Last week we discussed considerations of hearing. I’m going to include an extract below, with the subheading “Testing the Claim” from that chapter in my book When People Speak for God. But first, I’m going to include some additional comments.
One of the things that I hear from non-charismatic evangelicals about charismatics is that we tend to get blown about by the “winds” of the various “words from the Lord” that we receive, either directly or through other people. There is a certain validity to this criticism. It’s very easy to claim that God told you something, especially when God told you that someone else should do what you want them to do. It’s amazing how many sides God is on! So it’s important to remind charismatics (and I count myself as one) that we need to test everything. Not everything—in fact, I would suggest very little—of what people claim is coming from God actually does.
Evangelical Christians, however, have a similar problem with various wild interpretations of scripture. People are people, no matter how they claim to get their authority. So someone can claim to have found a new interpretation of scripture and make every bit as large of changes in the church as someone who claims to have heard from the Lord. This is what I emphasize in my book and in my class: Every claim of divine authority needs to be corporately and individually tested. It doesn’t matter if it’s an announcement that one has heard directly from God or a claim that one has found the one true meaning of a passage of scripture. Test it. In my book I say that the last person who must hear from God is you. None of these sources relieve you personally or your congregation corporately from the search for truth.
Liberals may be thinking that they are left out of this. (I frequently use charismatic-liberal-evangelical as a sort of triangle. Like any abbreviation it misses a lot, but it can be helpful.) I think the liberal tendency is to find new ideas by reason and then manipulate people by being the most reasonable person in the room. I have nothing against reason. In fact, I call myself a liberal charismatic. I don’t use that label because I hate labels and want to be confusing, but because first, I believe that God is still speaking, as much as He ever spoke and I believe in testing, and testing involves reason. I think we seek God’s Word whenever we search for truth in whatever field. The physicist studying the laws of the universe using his or her mind and the best tools of science is studying God’s Word. So I’m liberal in the sense that while I believe God is speaking, I also believe that human reason is a way to discover truth and is always involved in testing claims. (I comment further on these labels here.)
So no matter where you start, test any claim to truth. Here’s the extract:
I will discuss how one tests such things in more detail later, but there are some key things to look at immediately. It is quite possible for a sincere person to use the claim that God has spoken manipulatively. One warning sign is when someone has argued for a particular course of action and consistently been losing the argument, and then suddenly receives a word from God that they were absolutely right all along, and that the only way the church can receive a blessing is if they will do as that person desires. But there are some other warning signs:
✔ The proposed course of action violates ethical or moral
You might be amazed at how frequently this occurs, and how easy it is to rationalize immoral behavior when someone is forcefully claiming that God has ordered it. Some people have claimed that God sanctioned adultery for them on some basis. I know of cases in which someone decided that God had ordered them to spend their rent money on a mission trip, and not pay their rent. If done without the permission of their landlord, that is at least unethical, and should cause one to consider carefully whether God is speaking. Don’t be led into immoral or unethical actions by a voice.
✔ “God’s words” come to a person in the course of debate.
God’s command should generally be complete and straightforward, and shouldn’t require amendment. If “God” keeps coming up with new arguments over the course of the debate, just as an ordinary person would, think again.
✔ “God’s words” are presented in a divisive way, or introduce an element of divisiveness.
Make no mistake, God’s words through prophets do produce negative reactions in those who do not want to obey God. Where divisiveness comes into the discussion is something that also requires discernment and testing. We would not want to reject God’s word on the basis that it made the devil angry! “Words from the Lord” that involve gossip, criticism, a judgmental spirit,
or cruelty should be rejected.
✔ The person who presents God’s word reacts angrily to having that word tested by others.
When someone is sure that God has spoken and others reject that word, it is appropriate for them to be grieved at that event, but they should welcome discernment and sincere testing, and they should be prepared to live with differences of opinion.
✔ “God’s words” deny established scriptural standards.
Continuing revelation should not reverse what God has already said. The Bible has been tested and accepted by the church, so if you reverse major principles of scriptures, you are likely off track. This doesn’t mean that interpretations cannot be corrected, but soundly interpreted scripture should be upheld.
How does one respond to a claim to speak for God? It depends on the particular circumstances. If you are in a church where testing is regularly practiced, you already have a path to follow. Hopefully this will end either with acceptance of the word, or a gracious—and I emphasize gracious—rejection with explanation and correction provided to the person who made the claim in the first place. If you cannot graciously respond, even when you reject the word, you likely need to examine yourself. Outside of that atmosphere, when I am not sure that what someone has claimed as a word from God actually is such a word, I will often choose to say simply, “God is going to have to tell me that,” or “That is not what I hear.” If you are not in a congregational setting where there is a commonality of beliefs, responding appropriately to a false word is not so easy. (pp. 87-89, emphasis added)
I would note that regarding my comment on “denying established scriptural standards” I do not mean that the church cannot change. What I mean is that one person’s word from the Lord can’t turn everything on its head. Acts 15 provides a sort of model, I think, for this kind of change. Changing through corporate discernment may be a much longer process, but until it seems “good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28 NRSV) conversation needs to proceed.