A few weeks ago you posted a warning against the desire for ongoing prophecy. [See also this—Ed.] In it you told a story of what happens when people look to words from God beyond Scripture. I wanted to stand as a witness to the dangers you highlighted.
I am not doing this to call out any group in particular. The idea that we can be Reformed and charismatic is too pervasive to attach it to any one association. So I will speak of the ideas behind it. My particular experience is representative of what it is like to be in that world of doctrine and practice.
I came to faith in college. My earliest years as a Christian were in a vibrant and intense campus ministry. Fellowship on the campus was a 24/7 thing. We ate meals, walked to classes, prayed, and roomed together. I cannot begin to count the hours of spiritual conversation we had. Spiritual hunger marked my life.
There was a mix of Christians on campus. CRU was there. Some pretty wild Pentecostals were there. God brought dispensational Calvinists into my life. I got hooked on prophetic charts, Spurgeon, and later on John Piper. I also drank often from the more Reformed well. The authors that drew me had a sense of a great God, the evil of sin, the complete work of Christ, and the call to holiness. I could not get enough of their theology.
Outside of my reading, my Christian life was not remarkable. After the first wave of conversion change, I settled into the routine of battling the flesh. My particular sins were those of a young adult – self-indulgence, laziness, being opinionated, not honoring my parents, and sexual sin. My sins grieved me. I looked for help for this inner war. I wanted to be free from sin. Once again, it was the Reformed tradition that gave me hope and sanity.
My experience of church was a different cat. It seemed limp and without energy. The contrast between the church and my experience of fellowship on campus left me perplexed and critical. I began to read about revivals and to pray with others for the same. All I knew is that church was not what it was supposed to be.
To my surprise God called me to ministry My elders confirmed my calling. I was trained. I entered pastoral work. I began to imagine that I would be the solution to the low state of things in the church. My preaching would be what God used to send an awakening. Revival did not happen. Calls to special prayer were met with a yawn. And when we did pray it was always for people’s hangnails. I was more aware than ever of the poor state of spiritual vitality in the church.
My thirst for more drove me on. I began to explore the doctrine of the Spirit. Raised as a cessationist, I believed that the Holy Spirit comes to each believer at conversion, after that there is nothing more to it. I was told that expecting more was dangerous. Then I preached Romans. When I came to chapter 8, Lloyd-Jones’ treatment of the Puritan view of the work of the Spirit post-conversion grabbed my attention. Here was an historically grounded pneumatology that bred anything but low expectations. I wanted more than ever to see God awaken the church, to speak freshly into the lives of his people, to anoint my ministry with such power.
I began to look for a new context for ministry—one where there was a greater openness to the Spirit. This was during the era where there seemed to be two options: dead orthodoxy or seeker-friendly pragmatism. Neither was an option for me.
The Third Wave
About this time, the Vineyard churches came along, with their distinct emphasis on prophecy. Some of my friends were swept up into this third wave. Their experiences and testimony drew me in. What they described and how they prayed for me answered my thirst for more. I found in them a sense of the immediacy of the Spirit’s work in any given situation, and a boldness to speak into people’s hearts and lives.
I was careful in my thinking. I wanted an argument, not just an experience. I listened to sermons by leading evangelicals as they considered God’s work and the Spirit’s activity in the church. I read critics and defenders of the leaders of the Vineyard. I began to track with new churches who identified themselves as Calvinist and Charismatic. I became “open but cautious” about the ongoing work of the Spirit in the church.
Then someone gave me a theological defense of continuing prophecy. Unlike most books by charismatics, this was the first treatment of prophecy that seemed grounded in careful exegesis and theological reasoning. The author argued from Scripture that there was an ongoing work of the Spirit in the church, what some called small “p” prophecy, in which God spoke with immediacy to a given situation or person, but the word given was not authoritative. Unlike Scripture, it was polluted by the person who delivered it. This was God giving a less than authoritative but genuinely prophetic word to people and churches today.
I began to attend gatherings where this was practiced. Friends prayed over me, sometimes with surprising insight. I concluded that this was a viable position. It presented the possibility of a robust pneumatology in my life and the church while upholding the uniqueness of Scripture. The canon was closed but it allowed some dynamic for “present” communication from God.
I became part of a church that practiced the prophetic gift. Their watchword was “desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophecy.” To be among people who expected God to speak, who tested the “words” from God, who were filled with faith and boldness in speaking those words to each other – this was immensely refreshing. There were times, in prayer, when someone with the “gift of prophecy” would get an impression. They would pause the prayer time and speak it to the person it was for. These words were very personal. They often resulted in tears of joy. People spoke such words over me.
There were also times when such a word would be shared during Sunday worship. They were also delivered and received with high hopes. Usually those words were more generalized (to whom it may concern) than personal (to person with this name). However, people would often comment afterwards that the “word” shared had their name on it.
Questions And Dissatisfaction
But the longer I was in this context, the more questions I developed. What was going on did not match our press releases about what we thought was going on. I had friends who would visit. They heard our vaunted words of prophecy, and came away unimpressed. “They’re just quoting Scripture,” they would say. “They were just describing an image,” they noted. ‘How do they know what it means?,” they asked. “That was so generic, it was like reading a horoscope,” they quipped.
