How and in what way is the church prophetic?
By Aaron Fudge
There are two ways to answer this question. The first follows the normal biblical usage of prophecy and its cognates. When the Bible speaks of people who are prophets and others who prophesy, the Bible is unequivocal about the nature of the prophecy. The Lord has given words (and occasionally actions) to someone to speak (or act) on His behalf. The majority of these prophecies were given at one particular moment. They are not Spirit inspired thoughts that develop and take root overtime. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians explaining the usage of prophesy in the church, it is clear that he was writing about words given “in the moment” and was not talking about a carefully developed exegetical sermonette, even if such was Spirit led. There is a clear distinction between teachings and prophecies.
A good working definition of prophecy is: Prophecy is a word or phrase that is given to a person, from the Lord, which “give[s] us a glimpse of the reign of God, to give us understanding of His solution for our brokenness [and] insight into His intentions toward us.” This “glimpse” of some aspect of the Kingdom can come in the form of a predictive statement, an encouragement, an exhortation, a consolation, or as conviction of Christ’s lordship.
The second way to answer this question is to say that the church is a “prophetic community”. As we embody the roles given to the church as the new creation people, we speak/embody a “prophetic” word to the churches, to our countries, and to the world. As the church lives its purposes more fully, the actions of the church will prophetically point out the in-breaking Kingdom of God and the bankruptcy of the worlds systems. And in case anyone should contend that actions cannot be prophetic, one needs only to look to the major prophets for an example: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and in the New Testament, at Jesus, and Agabus. To further clarify though, the actions done by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Jesus were actions done to fulfill the words of YHWH given to them specifically and for a specific time and purpose.
At this point the language gets a little muddy. The Scriptures do not call the church to be a “prophetic community” in the sense that we just described. The church is called the bride, a colony of Heaven, a Kingdom of priests, a chosen race, a new creation, ambassadors, and children of God. We belong now to the Kingdom of light and not the Kingdom of darkness, and we are called to be a light to the whole world. But the Scriptures do not call us a “prophetic community”. We are a community of new creation people to whom God gives words of prophecy, and we are called to follow Christ in being an incarnation of the Kingdom of God, the firstfruits of the coming reign. I contend that the blurring of the “prophetic” be addressed and terminology, which reflects scriptural intent more clearly, be adopted. We are symbolically enacting the coming Kingdom, and we are proclaiming the goodness of God through our actions and words, but unless there is a specific Spirit-given action, it would be advantageous for the church to avoid the blending of “prophetic” language. In Guder’s, “Missional Church”, this demythologization is avoided by speaking of the church as “that gathering of the reign of God assembled to be a sign of that reign, to proclaim the reign of God in word and deed, to make decisions, and to give allegiance to their Ruler”.
What is the prophetic ministry today and how is it done?
With the adoption of prophetic language for the community of believers, and the propensity within the missional church for activism, the prophetic, in the lives of individuals, has been again relegated to the sidelines. As we deal with prophetic ministry today, it will be helpful to address the need for balance in two areas of our conversation. The first is the church’s attempt to move away from a Western individualistic conception of church and spirituality towards a more communal understanding. And the second is the move toward a more blended political and spiritual world, and away from a dualistic separation of the spiritual and political. I think both reactions are valid and that both share the tendency to remove any sort of personal, inner spiritual life with God, and away from balance.
The first movement is highlighted by a non-missional/emergent writer, who has, perhaps inadvertently, written a very missional book on discipleship. In David Augsburger’s book, Dissident Discipleship, he longs for the church to move from a bipolar to a tripolar spirituality. This is a call to leave the “its just me and God” type of spirituality found in most evangelical churches, to a spirituality that “links discovering self, seeking God, and valuing people into a seamless unity”, or again “a spirituality of self-surrender, love of God, and love of neighbor”.
Tripolar spirituality is what the missional/emergent church is striving to be. That said, the missional church has shown the same tendencies as Augsburger. Dr. Augsburger’s “practices” of dissident discipleship show, rather baldly, overreaction to bipolar spirituality. His chapters, which highlight the problem, are: Radical Attachment (imitation of Christ through loving others), Stubborn Loyalty (solidarity in community), Tenacious Serenity (willing obedience), Habitual Humility, Resolute Nonviolence, Concrete Service, Authentic Witness, and Subversive Spirituality (neighbor-love, politics, and redemptive actions). I like this list, and I like the book; we are using it for our small group. But this disciplship is begging to be asked, where is prayer? Where is worship? Where is a relationship with God, as Jesus displayed through his regular departures to pray with the Father. Specifically for this paper, where is the prophetic? Where is speaking the words given to you for the church for its edification, exhortation, and comfort? Where is the word that came to you while another is prophesying? Where is the word, which drops an unbeliever to her knees saying, “Surely God is among you?"
The missional church is recognizing the need to love our neighbor, to care for the downtrodden, to see God in community, and to display his coming kingdom through “prophetic” communities and actions. But we must take care not to replace one bipolar spirituality (vertical) with another bipolar spirituality (horizontal) in our efforts to right the wrongs of previous generations of Jesus followers. We cannot revert to a spirituality that is only action oriented. The Porpoise Diving Life blog highlights this problem well in a post called, ‘Charismissional’.
