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Friday, September 01, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: ‘Apostles’ and ‘Prophets’

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Everybody’s looking for greater certainty these days it seems, even Christians. Our own Immanuel Can has written at length about how the resurgence of Calvinism is evidence of it, and I’ve recently done some reflecting on how Christians often speak about the “call of God” to bolster their confidence in what in most cases are just their own decisions.

Tom: This, though, might take the cake, IC. A new and rapidly-growing charismatic movement mostly off the radar of other Protestants. Independent Network Charismatics (or “INC Christians”) find their certainty in alleged “prophetic” voices and the pronouncements of “super-apostles”.

It’s big-bucks too. Christianity Today notes that the Asuza Now conference in the LA Coliseum drew 50,000 people in the rain, and almost nobody knew about it outside the INC movement.

How’d you like to have the apostles and prophets back, IC?

Direct Downloads from God

Immanuel Can: “New prophets”, eh? Are they speaking the actual words of God? If they’re not, they’re not prophets. But if they are, then (since there are no trivial or insincere words of God) does that mean we ought to take out a pen and start writing everything they say into the back of our Bibles, just beyond Revelation?

Tom: That certainly seems to be the sort of authority they’re claiming. Brad Christerson, who has co-authored a book on the movement called The Rise of Network Christianity, says:
“And then you have the appeal of direct access to God — getting direct downloads from God. God is going to talk to me and tell me what to do. Or my leader is getting direct downloads. For many people, that’s more exciting than a 45-minute sermon examining the Greek terms from Paul’s writings.”
“Direct downloads from God.” They even sound contemporary.

The Pope with a New Name

IC: Actually, that statement, “My leader gets direct downloads from God” is really alarming. It means you’re ready to let this joker essentially step in between you and God, and to take his word AS God’s. Essentially, that’s a reversal of the Reformation … your pope just has a new name.

But if this “download” says only what scripture says, then it’s redundant: the Bible’s already said it. However, if this “download” is new information contrary to or supplemental to biblical truth, then why should we believe it? If it’s not the rat poison of false doctrine, then the kindest thing we can say about it is that it’s something we just don’t need to have.

Tom: The article doesn't give any examples of the alleged “prophetic word”, but if they’re anything like other so-called modern prophets, the smart ones know to stick close enough to the Bible to sound credible, but “relevant” enough to your specific situation to make their pronouncements seem exciting and personal. But who knows? These days the average Joe or Jane is so ignorant of what the Bible teaches that you could probably sneak anything by them provided it was accompanied with the usual snake oil.

Arbitrary and Cynical

IC: On that note, Tom, maybe we’d better say something about how we would know these guys are NOT giving us the words of God. There’s a danger that if we don’t, then people will think we’re just being arbitrary or cynical.

Tom: Well, I’ll definitely cop to the “cynical” bit, Officer, at least where people claim God is speaking new things directly through them today. But okay then: what would make you suspicious of self-styled “apostles” or “prophets” almost 20 centuries after the last ones we read about in the New Testament, IC?

IC: Let’s start with the clear instruction from the Lord that we are to “test every spirit”.

Tom: Okay, that’s good. That’s the New Testament instruction about dealing with false prophets, isn’t it? We have a responsibility to do due diligence on those who presume to speak for God. “Many false prophets have gone out into the world,” John finishes. We should learn to expect this sort of thing. But let’s assume that these guys are savvy enough to at least make reference to “Jesus Christ, come in the flesh”. I’m sure they do or they wouldn’t be the least bit credible to evangelicals. There has to be at least some sort of lip service to the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

Not-so-Harmonious

What else would make you doubtful about somebody who declares himself a prophet or apostle?

IC: I’ve already mentioned another: if what he prophesies is harmonious with the word of God we already have.

Tom: I'm a little unclear there: Would a so-called prophet being harmonious with existing scripture make you doubtful about him, or would it make you more inclined to believe him?