I found people were distracted as well. The elders were busy waiting to see if God had a word of prophecy for the day. The worship leader was told that he needed to be ready for God to speak in a way that we had not planned. There were members of the congregation that measured the Sunday worship by whether or not we had any prophetic activity. Generally, spontaneity was better than planned liturgy.
One day the pastor gave a particularly clear and encouraging sermon. As he finished someone said they had a prophetic word to share. The elders evaluated and allowed them to speak. By the time they finished, the preaching had been undermined, turned on its head. But people were excited that God had spoken through prophecy, not that God’s word had been preached faithfully. When I questioned what happened, I was told I was not in touch with the Spirit.
Over the time I was in this church, there were a number of moments when the elders would pray for me. On a number of occasions one of them would have a prophetic word. As I listened to them tell me what God wanted to say to me, I would often be thinking, “This is so general as to be useless. If you want to encourage me with Scripture, just talk to me.” Occasionally, the words given would be more specific. But I can assure you that not one of those ever came to pass. And according to Scripture, true prophecy always comes to pass.
You can imagine how disillusioning this was. But more so was the complete lack of thoughtful help I received. Rather than think things out from Scripture, I was told that I did not understand the Spirit or know his work. They, obviously, did.
I can still remember the day it all hit me like a ton of bricks. These elders were saying they had access to insight that I could not have or had not been given. They had a special lens for seeing and I did not. And that I knew was an evil error. Unaccountable knowledge based on special intuition placed my leaders above the Scriptures not under them. They denied it in theory, but it was clearly what they practiced.
I am no longer part of that group of churches. From my way of thinking, this error was dangerous to the well-being of the church. And I could no longer be associated with it. I have since had time to reflect on the belief and practice of ongoing prophecy. Here is what I would say to someone wrestling with this position.
First, we believe God has revealed himself and recorded that revelation without error in Scripture. We also believe that when a minister of the Word preaches the Scriptures faithfully, it is the voice of God speaking the word to us. God’s Spirit also speaks in a living way when we read the Scriptures or converse about the Scriptures. But the preaching and reading and conversing about the Scriptures are subject to the Scriptures’ judgment. This doctrine proposes a third alternative. Prophecy is not Scripture, but is more than preaching. It is true revelation, though it is corrupted by the messenger in a way that Scripture is not. By necessity, this means that “prophetic words” are greater than preaching. I would even say that they become more essential to the well-being of the church as preaching.
This is what I found: there were many conversations among the church leaders, or with “discerning members,” who were concerned that there was a diminishing of the prophetic on Sunday or in prayer gatherings. The absence of such words was a sign of sickness. Rather than being glad at the faithful ministry of the Word in preaching, we were concerned with the absence of the prophetic. Though denied on paper, in practice, such words were given more weight than preaching — but not as much weight as Scripture.
Second, when you define the prophetic as true revelation but revelation polluted by the receiver and his speaking, you actually create something for which there can be no accountability. Because prophetic words were defined as revelation, they were received with joy. If they struck home as true, they were deemed authentic. But, if they were not verified or verifiable, they were simply dismissed as being flawed, polluted by the speaker. In short they were above judgment and censure.
I can tell you that in all my experience, though elders often did not allow a word to be spoken because they discerned it was not from God, in no case was the word judged as false. Even if it was approved and delivered and then proved to be erroneous, there was no re-evaluation. Those with the gift of prophecy could say what they thought God gave them, receive affirmation for what was helpful, but never be judged if the words were not true. If they said it with passion and tears, it was simply believed to be from God.
This again is troubling. It takes me back to the problem of special Spirit-given intuition as the grounds for judgment. For the elder, or the prophetically gifted, simply to “know” what was true or false placed them beyond the ways of the prophets, the apostles, and even Jesus.
Third, this led to what I would call schizophrenia. Prophetic words were esteemed but possible wrong, celebrated but not to be judged. They were not Scripture. They were serious but not so serious that if they were false it meant anything. And, worst of all, if we did not desire them or take them seriously, we lacked faith and were quenching the Spirit.
The burden shifted to the listener — and it was a burden. The people who used the presence of the prophetic as a mark of true spiritual activity often judged the church and its elders by that criterion.
Finally, it meant people became impatient with the ordinary and faithful ministry of the preached word. The Word of God was not central to worship – the prophetic word was. Immediacy of communication through prophecy displaced immediacy of communication through the living word of God preached.
But I must conclude with what I learned from my brothers who hold to this position. In short, I have learned to have expectation and boldness to love. What do I mean by expectation? I mean confidence that God will speak through the faithful preaching and reading of the Scriptures. He has promised to do so. I do not need something more to have a more immediate word from God. Why do I need to look for prophetic words to have a high expectation of the work of the Spirit through the reading and preaching of the Scriptures? It was when Jesus opened the Scriptures, not when he had a prophetic word, that the disciple’s hearts were strangely warmed.
What do I mean by boldness to love? I mean the courage to move beyond superficial conversation to conversation about the heart, and how that relates to the person in front of me in their circumstances. Why do I need some sense of special revelation to push me into addressing the hearts of my brothers and sisters in the church when they are under the weight of suffering? I do not need to know that God has given me some special word for them, I need to believe he already has in Scripture, and that I may, in love, with grace and patience, speak words from Scripture to strengthen them.
A former charismatic hearing from God under the ordinary preaching of Scripture.
This post is written anonymously to enable the author to focus on issues rather than persons.
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