If we are to form a clear picture of the operation of prophetic gifts in the church, we must turn back to the period in the church’s life when prophecy was an expected daily phenomenon. Unfortunately, the records of the early church do not give us as full and detailed a picture of the activity of prophets as we might have wished. Taken together with contemporary experience, however, they do present us with enough evidence that we can understand in broad outline how the early Christians supervised prophetic activity.
THE NEED FOR DISCERNMENT
The early Christian church was characterized by an active expectation of God’s immediate and visible intervention. The first Christians knew their God to be a God of power not by hearsay or secondhand report, but by direct experience. Some of them had actually seen the resurrected Jesus. They had seen the healing of the man by the “Beautiful Gate” (Acts 3:1-10), the blinding of Elymas the magician (Acts 13:8-12), and the healing of the cripple at Lystra (Acts 14:8-10) testify directly and powerfully to the truth of the gospel. These Christians lived their lives in an atmosphere of expectant faith which many Christians today would find foreign, even uncomfortable.
That very faith is a key to the miracles, healings, and prophecy which they experienced. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says simply, “Now it is impossible to please God without faith, since anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). We might say in the same way, “It is impossible to receive prophecy unless you believe that God will speak to you and ask him to do so.” The basic claims of prophecy leave us uneasy if we lack faith that God will speak directly to us. Prophets claim that the word they speak is God’s word and not their own.
The early Christians clearly believed in the divinely inspired authority of prophetic utterance. The prophets themselves employed unequivocal terms in announcing their message:
“Thus says the Holy Spirit” (Acts 21:11). And their claim was accepted. The writer of Acts states simply that when Barnabas and Saul were set apart for missionary work it was the Holy Spirit who spoke (Acts 13:2). The early Christian manual, the Didache, severely warns Christians not to speak against a prophet who speaks in the Spirit, citing the passage concerning the sin against the Holy Spirit (Didache 11:7).1
Belief in the divine nature of prophecy is the key to both its value and its dangers. The church covets a gift which brings it the direct word of God (1 Corinthians 14:1). At the same time, the exercise of that gift must be carefully safeguarded. There is a danger in acknowledging that men and women can be directly inspired by God and can speak his word authoritatively. A person could use that claim to invest his or her own ideas or wishes with the authority of God. Serious damage could obviously befall the church if people were prophesying falsely. And of course, damage has come to the church through just such abuses.
To shun prophecy because of its inherent dangers is no solution, however. In some way, the church must keep the benefits of true prophecy while avoiding the dangers of false prophecy. Paul advises the Christians at Thessalonica, “Do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21). John repeats the advice: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). The Didache recommends various measures to separate true prophets from the false (Didache 11: 3ff.) The early church must then have had some means for deciding what was true and what was false.
In order to examine the methods for discernment adopted by the first-century Christians, we must consider two important elements of Christian life, elements upon which the ability to make right judgments about prophecy rested.
First of all, the early Christians lived a highly communal life. True, the picture presented in Acts (2:42-47; 4:32-37) probably did not represent the experience of all Christian communities. But it is clear from the New Testament that Christians did live a life which kept them in daily contact with one another, and in which they knew one another quite well.2 Their gospel of “love for the brothers” in a new nation, separate from the world around them and ruled over by the risen Lord Jesus, demanded mutual personal concern. The rapid expansion of Christianity after Constantine and the various social transformations of the succeeding centuries perhaps altered community life as it was known to those at Corinth, Rome, or Philippi. But for them, the gospel meant living the life of the kingdom here and now, loving one another as Christ loved us.
Furthermore, as citizens of the heavenly kingdom, they shared with one another their deepest concerns. They were not concerned with the same things as other men. God could speak to them all, and at one time touch the desires which motivated all of their lives. That unity of heart and mind and will (for example, Philippians 2:lff.) meant that Jew or Greek, slave or free, God could speak to them all with one word.
