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Making Prophecy Great Again
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Making Prophecy Great Again

How a band of brave Pentecostals are seeking to rescue a movement in crisis.

Today I’m going to write about an important effort underway that could—if successful—help lower the temperature of American political and cultural discourse and introduce a greater degree of humility into American religious engagement. 

I’m talking about prophecy reform. Yes, prophecy reform.

This week, with virtually no mainstream media fanfare, two prominent Evangelicals—radio host and revivalist Dr. Michael Brown and author and minister Bishop Joseph Mattera—published a document, signed by a number of Pentecostal leaders, calling for the implementation of “prophetic standards” in the operation of the “gift of prophecy” in the church.

I know that many of you are already confused. I’ve written about Pentecostal Christianity at length before, but it’s worth a brief refresher. After all, we’re talking about one of the largest and fastest-growing—and most poorly understood—branches of American and worldwide Christianity. Here’s how I described Pentecostalism in a previous newsletter:

The modern incarnation of Pentecostal (also sometimes referred to as charismatic) Christianity was born at the so-called Azusa Street Revival in 1906 in Los Angeles. Led by an African-American pastor named William Seymour, the revival was marked by exuberant, hours-long worship services. 

American revivals featuring hours-long services are nothing new, but this revival featured the “gifts of the spirit.” Pentecostals reject a Protestant doctrine called cessationism, which holds that God has withdrawn most of the supernatural gifts that the apostles exercised in the early church, including prophecy, tongues, and gifts of healing. Those gifts, they argue existed for a time and a purpose. They exist no longer, at least not in the common practice of the church. 

Pentecostal Christians utterly reject this idea. They believe that believers aren’t just baptized by water; they are at a distinct moment baptized by the Holy Spirit, and that spirit-baptism can endow believers with all of the spiritual power and spiritual gifts of the early church. 

How big is Pentecostalism? How fast is it growing? What began in 1906 with hundreds of worshipers grew to half a billion worldwide believers by 2020.

Prophecy is very important in Pentecostal Christianity. At the risk of oversimplifying the theological analysis, most Christian denominations recognize the role of a prophet as someone who speaks biblical truth to the church and to the culture. This is the type of “prophet” I referenced in a post last December, when I argued that the church wants lawyers but needs prophets

In that context, a “prophet” is a person who boldly seeks justice and seeks to turn Christians and the church, individually and institutionally, from sin. The biblical examples of this form of prophetic voice are numerous, especially in the Old Testament, and the words of ancient prophets resonate with us today as they decry the disobedience of God’s people and, among many other things, injustice and lack of compassion for the poor. 

But there’s another form of biblical prophecy: foretelling. Defining it bluntly, foretelling refers to the ability of the prophet, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to quite literally see and/or predict future events. Sometimes these predictions are conditional (“if you don’t repent, then expect the following things to unfold”) and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they’re flat declarations of what is to come.

The church is split on whether God has granted the gift of foretelling to any believers today. Many millions of Christians are cessationists. As stated above, Pentecostals are not. 

For the record, I’m not a cessationist either. In fact, my wife became a Christian in a Pentecostal church in New York City (Times Square Church), and she returns to worship at Times Square every time she can. Early in our marriage, I served as a deacon in an Assembly of God church in Kentucky. We were predestined to become Presbyterian, but we disagree with many of our Presbyterian brothers and sisters about the operation of the gifts of the spirit. 

But there is a difference between believing that God can provide a person with insight into the future and believing that God has spoken to any given self-proclaimed prophet. There is also a danger that people who are desperate for certainty in an uncertain world will fall under the sway of grifters and charlatans. 

That brings us to the present day. You wouldn’t know it from the Christian debates on Twitter or the dueling Christian op-eds in most of the media, but many millions of Americans spent the Trump era deeply loyal to Trump not because of policy arguments or political debate, but in large part because “prophets” told them he was specifically and specially anointed by God for this moment. These Americans were resistant to the election outcome because they were told—again and again—by voices they trusted that God promised Trump would win. 

Put simply, when a person believed these prophecies, arguments over the election had little to do with the details of absentee ballots or the nuances of state law. They had everything to do with the (presumed) revealed will of God.

To observe this form of “prophecy,” watch the 2018 YouTube video below. Note how the pastor describes himself as being in direct communication with the Holy Spirit. Note the deep connection to Donald Trump. Note how he weaves in scriptural references that are vague enough to capture any number of potential outcomes. And also note the audience’s enthusiastic response. 

