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Say No to Prophecy Before You Say Yes

Advent Week 3 in The Mosaic Bible includes 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, which is a wonderful passage to use with regard to to prophecy.  For those who may be following my use of The Mosaic Bible with the Revised Common Lectionary let me note that two passages, Zephaniah 3:14-20 and Luke 3:7-20 either are the same as those in the RCL for Advent 3C or overlap.

I’ve just written a post on my Threads blog that explains, amongst other things, why I use the label “charismatic.”  It’s because I believe all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are available today.  This must, of course, include the gift of prophecy.  I have always had a problem in that while I believe the gift of prophecy continues in theory, or perhaps I should say I have no theological reason why it should not, I have been loathe to point to someone and say, “That person is a prophet.”

Of course, there is little reason I should set myself up as some sort of judge of prophets, a rather arrogant thing to do, but it is certainly a question I get asked.  If I believe in prophecy, I should believe in prophets, right?  So where are they?

I suggest that while there is no theological problem with the continuation of prophecy, there is a practical problem, and that practical problem is illuminated by 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22:

19 Do not stifle the Holy Spirit.
20 Do not scoff at prophecies,
21 but test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good.
22 Stay away from every kind of evil.  (NLT)

I recall two experiences that I think help illustrate my point.  The first was when I was jointly teaching a seminar on the gift of prophecy, and the person teaching with me, who was well acquainted with the charismatic movement (as I was not at the time), told the audience that if they had been involved in the charismatic community over the previous few years, they had been awash in false prophecy.  It was interesting that the statement did not elicit any outrage from the many charismatics and Pentecostals in the room.  They were not unaware that false prophecy had been going on.

The second was after another class I taught, in which I had discussed the skills of rebuking and being rebuked, when I was informed that informed that in their church they only allowed encouraging prophecies to be spoken.  They didn’t do rebuke.  Apart from the odd idea that one can decide just which “words from the Lord” one will receive, most of the prophetic writings of scripture involve rebuke of one sort or another.

In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul makes several points.  I’ve heard the first part preached quite frequently.  Don’t quench the Spirit, don’t despise prophecies.  Often the point made from these texts is that people should not forbid or deny the modern gift of prophecy.  But one should read on.

“Test everything.”  If you test, there will be success and failure conditions.  Paul doesn’t miss those.  He says to hold fast what is good.  You know, I’ve heard sermons from this passage that cut off right after that point.  But Paul goes on to tell us to keep away from every form of evil.

There are two results from the test–good, and evil.  If we are unwilling to identify what is wrong, we will not be in a position to identify what is right.

I would suggest, in fact, that one can just as effectively “quench the Spirit” and “despise prophecies” by accepting everything as a valid prophecy or shying away from correcting problems or abuses as one can do so by denying all forms of prophecy.

Discernment involves the test itself along with a willingness to accept or reject what is said.  Without the ability to say “no” to prophecy in the church, we cannot say “yes” with any safety.

(Note:  I wrote on this issue a few months ago under the title The Advantages of Stoning False Prophets.)

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