A year and a half ago, when I was applying to different seminaries, I spent a few days at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. While there, I heard seminary leaders speak proudly of their development of prophetic ministries, as a collective body and within their outgoing students. This initially excited me, because the phrase made me think of Pentecostalism. Whatever other faults Pentecostal theology may have, at least its adherents really, truly, believe in God as an existential reality. Friends and colleagues had warned me that this might not be the case at Garrett-Evangelical which is traditionally a bastion of Protestant Liberalism.
But I learned that we were defining 'prophetic ministry' differently. What they meant was giving political speeches ex cathedra as a church. For example, students actively protested the continuation of the notorious School of the Americas. The term has been used in a similar way by others.
Despite my earlier cautions against getting the Church involved in political issues, I think that Christians who engage in "prophetic ministries" of this sort are acting in good faith to transform the world into the Kingdom of God in their interpretation of (1) what that Kingdom will look like and (2) the means to achieve those ends. I may not agree with the degree to which they ascribe a political stand as essential for Christian fidelity, but I don't deny their sincerity.
Nonetheless, the term "prophetic" is not an accurate description of this sort of ministry. What they are doing is searching the Scriptures to discern Christian ethics and applying those ethical principles to modern Christian life and society. This is a very different approach from the ministry of the Old Testament prophets.
Samuel, as a boy, heard the audible voice of the Lord in a tested environment. Isaiah not only heard the audible voice of the Lord, but saw an angel in his own commissioning. And Jeremiah was touched by God himself with the words "Behold, I have placed my words in your mouth."
There is a difference between the exegesis of the Scriptures to discern Christian ethics and receiving one's words directly from God. The term 'prophetic' implies 'prophets', and the prophets of the Lord were God's instruments for composing the infallible Bible. In contrast, attempts at discerning and applying Christian ethics are highly fallible.
These thoughts came to mind when, in a recent comment thread, Theresa Coleman wrote:
If we are to be prophets in our own society, how much better would voices united be rather than each singing his or her own song?
The Old Testament makes it clear that God selects who serves as his prophets. He places his words in their mouths. It would be great if were were all prophets, endowed with this high calling. But if we are not so commissioned by God, let us not do so.
All Christians, ordained and lay, should search the Scriptures, learn of God's commands, and apply them to our lives and society. But let us not take our exegetical explorations and preface them with "Thus saith the Lord" unless God specifically placed those very words in our mouths. If we imply that we are voices of prophecy, then we are suggesting that our attempts to discern Christian ethics have the infallibility of Scripture. They do not.