The second basic element of early Christian life which affected the discernment of prophecy was the position of elders. Each community was governed by a group of elders who taught, led the community in worship, governed its common life, and worked out disputes. The elders, in addition, bore a special responsibility for protecting the community against false prophets and teachers (for example, Acts 20:28-31; Titus 1:10-16; 2 Timothy 4:1-5; 1 Thessalonians 5:14). These men carried the authority to credit or discredit prophets and prophetic utterance.3
THE PROCESS OF DISCERNMENT
When we examine the statements of the New Testament and the early church manuals in regard to discerning prophecy, we are first of all struck by the fact that they are almost exclusively concerned with discerning (i.e., passing judgment upon) prophets rather than prophecies. The warnings of the Epistles are directed toward false prophets, not toward specific false prophecies. Similarly, the Didache gives rules for determining whether a prophet is true or false, not whether his or her prophecies are true or false (11:5, 6, 12). Why the focus on the person rather than the prophecy?
First, the principle that a good tree will bear good fruit and a bad tree bad fruit (Luke 6:43-45) was foundational. The biggest concern was, and still should be, not to allow prophecy from a bad spiritual source to enter the community. The Christian character, doctrinal solidity, psychological and emotional stability of those allowed to prophesy should be well attested.
Second, when it was known that an individual had prophesied reliably in the past, that they were accredited by those who knew them well as proven in the area of prophetic service, that was counted as good evidence that their gift was genuine, and that their prophetic utterances could be trusted.
Third, most individual prophecies do not require any significant direct response. The majority of prophecies serve purposes of encouragement and exhortation. They do not of themselves demand any decision as to whether or not they are directly inspired. For instance, there would be no real need to determine whether the prophecy given by Bishop Melito (quoted in A Brief History of Christian Prophecy) was, in fact, directly inspired. The import of the prophecy is true and faith building, whether or not it was directly inspired. The great majority of prophecies given in Christian communities are of this kind.
Fourth, a community rarely has to depend upon a single inspired utterance in order to determine major directional questions. At times the prophetic word will demand a definite response. For instance, when the Holy Spirit spoke to the elders in Antioch about sending out Saul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1), they had to know whether the utterance was truly from God. Their decision to send the two men out on a mission was tantamount to declaring that the utterance truly represented God’s will. On the other hand, a decision to keep Barnabas and Saul in Antioch would have amounted to saying that they did not believe the utterance was inspired. Some definitive response had to be made. But I greatly doubt that their decision was based upon that single utterance taken in isolation.
Most often, when definite responses to prophecy are required, the Lord will speak to several people in the community and not just to a single prophet. I think we can safely imagine that the elders at Antioch had some evidence that God wanted Saul and Barnabas sent out before the particular statement recorded in Acts was ever spoken. My experience, and the experience of many others today, would indicate that significant decisions rarely proceed on the strength of an isolated prophetic statement Rather, the spirit which is common to the prophets and to the whole community as well provides us with ample testimony to the inspiration of the prophecies which do come.
There is, in other words, a process for discerning the prophetic utterances themselves, and that process can be assumed to be a part of the community’s ongoing discernment of God’s direction for them. We will speak more about this process in The Discernment of Prophecy.
Our question then must be, how did the church recognize the true prophets, the prophets upon whom it could rely for revelation? The answer has for the most part been given in a preceding chapter: first examine the life of the individual, then examine the effects of his or her prophecy on the community. These criteria can be elaborated.
The life of the prophet. As stated earlier, the prophet must first of all be living a solid and stable Christian life. He must be emotionally mature and sound in judgment. He must be, in the scriptural sense of the term, a “spiritual” person.
In the third chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells his hearers that they are not spiritual, but of the flesh – in spite of the fact that the Corinthians “do not lack any spiritual gift” (1 Corinthians 1:7). Jealousy, strife, and division exist among them – evidence of the fallen nature of humanity rather than of the Holy Spirit of God. In the fifth chapter of Galatians, Paul again sets forth criteria for distinguishing between the spiritual and the unspiritual. If you are led by the Spirit of God, he says, your life will be characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But if you are unspiritual, your life will be characterized by immorality, indecency, sexual irresponsibility, idolatry, sorcery, feuds, wrangling, jealousy, bad temper, disagreements, factions, envy, and so on. In Ephesians 5:9 he summarizes this approach simply by saying, “…for the effects of light are seen in complete goodness and right living and truth.”
The First Letter of John is a study in discernment. The true follower of Christ can be recognized by the way he or she lives. Does one keep the commandments? Does one love the brethren? Does one acknowledge Jesus as the Christ who has come in the flesh (1 John 2:3; 2:9-10; 3:11; 4:2-3)? In other words, the true follower of Christ, the truly spiritual person, can be known by the fact that he or she lives according to the Spirit of God and not according to the spirit of darkness or the evil inclinations of fallen human nature.
