Prophecy Gone Wrong: a question of church discipline
Jensen, P 'Have evangelicals lost their way?'. The Briefing, issue 1, November 1991, pp. 3-7.
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This article is one of the most difficult I have ever had to write. It concerns an incident that caused me some heartache and which I now feel I ought to share with you. It’s a story of prophecy gone wrong and of the difficulties which arise when ‘words of knowledge’ don’t come true. Because such ‘words of knowledge’ come to us personally, and affect us personally, I have taken the (for me) unusual step of writing in the first person. It is argued elsewhere in this Briefing that arguing from anecdotes can be dangerous, but in order to help those who are being affected by the ‘words of knowledge’ phenomenon I have decided to make public the two personal anecdotes quoted later in this article. However, in the final analysis, the whole story is about church discipline, and that is where I would like to begin.
Church discipline has always been a thorny issue. The lax response of letting anything and everything happen perverts Christian freedom and accountability to God and degenerates the church. The more rigorous approach has an unhappy history of legalistic censoriousness, going all the way back to Diotrephes (see 3 Jn 9-10).
The use of prophetic words (as promoted by John Wimber) has led to all kinds of errors and disagreements, but what should we do about it? What should we do when we disagree? What should we do when we are sinned against? What should we do when people falsely claim the authority of God? What should we do when these people are in Christian leadership?
The Bible’s Answers
While the Bible is concerned that Christians come to a common mind, it does anticipate that Christians will disagree. The doctrine of Christian unity spelt out in Romans 14 accepts that Christians will disagree even over some matters of faith and conscience. It is important that we bear with each other and accept one another, especially over trivial matters that are not concerned with the Kingdom of God.
However, on some occasions, we need to take a stand when the truth of the gospel and the security of the church is at stake. Paul contended with Peter and Barnabas (Gal 2); he warned Timothy about Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Tim 2); and he directed Timothy to “command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer” (1 Tim 1:3).
Sometimes the disagreements are personal and we need to bear with each other for the sake of the gospel, as Paul did with those who preached the gospel from false motives (Phil 1). Sometimes it is a matter of following Jesus’ advice to turn the other cheek and not retaliate. The apostle also warns us not to repay evil for evil and not to take revenge (Rom 12:17-21).
Jesus tells us to expect the world’s hatred and to be ready to react in a godly way when our brothers also fail us (Jn 15, Matt 18). We must forgive our brothers and go on forgiving them; we must seek their repentance and the restoration of their fellowship by talking privately with them and then with a witness, before bringing the matter out into the open for the church to deal with publicly.
Sometimes our disagreements will be with other leaders (like Paul with Peter). We have to be wary of authoritarianism, as if by virtue of being a leader, someone is given a special hotline to God. Leaders and teachers are not given a monopoly on the truth. In fact, they will be judged with greater strictness (Jas 3:1ff.). The prophets of the Old Testament were held responsible for their prophecy and treated harshly if their prophecy was false. A religious movement that is led by the Word of God cannot afford to tolerate false prophets. In the New Testament, we are also warned strongly about false prophets and how we must not tolerate them in Christian fellowship. We are to be aware of their divisive pattern of leading people astray (Rev 2; 2 Cor 11; Jude).
It is necessary to understand these biblical principles if we are to deal rightly with the particular situations in which we are commonly finding ourselves, especially regarding ‘words of knowledge’.
Without wanting to get bogged down in technical definitions, it seems that the charismatic movement has slowly shifted its emphasis away from ‘baptism in the Spirit’ and ‘speaking in tongues’ towards miraculous healing and, of recent times, to ‘words of knowledge’ and prophetic utterances.
Christians are now increasingly confronted by people claiming to have a word from God for them. We have to work out the accuracy of these words, their authority and what we do when we disagree with these people.
There was a time when the pattern of Christian disagreement was more scriptural. Someone would approach us and explain from the Scriptures why they thought we were in error. We could weigh their claims against the Bible and discuss with them their understanding of our situation. We could try to clarify together any misunderstandings and then, with the Bible open and the facts in view, we could modify our views, and either come to a common mind with appropriate repentance or agree to disagree. This scenario is becoming less and less common.