IC: If what he was saying were consonant with existing scripture, I’d say he was either teaching (not actually prophesying) or simply repeating what we already know, for our edification, perhaps. So technically I’d agree with him; but I’d want to know what his point was in repeating a thing we already know — what was his application — which is a fair question for any teacher, really. Even so, I’d still see no justification in him calling himself a “prophet”, so I’d have to ask what kind of a game he was up to in choosing to call himself that.

Now, if what he was saying was NOT consonant with existing scripture, I’d say he was a false prophet. Period.

Prophetic Necessity

Tom: Ah yes, thank you. That gets it exactly. I’ve often heard the role of the prophet broken down into “foretelling” (predicting the future) and “forthtelling” (teaching things that might be already known, though not necessarily yet written down through the Holy Spirit). But the passage you quoted from Isaiah makes it clear that no new revelation that truly originated with God would ever contradict previous revelations. It might supplement or complement them, but it would not deny them.

IC: Now you’ve got it.

Tom: Today, we’re in a position that is very different than the days in which prophets were an absolute necessity. We have the entire written word of God, which is something that was never true either in the Old Testament or in the middle of the first century. There was always more for God to say. That is not the case today. Hebrews tells us God has spoken once for all in his Son.

IC: Heh. Any new “prophecy” that came along to upstage the Incarnate Word would surely come to grief.

Once For All Delivered

Tom: Jude, one of the last writers of New Testament scripture, can say the faith has been “once for all” delivered to the saints. There is absolutely no need for further prophecy and every reason to be highly suspicious of those who today claim the prophetic gift.

IC: Yes, and that would be my point. Given the revelation we already have, the right loyalty is to it first. Any new “prophecy” that appears would need to stand up to the test of the existing revelation, plus present its own credentials in such a way that its origins in God would be put beyond reasonable doubt. I don’t think our modern, self-proclaimed “apostles” and “prophets” can pass those tests.

Tom: I’d put them into one of three possible categories, IC, and you can let me know if you agree with this: (1) the “prophet” who genuinely believes God has spoken new truth to him (and is delusional), (2) the “prophet” who doesn’t believe God has spoken new truth to him (the con man or “false prophet” you mention), and (3) the person whose definition of the prophetic gift is weak tea, nothing like that found in scripture, and pretty much identical to the teaching gift.

IC: Those are the categories … yes, I agree. But people will say the category 1 “prophet” — that is, their “prophet” — is sincere and yet not deluded. So I’d point out that sincerity (or niceness, or charisma, or style, or popularity, or whatever) is not the biblical test for whether or not one is to be accepted as a prophet. A person may be sincerely deluded.

Self-Appointed Guys with Influence

Tom: What about “apostles”, IC? Christianity Today asked Brad Christerson how you become an “apostle”, and this is what he said:
“It’s all sort of self-appointed. Leaders in the [movement] would say that people are recognized as apostles because of the influence that they have — not only over your own congregation but over other leaders. But there’s definitely a good deal of self-appointing going on. Peter Wagner, a leader in the New Apostolic Reformation movement, referred to himself as a “super apostle,” because he was influential with a bunch of other apostles.”
Let’s leave aside for the moment that these guys appear to be fine with taking and receiving religious honoratives, something the Lord himself spoke against: does that sound to you much like the apostles in the Bible: self-appointed guys with “influence”?

IC: Well, “self-appointed apostle” kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

Different Kinds of Apostles

Tom: The apostle Paul certainly thought so. It’s pretty clear that in the New Testament the word “apostle” is used two different ways. It’s used in the broader sense of anyone who is “sent out”, which is the literal meaning of the Greek word apostolos. That would include people like Silvanus, Timothy and Barnabas. It’s also used in a more specific sense of the Twelve the Lord Jesus called, and later of Paul. The latter group qualify on the basis that they had seen the risen Lord Jesus Christ, and it is evident they did not appoint themselves. They were quite literally called of God, every one of them, and their calling was attested to with genuinely miraculous signs and wonders.