Well, 2020 and 2021 have turned out to be a disaster for American prophecy. It was also a disaster for segments of the American Pentecostal church. Many, many prophets predicted Trump would win. He lost. And while virtually no prophets predicted the coronavirus catastrophe, many of them predicted a quick end to the pandemic. They were wrong. 

And then, compounding the disaster, when a few honest voices presented sincere apologies for failed prophecies, they were subjected to an avalanche of hate and threats:

In fact, the scale of the disaster was so great that for once a Pentecostal controversy spilled into the mainstream media. Writing in the New York Times, Ruth Graham (one of the country’s best religion reporters) examined the spiritual and political fallout from prophetic failure. She quoted Dr. Brown: 

“In my lifetime—49 years as a follower of Jesus—I’ve never seen this level of interest in prophecy,” said Michael Brown, an evangelical radio host and commentator, who believes in prophecy but has called for greater accountability when prophecies prove false. “And it’s unfortunate, because it’s an embarrassment to the movement.”

Two weeks ago I wrote an essay that argued that the greatest threats to the church came from within, not without. The church stumbles and falls because of its own sin far more than it stumbles and falls because of the cultural and political headwinds directed against the church.

I’d also argue that the great hope of reform in the church comes from within—from those who love the church and believe the Gospel—far more than it comes from even the most eloquent outside critiques. And that’s exactly why Dr. Brown’s effort is so vitally important. In a Christian Post op-ed, he explained his intentions:

It is our hope that this statement will both honor and encourage prophetic ministry while at the same time calling for greater accountability, since unaccountable prophecy has been a bane on the modern Pentecostal-charismatic movement for decades.

The statement itself might be difficult for some readers to fully decipher. It’s understandably steeped in Pentecostal/charismatic language and theology. But its themes are clear enough—humility and accountability. This segment, in particular, is key:

WE BELIEVE it is essential that all spiritual leaders, including prophetic leaders, have a presbytery of peers and seasoned spiritual leaders who can hold them accountable regarding their life and ministry. In keeping with this, we reject the notion that to judge a prophet’s words is a violation of Psalm 105:15 (where God exhorted the ancient nations not to touch the patriarchs or harm His prophets). Prophets who err must be willing to receive correction from peer leaders with whom they are in accountable relationship. Those refusing such accountability should not be welcomed for ministry.

This is also crucial, a call for believers to exercise their own discernment:

WE RECOGNIZE the unique challenges posed by the internet and social media, as anyone claiming to be a prophet can release a word to the general public without any accountability or even responsibility. While it is not possible to stop the flood of such words online, we urge all believers to check the lives and fruit of those they follow online and also see if they are part of a local church body and have true accountability for their public ministries and personal lives. We also urge prophetic ministers posting unfiltered and untested words purportedly from the Lord to first submit those words to peer leaders for evaluation.

Why quote this at length? Because these themes should echo far outside the borders of Pentecostal Christianity. If you read me much at all, you know that I’m constantly hammering on the failure of many millions of Americans to properly weigh the distinction between what you believe versus how you live. 

In Christian circles, this means that those believers who believe they are right are often scornful of dissent, cruel to dissenters, and arrogant in the face of critique. Commands such as “love kindness” or “walk humbly” are cast aside. Exhibiting the fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—is deemed optional when the outcome of the culture war is on the line. 

Too many Christian leaders reject accountability. Too many Christian believers seek the voices that tell them what they want to hear and despise those who dissent. 

Yet, at its heart, this statement declares that “how you live” is at least as vital as “what you believe.” In fact, the way you live can bring shame and dishonor to your deepest beliefs. A combination of spiritual arrogance, naked partisanship, and fear of the Christian crowd led too many men and women to falsely attach a divine source to their fervent desires.

I know there are readers who will work through every word of this newsletter and simply conclude, “This is silly. These people are silly. The answer to false prophecy is to stop believing silly things.” 

Lest you mock Pentecostal Christians, I’d remind you that every single Christian believes in a series of miracles, most notably a virgin birth and a divine resurrection. Is it truly silly to believe that God still moves miraculously in the world today? 

I’d urge even the most skeptical of readers to read the statement and ask themselves, “Would a Christian community that put these principles in practice have responded to Trump, to the election, and to COVID the way they did?” The answer is obvious. 

No Christian can change the past. The future is in doubt, and if the last year has taught us anything, it’s that the maladies of any significant branch of the Christian church can’t be contained to the church. Fortunately, there are Pentecostal leaders who understand the stakes, who love the church, and are seeking to turn its heart back to scripture, to humility, and to accountability. We should all hope they succeed.

One last thing …

I’ve ended with both these songs before, but this is a beautiful medley sung by beautiful voices. Happy Sunday.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.