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…. Especially That You May Prophesy

February 21, 2015

The New Testament speaks of prophecy as a normal occurrence within the church. Yet in all my years of church attendance I have never to my remembrance heard a clear explanation of this gift, or heard any utterance by anyone identified as prophecy. (But perhaps I wasn’t listening.) I have never heard anyone lay claim to the gift of prophecy. (I definitely would have remembered that!) Perhaps present day Christians consider the shoes of the Old Testament prophets too big to fill. Or perhaps reading the Biblical account of the tribulation that wracked the lives of those men, they ask themselves who in their right mind would aspire to stand among them. Or more realistically, perhaps it is the fear of the very real consequences that may result from expressing an unorthodox view. In any event, although other spiritual gifts have maintained a safe, fairly utilitarian character, the gift of prophecy has been mystified, anointed with an otherworldly air tinged with danger. Musing on this goaded me to delve more deeply.

In the evolution of the English language the primary usage of the noun prophecy and its corresponding verb prophesy have been largely wrenched from the office of the Biblical prophet. Modern dictionaries settle both words exclusively within the realm of prescience, foretelling the future. It is my impression that in line with those definitions the common imagination of Christians understands the spiritual gift of prophecy to be the ability to predict the future. I do not. In my conception it is the ability not to add to Biblical revelation, but rather to provide new perspectives on the revelation already received.

Paul obviously considered prophecy of great importance. In his enumerations of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, Ephesians 4:7-13, and in Romans 12:3-8, prophecy is the only gift mentioned in all three. He wanted all believers to prophesy (1 Corinthians 14:5) and encouraged all to “earnestly desire” the gift. Although he grants it ascendency among the spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14:39), and specifically warns not to despise it (1 Thessalonians 5:20) the church has largely ignored his warning. It has greeted the gift of prophecy with suspicion, misunderstanding, confusion and fear.

There are even some who have tried to kick it to the curb, claiming the gift of prophecy has expired. Citing as their proof text 1 Corinthians 13:9-10, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away”, they maintain that the perfect—the full revelation of the truth of God—came with the completion of the New Testament canon, and with its arrival, the partial—the gift of prophecy—ceased to exist. They adamantly insist that everything that can be known about God is bound within the covers of the Bible, and no new revelation is possible.

To me, sola scriptura, the Protestant doctrine that the Bible is the supreme authority in all matters of doctrine and practice, is flawed. The gaping hole I have come to see in that doctrine is this: in elevating ink on paper to ultimate authority, we ignore the human element in the equation. The written word is merely information. To have any meaning at all it must undergo interpretation, a complex, holistic process involving analysis, synthesis and evaluation. In that very personal process it is influenced and tainted by the opinions, assumptions, values, beliefs, biases, prejudices and past experiences of the interpreter. In short, it shifts from being objective to being subjective, and far too often hubris overtakes humility. While scripture is fixed (although even that notion is arguable) interpretation is fluid.

To make my point I will saddle an oft-ridden horse. A couple of years ago I read George D. Armstrong’s The Christian Doctrine of Slavery, published in 1857, in which the author expounds on what many Christians of the time believed the Bible had to say on the subject. Certainly Christians today would consider Armstrong’s position totally without scriptural merit, and indeed repugnant. So what happened? Did scripture change? Of course not! It was the generally accepted interpretation of scripture that changed. This has occurred in the past, is occurring at this very moment (witness the rapidly changing attitude toward sexual orientation), and will occur in the future.

My other concern is that sola scriptura makes the Bible and not the person of Christ who lives in and among us the final authority. However I in no way wish to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Bible is unquestionably an important and authoritative guide for Christian faith and practice, but it isn’t the foundation or center of our faith—Jesus is. And, as Brandan Robertson, a prominent Christian blogger I follow, points out, although studying scripture is valuable, it is nowhere near as valuable as cultivating a day to day relationship with the God incarnate.

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.” John 5:39-40 The Message

I have written repeatedly that I give heed to the Spirit of God who is living and active within me. I trust my shepherd and I know his voice. Sometimes he speaks to me through the Bible. Sometimes he speaks to me through his creation. Sometimes he speaks to me through other believers. Sometimes he speaks to me through those who are of other faiths or of no faith at all. I know these ideas frighten some. They fear that following the Spirit makes faith subjective, that it will inevitably lead to confusion. But I know that as he promised, God has plans for me, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give me a future and a hope, and I trust that the Lord will lead me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

But I digress.

My reading of Paul’s letters leaves no doubt in my mind that he considered the gift of prophecy as important, even essential, to a healthy church. For “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” (1 Corinthians 14:3) Prophetic words exhort to obedience and service, admonish and correct error, edify the brethren. The Spirit gave the gift of prophecy to bring and maintain renewal in Christ’s church.

Paul’s expectation of the universality of prophecy is unmistakable. He clearly believed the gift is open to every believer. “For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.” (1 Corinthians 14:31)

If all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” (1 Corinthians 14:24-25)

If it is our desire to build a vibrant church, we cannot afford to despise the gift of prophecy. We cannot let fear and misunderstanding prevent this powerful gift of the Spirit from developing and maturing to take its rightful place in the body of Christ according to the will of God. If we balance it against scripture, observing the caution of 1 Thessalonians 5:20 to “test everything”, the prophetic word will serve us well, edifying the church.

I find the idea of the gift of prophecy within the church exciting. I have recently begun attending a church where all voices are heard and honoured, where all are encouraged to add their perspectives to what is being taught. From what I have experienced so far, this provides a welcome balance, validates the experience of all assembled, and bespeaks the democracy of a “holy priesthood”. (1 Peter 2:5)

Prophecy, like all the spiritual gifts, is given to individuals for the benefit of Christ’s church. I would hope that Christians everywhere would encourage those who earnestly desire this gift, assisting them in every way possible to develop their Spirit-given talent. I would hope that all would give thanks for both the gift and for those to whom it has been given, and prayerfully give ear to their voices.

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