Nowadays, we are approached by people who simply tell us what God says to us about our situation. They seem to have no knowledge of us and our situation and they make no (or little) reference to the Bible, and yet the ‘word of knowledge’ comes with all the apparent authority of God himself behind it. We are called upon to act and not be disobedient.
But what are we to do if we disagree with these ‘words from God’? What if we strongly suspect that they aren’t from God at all? What are we to do with the ‘brother’ who has brought a false word to us? What if the word is not only wrong but sins against us? What if they will not repent and admit their error?
Recently, someone from another congregation phoned our church office with a word from God for us. Our secretary wisely chose not to have the word spoken over the phone but asked to have it printed and sent to us.
To the Pastor
St Matthias Anglican Church
Greetings from your Father God. Your Lord God wants everyone to realise that he is raising an army of Christian soldiers who will protect new Christians, and encourage and counsel those who are fearful or anxious. To be a Christian soldier you must open your hearts and allow the Holy Spirit to control your lives. The Holy Spirit will teach you how to stay calm in a world of turmoil. With the knowledge, understanding and guidance of the Holy Spirit you will be able to stand firm in faith and overcome all spiritual attacks on faith and beliefs. Your Father God also states that now is the time to recommit your life to him through Jesus Christ. He also asks everyone to listen to his voice and grow in fellowship with him. Isaiah 13:6-10, John 14:20-24.
What can you do or say when you receive this kind of message? I read the message, pondered its meaning, checked the Bible verses and tried to work out the relationship between the verses and the message. However, I was left confused as to the authority of the statement. It does not appear to be an exposition of Isaiah 13 or John 14—if it is, it is a bad exposition! It seems to claim to be a direct communication from God our Father to me and our church.
Yet, is it saying anything more than God has already said to us in the Scriptures? Is it saying any more than that God is at work in our world caring for new Christians through the ministry of other Christians by the work of the Holy Spirit? Is it doing anything more than encouraging us to recommit ourselves to God and to listen to his Word?
If it is only saying what God has already said in the Scriptures, I have to ask why is he now saying it to our church specifically by a total stranger in another church on the other side of the metropolitan sprawl? Is God saying to us that we are not committed to him, not caring for young Christians, not listening to his Word and growing? We are not perfect, and certainly we could be listening more to God and obeying him more, and yet is there anything about our congregational life now that is different from previous years, or from other congregations, or from the normal walk of Christian living in this sinful world? That God would go to such extraordinary lengths to send us such a message—if it is already the message of the Scriptures—seems somewhat bizarre if our congregation is not unusually sinful, rebellious and hard-hearted.
Or does the message go beyond what the Scripture is saying? Is the message using biblical sounding phrases as a code for another meaning altogether? Is the command “you must open your hearts and allow the Holy Spirit to control your lives” code for ‘become a Charismatic’ or a ‘third wave rider’ or a listener to prophetic words of knowledge? Does “recommit your lives” mean accepting some sort of second blessing? Is “the guidance of the Holy Spirit” another way of saying ‘spend less time studying the Scriptures and more time listening to modern day prophets’? Are we being encouraged to listen to God’s voice in a new and irrational fashion so that we can quote Isaiah 13 and John 14 without worrying about its context, its relevance and its application? Is this a challenge to a new freedom by which we can listen to God and make the Bible say whatever we want to say?
Only the sender of the message can answer these questions, but it leaves me with the question: how am I to respond to this kind of message? I read it, I thought about it, I prayed over it, I weighed it and concluded that it doesn’t help us. But then what am I to make of the Christian brother who sent it to me? If I spend my time contacting every person who sends me ‘words of knowledge’ from the Lord I may do no other ministry. If I ignore him and don’t challenge him about the matter then he will go on sending such words out to other churches, as I believe he is now doing, and perhaps distract some Christians who give more credence to these messages than they deserve.
The first example shows us the general nature of the problems but with apparently little harm done and little danger to the church. Unfortunately, unhelpful as these kinds of words are, they do not stay at such a general, vague level. Here is a second example of a letter that flows from John Wimber’s encouragement of words of knowledge.
