We hear a lot of talk about being “prophetic” in the Episcopal Church these days, but should we?
On many occasions in the last several years I have heard an Episcopal Church leader say, “we are a prophetic church; we speak truth to power.” As I write this, there is an essay in circulation with the headline “Now is the time for prophetic action.”
We need to think carefully about such words.
In the Bible, a prophet was someone who brought God’s word into a situation. God spoke to them, they listened, and sought accurately to convey what they heard to God’s people. Hence we hear such Old Testament language as “Thus says the Lord,” or, in the ministry of Jesus, when we read “it was said”¦but I say to you.”
There are no prophets in the full biblical sense any more. As far as we know, the canon of Holy Scripture is closed. But it is possible, although rare, to see in a ministry a “prophetic” element. How can we discern such a thing?
For starters, prophets are not usually self-referential and are never self-authenticating. You do not find them saying, “Hi, I am a prophet.” Indeed, quite the opposite is the case. Amos answered Amazi’ah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees”¦” (Amos 7:14).
Prophets also swim upstream in the time in which they minister. WAY upstream. If people are zigging, there may be an occasional zagger, but prophets are zuggers. They come from surprising backgrounds, speak in often shocking ways, and are most of the time greeted with disdain, opposition, hostility, or even worse. As Hebrews puts it:
“They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (11:37-38)
Perhaps most importantly, prophets are almost always only seen fully in retrospect. When Jeremiah was ministering, many thought him crazy, and most believed him wrong. People from his home area plotted to kill him, and those in authority lowered him at one point into a pit of miry clay. They believed the temple of the Lord was impregnable and the Babylonians were never coming; it was only much later that they could see Jeremiah’s words about both were accurate.
If we use these three measuring points, are there many today who may have prophetic elements in their ministry? Perhaps; but I would venture to say that if so none of us know or recognize them as such right now, and we will be very surprised in heaven when we see the truth of how God is using them.
In the meantime, let us be cautious about such language, remembering well Jesus’ warning: “”Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15)
–The Rev. Dr. Kendall S. Harmon is Canon Theologian of the Diocese of South Carolina and the convenor of this blog