17 August 2016

Inbox: What does it mean to speak prophetically in our day?

I believe special authoritative revelation ceased with the end of Apostolic Age. Christ himself was the Final Prophet as it were, at least according to the clear teaching of the book of Hebrews. And that's just for a start.

His Apostles by extension were specially commissioned to 'finish' (again, as it were) His ministry and bring out the full revelatory glory of His Person and work as well as provide us the authoritative foundations for the New Covenant era. They weren't just Prophets, they were akin to the Twelve Patriarchs, but this time of the New Israel.

While perhaps an oversimplification I usually make a distinction between Prophecy and prophecy. Prophecy capitalised denotes the authoritative type of revelatory declaration that I believe no longer exists in This Age. The Apostles declare in Acts 15 'it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us...'

No one can declare that kind of authority today though many try to. Such claims are not exclusively limited to the Charismatic realm. This is the foundation of the Papacy and even the claims of many Protestant polities.

The lower case use of prophecy denotes proclamation and exhortation, this being more or less akin to what the New Testament describes as preaching, a form of exhortation rooted not in the wisdom of the world but in the foolishness of God. Why foolish? It is incoherent to those who lack faith, it is often in defiance of conventional logic and notions of what we might even call 'common sense'. It is not reasoned evidentiary discourse but holy proclamation. It only finds coherence in a spiritual framework that is able to apprehend some notion of transcendence vis-à-vis the nature of this world. It is only in this context that evidence can find a place and meaning.

So while we don't have 'Prophecy' today we certainly have 'prophecy'. We can proclaim the Word of Truth, hold forth the Word of Life but we cannot expand on or explore these truths with the same authority that exists in either the Old Testament or the Apostolic era. Our authority is secondary and derived.

Jesus taught as one with authority and not as the scribes. We can't teach quite like Christ did but at the same time we need to avoid the methodology of the scribes that parsed and dissected the authoritative Word and then used their contrived divisions and categories as a basis for new speculative doctrinal and ethical frameworks.

Even during the Apostolic era the Bereans were praised for examining the Scriptures to see if what Paul was saying was true. We are constantly warned of the danger of False Prophets. They represent the demonic enemy that seeks to wage war on the Church and if it were possible destroy it. The False Oracle, the False Word is the great threat to the Church. It can seduce, tickle ears and/or destroy.

To speak prophetically in our day is to take up (in a sense) the mantle of the prophets. The Apostles condemn the world and call the Church to live as pilgrims, strangers and exiles. The imagery of the world in the New Testament is that of the Beast which during this era 'seems' to be a constant continuation and recapitulation of the Roman Beast which was in existence during the New Testament era. At least that's the vision and expectation we are presented with.

In the Old Testament the prophets represented the Oracle of God. In that capacity they brought the covenant lawsuit as some have described it. When Israel embraced the kingship, the era of the prophets (properly speaking) began. There is of course some overlap with Samuel who represents a sort of transitional figure, bridge between the judges and the kings.

By covenant lawsuit I mean they held the king and the people to account. God was still sovereign over the people but under the kingship, the monarch functioned as vicegerent of the heavenly Kingdom. But being a descendant of Adam he was less than perfect and subject to error. The Prophets held the king to account, warned and rebuked the people by appealing to God's covenant.

They functioned almost as Divinely sanctioned prosecutors making the case against the covenantally unfaithful people, their transgressions, defections and consequent idolatries.

Today, this can still be done and is called for and yet no one today can claim the authority of a Jeremiah or a Paul.

Some might claim at this point that what is left of this function would be restricted only to ordained officers of the Church. Within the capacity of the Church meeting I will grant that properly speaking the teaching and thus prophetic exhortation is limited to those with authority, namely the elders of the congregation. The modern pastoral system actually represents a deviation from New Testament norms and represents the early stages of the hierarchy that would become the episcopate.

The New Testament envisions elders teaching but seemingly does not entirely or exclusively restrict the function to them. However, the church has been corrupted by factionalism and the formation of denominations along with their bureaucracies and hierarchies. They have in many ways limited the Scripture, restricted it and appropriated authority which does not belong to them. In light of this unfortunate development it is desirable if not imperative that witnesses arise who are outside of this corrupted framework, those who can testify to their systemic corruption of God's Word.

In Old Testament times the faithful could not always follow the rules and exceptions had to be made. The exceptions were not the rule nor were they treated in a light or inconsequential manner. The faithful then as now are grieved over the degenerate state of Covenant Israel and lament the fact that they cannot always faithfully follow the normative expectations. Sadly when everyone else 'does what is right in their own eyes', the faithful are left to function in the wasteland and reduced to an endless series of impossible situations that they must prayerfully and with careful study make the best of.

The prophets of old condemned the forces of apostasy and idolatry and of course in order to do this they were inevitably at odds with the ecclesiastical establishment who resented the charges and denunciations. In most cases there was and (if emulated) will be conflict.

The difference today is that both parties, both the ecclesiastical leadership and those who criticise them in a prophetic capacity are both fallible. At this point many ecclesiastics will appeal to the passages in Scripture that exhort believers to obey those that have authority over them.

