It’s a common stick used to beat those sheep who stray too close to the fence between the church and the world back into the safety of our little pasture.
It’s the I.D. badge of many Christians, an initiatory right you must go through, using the right words to prove your right standing with God.
It’s the explanation for some good, and the justification for even more bad.
It’s the call to “be prophetic.”
And I’m sick of it.
If you didn’t sign off already, let me explain. I have heard pastors make passing reference to issues like homosexuality and abortion in sermons, condemning then in a breath and then moving on, while hearts and backs are broken in the congregation because no thought was given to those struggling with same-sex attraction or regretting the hard choice they made as a teenager. I have had co-workers who have been wounded by the church who I try to explain that Jesus doesn’t hate them, that he’s not some closed-minded bigot, only to have a “brother” come in and in ten minutes undo months of bridge-building with a tract and an angry mini-sermon. I have read blogs where calling out sin and naming names costs the blogger nothing more than the effort of a few hundred keystrokes but costs the pastor his career and his job.
There are multiple issues in play with all of the above examples. However, the one that really strikes me is how carelessly all of the people I mentioned conduct themselves. It’s an aside, a blip on the radar of their day, something that takes minimal effort but can do massive damage. I’m calling this sort of conduct “prophetic nonchalance.” It justifies a behavior which is in truth probably better categorized as insensitivity or carelessness as “prophetic” just because some truth of God’s word is involved. It treats such truths as if they were easy things to proclaim.
The fact is that the prophets of Scripture never found it easy to speak the word of God. Isaiah can’t believe he’s worthy. Jeremiah argues with God’s decrees. So does Moses, for that matter, and near as we can tell, he wins. Jonah gets the call and runs in the other direction. These are certainly a mixed bag of examples, but they point us toward an important observation: being a prophet was never easy or self-affirming. It had a tendency to break people down right where they didn’t want to be.
What’s more, being a Biblical prophet was not comfortable. God might send you to the middle of the desert, or to your worst enemies. Israel’s own religious leaders would almost certainly try to kill you. And it’s not like God would necessarily make it easy for you: your prophetic ministry might very well consist of walking around town in your underwear for years or marrying a whore.
Of course these realities shouldn’t dissuade us from being prophetic in a proper biblical sense. However, they should warn us against a cavalier attitude toward this part of our calling. Take for example the preacher we mentioned earlier, the one who takes pot shots at abortion and gay rights. There is nothing wrong with addressing these issues in a sermon. They just can’t be addressed lightly. They are deeply entangled issues with who people are: their sexuality, their history, their future. We must correct gently, with grace in our hearts and tears in our eyes, but it is true that we must correct that which denies what God says. That said, the pastor’s careless aside is not correction. You cannot convince me that its aim in pointing out the error of such a sin is the aid of sinners. No, it is instead the self-congratulation of saints.
Here’s the ultimate problem: Christians tend to have a confusion about the connection between prophetic truth and love. Of course, even the most angry internet pseudo-prophet will pause from his demagoguery, wipe the spittle-spray off his monitor, and insist that he is being loving by prophetically screaming the truth. I get that; there is something loving about telling perishing people the error of their ways. (Of course, spanking your child can be loving too; making it your full-time occupation – or, worse, your hobby – is not.)
Yet declaring the truth is only one small part of what it means to love. At the very least, loving a lost person would also include going to and living among them, sacrificing for them, coming alongside them as they struggle with their sins, and joyfully accepting them into the church as our equals even though they have a lot of growing to do.
An over-emphasis on obeying God in His command to speak the truth can in fact be a clever ploy to cover up our disobedience in other areas. One of the inevitable effects of this sort of behavior is that the area in which we are obedient ends up looking distorted. The Pharisees tithed dill and cumin while ignoring the weightier things of the law, and as a result their tithe, which was meant to be an offering to God for the priests, the poor and the alien among Israel to be blessed, turned into something ugly and twisted. The same thing happens with prophetic nonchalance: we use something meant to heal in a way that instead wounds.
I once knew a man who exemplified prophecy. He fearlessly spoke the truth, yes, to the religious and irreligious alike. But he did it at their table, after sharing a meal and healing their sick. He would not break a bruised reed, but rather was as harsh or gentle as the situation demanded. Let’s spend a little time looking at Christ, and Christ as a whole, for our model of prophetic ministry; then, after looking, let’s join him in loving the world with a love that looks like dying.