Implicit in the criterion of prophets is the assumption that members of a community will know one another. The normal community life of the early Christian allowed ample opportunity to observe whether a particular person was or was not “spiritual.” The early church also knew of traveling prophets, who moved from community to community, often in groups, as did the apostles. But even the character of the traveling prophet’s life was the fundamental determinant in whether his or her prophecy was trusted. The Didache offers some rules for testing traveling prophets which are summed up in the statement: “It is by their conduct that the false prophet and the (true) prophet can be distinguished” (11:8). Frequently, the head of a local community would have visiting prophets stay in his home, thus affording a greater opportunity to observe the prophet’s conduct. The same method of discernment is described in The Shepherd of Hermas.4
We should also pay attention to the doctrinal soundness of those who prophesy. While a person need not have a degree in theology to be allowed to prophesy, we should at least know that they are doctrinally sound, and not likely to promulgate eccentric theology in their prophesying.
Finally, as with any position of responsibility in the Christian community, we should make sure that those who prophesy are sound emotionally and psychologically. Once again, we are not looking for paragons of psychic health, but we are concerned not to let people prophesy whom we would not trust with other important tasks in the community
All of these criteria assume that we know the person reasonably well. Frankly, one of the phenomena in the charismatic renewal which causes me the greatest concern is that of the itinerant prophet, or teacher, or healer. If we follow the wisdom of the early church, such people would not be allowed to prophesy or teach unless we had very reliable testimony to their soundness of character, doctrine, and mental health.
The fruit of one’s service. If a person is a true prophet of God, then the community will be able to experience the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the words he or she speaks and will benefit significantly from the effects of heeding such prophetic words. At times the prophet will foretell events of one kind or another; the fulfillment of those predictions provides another means to test the efficacy of his or her service. Or again, a prophet may indicate that the community should take one direction or another, and the fruit of the community’s response will bear witness to the truth of his or her words.
The community can experience the power at work in prophecy. Spiritual power is not the power of eloquence or simple human sincerity; it is a power that comes through the Holy Spirit. The words of God have life in them. Many times I have witnessed prophets speaking words of refreshment and consolation. When those words proceeded from God, they effected refreshment in the people who heard them. Similarly, true prophetic reproof or correction brings with it a greater understanding of and sorrow for sin. If prophets are inspired when they speak, their words will produce more than simple human reasoning or eloquence can produce.
When a prophet foretells that certain events will happen, we can watch for the fulfillment of the prophecy. In 1967, one member of our community prophesied that many thousands of people would come to our town from all over the world because of the community. At the time, the “community” consisted of a handful of inexperienced college students and recent graduates. We had no reason to expect the events which that prophecy foretold. Yet today, the prophecy has been more than fulfilled. Literally thousands have come to visit the community (over fifteen hundred visitors annually at one point), and they have included leaders of several denominations and people from dozens of countries.
The efficacy of decisions made on the basis of prophetic revelation will also indicate whether the prophecy was inspired. Isaiah told Hezekiah not to surrender to Sennacherib (2 Kings 19), and the later results of that counsel indicated that God had spoken through him.
It would be a mistake to judge a particular person’s prophetic gift on the basis of one or two prophetic utterances. For one thing, all prophets need to grow and mature in their exercise of the gift – just as any other member of the body has to grow. Then too, it is usually not possible to determine the effectiveness of an individual’s prophesying on the strength of a few experiences. Normally only a relatively long-term view will provide sufficient evidence to prove whether a prophet is fruitful or unfruitful in his services.
Submission to authority. All of these means of judging prophecy come together in the heads of the community It is they who have the authority to determine whether or not an individual shall be allowed to prophesy. Furthermore, the elders have the authority to declare on behalf of the community that a particular prophecy is a word from the Lord. In other words, it is the leaders who have the responsibility to discern and the authority to govern prophecy. They, and not the prophets, have the final word.
