The Church: An Organic Picture of Its Life

by Robert Brow

Chapter 8

Prophets and Prophetesses

The contemporary church is deeply concerned about having a prophetic voice. The usual method for accommodating this concern is to appoint a committee at every conference to draft resolutions about items of social injustice. These resolutions are duly passed by assemblies, and then politicians are lobbied by the more persistent churchmen. If democratic procedures fail we have learned from Mahatma Gandhi how to organize marches and nonviolent demonstrations. The ecclesiastical "doves" are shocked at these undignified proceedings. The ecclesiastical "hawks" suggest that it is time to use holy violence to shake the entrenched bourgeois status quo. In any case the world is singularly unimpressed. God's way used to be to appoint a Nathan to remind David about Bathsheba's husband (II Sam. 12:1-15), an Elijah to speak about the matter of Naboth's vineyard (I Kings 21:17-29), an Amos to denounce the fat kine of Bashan who made their husbands oppress the poor so that they could sleep on beds of ivory, overeat, and spend a fortune on beauty ointments (Amos 4:1; 6:4-6). It was John the Baptist's preaching, not nicely worded resolutions in the Sanhedrin, that prepared a people to hear their God.

Where did these Old Testament prophets come from? How were such giants produced? Obviously they did not come fully formed from nowhere. Like Jesus they grew up in their home town. They spent more time than the ordinary with the creator. Having conversed with God, they rebuked one of the local landlords or the man who allowed his parents to starve or the farmer who hired laborers and paid their wages at his own convenience. The community relied on prophets to speak bluntly without fear of man wherever there was injustice. Gradually the man of God became known in widening circles by honest and true Citizens across the land. The dishonest, the corrupt, the exploiters, the sex-grabbers, the domineering would hate them. When God spoke it was impossible to be indifferent. Peasants, nobles, priests, magistrates, and even the other Prophets, high and low, all had to decide for God and his righteousness, or the voice had to be silenced. This is why Nathan could walk in to the king, tell a parable, and point the finger to say, "Thou art the man." No official, landlord, or merchant could escape the haunting fear that a recognized prophet might walk in and deliver a public rebuke. If the church today could produce such men, I suspect their voice would carry further than any pale resolutions.

The nearest equivalent to this today is the courageous newspaper editor or the radio commentator who is big enough to speak out. For the most part such men are concerned with being interesting, objective, and accurate, all punctuated with an occasional burst of righteous indignation if Such is in line with public opinion. Once in a decade an editor becomes prophetic. Tycoons, racketeers, and crooks in political clothing tremble at his words. A city is saved from corruption, wrong is dramatically righted, only because one man was willing to insist on truth regardless of personal considerations. Perhaps more Christians could take time to be men of God, to look with God at history and society, and then write and speak from the housetops.

The problem is that all the great churches and even the most biblical of evangelical Protestants have agreed that prophets died out in the apostolic age. It would be very inconvenient for theologians and for the establishment if prophets were to appear again in our churches. Who would control them? The us al theory is that the message of all the New Testament prophets was distilled into our canon; and with the book of Revelation to take us to the end of time, no further word from God is to be expected. By definition all self-styled prophets must be cranks, although it is nice to use the term for the occasional scholar who rises above the academic requirements to say something interesting.

The contradiction between a completed canon of Scripture and a continuing line of prophets is unnecessary. At every stage the written Word of God has needed prophets to apply it to men's hearts in concrete situations. The test of a true prophet like Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel was that he spoke according to God's law and never in contradiction to it (Deut. 13:1-5). For eighteen centuries Christians of all denominations have agreed that the written word of God is complete with the New Testament canon. I have no intention of denying this simple foundation of all Christendom. I do contend that prophets were taken for granted as an essential part of the New Testament church, that they continued to perform a vital function in the first half of the second century, and that they are needed desperately if the church is to be more than the worn-out record of a dead God in our modern world.

Before going further we should define carefully just what we mean. The issue is confused by the phenomenon of predictive prophecy, which the Modernists on the one hand deny as unscientific and the Fundamentalists on the other hand make the norm of prophetic function. The Modernist argument is simple. The future has not happened and man is free to make it what he wills. Therefore, prediction, as opposed to mere insight into the signs of the times, is scientifically impossible. I remember hearing a learned professor explain the rule of thumb for Old Testament exegesis: "If the prophecy is fulfilled in history, date it after the event." This method makes possible, for example, the delineation and numbering of the various Isaiahs according to the historical periods that obviously appear in the book.

