Churches Should Say Neither Too Little Nor Too Much
Prophecy can be perilous. Take the example from Ezekiel 13. God’s Word comes to Ezekiel to prophesy against the prophets of Israel: “Woe to the foolish prophets, says the Lord God, who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing!” (13:3). These false prophets say “Declares the Lord” when the Lord has not in fact addressed them (13:6). God is against those with “false visions and lying divinations” (13:8). Israel’s prophets say “peace, peace” when there is no peace (13:10) and thus incur God’s judgment. Ezekiel is in this instance a true prophet addressing false prophets—and what he’s doing is risky.
I once heard a wise, older teacher once remark that the answer to the question “where do the prophets come from?” is simple: God raised them up! That’s exactly what you’ll notice when you examine the lives of the prophets closely. They come suddenly out of nowhere and arise in God’s power. Conferral of the prophetic office is entirely God’s prerogative. No one gets the option to self-identify because God alone raises them up.
AN OFFICE REINTERPRETED
But with Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, the prophetic office has been reinterpreted, as the author of Hebrews is prompt to point out: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom he created the world” (Heb. 1:1). Jesus is God’s Word made flesh. He is God’s revelation. He is the Prophet whom the other prophets foretold.
In the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, God’s people are reconstituted on entirely new terms. Jesus’ disciples receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them (Acts 1:8). No longer bound to the law, they’re free in the Holy Spirit. They are Christ’s body on earth. They have a mission. They have a way to live—walking in the Spirit—and a message to preach—“repent and believe the gospel!”
Some members of Christ’s body may receive the gift of prophecy. It’s a distinct gift of the Holy Spirit for an individual. Paul and Peter have a great deal to say about exercising this gift, which has to do with disclosing what God has revealed. That’s why Ezekiel, for example, begins each prophetic utterance with “thus saith the Lord.”
This individual gifting is expressible only within the church, however, which itself also bears a responsibility for prophetic ministry. In fact, the whole community of faith is given a prophetic task. The question at hand is what this task is supposed to look like, and how exactly it differs from the gift of prophecy to the individual Christian. Let’s take these in turn.
1. The church is a prophetic community because it is Christ’s body on earth.
Those who carry their cross with Jesus Christ are to speak up about the meaning and significance and glory of Christ’s cross. Witness-bearing is by nature inescapably prophetic, for it tells of God’s power and authority above and against worldly principalities and powers. The church—as a people called out of the world, as a people knit together in God’s sanctifying love, as members of Christ’s holy body—is a living testimony of Jesus’ salvation and rule, and is meant to witness to this salvation and rule in every facet of its life.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said, memorably, that the church doesn’t have a social ethic, it is a social ethic. What he means is that the church in its very manner of living is a normative standard, is a community of love, is a chorus of praise for the God who saves. The church’s life should reflect the character of Christ, its head. It should be distinguishable from the world.
2. The church is a prophetic community that seeks to do and proclaim the will of God.
Keeping God’s will is of utmost importance to the church. Why? Because his will is liberating. As such, the church always longs to do God’s will and to make known that will for humanity in general. The life and message of the church should point the world to the one whose will is perfect.
3. The church is a prophetic community that says neither too much nor too little.
God’s people say only what God has given them to say in his Word. God’s Word, and what accords with God’s Word, is what’s sayable. The church therefore says nothing less and nothing more than God’s Word.
This means, for example, that when some matter of public concern is raised in our community—like the official apprehension of undocumented immigrants in our neighborhoods—the church can say something about what God has said about his heart for the sojourner (Lev. 19, or even about the importance of God’s people to be instruments of peace in their communities (Rom. 12). But the church does not seek to offer detailed policy proposals for authorities to implement. In doing so, it says neither too little—as in saying nothing at all in the event of a neighbor’s adversity—nor does it say too much—as in specifying all the ways the state should or shouldn’t act.
The church must always bear witness to the risen Christ. That is its purpose as a set-apart people. In every manner of living and speaking, the church’s prophetic testimony is of the God who saves. It prophesies of the one to whom all prophecy points. This isn’t an easy, comfortable, or convenient ministry. It simply tells the truth about what God has done, what God is doing, and what God will do. Or, to put in the language of our heritage: Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again!
Prophecy—true prophecy—can be perilous because it’s full of risks. You’ll notice that the prophets of the Old and New Testaments aren’t wildly popular and don’t enjoy long life expectancies. What they say is discomfiting to the powers that be. Likewise, the prophetic nature of the church is to live and speak as a people unembarrassed by the power of the gospel. The church points, like John the Baptist at the shores of the Jordan, to the one who takes away the sins of the world and, also like John, is willing to die to do so.