask, some of which I have seen practiced but not in any traditional church assembly. When we were members of Covenant Fellowship Church (a CoC) in Searcy, AR, open sharing was allowed and encouraged. While the worship team had a schedule, the church worship was not so rigid as to not allow any spontaneity. Consequently, if you had a “word from the Lord” to share or song on your heart to sing, it happened. Only once do I recall the elders having to intercept someone sharing something that was getting out of hand. I also was part of a worship gathering once, where there was no “song leader” but instead just someone running Power-Point to project whatever hymn someone started. Thus the church had an open time of worship where anyone (man or woman) could start a hymn, say a prayer, read a scripture, or share a word/testimony and this was a place where the gift of prophesy was accepted.

      I think in Churches of Christ, it would take some re-imagining what the worship assembly/experience would be like for such changes to even begin to take place. But it could be done.

      • I love those examples. It would be a paradigm shift, but I think we have a commitment to scripture that might allow for it.

      • Yes we do and even though such a shift might take time, it doesn’t seem any more difficult of a paradigm shift then when congregations went from one song-leader leading the “2 songs and a prayer” traditional worship to the then more contemporary with a worship team, projector screen, hand-raising, etc…

  5. when I was attending charismatic services back in the 70s, prophecy happened some. When I took my wife-to-be to Catholic charismatic prayer meetings in San Francisco back in 1977, the presence of God was so rich and the spirit of prophecy was so potent that she was converted to Christ, was baptized in the Spirit, in Water, and healed of Lupus, without even asking. Over there someone would feel impressed to share; then another would share a Scripture; then another a prayer; then another a vision; and a tapestry woven by the Spirit of God would emerge and it was exhilarating and faith building. …Then there was the Jewish roommate we had after we were married; the tongues that came out in Hebrew , it being Jesus talking to the roommate, impelled him to join us for our home prayer meeting three days later. In the meeting there was a vision, and a prophecy, and exhortations, and he responded with a surrender to Jesus, and was baptized.
    For the most part, the rich environment of the Spirit that produced such prophetism waned, and was dissipated for want of the healthy boundaries that a sound Christian Tradition provide. In my contemporary experience, now that I work a 12 hour night shift, with a number of Christians and non-Christians from all over the world, the Spirit sort of keeps me on the same page with those He is drawing and discipling; I walk up to the black engineer from Nigeria and am led to sing a line from a Martin Luther song, and he is astonished because it exactly addresses a private concern. I speak to the lady engineer that her cleaning the machine is practice for changing diapers and she says ‘I’ve been praying about entering nursing; how do you know when it is God telling you? I see the young maintenance man and am led to say ‘if you ever decide to quit smoking let me pray for you; and it launches into a Christian fellowship where he opens up about his wife’s needs, and it launches him into prayer and fasting. Over and over again.
    But to be prophetic you have to learn the voice of the Lord, and that is in the place of prayer, and it involves trial and error, and learning inner stillness, and dispassion; and discernment to avoid the seductions of the evil one…..
    Prophecy is sort of the tip of an iceberg that is the outward expression of a much larger hidden life in the Lord. Making confession, receiving communion, saying forgive me, etc.

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