The Modernist logic is unanswerable if we accept the premise that God is in time. If, however, we consider with Einstein that this universe is a limited space-time continuum, that God being eternal cannot be limited in time, and that he has in fact made space-time as an essential part of his creation, then the argument does not follow. If a prophet meets with God and looks at space-time as God sees, he will be able to look at and describe other parts of space-time. At face value, this is exactly what the prophetic books seem to do. They are a series of disjointed descriptions of vivid scenes at various points in the space-time continuum. Isaiah, for example, in chapter 53 sees the cosmic event of the death of the Son of God on the cross. He also saw other periods of history, such as the exile and restoration, as well as the events of his own century. if we draw a semi-circle representing time, and Put God at the center, then we can visualize the prophet leaving his own spot on the time circle, going to the center and out again along another radius to see or be a seer[22] of another segment of space-time.

Whereas the Modernist's problem is that he cannot believe that the prophet can foretell as well as forthtell, the Fundamentalist is too interested in the details of his prophetic charts to note the importance of social righteousness in God's plan for men and nations. It is true that God demonstrates his control of history by giving long-term and short-term prophecies of every major event in Scripture. The whole argument of Isaiah 41:21-48: 16 is based on the fact that God had predicted the earth-shaking events of the Seventh and sixth centuries B.C., while the idols had been dumbly silent. When the prophecies were fulfilled and Cyrus had completed his predicted appointment, Israel was to understand and be wise.[23] This line of apologetics is part and parcel of biblical history, but it is evident that predictive prophecy was only a by-product from the point of view of the prophet himself, Peter tells us that in fact the predictions were enigmatic when delivered (I Pet. 1: 10- 1 2). Most of what the prophets had to say concerned flesh and blood social situations, which were only too obvious to their hearers. Predictive prophecy was essential for God's historical revelation, but it is not essential to prophetic activity. Some of the New Testament prophets did give predictions, and we cannot rule out the possibility of prediction today; but whether or not there is an element of prediction, the prophetic voice is essential for God's action in and through his people.

]f we were again to have prophets in the twentieth-century church, what would they do, how would they be prepared, and how would the administrators fit them into the denominational budgets? Let us begin with the New Testament churches as a norm, and then ask ourselves how our present outlook could be adapted to think and act the way they did. We can begin with Paul's concise definition. "He who prophesies speaks to men for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation" (I Cor. 14:3). This is said in the context of speaking to an organized Christian congregation. Immediately many ministers will say, "Oh, if that's what you mean by prophecy, of course I agree with you. That's exactly what I try to do every Sunday. I build them up in the faith, I exhort them to Christian living, and I console those who are downhearted. I guess that makes me a prophet." There are men of God in our pulpits who try to discover what God is saying to his people. They do build up, encourage, and console. But are they in fact functioning as prophets in the way Paul meant it? Undoubtedly many ministers in our various denominations, and laymen too, have a prophetic gift and they could function as prophets in the New Testament sense, but there seems to be something lacking.

In the first place there is the question of time and concentration. The man who is hired to be a minister is expected to do many things. He has no time to wait on God. He is narrowed down to the pressing problems of one congregation, so that he is unable to see the movement of God and of evil in the world. He is expected to keep office hours and sit on numerous committees, until he comes to the point of assuming that he is paid to keep busy. He would be seriously misunderstood if he remained silent for a week and refused to see those who came to see him.[24] If there were prophets who had time to think and see as God sees, some of them would undoubtedly have something prophetic to say. They might meet the hunger of modern man, who desperately needs a word from God rather than a boring diet of hastily prepared exhortations. The problem is that our modern congregations do not, and probably cannot, allow their minister to be a prophet.

It is not just a question of a little word of building up and a few encouraging and consoling thoughts. The building up is lifting men and women out of the humdrum into the great movement of God in history. The encouragement of real paraklesis[25] is the application of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete himself, to shake man to the very core and stand him up on his feet again to do exploits for God. Consolation is, God's fierce and loving answer to the very problems of existence and death that no man can answer. There are men of God who preach in this way, but they are too few; and the few need to be released for the whole people of God rather than building up a large single congregation while hundreds of others starve for a word from the Lord.

