The Spiritual Gifts: Prophecy (Part 3)

In several previous posts, I’ve considered both what prophecy isn’t and what prophecy is. In this final post on the gift, it is worthwhile to consider its operation in the contemporary church. The potential for abuse and or/for chaos, means that churches must be careful about the use of prophetic gifts among them. We should think carefully about when, where, and how prophecy is communicated today.

The issue of timing is important. The experience of a prophetic vision, or word of knowledge, does not necessitate an immediate sharing. In fact, there may be times when a prophecy has no further implication than to motivate the immediate recipient to response. So Jack Deere has said:

Don’t assume that just because you received a revelation that you have permission to share it. Sometimes God grants revelations that his servants are not permitted to share (Dan. 8:26; 12:4; 2 Cor. 12:4), or he reveals his secret plans to his servants the prophets (Amos 3:7; Jer. 33:3ff.), but expects them to keep these revelations secret until he grants them permission to speak them publicly. (Surprised by the Voice of God, 191)

We don’t need to share everything that we perceive to be prophetic. Paul had this experience when God ushered him into the very throne room of heaven to see a great vision, but which he was not permitted to repeat (2 Cor. 12:1-6). Being sensitive to occasions, contexts, and potentials is important. Being sensitive to God’s will and permission is important. Some prophecies may be simply for our own sake, or they may be a prompting to pray for others.

The question of context ought to concern us next. Where is it appropriate to share a prophecy? If we deem that the vision, or word of knowledge, or spiritual impression is significant enough to share, then where do we do that. Paul is very concerned that the corporate gathering of the church be one of order. The church that permits multitudes of prophecies to be shared, interrupting the flow of the worship service is not, in my opinion, consistent with Paul’s emphasis (1 Cor. 14:26-40). Yet, at the same time, Paul clearly insists that the church should pursue the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 14:1), so what is the appropriate context? Sam Storms has developed a model that promotes a sort of mediated public expression.In his mind, the corporate worship setting is the primary context for expression of this gift, but since not all who think they have received a revelation actually have, then a “designated point person” is responsible for discerning the truth. If someone in his fellowship believes that they have received a revelation, then they will share it with this “designated point person” who will determine (1) if the Lord has truly spoken, (2) if the revelation is for the individual personally or the church corporately, (3) when the revelation should be shared, and (4) who should share it (Practicing the Power, 134).

There’s much about Storms’ approach that is commendable. He takes seriously the role of the spiritual gifts to build up the body of Christ, thus his determination that corporate worship is the appropriate place to share. He also takes seriously the role of the shepherd to protect the sheep from false doctrine, thus the “designated point person.” There are shortcomings, however, with this approach too. On the one hand there is no textual support for a “designated point person,” so it’s hard to determine how this person should operate and thus how they are to discern the key rationales for the aforementioned decisions. It’s asking a lot of one individual to be solely responsible for validating a prophecy, and determining if, when, and how it should be shared. Within Scripture, this task falls to a collective group of prophets (1 Cor. 14:29-33). This model reduces that significant role to one individual, which seems, at best, unwise.

I am personally not persuaded that the corporate worship is the best place for this particular event. I believe a better context for the exercise and facilitation of this gift is within small groups. The intimate nature of that setting, the personal knowledge of one another, and the more flexible nature of the gathering afford a better context for prophecies. Sam Storms acknowledges this point when he writes:

We should remember the first-century context in which Paul wrote his instructions to the church at Corinth. Though we can’t be 100% certain, most scholars agree that no more than 150 people could have been accommodated in the homes of the first century. Most homes would max out at far less than that. So when we read Paul’s writings about prophecy, we need to keep in mind that he likely did not have  in mind a modern-day megachurch or even one that exceeded 200 believers. His instructions most closely relates to smaller gatherings where virtually everyone knew everyone else. (124)

The value of facilitating spiritual gifts in small groups is that we more frequently know who has which gifts, we know their character and spiritual knowledge, and we can more readily discuss and analyze any word of knowledge shared. The smaller context afford more conversation and clarification than the corporate worship setting. This serves to protect the church while also honoring the gifts. Again, Storms says:

We need to keep in mind the likelihood that, given the comparatively small size of house churches in Corinth, virtually everyone who attended a church would be personally acquainted with everyone else there. Each person would likely know what spiritual gift was regularly exercised by every other individual. If one believed that she had a tongue that should be exercised publicly, she could easily determine if those who regularly exercised the gift of interpretation were present. In any case, in a substantially smaller crowd the opportunity for the exercise of all spiritual gifts would be significantly greater. (125)

It makes the most sense to me, then, that small groups should be the best context in which to exercise spiritual gifts.

Finally, we ought to consider the issue of how prophecy should be communicated. We have already discussed the distinct nature of New Testament prophecy. Not only does it not parallel Scripture, but it doesn’t even parallel Old Testament prophecy. Therefore we should be humble and cautious in our communication of it. Our own fallibility means we should follow a few key guidelines about the use of prophetic words.

First, we should never establish doctrine on the basis of prophecy. Doctrine is established by the infallible Word of God. Prophetic gifts do not have that commensurate authority to establish doctrinal truths. Anything revealed in this manner will either be a restatement of what Scripture says, which means it doesn’t establish anything, or it will be out of line with Scripture and therefore is not from God.

Secondly, we should not tell another person God’s will for their life. God’s will for someone’s life is established according to the principles of Scripture. So, where we can clearly support statements from explicit Scriptural texts then we should always speak God’s will. So, it is God’s will that you “abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thess. 4:3). But to tell someone that it is God’s will that they take a specific job, date a certain person, or join a certain ministry is beyond our capacity to discern. We should always be humble in those moments.

Thirdly, we need to be open to correction. Since our interpretation and application of prophecy is not inerrant, we must always be willing to hear critique, pushback, or clarification from others. We noted, in other posts, that Agabus prophecy about Paul’s imprisonment wasn’t exactly right (Acts 21). Likewise, we need to be humble enough to admit that when we attempt to interpret and apply a revelation we can be wrong. When prophecy is shared in small group settings, godly and discerning people should discuss and think carefully about it. No one is above correction, not even prophets (1 Cor. 14:29).

Prophecy is a controversial gift. Much can be written about it and there are many ways that we might discuss facilitating and expressing it among the church. I have shared my thoughts, grounded in as much Scripture as I can, but I am willing to hear other perspectives. Paul calls us to pursue this gift, but how we do so should include humility and caution.

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