Prophetic ministry has great potential for building up God's people. But untested, it has the same potential to destroy even sincere believers. Five warning signs of prophetic ministry gone awry observable among Anabaptist enthusiasts of the 16th century Reformation vividly illustrate this danger.
Warning Sign No. 1: Prophecy is used to enhance the status of a movement and its leaders. The years 1517-1537 were an exciting time for many Christians in Europe. A great spiritual reformation was underway. In the midst of this revival atmosphere, individuals began to arise, proclaiming themselves to be special end-time apostles and prophets endowed by God with miraculous power to usher in His kingdom on the earth. One of the most prominent of these "apostles" was Melchoir Hoffman, who gained a large following. His status was further enhanced when a prophetess saw, in a vision, a white swan swimming in a river. It was "revealed" to her that the swan was Hoffman and that he represented the fulfillment of God's promise in Malachi 4:5 to send Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
Warning Sign No. 2: Prophecy becomes the means for determining the will of God. Another individual prophesied that Hoffman would be imprisoned for six months in the city of Strasbourg (now in France) and that, after that, his ministry would spread throughout the whole world. Based on the prophecy, Hoffman moved to Strasbourg, where he began to preach and teach.
Before long, the first part of the prophecy was fulfilled when the Strasbourg authorities arrested Hoffman. One believer prophesied that, at the end of his six-month imprisonment, Hoffman would leave Strasbourg with 144,000 true apostles endowed with such miraculous power that no one would be able to resist them. Elated by such predictions, Hoffman declared that he would take no food other than bread and water until his release. Six months passed, however, and he was not released. Hoffman died in prison, a very disillusioned man.
Warning Sign No. 3: Prophecy is preoccupied with images, numbers and symbols. Prophetic dreams and visions flourished in this movement. Obbe Philips, one of the participants in the movement, wrote: "Now when these teachings and consolation with all the fantasies, dreams, revelations and visions daily occurred among the brethren, there was no little joy and expectation among us, hoping all would be true and fulfilled, for we were all unsuspecting, innocent, simple, without guile or cunning, and were not aware of any false visions, prophets, and revelations."
Warning Sign No. 4: Those prophesying are not open to testing or correction. During this time, two new "apostles" arrived in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, Philips' hometown. According to Philips, they spoke with such authority that the people dared not speak against them for fear they would be speaking against the commission and ordination of God.
Warning Sign No. 5: Prophecy becomes a replacement for the Scriptures and common sense. The tragic end of this prophetic movement came when, based on dreams, visions and prophecies, a number of these visionaries went to the Catholic city of Münster, Germany, and took it by force. Again, based on prophecies, they renamed it the New Jerusalem. However, the Catholics quickly retook the city and wasted no time slaughtering these apostles, prophets and their followers, who had sincerely believed they were setting up God's kingdom on earth.
This sad account highlights the need to "test the spirits" (1 John 4:1, NKJV) and to judge the prophetic according to Scripture. These sincere believers suffered much grief--and even death--because they neglected this biblical admonition. May we learn from their example and not repeat their mistakes.
Eddie L. Hyatt is president of Hyatt International Ministries (www.revivalandreformation.org) and author of 2000 Years of Charismatic Christianity (www.charismahouse.com), from which this column is adapted.