Thursday, November 02, 2006

Prophetic Ministry

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.


Gord said...

OK, other than the fact that I disagree with the infallibility of Scripture line. Here is the question:
How do we know? How do we know when our exegesis of Scripture and of the modern world is not the Hand of God guiding us to what needs to be said and when it is simply our biases that we find confirmed?

I think that all people who seek to be prophetic need to ask that question very seriously.

John said...

I think that reliable confirmation would come in the form of manifestations of God or his angels, either audible or visual.

Oloryn said...

OK, other than the fact that I disagree with the infallibility of Scripture line.

Would putting it as 'the authority of Scripture' make any difference?

How do we know when our exegesis of Scripture and of the modern world is not the Hand of God guiding us to what needs to be said and when it is simply our biases that we find confirmed?

If something is truly prophetic, I don't think it's a question of 'God might be guiding us'. You're certain (though I won't deny the opposite problem of people speaking with prophetic certainty when it's not justified). Nor will I deny the times when God, almost unknown to us, does guide our words and our exegesis of scripture to speak something that needs to be said. I've seen it happen in my own life. I do, however, agree with John that to slap the label 'prophetic' on this risks diluting the word to practical meaningless.

To use the word this way seems to me to be attempting to ignore the supernatural origins of a prophetic message and to characterize it only by who it is spoken to - to characterize all attempts at 'speaking truth to power' that claim scriptural influence as prophetic. This essentially reduces prophesy to 'modern activism with scriptural input'. This may be handy if you want to lend an air of prophetic certainty to your activism, but I don't think it really does justice to the word.

the reverend mommy said...

OK, are we on the same page?
When ordained by God with the confirmation and laying on of hands by those who are set aside for ministry of Word, Sacrament and Order and to carry on the ministry of Christ -- actually at our Baptism we are to share in the ministry of Christ -- and in the old traditional language, we are to be priest, prophet and king. (I know I've read this very recently; I'll look for the reference.)

As a lay person and especially as clergy, John, you share in these duties. You are a prophet. The prophetic word has been given. It is your choice what you do with it.

Look at the language about the prophet in the Hebrew Bible. When a prophet is selected, there is a phrase "The Spirit of the Lord was upon" and then the name of the selected prophet.

The veil of the temple is now torn. The Spirit of the Lord rests upon us all and it is our duty to do the will of God and proclaim God's prophetic word.

John said...

Are you saying that that's in the ordination liturgy or how the UMC defines ordination? I don't have a Book of Worship handy so I can't check.

I know that the Church has traditionally ascribed three offices: prophet, priest, and king. But to suggest that we are now prophets would put our exegesis on the level of infallibility of Jeremiah and Isaiah! We can't be prophets and this not be true.

the reverend mommy said...

I know where I read it -- It's in Howard Snyder's opus of work -- either Signs of the Spirit or Liberating the Church (I do believe he's still at Asbury, is he not?)

I believe it was Martin Luther that originally said it -- the priesthood of all believers. There are caveats -- the person MUST be living a spirit-filled life, the person MUST be growing in discipleship; where honest discipleship is lacking, then it cannot be a biblical prophet.

I do know that in Snyder's Ten Theses in Liberating the Church, he restates it as Minister, Servant and Priest.

But yes, there is no distinction between clergy and laity because we are all priests in Christ. The clergy, though have been set aside by the larger body. Each have the ability to be priest, prophet and king BUT ONLY THROUGH continuing discipleship.

Humility -- true humility -- is a fruit of that discipleship and thus I would be really suspicious of a person who sets himself or herself up as a prophet. The conundrum is that those who seek to be prophetic as an end of itself will never succeed. Only those who strive to become sanctified in grace through the sacrifice and example of Christ can succeed.

John said...

Howard Snyder is still at Asbury (Wilmore). I've read one of his books.

So there is a priesthood of all believers. Is there a prophethood of all believers? Can we 'prophesy' with the same inspiration of Isaiah and Jeremiah?

the reverend mommy said...

Inspiration -- from the spirit. Remember your pneumatology? I would not say that each and every revelation from the Spirit is worthy of a Jeremiah or Isaiah, but prophecy is indeed one of the fruits of the Spirit...

In fact, true prophecy is a direct result of the Missio Dei.

I may hijack this...

the reverend mommy said...

And it would not necessairly be exegesis -- exegesis is a reading out of the existing corpus.