It may seem unreasonable to lay this second letter at the door of John Wimber’s ministry. However, my second correspondent has been a leading advocate of the Wimber ministry. He is an Anglican Rector and Scripture Union Beach Mission leader, who has actively promoted and defended the Signs and Wonders movement and claims to have benefited and learnt of those ministries from John Wimber.
For reasons of copyright, I am unable to reproduce the letter in full, but I can give you the gist of its contents. It began by expressing sadness and distress at the Briefing issue on the Wimber conference (Issue #45/46), and at the “serious theological errors” that it contained. The main reason for the letter, however, was to convey to me a word from the Lord. The author was hesitant, in one sense, to send me the word, for he felt that I would not admit the possibility of God speaking in such a way. However, he wrote:
...[S]ince I consider you a brother in Christ, love compels me to pass on what I believe God said to me and leave you to put it to the test. If it is truly from God, then he will confirm it.
As I reflected on your attitude to John Wimber and Jack Deere, I believe the Lord laid it heavily upon me that you are speaking against the Lord’s anointed, and, if you do not repent, you will be cut down and lose your ministry within twelve months. As I prayed about this message, and asked the Lord for a Scripture to confirm it, he gave me the reference: “Isaiah 63:10”. As you will see if you look it up it is particularly apt. As with any ‘prophetic’ word in the New Testament era, they should be weighed and tested, especially since it is so serious. But I urge you, for that very reason, not to treat it lightly.
As you can see from this message, we are not dealing with generalities, nor with a general encouragement to repentance and perseverance in the Christian faith. This was a quite distinct promise that God would take specific action of a drastic nature.
Because of the identity of my correspondent, and the seriousness of his message, I did indeed weigh and test his word, for I do accept the possibility that God can speak in whatever way he should choose. I investigated the reference to Isaiah 63:10, prayed about my attitude towards John Wimber and sought the advice of a couple of discreet friends. I re-read the Briefing articles that we had written and confirmed again with others the veracity of the report of our lengthy conversation with John Wimber, Jack Deere and Paul Cain. I concluded that Isaiah 63:10 was not particularly apt to my situation and that I was not in error in the article about John Wimber and could not see that I had spoken against the Lord’s anointed. As a result, I did not repent.
The effect of this message upon me was not just a matter of Christians disagreeing with each other. The ‘serious theological errors’ that were mentioned, although never specified, could have been discussed in light of the Scriptures. But the message was not really about the Scriptures, or about some theological disagreement of mind—it was about my being cut down and losing my ministry. Having weighed the message and concluded that it was wrong, I could only really wait for God to cut me down or for twelve months to pass.
If the message turned out to be wrong, had my brother sinned against me in sending it? It was a very unhelpful curse to live with. In any given twelve month period, I always have disagreements, hardships, difficulties, opposition, conflicts, health problems, and so on. Any pastor knows that these are the ordinary rigours of full-time ministry. But in this particular twelve months, every difficulty, hardship and setback brought those fateful words back to mind. As I lay in hospital being investigated for cancer; when we were unable to pay nine of our staff and had to ask some of them to take a pay cut or be retrenched; when the Anglican diocese evicted me from my home in order to sell it, without offering an alternative—on many occasions throughout the twelve months it was hard to keep those words out my mind, the words of a fellow pastor who felt compelled to write to me out of love, who claimed to have a prophetic gift: “if you do not repent...cut down...lose your ministry”.
It also must be said that there was plenty of encouragement in that twelve month period. I didn’t simply stagger from one disaster to the next. God did many marvellous things, and many people dropped me encouraging notes or urged me to persevere in my ministry (not least among them readers of The Briefing).
The letter was dated 21st May, 1990 and so in early June 1991 I contacted my correspondent. I confessed to him the difficulty that I had had in relationship with him during those twelve months and asked him to repent of his claim that God would do such a thing to me because of my attitude to John Wimber. His response was less than satisfactory. He confirmed that the message was still true except that the dating and the timing was inaccurate. He likened himself to Jeremiah, whom he claimed prophesied correctly but with the wrong timing. So he did not know when I would be cut down and lose my ministry, but it would happen sometime in the future and I still needed to repent.