And indeed in the normative sense this is certainly the case. And yet this power is curtailed and qualified. The people are warned repeatedly in Scripture to beware of false teachers and prophets. How are they to do this apart from weighing the word and doctrine of the teachers against what the Scriptures teach?

We are to obey those who possess authority but their power does not allow them to demand obedience in the realm of extra-scriptural commands and traditions. In the spirit of charity we should and ought to 'bend' as far as we can until Scripture is being violated. At that point the rule of faith (Romans 14) demands non-conformity. We will not be compelled to Judaize or Hellenize. We are not under obligation to the Mosaic Law or man-made pagan-synthesised innovations.

If we are merely to slavishly follow the leaders of an assembly then under no occasion should anyone ever leave a church and seek another. Luther was wrong to question the authority of Rome. In fact historically speaking Rome's consolidation of power is something everyone should have acquiesced to. Conservative Protestants are in the wrong for breaking with Rome but for also breaking with the Mainline denominations. And any congregations that did breakaway, when people showed up from other congregations, they should have been sent back. Most modern Reformed congregations would cease to exist because in many cases they are filled with people who have left other traditions, disobeying and rejecting ecclesiastical leadership in search of a more Biblical structure. The idea that the commands to obey the elders are unqualified is without warrant.

In fact, it's absurd. A rather enlightening passage is found at the beginning of Matthew 23. The Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. They have the authority, they are the anointed (at least in terms of the covenant made visible in space and time). That doesn't mean they aren't in the spirit of Saul (who was also anointed) as it made all too clear from the rest of the passage.

Obey them but don't follow after their works. This means that ecclesiastical authorities are to be respected but their authority is not absolute. They do not have the power to command that which Scripture does not command. Their burdens and yokes they would tie onto people are not to be obeyed.

In our contemporary setting this is equally applicable to the leadership of congregations and certainly denominational structures which are de facto extra Scriptural. Denominational claims to authority as well as their requirements and rituals are null and void, to be rejected and should not be submitted to.

That said, we are also called to love, forbearance and longsuffering and we are to live with the understanding that no congregation is going to be perfectly ordered. Wisdom is required in order to navigate these difficult waters. But at this point, voices of dissent and criticism, voices which turn people back to Scripture are desirable even necessary.

Prophets also foretold the future both in the short-term and in light of the Day of the Lord, the Eschaton-event associated with the coming of the Messiah. Only later do we learn this event is essentially divided into two phases or more properly the completion of the second or final phase has been placed on hold (temporally speaking) due to the longsuffering of God. The hour is short and thus our call is urgent to bear witness and bring the Word to the nations before the Judgment which is even now at the door.

At this point the only event of substance we await is the Return of Christ. There are no future prophecies to be made. As far as the nations, the book of Revelation grants us idealised visions in parallel form which tell their story... the same story which is virtually repeated throughout this age. That said, though we don't know the specifics regarding each of the Beast's empires, we do know they make war against the Kingdom and seek to supplant it. They lie, cheat, steal and murder and in the process destroy themselves.

In the Old Testament the prophets also frequently provide what might be called a 'State of the World' report, as some have termed it. They look upon the nations outside of the Covenant and denounce their wickedness and proclaim judgment on them. These nations are not held to the same standard. They are not condemned for failing to keep Sabbath or to offer Sacrifice. They are not held to the standard of the covenant but an unnamed and unelaborated standard of what we might call Natural Law or even the Moral Law, though this nomenclature will cause some to stumble due to traditional uses and commitments regarding that category. Basic ideas concerning truth, theft and murder are elevated and the prophets also expose their schemes and the wicked aspirations of their hearts. Their idolatries are exposed and their deeds denounced.

Listening to the prophets the faithful would have been somewhat informed as to what was happening in the world and more importantly the nature of men's plots and aspirations.

But of particular concern was the way in which these nations moved and schemed against God's people or the way in which they corrupted God's people with their idolatries.

Today there are various factors which have destroyed the capacity of Church leaders to fulfill this function.

Dispensational Theology has developed a false and unbiblical understanding of the world order and has rejected the authority of the Apostles with regard to the covenant, Israel and the fulfillment of prophecy. When the Apostles declare a prophecy to be fulfilled in Christ, Dispensationalists say 'no' and insist on a Judaized fulfillment. Obsessed with the Zionist state of Israel which they claim represents God's covenant order they have created a geopolitical-ecclesiastical narrative that has wedded various forms of Western Imperialism with Zionist policy in the Middle East. This has led not only to war and great violence but the condoning of Consequentialist ethics and a justification for their own nationalisms.

Likewise many who have not necessarily embraced this scheme have nevertheless embraced the Constantinian model which divides the world into Christendom and non-Christendom. This is not to be equated with the Spirit wrought antithesis between Church and world. This is a geopolitical and cultural framework that creates a new definition (and extension) of what is the Church of Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God is no longer restricted to the redemptive realm of the Holy Spirit but is now equated with political and cultural power and all that goes with it.

This heresy (if not apostasy) destroys the New Testament pilgrim-antithesis, infuses the Church with a host of new doctrines born of men and in the end completely subverts and supplants the ethics of Christ and the Apostles.