I’m not calling again for a “new” charismatic movement. I am calling for a realization of our overreaction, and for a balanced return to listening to the Lord, eagerly desiring to prophesy, and for a not despising of prophesy. I don’t want to be a charismatic, but I do want to recognize the place within God’s story of His touch given to individuals with words for His people and the world. As we become “post-charismatic”, let the “post” reflect where we’ve come from. Let it reflect our passion to hold onto the good word, which the Lord has given to us, and our desire to purge the excesses from our ecclesiology. Let it reflect more of a centering, than the swinging of a pendulum.
The second overreaction is similar. With the wonderful historical work being done of the first century world, and of Palestinian Judaism, we know more about Jewish worldviews than we have ever known before. Thanks to the work of historians and scholars, we are now able to see how foreign our “political” and “spiritual” dualism would be to anyone in the first century.
As historical studies continue to highlight where we have over-spiritualized and de-historicized much of the New Testament, the tendency creeps in to place the prophetic and the “supernatural” in a lesser category, which is then subsumed by the political sphere. The spiritual tends to be blended into our understanding of the political in ways that negate it, while still paying it lip service. Recently I took part in a class called “Principalities and Powers: Structural Evil and Systemic Change.” In this class, the spiritual nature of the Powers was affirmed, but only at the outset. The class then proceeded to focus on this-worldly institutions, ideas, and governments with very little mention of the place of prayer, prophecy and non-physical spiritual warfare. This tendency to demythologize within the scholarly world has been picked up by the missional and emergent church. It is a tendency we must reject.
In contrast, I was reading Luke 1 the other day, and was struck by how integrated Luke presents the spheres we tend to isolate; spheres like the political, the spiritual, the supernatural, and the historic. In a cursory reading of the text, one is struck by how historical the Gospel is. Luke mentions the names of the present day governmental rulers, and in the prayers and prophecies one is continually reminded of YHWH’s continuing story of the redemption of the Jewish people and the world. Luke anchors his narrative firmly in the first century “political” sphere as well. The announcement of Jesus’ birth as the coming of the successor to the throne of David and of the kingdom which will not end, cannot be understood apart from the kingdoms of the world. Jesus is called the Son of God, which screams in the face of Caesar. Another aspect Luke brings out is the supernatural. Zechariah sees an angel, his lips are sealed shut, then Mary sees an angel, and John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb as he is filled with the Spirit. Within this last category the prophetic is seen as well through Mary’s Magnificat and, in chapter two, through Simeon’s and Anna’s pronouncement. One is reminded that YHWH has spoken to his people through his individual prophets in the past.
I am not calling for a rejection of good historical and scholarly research. I am not calling for a dualistic separation of the political and spiritual, but I am calling for balance. As we begin to understand the gospel in its full “political” understandings, and as we seek to live as faithful prophetic people in kingdom communities, let us not forget that the Lord has in the past, continues through the present, and promises in the future to speak to His people, both individually and corporately through crazy supernatural and prophetic experiences.
So within this balance, what does prophetic ministry look like in the missional church? It looks like men and women committed to being on mission with God who spend concerted time in prayer, waiting on the voice of God, seeking and desiring to prophesy. It is loving your neighbor and seeking God in prayer. It is fanning into flame the gifts of the Spirit and living incarnationally. It is imitating Jesus in all His ways: in His symbolic actions, His prophetic words, His caring for the sick, the possessed and the oppressed. Near equal time should be spent between the development of the community of the Kingdom, the development of an incarnational and symbolic witness to the broader community, and to a deeply intimate relationship with the Lord who speaks.
In, A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren calls the church to stop looking at our brothers’ weak points, to begin to see their strengths, and then to move towards an adoption of those strengths. We must seek to follow Christ in all of the ways He has chosen to give us, which means that we love our neighbor and enemy, that we care for the poor and the down trodden, that we heal the sick and bind up the broken hearted. It means that we empower women to serve. And it means that we prophesy as the Lord gives utterance. We desire prophecy and we do not despise the gift. We fan into flames the Spirit’s power in our lives.
In missional communities we need to continue to emphasize personal spiritual formation alongside of our activism. Instead of pitting the personal against corporate, and the prophetic/spiritual against political, let us embrace the whole Gospel of God.
 Brother Maynard and Emerging Grace, Prophetic Ministry, Re-imagined Missionally. Porpoise Diving Life, 11-9-07. http://www.theporpoisedivinglife.com/porpoise-diving-life.asp?pageID=403.
 Response by Andrew, Post-Eschatological Charismatic, Open Source Theology, 11-9-07.
 Is. 20:1-6; Jer. 19:1-15; Ezek. 4:9-17; Acts 21:10-11.
 Darrel Guder. Missional Church, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998, 118.
 This may be due to Augsburger’s Anabaptism, and because much of the missional/emergent thinking today has been fueled by looking at the Anabaptist traditions
 David Augsburger, Dissident Discipleship, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006, 7.
 Ibid., quote of subtitle.
 Luke 5:16.
 1 Cor 14:3.
 1 Cor 14:29-32, see Gordon Fee, 891 (God’s Empowering Presence, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994).
 1 Cor. 14:24-25.
 Robby McAlpine, Chrysalis: From Post-Charismatic to Charismissional, Porpoise Diving Life. 11-9-07.
 1 Cor. 14:1; 1 Thes. 5:19-22.
 see N. T. Wright, New Testament and the People of God, Mineapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.
 Some who deal with this at varying levels and for various reasons are Walter Wink, Naming the Powers; Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come; Wright, NTPG.
 N. T. Wright. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997, 88.
 Luke 1.
 Luke 2:25-38.
 Luke 1:46ff and 67ff.
 2 Tim. 1:6.