Friday, March 17, 2006

Issues: Prophecy in a Christian Union?

This is not a UCCF policy document.
These are simply my reflections on scripture. The application of scripture in a Christian Union on matters secondary to salvation must be done with due care, prayer, understanding and explanation.
Different contexts will mitigate somewhat different applications, depending on differing needs to consider, protect and love other Christians and their consciences on these matters.... with due attention to what God's word says.


Christian Unions are interdenominational mission teams. They unite Christians in evangelical convictions from across streams and denominations to do evangelism on campus, with student-leadership.

This inevitably means a mix of different convictions about the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Christian Union isn't the local church but it does exercise a degree of self-care in small groups and central Team Training meetings. In these members are exercising some ministry among their peers.

Should that include prophecy, in a context where not all members would acknowledge its continuation as a gift?
1 Corinthians 12-14 don't explicitly define prophecy (though I have inferred some descriptive definition), or in my mind give any evidence to show that this gift, or any other have ceased yet. They affirm strongly that they will cease – but only at the point where we gain face to face relationship with God – at Jesus' return. All gifts cease then since they are not required to bring revelation or growth.

My instinct is that many people are cautious about prophecy because they want to safeguard the sufficiency of scripture and because they've experienced charismania first hand, or heard of it. By charismania I mean the excesses of charismatic ministry – something that Corinth was certainly marked by.

Paul doesn't prohibit prophecy in Corinth, rather he instructs the church in Biblical service. This is always the way. Something good is not to be excluded, but to be handled rightly. Biblical teaching is always a good response to confusion! Bad examples of the exercise of charismatic gifts should not lead us to presume "cessationism" or even an "open but cautious" position. We're letting experience and circumstance drive our theology and practice when we do that.
We need Biblical theology and Biblical practice. And Paul commands it. Prophecy is to be pursued and is not a threat to the sufficiency of scripture, but rather a beneficial gift for the body - which scripture insists we eagerly desire it! The teaching of 1 Corinthians 12-14 commands that prophecy be sought, within God's boundaries and framework for that. A Biblical framework from 1 Cor 12-14 is along the following lines:
  • 1.The Spirit brings confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. Prophecy should bring glory to Jesus Christ with a gospel focus.
  • 2.The Spirit's work is for the common good. Prophecy should benefit the body in growing in Christlikeness.
  • 3.The Spirit's work is done in love, for edification. Prophecy is given not for the exaltation of the prophet but for the benefit of the body. No love, no gain. No love, empty ministry.
  • 4.Prophecy is to bring revelation from God – imperfect knowledge of him now, ahead of ultimate perfect relationship face to face. Prophecy should bring true revelation about God. That being the case a prophetic contribution to a meeting will be comprehensible, in the language of the congregation and will make sense.
  • 5.Prophecy must be weighed and tested – it has no inherent authority when given. It should not be presumed to be true just because someone says it.
Prophecy "always" or "never" is not a neutral position in a group with a range of views. And in CU in the UK we would expect to find both charismatics and cessationist, representing the Evangelical church in the UK... distribution of that in a particular location will reflect which home churches people have come from, and to some extent the recieving local churches.
Seeking unity in the gospel is the chief concern, but nonetheless practical policy is required. Things have to happen some how or another! The first concern is Biblical principles. If every time a prophecy was shared the above principles were applied then this would certainly remove some problems and relieve some fears. Even those who considered prophecy to have ceased would surely find some edification from something under these terms.

Unity in the gospel requires that we maintain fellowship when we do disagree on other matters. If we were to divide over the issue of prophecy or something else we would be making our view on it the basis of our fellowship. This is divisive which would be particularly problematic when the Spirit's work is supposed to bring unity.

Should prophecy be given in Christian Union meetings?
These are meetings for training in evangelism. Such meetings should include, prayer for evangelism, teaching, worship and other contributions and service to build the body. This is a narrow population (just students) with a narrow vision (campus ministry). Each member is part of a local church where a wider population is gathered.

Would prophecy be of benefit?
Prophecy is about bringing partial knowledge of God. This is useful, so love as it is true, and comes in an attitude of love.

Can the Christian Union sufficiently test prophecy?
Possibly, but not necessarily. The congregation is a slice of a normal church community, lacking age and experience. Christian Unions are student-led, which inevitably leads to lack of experience and possible lack of maturity. However, mature ability to test is not age related. I would suggest that prophecy should not be forbidden, nor entirely normal. Prophecy can be tested by the gathered congregation, and with help from a Christian Union's Advisory Board.