Thus, its adherents have no capacity for discernment when it comes to the signs of the times or the state of the world and its nations. The leaders of this ecclesiastical paradigm are quite literally blind guides unable to discern the state of the world or the signs of the times.

Through their doctrinally corrupted eyes, all nations are viewed through the lens of their political allegiances, power paradigms and aspirations. Their prophecies (as it were) are false and perverted.

Under that scenario and in light of this reality there is indeed a calling for those that can speak truth and expose the lies not only of the world but of the false teachers which run roughshod over God's people and teach evil calling it good.

Both the world and the False Church (and its leaders) must be exposed and condemned. That's a 'salt and light' many don't want to experience.  Just as the congregation/assembly (bearing Baptism and the Lord's Supper) proclaim Judgment on the world and Christ as Saviour and Judge, the rejection of these False Churches and the establishment of dissident assemblies serves to condemn them and their errors.

The worship of the Church is prophetic, a proclamation of God's presence, the presence of the Spirit, the resurrected saints and the Angels. It is an intrusion or even a bridge between heaven and Earth wherein the pilgrim people share in the heavenly worship and communion of saints. Our two simple rites utilising common elements are transformed and vivified by the Word attached to them. Common water, bread and wine become symbols of blessing and curse and warning of Christ's coming as Judge. But with the threat comes the good news, the hope of life and the promise of salvation.

Refusing to participate in the assembly of God is a sin for Christians and demonstrates a serious defect in their understanding of covenant life. And yet just as in Old Testament times there have been many occasions in which that which was normative had to be set aside due to circumstance.

Jews were commanded to worship in the Temple and offer sacrifice and yet there were times they couldn't, occasions in which the Temple was polluted with idols. And so on the one hand they were disobeying the commandment but on the other hand they had no real choice. 

Further we might say at that point their non-compliance and rejection of the Temple order was itself a prophetic proclamation and there are certainly parallels in our own day. We need to be part of a Church. This is absolute. And yet there are many occasions in which we specifically should not be part of certain congregations and considering the state of things in our day, it may mean we need to condemn the vast majority of congregations which surround us. It all depends on the time and setting in which we live. There are times that we like our Old Testament brethren worship in sackcloth and ashes with praise and repentance on our lips.

How this question is answered is difficult and requires a great deal of study, discernment and wisdom.

Our non-participation is prophetic. When you live in a very small town and the only church is a United Methodist congregation, and your family is known to be Christian but does not attend the local church... that sends a message, a prophetic message. It is right that we do not attend that apostate body and it sends a clear signal when they know we go elsewhere on Sunday morning. We deliberately drive out of town and thus make it clear that not only do we reject them but we make an effort to find someplace faithful.

In some cases there may be no place to go and in that instance the believer must seek out others to form a meeting. It probably won't be perfect and in many cases less than ideal. Eventually your hope is that a viable congregation can be formed and things can be 'set in order'. You may need to consider moving. Everyone's circumstance is different and wisdom rather than hard and fast dictates or simplified checklists is required.

We are here to bear witness. We must be careful to obey the Scripture and bend as far as we can, to be as charitable as possible. And yet the authority of ecclesiastical leaders goes no further than Scripture itself. Their creeds and confessions are of historical interest and often contain a good deal of doctrinal instruction and even value but they are not authoritative and their use as such supplants the authority of Scripture.

The Church proclaims the Salvation of Christ and the Judgment to come and sometimes breaking with a congregation or denomination can be an exercise in the same proclamation albeit in a more targeted and specific context.

The Prophets of old also proclaimed an Eschatological Hope. We await the resurrection and the return of Christ. Due to our union with Him we will escape the coming Judgmental fires and we have the hope of eternal life. Such an eschatological hope properly framed will drive us to look beyond the works of this world and all it has to offer.

To summarise:

In different capacities, as individuals and as congregations we can 'speak' prophetically in our day and yet we must understand that we are fallible and do not possess the same absolute authority of either the Old or New Testament Prophets. That said, we also understand the Church itself and its elders also do not possess that same absolute authority. They do have an authority and are indeed necessary elements to Christ's administration of the Church. But their authority is limited and when they do not faithfully follow, teach and administer God's Word then individuals are right to bring the covenant lawsuit (as it were). In that capacity they are effectively operating in a prophetic role.

This will not be everyone's calling. In all things wisdom is required including who you listen to and how you listen to them. All things must be weighed and viewed through the lens of Scripture and with prayer.

Not everyone has the capacity or time to learn theology and study Church history etc... And thus they need to be wise, learn what they can, listen and weigh the words of those who speak. And yet even apart from a detailed grasp of doctrine and the history of ideas, if they possess a deep knowledge of Scripture and are willing to submit to it they will (I believe) have a certain degree of wisdom and discernment when it comes to these issues.

There is no formal office of Prophet today nor what may be called Prophecy but there is still a shadow of the role, still something of the function both within the Church formally and informally. As in the past during times of duress and apostasy those most dare to speak prophetically shining light on dark deeds in the Church and world.

This essay in a large part explains what this project is all about and hopefully provides some context for why I write as I do.