According to the Network Participant’s Guide, the traits of a prophet are that s/he is discerning, compelling, uncompromising, outspoken, authoritative, convicting, and confronting. Phew! no wonder the gift of prophecy can sometimes seem too hot to handle! Such a set of traits raises important questions about the authority of the prophet, and how this relates to other kinds of authority within the church. I’m going to argue that that the authority (and therefore the accountability) of the prophet is similar to the authority (and accountability) of the teacher.
For, firstly, although prophecy is not the same as teaching, the two gifts are related. Notice how they are linked in Matthew 23:34, Acts 13:1, 1 Corinthians 12:28 and elsewhere. Both prophecy and teaching involve a declaration of the mind of God. Teaching is the explanation and application of the mind of God as revealed in Scripture for all time and all situations. Prophecy is the more immediate declaration of the mind of God as revealed by the Holy Spirit for a particular time and situation. Although teaching is primarily a rational activity, based on careful study, we should expect it to have a prophetic impact, so that hearers feel, “this is God’s word for us;” or, “this is what we must do”. Conversely, although prophecy is primarily an inspired activity, based on immediate revelation, we should expect it to have a rational impact, so that hearers think, “this makes sense;” or, “this is in line with Scripture”.
Then, secondly, both prophecy and teaching are subject to scrutiny. Neither gift is self-authenticating, and neither is infallible. Teaching has authority only in so far as it accurately represents the mind of God as revealed in Scripture. And something similar must be said of prophecy: whereas inscripturated prophecy carries with it the authority that we ascribe to Scripture as a whole, extra-biblical prophecy, along with the other charismata, needs to be tested and controlled, 1 Corinthian 13:9; 14:29. The prophet’s transmission of a divine message is no more infallible than the teacher’s interpretation of the Bible. In each case, we have this treasure in earthen vessels. One consequence of this is that it will normally be unwise for a prophetic utterance to be delivered as if the Lord himself were speaking in the first person (“Thus says the Lord…”). A prophet may feel more or less confident about the content of his message, but, generally, an appropriate preface would be something like, “I think that what God might be saying in this situation is…” Another consequence is that prophecy, though not to be despised, is to be tested, 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21. The partner gift of the discerning of spirits is relevant here, 1 Corinthians 12:10, as is a more general scrutiny of the prophetic utterance by ‘the others’ who are present, 1 Corinthians 14:29. Then again, the prophets themselves have a responsibility for what, when, how, and to whom they speak, for ‘the spirits of the prophets are subject to the control of the prophets’, 1 Corinthians 14:32.
Moreover, thirdly, both prophetic ministry and teaching ministry need to be recognised and affirmed by the church. In the case of public teaching, this is done through selection, training and ordination/licensing. In the case of the prophetic ministry, the process is not so formalised, but Network does provide a tried and tested framework. And, in any case, just as those who are exploring their aptness to teach are often able to begin by testing and exercising their gift in the relative safety of a small group, so might it be for those with a prophetic gift. Such a relatively structured approach might seem to contradict the pattern of open ministry that we find in 1 Corinthians, but we know enough about the difficulties of that church to suggest that its pattern is not the only one to follow: it might work for some relatively small and homogenous groups, but for larger, mixed congregations it could become a recipe for undisciplined mayhem. I’m not suggesting there could never be a place for spontaneous prophetic utterances from those not previously recognised as having a gift of prophecy (see Numbers 11:29; Joel 2:28; 1 Corinthians 14:1), but I do think that in the interests of good order we ought to regard these as exceptional, at least until we acquire more experience in receiving and responding to prophecy.
But, lastly, both prophecy and teaching need to be allowed to challenge as well as console. The teacher seeks to follow Paul in not hesitating to proclaim the whole will of God, not just those bits of God’s counsel that the audience wants to hear. Similarly, the prophet is aware that it requires boldness, as well as humility, to utter unpopular truths; it costs nothing and achieves little merely to toe the party line and offer a few reassuring platitudes. If we are serious about renewal we may also have to get serious about reformation: that is, we may have to challenge at some stage the prevailing doctrinal and ecclesiastical structures. But there are ways and means of doing this. Therefore, I say again: the prophetic ministry should be under similar controls as the teaching ministry: both should be recognised, nurtured and tested by the local church; both should be under, rather than over, Scripture; both should be as private or as public as the situation requires. The prophet has as much reason as the rest of us for praying with the Psalmist, ‘Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.’ (Psalm 141:3)
Beyond such basic understandings and guidelines as these, I think we might be prepared to take a few risks, expect to make some progress and perhaps a few mistakes, and be willing to learn from our experience, always keeping God’s written word before us as our infallible guide.
“Lord, speak to me, that I may speak
in living echoes of thy tone.”