It is usually a mistake for prophets to be the ultimate authority in a group. A number of heterodox sects and groups have been led by “prophets,” whose “inspired” statements led people astray. It is the place of the prophets to prophesy, but it is the place of the leaders of the community to judge prophecy. Now, of course, this does not mean that prophets cannot also be leaders in a community Nor does it mean that a prophet cannot press his or her claims of inspiration in the face of adverse judgments by the heads of the community. It is entirely possible that the leaders of a group could misuse their authority over prophecy – whether intentionally or unintentionally – and claim that something which is a true word from the Lord is false. In such a case the prophet can continue to proclaim that word, but only in submission to the leaders. If the heads tell a prophet to cease publicly prophesying – then the prophet must submit. He or she can continue to speak privately to the leaders about it, but the prophet must abide by their decision to cease public proclamation. This is an absolute. No one who fails to submit to proper authority should be allowed to prophesy. And if such a person does prophesy, the prophecy should be ignored.
In some ways, this is a hard word for the prophets. Yet in the order of the Christian community, the legitimate leaders of the community must maintain good order over all of the services within the community, and over its direction and response to the Lord. They cannot fulfill their role unless they are able to take full authority over the exercise of prophecy. Furthermore, it is to the leaders of the church that Christ entrusts authority for determining what is true and what is false.
In short, the early church benefitted from the tremendous resource of the prophetic gift, and yet avoided the dangers of false prophecy, by entrusting the final authority for determining the authenticity of prophecy to the leaders of the community. The heads, in turn, based their judgment upon observation of the life of the prophet and the effects of his or her prophecy. When a truly spiritual person exhibited a gift for prophecy, a gift which produced life and power in the community, he or she was acknowledged to be a true prophet. The prophet was subject to the authority of the leaders. But when the leaders of the community discerned that a person truly spoke from God, they were submissive to the word spoken. The prophet in the early church was a person of spiritual authority because of the gift God had assigned him or her. Such prophetic authority was recognized and accepted because it was attested by the authority of the church.
1. The claim to direct inspiration is both profound and disturbing. Many of us would like to alter that claim, to put prophecy back in the realm of the purely human. In his book, The Prophets, Abraham Heschel cites several attempts by recent authors to modify the claims of direct divine inspiration in the Old Testament prophets. He quotes one, for instance, who states, “Not seldom, when a prophet utters the words ‘Thus says the Lord!’ his meaning might be expressed in a modern way, ‘It is my profound conviction that such and such is God’s thought (or will or purpose).’” But Heschel – very rightly – rejects such reductionist attempts. The claim to direct divine inspiration is crucial to the prophets. And that is true in the New Testament quite as much as in the Old. Heschel, The Prophets, Vol. II, 194ff.
2. See T. Dubay, Caring (Danville, N.J.: Dimension, 1973), 92-94, 96-98, 176. L. Duchesue, Early History of the Christian Church, Vol. I (London: J. Murray, 1909), 34-38.
3. In this section I will refer to those who have the authority to regulate prophecy in the community as the “heads” or leaders of the community. In the early church those who had such authority were the presbyteroi. I, however, will use the term “heads” or leaders rather than any of the direct translation of presbyteroi (elders, presbyters, etc.) Because my intention is not to discuss early church government, but to discuss prophecy.
4. Hermas, The Shepherd of Hermas, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II (New York: The Christian Literature Co., 1890), 27-28.
This article is excerpted from Prophecy: Exercising the Prophetic Gifts of the Spirit in the Church Today, Chapter 5, by Bruce Yocum, © 1976, 1993 The Servants of the Word. Revised edition published in 1993 by Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.
See previous articles on Prophecy by Bruce Yocum:
- A Brief History of the Role of Prophecy in the Church
- Assessing Prophecy and Charismatic Renewal Today
- The Forms of Prophecy
- The Prophet’s Role
- The Importance of Christian Prophecy and Its Purposes for Us Today
- The Discernment of Prophecy
Top image from Bigstock.com, © by paul shuang, stock photo ID: 324004429. Scripture quote added by editorial staff.
Bruce Yocum (1948 – 2022) was involved in leadership and teaching for many years in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and the Covenant Communities Movement which began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in the Sword of the Spirit. He travelled widely throughout the Sword of the Spirit communities to equip and train community leaders in North America, Europe and the Middle East, Latin America and the South Pacific. Bruce Yocum was a life-long member of the Servants of the Word, an international ecumenical brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. He served as Presiding Elder of the Servants of the Word for thirteen years (1989-2003).