Much has been written over the years in regards to prophetic ministries and the role of the prophet. Many today view the role of the prophet as outdated or unhelpful. There’s also an ongoing debate among various “Christians” as to what Paul was referring to when he mentions the roles of “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers” found in Ephesians 4:11. For those who embrace the ‘five-fold ministry’, these ministries can be seen as different offices or callings that God has gifted men and women with. The purposes of these offices, in my opinion and understanding of Ephesians 4, is to equip the church to be fruitful and effective in raising up workers and leaders, as well as to build unity among the body of Christ.
I want to spend a little bit of time talking about the ‘prophetic’ role because I think at the heart of every believer is someone who filled with God’s spirit, is able to hear from God, receive wisdom in difficult situations, and as a maturing, loving, compassionate human, will be able to speak and act accordingly, regardless of cultural or relational pushback. I will consider that type of person a “prophetic” type.
Where we find ourselves today, in modern/postmodern era, there has been an erosion of any desire to look back in time, since those in the past lacked not only the scientific method and modern technology, but also the profits that both yield. The past is critical for us to rightly understand and to learn from. Consumerism was easily preserved from modernism to postmodernism and has been an enemy to history as well. The reasoning behind this is simple. Consuming something means living in the now, and to keep the consumption rate going, we must keep looking ahead. No one has time for the past anymore, that’s for the “losers” of today, or may I say the “have-nots.” A prophet lives with wisdom from the past, humility in the present, and hope of the future.
Consumerism in a postmodern world has provided an interesting collide with church and culture. One could say that the church has embraced modernism and consumerism more than the rest of the world. This is mostly because it has allowed the leaders of the majority (in the case of Western Christianity, the majority has been Protestants/Evangelicals) to control the way church was formed and operated. Not to mention the ability to buy land, build big enterprises, and set the pace for every other “believer” who wanted to be a part of the “church”, or a pastor of a church, irregardless of its size.
In many ways, the Western church has, in a very sophisticated way, recreated their own feudal-type system. For those who aren’t familiar, “feudal system” or “feudalism” essentially describes the social and political order that originated in Europe during medieval times (roughly 800-1400 CE). In it’s simplest form, the system consisted of unarmed peasants who mostly remained moderately poor to very poor by the dominant power’s design. These peasants would have also been subservient to noblemen and soldiers who worked for the king in some way. The noblemen were the ones who held ownership, ‘lording’ their power over the peasants by essentially refusing them the right to provide for themselves. In other words, they created co-dependent relationships with the peasants, and differentiation was shunned. The feudal system worked as noblemen grew in power and prestige. The chief way noblemen grew more powerful was by acquiring more peasants and making those peasants work the land so they could pay more taxes, and possibly “rent” more land. For a visual, Les Miserables gives sad imagery to this type of system.
You may now be wondering, “How in the world is the modern Western church anything like a feudal-type-system?” It’s very common to hear the chants of people leaving churches because “they aren’t being fed well enough.” These chants are much like those of the peasants during times of famine and war, except, instead of loyalty to “feudal lords”, peasants aren’t showing any loyalty anymore. They are freely running to the next best “lord” who can offer the best amenities, the most safety, and comfort for their family, so that they can continue to consume in comfort. When the church stops offering what the peasant thinks is best for them or their family (when what they bargained for stops being a good bargain), they leave, and in this new feudal-type system, “lords” are competing for the hearts of the peasants. In all of this, one thing is clear, the system is still governed by the power and ethos of the feudal lords.
For example, it’s common in the Western church, particularly at pastors conferences and network gatherings, for conversations to go something like this: “How many people you got coming on Sunday’s?” With the follow up questions either being, “How many giving units (or potential giving units) are in your church?” or “What’s the average amount of each unit?” At larger church networks (and this question has seeped into leaders of small churches as well) it’s not uncommon to ask, “How big is your gathering space?” or “How many seats does your venue hold?” Apparently, these metrics are important for the ‘sustainability’ and ‘success’ of churches these days.
Butts, budgets, and buildings. These tend to be the “Big 3” of church success. Get enough butts in the seats, and your budget will grow. As your budget grows and seats start disappearing, you’ve got leverage now to lobby for a bigger space and a building fundraising program. You’ve arrived (at least according to the metrics of the feudal-type-system of Western church)! Acquire more peasants, raise the amount of taxes paid, purchase more land, and up the ladder you go. Seems to me that the same measure of success in the feudal system is among us in our churches today; butts, budgets, and buildings. It’s no wonder many postmodern young adults are leaving this form of church in droves, and it is clear that we need prophetic types who can learn from the past, address the issues of today in humility, and offer hope for the future.
It is at this point that I must acknowledge the amount of work Walter Brueggemann has committed to this topic of the “prophetic imagination” as well as the impact his writing has had in my life as well. Brueggemann speaks of the prophet being one who critiques the “royal consciousness” and energize those marginalized by that consciousness, the critique here would be to point out the “church as business” or “church as building” theory that has permeated Western thinking about church.
