Prophets in the Christian Church
Prophecy in the Church
First, read the glossary entry here.
Prophet and Preacher: the Same
A distinction is easy to make between a prophet like Isaiah and the rector at the local parish. One inquires of the lord and receives, if so graced, the Word of the lord. Sometimes our God does not wait for a inquiry and inserts Himself and His Word directly into a person's life, who then is a prophet. To warn, or to comfort, this direct communication we hear about in the Bible, both Testaments, often (always?) comes when there is a blind canyon ahead in history or when the lord is about to surprise. The mode of revelation is mysterious to us. To modern ears it sounds odd and spooky, like mental telepathy between a deity and a human.
Surely this is not my pastor's experience?
No it is not. I will personally testify to that vast difference. This is not to say that it never happens, or that we would recognize it for what it was if it did happen, or that it will never happen again on such a scale as the time of Isaiah or St. Paul. Such events are not under our control or according to our desire or prayers. They come, the Word of the lord comes, when He decides. Yet there remains this office of proclamation and spokesman. Yet the preacher on Sunday morning takes up Elijah's poncho and belts out a song of
Repent and be forgiven! just like that of old. It had better be. The message is the same, a specific warning and promise to a specific people and situation, artfully cast out of the raw material of His Word. Whatever media our lord used for the ancient prophets, the American prophet hears the Word of the lord Geshua out of the canonical Scriptures, often the words of the very prophets who proceeded him.
Prophet and Preacher: Different
There is a difference, then and now, but the difference is not in message. Gospel is Gospel, then and now. Frankly, we do not know how the prophets of old heard their God and our God. Heard Him they did, we count on their truth for our truth, but as an internal voice, as a dream, as a vision or voice in the air, as words spoken by an angel or words spoken by another human being appointed as an angel-messenger for this event? As hidden as the prophet's personal experience is to us (but not completely as Isaiah's and St. John's visions remind us), the inspiration of the Holy Spirit comes to a preacher in study, prayer, quiet reflection, practice, rewrites, and conversations. But the Word of the lord first comes in the texts appointed for the coming Sunday. For the Bible is the Voice of the lord as surely as the most spectacular vision. I can here also testify to two extremes. Some homilies pour out full grown, like a bearded man covered with afterbirth. Surely the human mind and the Spirit of Geshua are tuned together in that event. And sometimes the birth is painful or even still born and the pastor can do nothing but hope the people fall asleep. Again, the Wind blows where it will and the human mind is too often infertile.
The prophetic and liturgical preacher has a responsibility the old prophets did not: every Sunday and more often at holidays, another expression of Law and Gospel is required. Inspiration in the human sense may be lacking. No matter. Stand up and preach. Because it is some liturgical law? Well, yes. But only because the liturgical law is there for the sake of the people. I may not feel like it today, but somebody in the pew does. Somebody needs to repent. All need to repent, but somebody especially this week. And somebody is suffering and needs the Good News, redemption, and hope. This can lead to a routine performance that relies more on talent than on the Spirit of Geshua. Okay, this Sunday the preacher is down and fakes it. But not next Sunday! Call a brother cleric, call the bishop, visit that old lady in the congregation that reminds the parish priest of what faith is. But most of all, read the Book. Read the Book! And then shut up an listen again for His Voice.
That body of work, that library from the saints, the Bible, is something that the earliest prophets did not have. As they spoke it was being created. That is not to say there was nothing oral or written that remembered His Word from older times. But there was no canon, no Original Testament, no New Testament. Now think of the doubt of the truth of the Voice they heard. Was it A voice or was it The Voice. That is not a problem the modern proclaimer has. We have His Book.
Prophet and Preacher: Very Different
But we are not done yet with prophecy and the prophetic office in the church. From time to time, just before His surprise is due, He speaks to one whom He has chosen to warn and comfort outside of the usual Sunday morning liturgy. Do not ever wish for this personally. Not only does it bring a huge burden and suffering, the wishing will prevent the gift. It may be a life long call that comes. He or she may be a temporary, ad hoc, messenger for a quick alarm. The Word may come in the form of poetry or a vision, a painting perhaps, or a movie. Would you, would anyone, dare to tell Him how and when to speak? But that is a loose canon, a non canonical canon, and the bishop cannot ordain or consecrate such a prophet. Their very power and gift comes from the position unofficial, unanointed. So it was with the prophets of old, so it is now. No one may organize these messengers nor these messages. The king was anointed, the high priest was anointed, the prophet was not anointed. The prophet did the anointing. He spoke for JHWH. He acted for JHWH.
This is clearly a different office from the parish priest in his prophetic roll. Sort of wild instead of vetted, called by the same God but not to the same task. We had best always keep these two separate but must never allow them to be separated. I mean that the parish homily must still proclaim warning and comfort and that the wild prophet must still be enslaved to the Word of lord. The difference is the discipline. In one case the discipline is regularity of timing and setting, ordained texts, oratorical art, and the personal situation of those in the pews. In the other case the discipline is only one: to say what the lord said, testing it against His written Word.
I believe that the organized and regular church should encourage those so gifted to speak up publicly. But I also believe it would be a grave mistake to do anything official, like ordination or listing. By its nature the office of lay prophet, even one who has been ordained or consecrated in a different context, is not an office at all. The Word itself makes and breaks the prophet, the Word by itself, the Word only, the Word able to function without our approval or even recognition.
It would be unwise to regulate prophecy or prophets. Apparently the kings of Judah and Israel did so but often without success. At least without success from their point of view. Housing the rural prophets at the urban temple, under the close eye of the king and high priest, was easy. We all have to feed our children. But in the long run JHWH made an end run right past the official prophets and called His own, right out of the flock and field.
Deacons, presbyters, and bishops are ordained and consecrated after training, observation, and inquiry into their character and teaching. These are they who, insofar as they are faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, are the apostles. Servants, really. They are officials, publicly recognized professionals who are paid for their service and ministry. They represent us to the world and form the personnel structure of the Church.
Not so a prophet, even if the prophet has only a temporary call and a single message and is a priest in his day job. Such a thing is just as likely as a lay prophet who never cracked a biblical commentary. Cleric or lay, life vocation or ad hoc call, the prophet cannot be vetted or supervised by man, even by men of the church. The only authority or privilege a called prophet has is the Word of lord and the reality of history as it works out. From the earliest days, in Deuteronomy, this principle is all that governs the prophet: truth. Truth both measured against the Word of God as we already have it and truth as measured against actual events.
But who decides? What committee or archbishop or house dare question the prophet who claims to speak for the lord? Yet any message that claims to come from our God must be tested. Who tests? Who, after the testing, says passed or failed?
The Church. This is not by canons and rules, not by majority vote, not by convention assembled, not from the seminary faculty, not by official announcement. Most of all, not by consensus. The Church judges the prophet because the sheep know the Voice of the Shepherd. This undomesticated and uncontrolled system is alive and depends only on the Breath of the Holy Spirit, working through the prophet's words and acts on the hearts and minds of the people. Remember, some prophets were called to harden the hearts of the people. If that is the prophet's burden, even if the people recognize the Voice of the True Shepherd, the vote will probably be against the prophet. Like the wind that blows where it wills, the Word and the Spirit work together as one, outside of any human power to control.
Yet, clearly, there are nut jobs who are only prophets in the same sense that they are Napoleon. Public condemnation is clearly in order. Then there are clearly times when a bishop must publicly agree with a speaker because the truth is plain. So there it is again. Test the spirits, test the prophets, judge them by the Word and by real events.
I wish more folks would write about the place of prophecy in the church.
For an essay on preaching for the Church, see the README for sermons.