If lack of time is the first problem, the second is the lack of freedom to move; and this is largely a financial matter. Congregations will pay to have their own man of God if he can swell the attendance and the offerings. They will pay considerably less to send him as a missionary overseas. But to support a man of God with the freedom to be a prophet in the nation is unthinkable. The fact is that we have no equivalent of the first- and second-century prophets. Thomas M. Lindsay well described such men. "Those so endowed were in no sense office-bearers in any one Christian community; they were not elected to an office; they were not set apart by any ecclesiastical ceremony; the Word of God came to them, and they spoke the message that had sent them. They came and went as they pleased. They were not responsible to any society of Christians. The local church could only test them as they appeared, and could receive or reject their ministrations. The picture of these wandering preachers, men burdened by no cares of office, with no pastoral duties, coming suddenly into a Christian community, doing their work there and departing as suddenly, is a vivid one in sub-apostolic literature."[26] Even if we approved of prophets in this sense, how would they live in our sprawling cities?

Lindsay notices the ministry of prophets in the early Christian congregations. We know that prophets moved in this way because they are mentioned in writings such as the Didache.[27] Is it too much to assume that they also performed a prophetic function in society? Or do we have to believe that whereas the Old Testament men of God spoke to kings and cities and nations, their New Testament equivalent confined their words to Christian ghettos? Certainly John the Baptist had no hesitation in rebuking Herod Antipas. Some of the great patristic preachers, among them Chrysostom and Ambrose, addressed their words to emperors and empresses. They remind us of the prophetic tradition, although the tendency to limit them to a particular church congregation was already evident. The case is not proved, but the evidence is sufficient for us at least to pray that God might of his mercy raise up some Hoseas, Amoses, Deborahs, and Habakkuks, to speak from God to our proud, sick world. Let each denomination and congregation and Christian decide how such men can eat and be warmed and pay their social security, so that they can give what the world so badly needs.

Spiritual concentration, prophetic preaching, mobility in the bloodstream of the body of Christ, discernment of the signs of the times, the rebuke of social wrongs, and the freedom to be a prophet without financial shackles-these are the marks of the gift of prophecy. God must call, the Holy Spirit must empower, but the church must recognize and make possible the exercise of the gift.

How do such men fit into our B.D.-level seminary training program? The answer is simple. They do not, they will not, and they should not. Nor do they fit into our present scheme of the ordained ministry, a matter to be discussed in Chapter XV.

What about the spurious prophets? We have had enough in our generation to bring the name of prophet into disrepute. As we saw in Chapter VI, Jesus warned us against false prophets, whom he has not sent. Many of these will be told, "I never knew you: depart from me, you evildoers" (Matt. 7:15, 22). Large numbers of false prophets are mentioned by the New Testament writers, and Christians are responsible for testing them. "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world" (11 Pet. 2:1-3; 1 John 4:1-6). One of the problems with all the gifts of the Spirit is that whenever they are truly exercised ungodly men will begin to duplicate them, We should beware of the self-styled . prophet. "By their fruits ye shall know them" is Christ's advice, and fruits do not appear overnight. Over a period of years a prophet will establish his right to be heard and the reliability of his word according to the written revelation of God and the good fruits of his preaching. We need to watch for the false, but as in all other cases the existence of counterfeits is no argument for denying oneself the genuine.

One final question. In his sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter declared the prophecy of Joel was now fulfilled and that all God's people - men and women, young and old, free men and slaves - would prophesy. Every Christian is to exercise a prophetic function to his neighbor, in his job, in society. How do we square this with the fact that some specialists, the prophetic men who give themselves to waiting on God and studying history and the signs of the times, range widely across society to speak for God? The distinction is simple, as we shall see in the next chapter. Every Christian will exercise mercy when there is an obvious need that he can meet, but some Christians will give themselves entirely to the gift of mercy. So all true Christians are prophets, and they will on occasion speak prophetically to a neighbor, on a committee, or in society; but some men of God will give themselves much more exclusively to developing and using the prophetic gift imparted to them by the Holy Spirit for this purpose.

Chapter 9...