Some would argue that I’m not being fair, or am hurting the church in my assessment of metrics that I stated above, and I can understand that. I assure you, I’m not seeking to hurt the bride of Christ. No, this is where I believe the prophetic types for today comes in to play. Much of the work of the prophets of the Old Testament was to critique. As the prophets spoke up against various forms of abuses within Israel and Judah, kings would get angry and seek to silence the prophets. Some wise kings gave ear to the prophets, though it was ultimately not enough to form a ‘revolution’ among the Israelites.
Many leaders would like to silence these type of critiques. I’ve read many social media posts and blogs telling critics that they’re hurting the reputation of the church by speaking out, but what the silencing voice fails to see is that the form of church being critiqued is already hurting, her reputation is already suffering, and sadly, getting worse. The critics have already gone public with their complaints. I believe it’s time the church gives ear to the prophetic voice of critique, before we come to tragically realize we’ve been married to a form of ‘doing’ church, but not Jesus.
Prophets call kings and peasants alike to wake up and open their eyes to see the grief of the land and to begin to lament the lostness of the nation. Kings would be called to lament the fact that their rule has marginalized many, their reign will not last forever, and to begin mourning the end of their reign. Many times, the only way kings can begin to see their own end is through the critique of the prophet, but this critique could soon move on to hope. New, regenerated life comes only after death, but a king must first have ears to hear this. “For a seed to give birth to life, first it must die.” For the peasant, the call is to lament the reality that they’ve been duped, taken advantage of. There’s been grave injustices done at their expense and that needs to be acknowledged so they can properly lament. The hope of this message comes when their eyes are open to a new reality of a life of freedom, when new songs and dirges break forth in the streets of the commoner.
These prophetic messages are not desirable to the ears of the dominant culture, because this message has unavoidably upset a status quo that lends itself to the benefit of the powerful. There’s no place in the royal public domain where failure can be faced. Kings don’t want imaginations of the peasants to run wild and begin imagining the good life, that would be the roots of a revolution. This is why oppression occurs and people are silenced. Even if it’s done passive aggressively with a tone of “love,” to mask a hidden motive of control, leaders will silence talks of systemic change.
The feudal lords promoted numbness to the problems of the state; the prophets promoted a renewed imagination through critique. These critiques ultimately acted as the birth of a new reality of hope for the oppressed. When the systems of power are critiqued, those on the margins almost always see it as good news because the ability to imagine an alternative community can soon become a reality. Critique and grief combat numbness. Hope and imagination combat despair.
The prophetic peacemaker in the 21st century has the difficult task of evoking and displaying a new way to be human, to nurture alternative forms of living, and to expose the dominant powers of the day as fraudulent. It is at this point, where kings and rulers die (metaphorically and literally), where new life and new eyes emerge. After all, wasn’t it the prophet Isaiah who received new life and new eyes in the year the king had died (Isaiah 6:1)? When false kings die, the true King can be seen. This is what prophetic peacemakers long to see happen.
There’s much more that can be said here, but for now, the prophetic language of grief is meant to critique the numbness of the kingdom so that lament can happen and imaginations can be birthed again; hope. For without voicing the pains of oppression, lament and grief will never truly happen, and if lament and grief never happen, true healing and hope will never be realized. A false reality will prevail and the “royal consciousness” will continue to silence. We need prophetic imaginations to have the freedom to spread throughout the land.
This is the way of the true kingdom where alternative communities reside, where the status quo is flipped on it’s head, where forgiveness comes from confession; power from weakness; life from death; glory from humility; beauty from ashes; sanctification from suffering; joy from obedience; healing from grief; fullness from being emptied.
At the point of re-gained imaginations, hope can rise and the true King can be seen and known, and the peasants (marginalized and traumatized) can realize their true destiny. The language of hope from the prophet cuts through the despairing, dead imaginations of the peasants, and allows the feudal system to be exposed for what it is. At this point, once again, the peasants can sing and dance and celebrate the hope of the good life. The Not My People of Babylon can be a part of a homecoming where the poor, the grieving, the humble, and the hungry receive their freedom in midst of the celebration. This is precisely where and when the freedom of God is realized.
It is in the place of the dominant culture where freedom often begins to be experienced, but only among the powerful and privileged. Even in a country like America, where we were established on the freedom and the right to pursue happiness, the freedom that was dreamed of only became a reality for those who had access. For those without access, alternative social communities must be formed to give voice to the voiceless and powerless, to fight for the rights and freedoms that are experienced by the dominant culture, of which are usually the ones creating more boundaries around their freedom, in fear of losing power, prestige, or possessions. Brueggemann calls this the “religion of static triumphalism and the politics of oppression and exploitation” The Prophetic Imagination, 17.
The king doesn’t want a free god, but a god he can control, because if god would ever disagree with his rule, he could persuade and manipulate him to do as he wishes. The result is a god who is not free in the sense of being accessible to all. Rather, the god of the “royal consciousness” is absent to the minority or the marginalized, and in many ways isn’t even desired by them. The God of the Bible is always moving towards the margins, exploiting those who oppress the margins, and bringing alternative ways of living for those on the margins. Indeed, it is from the margins that the thrones of false kings are overturned, and where the true King arises. As well, it is on the margins where the prophetic types makes his/her home, and where they spend the bulk of their energy, because it is in the margins where access is available to all, for God is always accessible.