Prophetic, or merely performative?
It’s important to follow the Bible’s pattern for rebuke and critique
The Bible is not opposed to critiquing Christians. There is hardly a book in the Bible that doesn’t involve some form of correction, warning, or rebuke for God’s (often) wayward people. In fact, in many texts Christians are exhorted to confront our brothers when sinned against (Matthew 18:15), to gently restore those caught in transgression (Galatians 6:1), and to warn those who have wandered from the truth (James 5:19). Indeed, the Scriptures were given to us for reproof and for correction (2 Timothy 3:16).
There is no problem—when done wisely, humbly, and fairly—with Christians pointing out problems with the Christian church, or, for that matter, when Christians address publicly what others have spoken, written, or done publicly. The danger is when Christians—as a full-time vocation or as an online hobby—become professional critics of the church. Good parents discipline their children at the right time and in the right way. Bad parents exasperate their children with constant harping and provocation.
“But what about the prophets,” you might counter. “Wasn’t their fulltime calling basically to show God’s people their sins? Of course, religious people and religious institutions don’t like the prophetic voices in their midst. God’s people have always persecuted the prophets.” True enough, no one likes to be confronted with sin, error, or hypocrisy. All of us, especially those who know we are debtors to mercy alone, should cultivate the kind of humility that makes us open to seeing our faults and leads to repent of our sins.
And yet, just because someone sounds “prophetic” does not mean he (or she) is justified in what he says or how he says it. Let’s think about the prophets in the Bible and consider some ways not to speak prophetically to other Christians or about the church. Here are some surefire ways to ruin the credibility of your critique:
First, be unaccountable. Because prophets in the Bible were often without honor (especially in their hometown), it’s tempting to conclude that any objection to the “prophetic voice” is just another sign of one’s recalcitrant heart. But here we should remember that the Bible is replete with many false prophets. That’s why in both Testaments God’s people are called to be discerning about those who claim to be speak “prophetically.” It’s also why false prophecy was punishable by death (Deuteronomy 18:20). Whenever we claim to speak for the Lord about his bride—whether from the pulpit or from the pages of the New York Times—we should be exceedingly careful to make sure what we are saying can be proven from what God has said in his Word.
Second, only speak about the sins of God’s people. The Old Testament prophets often functioned like prosecuting attorneys (e.g., Malachi), making that case that God’s people had been unfaithful. But let us not forget that most of the Old Testament prophets also denounced the sins outside of Israel. The books of Isaiah and Jeremiah have long sections about the wickedness of the nations. Even Amos, who famously lambasts those who are “at ease in Zion,” begins his prophecy with a word about the judgment coming on Israel’s neighbors. We ought to be cautious about “prophets” in our day who are quick to speak to the “Gentiles” about the sins of Israel, while never speaking with the same prophetic force about the sins of those outside the fold of God’s people.
Third, never speak to God’s people as his chosen, beloved, covenant people. The Old Testament prophets say plenty of hard things, but they usually put those hard things in a broader context. Think again of the parenting analogy. Bad parents berate their children out of frustration, anger, and even dislike. Good parents discipline their children, while reminding them of their special status and privileged position. The prophets of the Old Testament rebuke and warn, but they also woo, persuade, and draw the wayward back with God’s cords of kindness.
Fourth, never offer grace and mercy. The good prophets in the Bible offer the same basic message to God’s people: repent, return, and be redeemed. There is mercy for Israel, just as there is redemption for Gomer (Hosea 3:1-5). Too many internet “prophets”—and to be fair, probably too many of “prophetic” preachers as well—know how to scold, but do not know how to succor. They know how to apply the law but not how to offer the gospel. It’s all “bad dog!” and never “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.”
Fifth, never hold out hope and the promise of future glory. Most the prophetic books cover similar ground. Joel is a classic example: Israel has sinned (1:1-12), repent and return (1:13-2:17), the Lord will have pity and will bless you (2:18-32), the Lord will judge the nations (3:1-16), there is a glorious future awaiting God’s people (3:17-21). Isolated words of rebuke might be offered for the worst individuals, like Ahab and Jezebel, but when speaking to God’s people, the prophets don’t just harp on sins without also speaking of God’s electing love, his forgiving grace, and his coming glory.
Think about the prophetic letter we call Revelation (Revelation 1:3). The words of correction from Jesus to the seven churches are two chapters out of twenty-two that exult in the glory of Christ, encourage God’s people to press on, condemn the evils of Babylon, and celebrate the church’s final victory and vindication. If the chastising voices of our day—even though they have true things to say—never sound these notes, we might wonder whether the speech is actually more performative than prophetic.
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