Testing the New Prophets (Follow Up to Recent Post about the New Latter Rain Movement)
Recently I came across the January 14, 1991 copy of Christianity Today. I saved it because it contains an editorial to which I contributed. It was probably one of the first, if not the first, times my name appeared in CT.
The cover story is about the so-called “Kansas City Prophets,” more officially known then as The Kansas City Fellowship—a group I would identify as reincarnating some aspects of the Latter Rain Movement (about which I wrote in my immediately preceding post). The cover of the issue showed a drawing of one of the “prophets” and the article contained astonishing quotes from him and other leaders of the movement.
Some people see a historical connection between the Kansas City Fellowship, now apparently defunct, and the International House of Prayer. I don’t know enough about the histories or inner workings of either group to have an opinion about that and (I have to say this just to prevent a slew comments informing us about the connection which is not to the point here.)
One notable and controversial feature of the Kansas City Fellowship was its emphasis on “personal prophecy”—people directing others’ lives with “words from the Lord.” Here’s a hypothetical example: “God told me that you are to quit your job and move to California and be an evangelist to street people in Los Angeles.” More troubling, however, was the claim by some “Kansas City prophets” that God was revealing through them new truths for God’s people.
In 1991 I was personally familiar with this practice as a result of my two year stint teaching theology at Oral Roberts University. There I encountered people (mostly students transferring from Rhema Bible Institute) who believed in a difference between two “Words of God”—the “logos” and the “rhema.” Allegedly the “logos” was God’s Word for yesterday and the “rhema” was God’s Word for today. Included in the “rhema” was new doctrines not found in Scripture. One prophet quoted in the CT article said that the Apostle Paul would be surprised if he knew all that God was revealing through prophets today.
I recognized that belief in new revealed truths as a revival of the ancient Montanist heresy. (Yes, I know there are those who challenge whether Montanus was guilty of “Montanism,” but that’s not relevant here. “Montanism” has become a standard historical-theological term for extra-biblical revelations of truth for all God’s people.)
The editors of Christianity Today asked me to provide a set of criteria for helping people decide whether contemporary prophecies might be from God. They were published in an editorial in the January14, 1991 issue entitled “Testing the New Prophets.” Here they are:
The Christ Touchstone. If a prophecy promotes Christ and not the prophet, it may be valid. The Apostolic Norm. If it is consistent with the message of the gospel as found in the didactic writings of the New Testament, it may be valid. The Unity Criterion. If a prophecy does not promote spiritual elitism or schism, it may be valid. The Sanity Check. If it does not require the sacrifice of the intellect and the mindless acceptance of newly revealed teachings, it may be valid. The Messiah Test. If it does not exalt some individual into an object of veneration, it may be valid.
I didn’t say then and I wouldn’t say now that these are sufficient criteria for testing contemporary prophecies. With regard to “personal prophecies,” those that seek to direct another individual’s or group’s behavior, I would add that the Spirit would validate the message by impressing it on the hearts and minds of the individual or group receiving them. With regard to prophecies that purport to reveal new, extra-biblical doctrines allegedly necessary for salvation or vital Christian faith, I would add that Scripture is sufficient as our source for doctrines.
Some sharp people have challenged two of my tests mentioned in CT. First, the “unity criterion.” Might not God send a prophecy that divides a church or denomination? Doesn’t truth sometimes divide? I must admit that’s possible, but only if a church or denomination has fallen into heresy, complete spiritual deadness (“Ichabod”), or unethical and immoral practices. My point in the CT editorial was to turn aside alleged prophecies intended to set up the prophet or some group within a church or denomination as spiritually superior to other, fellow church members.
Another challenge was to the “sanity check.” That is, perhaps, the most difficult one to defend. What’s “sane” depends very much on experience and perspective (so long as we are not talking about clinical mental illness). What’s sane to one person or group is insane to another. To secularists all supernaturalists are insane in a certain sense (not clinically perhaps but in terms of sacrificing the intellect).
My intention there was simply to say that a prophecy should not be accepted uncritically. In 1 Corinthians 14 the Apostle Paul urges that prophecies be tested by those who are spiritual in the congregation.
But I tend to go further and doubt certain prophecies and practices that seem outlandishly silly and that violate even devout Christian common sense. For example, speaking just for myself, I do not believe God “heals” rotten teeth with gold fillings. If God were going to heal a tooth he would restore it with its natural compounds. For example, speaking just for myself, I do not believe that God takes people up into heaven for communication with them and speaks King James English to them. (I have heard such “testimonies” on the radio: “Come thou up hither….”)
My general points are simply that 1) churches should not forbid prophesies, but 2) should test them using well-thought-out criteria that are based on Christ, Scripture, tradition, reason and the people of God’s experiences. In other words, relatively objective discernment is the key as opposed to mindless acceptance of whatever a person perceived as “spiritual” proclaims.