So if these INC leaders mean to suggest they are apostles in the sense of the Twelve, they are clearly bonkers. If they mean that they are simply “sent out” as messengers of God, well, so what? All Christians are sent out in that sense. How does that give them the sort of authority they are claiming?

I Am Of Bill

IC: In my experience, whenever anyone is declared to be some sort of indispensable spiritual leader and guide, it’s because he (and it’s nearly always a “he”) has charisma of some kind. A sort of “this-guy’s-special” vibe floats around with him, often tied to a particular tenderness or unimpeachable sincerity that he evinces in his manner, either sincerely or as a stratagem. Often it’s this rather than any “signs and wonders” that gives him his power. And because his audience is often quite spiritually thin and weak, if he provides food at all, people soon snap into line and follow him. Two companies quickly form: those who have seen that the guy is “special”, and those who don’t believe it. And this quickly becomes transformed into something like “the saved and faithful” in the first case, and “the blind infidels” on the other. In other words, the watershed becomes not Christ but a human person who is perceived to be dispensing Christ or directing the will of Christ to the congregation. This special class of spiritual mediators is what modern people seem to mean by “apostles”.

Tom: And this sectarian pedestalizing of men and women is precisely what Paul warns the Corinthians against, isn’t it. Asked how the INC-ers identify themselves, Christerson says:
“They would say, ‘I am a follower of Bill Johnson,’ or Mike Bickle, or Cindy Jacobs. People would tell us, ‘he’s my apostle’ or ‘he’s my prophet.’ ”
Um ... yeah. That doesn’t sound like a personality cult or anything. Not at all.

IC: Yes. Having a spiritual life for which you are personally responsible is work … hard work. When someone comes along whom you think is taking it to a level you haven’t reached yet, the most urgent temptation is to surrender the directing of your own life to him, substituting, “I’m supporting my guy, and my guy is God’s guy,” for “I’m working to understand God’s will and obey it for myself.” It’s just so much less work, and so much more gratifying.

Tom: Is it too obvious to say “Let’s not do that”?

IC: How obvious can it be, when so many people aren’t getting it?

2 comments :

  1. Interesting, since there are at least two mechanisms at work here. One is fairly universal and that is that people generally like
    certainty in their lives and may grasp at straws to get it even if it means inventing new prophets. The other one is that it is dear that Christ was not in the business of giving trivial instructions, which would especially be true when appointing a CEO for his church. It would be totally trivial if he meant to do so only over the lifetime of the apostles. (As an aside, it would be similarly trivial if the Eucharist of his real body and blood would be meant as an aid and spiritual medicine only that one time, and only for the apostles, and not as a continual aid for his future church). Hence, the succession of the CEO within the new business of a Christian church can definitely be taken for granted in a person that we nowadays call the Pope. And the Reformation leaders were of course not smart and/or honest enough to figure out that one needed, and even was obliged, to differentiate between the existing abuses and dishonesty in the church and the needed presence and succession of the office of the CEO. Then, of course, M. Luther was under the political influence of the German princes with their economic agenda and their attitudes towards the church. It seems to me that what is outlined in your article here is a direct consequence of going against Christ's obvious wishes with the resultant enormous schisms within the Protestant movement to the tune of 33000 Protestant types of groups worldwide, which continues unabated. Please be assured that I make these remarks in a friendly spirit since it is supremely important that Christ's work continues to be carried out even if circumstances do not seem ideal to our human understanding and I applaud you for doing that so vigorously and smartly.

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  2. It's a testimony to the longevity and intensity of this particular disagreement between Catholics and Protestants that
    my post on the "appointing of the CEO", as you put it, remains our most popular ever — by a significant margin.

    I don't think I'm likely to add anything useful to the debate by re-starting it here, but let's just say it hangs on whether the Lord was, in fact, appointing a CEO. I'd suggest that is not what was going on.

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