Prophets and Gifts of the Spirit – Part 1
In our previous instalment we noted that the speaking in tongues at the inauguration of the church in Acts 2 resembled the prophesying of the newly-inducted “elders” in Numbers 11 during the time of Moses. Moses’ desire that all of God’s people become prophets by being given God’s Spirit seems to have come to pass in the days of the Apostles of Jesus Christ.
On that Pentecost day the noise attracts a crowd, who witness the disciples preaching to them about Jesus Christ in their own native languages. Peter stands up to address the assembled crowd to explain what has just happened. In his address he tells them that the prophet Joel had predicted. He quotes Joel 2:28-29, “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” (NIV)
Joel seems to have seen the connection between God’s Spirit and a “universal” prophetic ministry among believers long before Peter did.
Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles writes to several churches to explain with various analogies how gifts of the Spirit work together in the congregations. He lists the gift of prophecy in almost all of his lists, and numbers it among the most useful gifts that can be desired by a believer. Unfortunately for some hard-line Pentecostal teachers, Paul tells believers in 1 Cor. 14:1-19 that they should pray for the most useful spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. Prophecy, not tongues, seems to be the most common manifestation of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
In 1 Cor. 12:28 Paul lists what seems to be an order of priority of gifts. First apostles, second prophets, third teachers, and so on. Apostles seem to be necessary to plant or establish new churches, while prophets are probably necessary to keep a church following God’s will, along with teachers. If Paul is establishing an order of priority, prophets rate quite high indeed.
Another possible way to read this is as a natural order in which gifts are manifested in a given community. First, an apostolic preacher plants a church, then some disciples are given prophetic ministries to assist in establishing the church, then teachers naturally arise to teach new believers more systematically about how the Scriptures apply to Jesus’ ministry and to their own lives. The more believers there are, the more diversified the gifts can become among believers.
[Note that “administration” is second-last on the list, just before tongues. You be the judge of what that implies about how much power administrators should have in the church.]
Paul ends that passage with an exhortation to desire the most helpful” or “useful” gifts, which he elaborates in 14:1 as being the proclamation and teaching gifts, especially prophecy. As an illustration, he tells the Corinthian church that if someone is speaking and a prophet receives a revelation, that the person speaking must sit down so that the prophet can speak (1 Cor. 14:26-32).
In Eph. 4:7-13 Paul lists prophets second after apostles once again, and ahead of evangelists, pastors and teachers.
In Rom. 12:3-10 he lists it as his first example of a gift that needs to be used for building up, not tearing down, the church. This does not so much establish its priority as demonstrate that it is perhaps uppermost in Paul’s mind. Prophecy finds its way into almost all of the lists of gifts that he names.
I suspect that the reason the gift of prophecy figures so prominently in Paul’s mind is that prophecy is a multifaceted gift. Prophecy can illuminate, motivate, encourage, and even root out sinful attitudes or behaviours in leadership. Prophets have a power that goes beyond prestige and organizational clout. They proclaim God’s will for that time and those circumstances for that community.
Prophets are feared by the power-hungry in the congregation because they might expose the back-room deals and behind-the scenes manipulation so common in modern (and ancient) life. Prophets illuminate the rot that undermines the effectiveness of the church. They name the sin of the powerful in high places, including in the church.
One of the first things leaders of church organizations who want absolute power must do to consolidate power is to discredit the prophetic ministry in the eyes of the congregation. To this end, they often label the prophet who disagrees with their plans as having “a critical spirit” and may accuse him or her of “creating division” in the church. This should come as no surprise to those who read the accounts of the treatment of prophets by the powers-that-be in the Old Testament. Jesus’ parable of the tenants and the vineyard in Matt. 21:33-36 paints the picture of the normal reaction to the prophetic word of God.
Others will simply claim that the gifts of the spirit did not continue past that first generation of the church.
The Apostle Paul prophetically warns the Ephesian elders that wolves would infiltrate the church, and sends Timothy in response to that threat in Acts 20:28-38. (You will see all the same themes in Paul’s first letter to Timothy if you read carefully.) This is perfectly consistent with Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares in Matt. 13:24-30. This suggests (to me anyway) that there will never be a time when the prophetic ministry will be unnecessary in the church.
1 Corinthians 14 also suggests that a church can have multiple prophets functioning smoothly together in harmony in the Spirit. This ideal has been twisted into an ideal of non-disagreement with pastoral leadership.
To have a prophet disagree with the current path of church leadership does not usually constitute a spirit of disunity on the part of the prophet. It is rather that the prophet is calling the church in a different direction than expected. In most cases the prophet is showing that God’s will is different than the current plan.
Occasionally a prophetic word might indicate a lack of attention to God’s will on the part of the leadership or a desire for a degree of control that is inappropriate for the gift of administrators. In extreme cases there may be a wolf in charge of the flock and the leadership itself will ultimately be responsible for disunity and turmoil (by this time any blame for disunity has usually been cast upon the prophets in the church). The Apostle John seems to be talking about that extreme kind of situation in 3 John 1:9-10.
Is it possible that the ministry without portfolio of a prophet could be abused? As with all things touched by humanity, of course it could. Even in ancient Israel there were lying prophets.
The good news is that, within the community of faith, God has given a gift that balances the power of the prophet. It is the little-known gift of “discerning of spirits.” This seems to be the ability to discern the spiritual origin of prophetic utterances (whether of God’s spirit or another, less benevolent spirit).
The gift of tongues can be used inappropriately without the gift of interpretation (at least for purposes of corporate worship). In a similar fashion the gift of prophecy (for purposes of church direction) may be abused without the complementary gift of discernment of spirits. That is why Paul indicates that all of the gifts of the spirit are necessary for the healthy functioning of the church.
On the other hand, administrators who attempt to run a church according to a plan while ignoring or discrediting the prophetic gift risk putting the church on the path of disobedience to God. This strikes me as a very scary place for a church to be.
Just as no ship should sail through treacherous waters without a skilled navigator, a church should not navigate through our troubled times without the gifts of the prophets and discerners of show God’s will for that time and place.