I wished I hadn’t called. No longer was I under an expired twelve-month curse; I was now under a lifetime curse. If, at any moment, I should fall under a bus, then the prophecy is vindicated. If, at any time, there is a major division or split within our church, a failure of growth, a falling off ... then the prophecy is vindicated.
And there is still an escape clause for the ‘prophet’. In the new way of speaking about prophecy, this message would be regarded as a prophet’s word not a Prophet’s word—i.e., a New Testament style prophecy which can be weighed and found to be wrong without the prophet being wrong.
The man challenged me that I should have confirmed his prophecy with other people, just as he had confirmed the prophecy with others before sending it to me. I asked how many people I had to confirm it with, and if they confirmed that it was wrong, whether that would make it wrong, and whether all prophecies had to be confirmed by two or three witnesses. He said that two or three witnesses weren’t necessary, but that I should have taken it up with my bishop or some other suitable person. I have since taken it up with his bishop and mine, both of whom confirmed that he was wrong and one of whom very kindly spoke to him on the matter. The bishop received the same assurance that the prophet “was mistaken in the timing” but “wishes to reaffirm this word”.
A Question Of Discipline
The tenure of ministers of the gospel is an important principle. It preserves the freedom to teach and proclaim the word of God without fear of being sacked for speaking the truth. I have always been opposed to the sacking of ministers for their preaching (and I still am). It is very important, therefore, that we select and train pastors carefully before they take up such appointments, but what should we do when they fall into error? What is to be done about words and messages, supposedly from God, that do not come true?
It cannot be that we should do nothing. These kinds of words of prophecy are not only false, but can be very damaging to Christian godliness and ministry. It is easy for these ‘words from God’ to become manipulative spells that are cast over people, like pointing the bone. Who has responsibility for such teachers of God’s people? To whom (other than God) are they accountable?
Following the teaching of Jesus, I have raised the matter privately with my correspondent. Through the bishop that he nominated, I have approached him with a witness, and now I have laid out the matter before you, the readers of The Briefing, as it was the Briefing article on the Wimber conference that gave rise to this whole issue. (I have not mentioned his name, for I do not want revenge).
I have made the incident public as a warning of how manipulative and damaging the use of ‘words of knowledge’ can be. I have experienced personally the gnawing harm that these ‘prophecies’ can do and if I have been affected in this way, then doubtless others have been too, and will continue to be whilst ever Christians give credence to these false prophecies.
But what action do we take from here? Here is the nub of the problem. In terms of the individual who sent the letter, we can call on his Anglican denominational leaders and Scripture Union to invite him to resign from his positions of leadership if he will not repent of giving such prophecies. We can call upon the renewal movement and the Vineyard ministries to take responsibility to correct and challenge their friend and advocate.
We can also call upon people generally to stop making claims that they have a message from the Lord when it is really just their own Christian thinking, which may be right or may be wrong, but which does not have the authority of a word of the Lord. We can call upon organisations (like the Anglican Church and Scripture Union) to disassociate themselves publicly from this sort of ministry, by moving motions of censure in Synod or by removing the Signs and Wonders style of ministry from Beach Missions, training days and materials. We can encourage Christian people everywhere to be wise and discerning and not to fall for these patterns of ministry, which promise much but deliver little in the way of true holiness and Christlikeness. We can encourage them to leave congregations in which this pattern of ministry is being practiced.
It is not enough to write off these latter day ‘prophets’ as eccentrics, for they damage the sheep of Christ, and in their public statements often bring dishonour upon the name of our Lord and Saviour. In their teaching and training, they misrepresent the work of evangelism and the message of God in this world. We must not do nothing as John Wimber comes to town again to continue spreading new ways of being in touch with God. We have to warn, teach and publicly disassociate ourselves from these ministries, for ultimately it is a different Christ and a different gospel that they preach.
In the end, my correspondent was right. He and I are both going to be answerable to God for our lives and our ministries—we are not playing a game and must not use the name of God in vain.