MUCH of the confusion with the practice of prophecy in the contemporary church has to do with a misunderstanding of what the New Testament means by the term. It is not possible to provide a full discussion on prophecy in the limited compass of this article. What I propose to do is to briefly define prophecy and delineate some principles of discernment.
Prophecy in the contemporary church is best described as a report of thoughts and impressions which may have been inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is important to stress at the outset, therefore, that prophecies by ordinary Christians should never be taken as the ‘infallible word of God’. This means that prophecies should not be placed at par with Scripture. They do not enjoy the same authority and status as God’s revealed Word in Scripture, and those who prophesy are not suddenly elevated to the status of Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah or Jeremiah. Prophecies, then, are nothing more than God-inspired thoughts which, when shared, would benefit a small group or even the whole church.
It is customary in some Christian circles and churches for Christians to preface prophetic utterances with ‘Thus says the Lord’ or ‘Hear the word of the Lord’. This practice is, at the very least, misleading, and should in my opinion be abolished. Instead, Christians who sense that they have been inspired to speak should simply say, ‘I think the Lord is indicating that …’ or ‘I feel that the Lord has impressed upon me to say …’ Such an approach corresponds to the true nature of prophetic utterances, which, as I have pointed out, are merely reports of Spirit-inspired thoughts that might bring edification. Paul broadly describes the purpose of prophetic utterances in the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 14:3 thus: ‘But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort’.
Because prophecies do not enjoy scriptural authority, they should always be tested. In 1 Corinthians 14:29, Paul wrote: ‘Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said’. Prophecies should never be submitted to mindlessly, but should be carefully weighed and evaluated. But who are the ‘others’ who are called to weigh the prophetic utterances? Without detaining the reader with the finer issues of exegesis, I believe that ‘others’ here refer to the entire Christian community. A prophetic message must be carefully weighed by the leaders and members of the Christian community on the basis of God’s revealed Word, the Bible.
About twenty years ago, I remember addressing this topic at a leaders’ retreat. I remember using this illustration to describe our response of prophecy (although I can’t recall the church or the precise content of the talk): responding to prophecy, I said, is like eating curry fish-head – you swallow the meat and spit out the bones! Paul said something similar in the context of judging prophecy in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, 22: ‘Test everything. Hold on to what is good. Avoid every kind of evil’.
Are only certain Christians given the gift of prophecy, or is this ability readily available to all Christians? The New Testament describes prophecy as a gift which God freely gives to some Christians according to his sovereign will. Those who exercise the gift regularly are sometimes called ‘prophets’, although most scholars agree that in the New Testament this designation does not describe a formally recognized office. In principle, then, all Christians have the potential ability to prophesy, although only some Christians are given that actual ability. Thus on the one hand Paul maintains that it is the Spirit who ‘distributes [spiritual gifts] to each one as he wills’, on the other he urges members of his congregation to ‘seek earnestly the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy’ (1 Cor 14:1; 1 Cor 14:39).
God may, through the gift of prophetic speech, encourage and guide Christians. But Christians must regard prophecy as only one of the many ways in which God guides. Because prophecy does not have the same authority as God’s revealed Word, the Bible, it should not be regarded as the only, or even the primary, source of divine guidance. It would therefore be unwise to make a decision solely on the basis of a prophetic message.
This is especially true in the case of prescriptive prophecies: ‘Leave your job, and serve as a missionary in Bhutan!’ or ‘Marry Mary!’ The Christian may take such prophecies as possible promptings of God’s Spirit; but the wise Christian would remember that this is only one of the many possible ways in which God guides. To repeat, the Christian should never make a decision on the basis of prophecy alone! He should diligently search the Scriptures, prayerfully examine the facts and evaluate the consequences, consult his pastor, elders and matured members of God’s household before making a decision.
Prophecy is God’s gift to the church, an evidence or sign of his abiding presence with his people. God uses the gift of prophecy to edify, encourage and warn his people. Furthermore, the gift of prophecy shows that God relates to us in a personal and intimate way. We should therefore never treat God’s gift of prophecy with contempt (1 Thess 5:20). We should thank God for this wonderful gift, even as we recognize its proper limits.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was originally published in the Methodist Message.