Prophecy has great potential for misunderstanding. This gift suffers abuse to an enormous extent in some churches. The abuse has given it a bad name and muddied the waters for others. The New Testament understanding of prophecy meant spontaneous speaking on behalf of God to another person for his or her good. Prophecy does not necessarily mean predicting the future, although a few instances occur in the New Testament where we find predictive words (e.g. Agabus to Paul Acts 21:11)
The prevailing meaning of prophecy in the New Testament is speaking words to “strengthen” (as in offering sound teaching), “encourage” (offering support to hearten another) and “comfort” (to apply the medicines of the gospel to the spiritual and emotional wounds, lifting up a person up in time of their grief, etc.) (1 Corinthians. 14:3)
Prophecy cannot be limited to persons standing in a worship service and offering a word like, “The Lord just told me to say…” or “Thus sayeth the Lord…..” Prophecy frequently occurs in small groups, during a sermon, Bible studies, Sunday School Classes, personal conversations with friends, in counseling sessions, even in the line at the grocery store. It is simply offering a fitting word. Sometimes prophecy happens when we are unaware of it. It does not call attention to the vessel, but to Christ. The person receiving the word, by an act of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit, senses the ‘fittingness’ of the word. It is as though God addressed them personally through another person. One should never urge a prophecy upon another person as though they must receive it or suffer negative consequences. Abuse of prophecy occurs when someone uses it to manipulate another person’s life and will. To urge someone to accept a word from God when he or she is still in doubt about its veracity is also an abusive use of prophecy.
The Abuse of Prophecy
Abuse of this gift is not a new problem. In the New Testament era and immediately following prophecy posed a problem for the church. How does one discern what is really from God and what is merely a human word uttered on behalf of God? As well as Bible scholars can tell, the earliest piece of New Testament literature is 1 Thessalonians. In that little letter, Paul recognized the need to test prophecies. In short staccato like sentences Paul instructed the believers thus, “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good.” (1 Thess. 5:19-21). From the very beginning, Paul instructed Christians not to swallow everything but to “test” what was uttered. There is no foolproof system. Some people intrude into another person’s life and even give “words from the Lord” as to whom they should date, what school they should attend, whom they should marry and even how much money they should offer to the church.
Note: When you see televangelists dishing out words purported to come from God for how much money certain people should give to their ministry, especially when they live in palatial mansions themselves, fly their own jet planes and stay in suits in the five star hotels, you may be certain that they have left off following the “Poor Man of Nazareth”. They now use religion to get gain. God adequately warned us about those kinds of prophets in scripture. (1 Timothy 6:3-10)
Every believer has the responsibility to test the spirits to see if they are from God. That is part of the “priesthood of all believers”. Abusive use of prophecy is why that gift is so feared and misunderstood. It is not its use but its abuse that has made it suspect. God will judge false prophets who lead people astray harshly. One should be careful when they claim to speak for God.
1st Century the “Elder” warned believers: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world”. (1 John 4:1) There were no institutional “discerners”. The writer addressed these words to every believer, not to an elite class or office of “discerner”. A friend of mine once wrote “Safety from abuse (of prophecy) comes from two things: (1) being under a true, legitimate shepherd. (2) not having a co-dependant personality disorder.” Manipulation by claiming a word from God poses a real danger.
One may benefit by working through a few helpful guidelines to help test prophecy.
1. Prophecy is abused when it is not offered in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Remember, that the ‘Poor Man of Nazareth’ invited people to come to him for rest. That gentle and Good Shepherd never drives the sheep. Christ leads us to green pastures and besides still waters.
2. Prophecy does not draw attention to the prophet, but to Christ. Wholesome prophecies strengthen, encourage and comfort. They are not used to get someone to bend to the will of the would-be prophet.
3. Many people flock to so-called prophets in order to get guidance for their lives. People often misunderstand prophecy as “getting a word from God” from another person. This dangerous practice bears similarity to going to fortunetellers. Some people exercise prophecy to manipulate the lives of others. Beware of those who give personal words of guidance to you. There are people who mistake their own warm imagination for the Holy Spirit. They get satisfaction in telling others what they should do or should not do.
4. Some churches and church leaders become abusive. Abusive church leaders use prophecies to castigate, vilify, and place fear in a person’s heart. These are false prophecies uttered as a tool of social control. They predict doom for those who leave a church. Such leaders do not allow people to question the prophet, judge the prophecy or call the message into question. This is a clear abuse of spiritual authority. Unscrupulous leaders often use prophecies and words from the Lord to manipulate their flock. It is a crass form of spiritual manipulation. In abusive churches, they discourage the people from exercising discernment to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1-3). To “test the spirits” means to identify the motivating forces or drives behind the words; to question the truth or veracity of the message; to judge whether a word is really from God. Denial of the need to discern the message leaves people vulnerable to the whims and manipulations of would-be prophets.