We're not given much detail on how to test things, just as in the matter of specific definitions of prophecy. The Biblical language is about weighing a revelation. This surely includes testing it against Biblical testimony. Scripture remains supreme in authority and overrides conflicting claims from supposed “prophecy”. The challenge is when a prophecy is non-Biblical, as opposed to Biblical or un-Biblical. This might be predictive or simply a word about a specific sitauation. Such an utterance can still be tested with Biblical principles and its affects for the edification of the body. Clarity in Biblical doctrine will become essential for the process of testing to be done – which raises issues when the gathering may not be well educated in Biblical Doctrine.

A lack of Biblical Doctrine can be countered, of course, by regular rigorous Biblical teaching. This is useful for prophetic testing in the first place. It also has vast benefits in knowledge of God and for Christian living and evangelism. A Christian Union, or church, pursuing prophecy without pursuing Biblical Doctrine has problems that need addressing.

Good gifts like prophecy could distract us from the glory of the gospel... but this would be be odd because true prophecy will always draw our eyes to Jesus... the Spirit knows no other ministry. The Holy Spirit transforms the church and helps her to grow. Something called the Spirit's work that doesn't do that is strangely perverted and much mistaken.

As 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us, all gifts are temporary - it is love that endures, and it is that which endures that we should invest in above all. Love which benefits God's people, love which we know in the gospel itself.

Four final points to summarise:
1. In the Christian Union its likely we will differ in our view on prophecy today. It's not a “fellowship issue” so we must find a way to live together! We have a doctrinal basis to our fellowship – but the convictions that unite us are core-convictions. So we can have fellowship and disagree on other matters – such as this.
2. If we do exercise prophecy it must be gospel-centred (12v3). The Spirit's word is all about the Cross (ch1-4). The goal is unity and growth in the gospel.
3. If we do exercise prophecy it must be tested. This means we must be serious about doctrine so we can test it. Also, why would we seek contemporary revelation if we don't seek God's word in the Bible. That would be absurd.
4. Whatever gift is exercised or contribution made then love is essential (13v4-7).
Gifts are for the common good, and everyone is needed – everyone has something to contribute. We exercise gifts to protect and help one another. What we want is not the point. Let everything be done in love, let everything display the magnificience of the gospel of Jesus Christ!
More Reformed Charismatic Blogging: See Adrian Warnock

4 comments:

  1. Prophecy brings around partial revalation of God?

    But with the scriptures we now have the complete revaltion FROM God.

    Also you realy didnt answer what purpose prophecy could have in a CU context. CU is for mission, prophecy relates to that how?

    In regard to fellowship and breaking that. For those who belive tongues prophercy etc have ceased/no women speakers then people would not break fellowship because they do not want to spread the gospel but because they belive the CU is mis handeling God's word and is in error in thier pratice and teachings and as a result they would break fellowship.

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  2. Hi Anonymous.

    Agreed scripture is sufficient/complete revelation. Yet, that same scripture indicates that prophecy strengthens, comforts, instructs... I'm not convinced that the sufficiency of scripture means God doesn't speak to us elsewhere. God speaks through other people, creation etc - always subservient to scripture.

    About breaking fellowship - I take your point that its error if you take a non-women teaching or non-prophecy today position. Those who think women can speak and prophecy is today view the other group as in error.

    At least one group is in error in this situation. What I'm arguing is that for the sake of mission fellowship can be maintained with generosity and grace towards one another - even if we're thoroughly convinced that the other party is wrong on such matters - this wouldn't be true in other doctrines (such as the truth/authority of scripture, or about the cross or a number of other non-negotiables).

    One could argue that prophecy and women speaking is a matter of the authority of scripture - i think that probably depends. I'm not saying all interpretations are valid - but at the same time there is a difference between a believer saying on conscience that they think scripture says something, and the attitude that says "it says no women speakers" but "i say yes".... its this distinction that probably helps us make localised judgements on these matters - since we want to give freedom and promote unity, but not permit denial of scriptural authority.

    I suspect that ramble doesn't make much sense.

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  3. Prophecy is for the building up of the church (14v4), and its over-reading the text (imho) to say that that means only 'the local church' - prophecy will build up believers in the gospel which is about the best way to get mission happening.

    It's argued that we don't need prophecy because we now have God's complete revelation in scripture. We do have that. But, are we to say that prophecy in the 1st Century was essentially the advance delivery of the letters that hadn't quite been written yet? Prophecy seems to have more to do with calls to repentance and to recalling prior revelation of God.

    I'm still working this out but I don't buy that the completion of the canon makes the gifts unnecessary - 1 Cor 13 says they are until we come to perfect knowledge 'face to face' which we don't yet have, do we?

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